My MacBook Pro is over 7 years old now. I’m a software engineer, and I like to do my own design work for small projects. I’m also a fan of photography, and need a machine powerful enough to process large images. I even occasionally make and edit videos. Basically, I desperately need a new, far more powerful, computer. Through upgrades, my 7 year old machine has gotten upgraded memory and a solid state drive, which is why it’s been able to stay relevant for so long. But now it’s too old to keep up, the processor has been pushed to its limits, and even with more memory and a faster drive, it’s finally starting to feel sluggish. Software demands have finally outpaced what I was able to do for this plucky little machine. What do I replace it with? What could last me 5-6 years and provide the power I need? Can it also be portable?
No, not if I want to buy any of Apple’s disappointing computers.
The Problems with the MacBook ProThe obvious choice for me had always been the MacBook Pro. It was portable, great for taking to work, on road trips, or just hanging out on a couch so I can work and watch TV. That’s why I have a MacBook Pro, it’s the perfect mix of power and portability. Yes, it had to sacrifice a little of both to be the best computer, a larger screen and body lead to a thicker, heavier, and longer laptop so Apple could squeeze in a more power hungry and hot processor, one that would make the MacBook Pro a powerful machine. However, then, I knew that power would last me for years. I knew I could upgrade my MacBook Pro with memory, increase its storage space, swap out the optical drive for another solid state drive and use a RAID configuration to improve speed or reliability. I knew it wouldn’t be limited in the future. That can’t be said of the current MacBook Pro. The list of things wrong with the current MacBook Pro is almost too long to count. Nothing, and I mean nothing, on it can be replaced, repaired easily, or upgraded. The battery can’t even be replaced once it inevitably wears down. The keyboard is ok, good for what it is but largely unsatisfying. Apple’s 2006 MacBook had a better keyboard for typing feel. The TouchBar is a neat idea, but it forces users to look down at their keyboard all the time, and likely will remain a gimmick. The TouchID sensor on the end of the TouchBar is about to be made obsolete by facial recognition. Neither the touchpad nor the display respond to the Apple Pencil, so it can’t be used for design work. On top of that, Apple released it with older processors (it’s now been upgraded), and arbitrary memory constraints. They even increased the price, so getting the best MacBook Pro you can will cost a few hundred more than it would have just a few years ago. Worst of all, all of that buys you a laptop that won’t last as long as something you could have purchased two years ago. The 2010 MacBook Pro in 2010 was the pinnacle of mobile computing. The MacBook Pro of 2017 isn’t even the best MacBook Pro of the last two years. And don’t even get me started on the idiocy of the ports. A MacBook Pro is supposed to be portable, how portable can it be if I need to carry around ethernet, HDMI, USB-A, and SD card adapters everywhere? What’s the point of a laptop that’s tethered to a desk? I have coworkers in my office unfortunate enough to be stuck with these machines, being forced to deal with the fact that they can’t use the same peripherals as everyone else, or just bring their laptop to a meeting or presentation where they’d have to use an HDMI cable to share. Many of them complain about it regularly, and no one wants to upgrade their home computer to match their work computer. That says everything you need to know about this lackluster “pro” computer, actual professionals don’t want it after using it.
The Problems with the iMacA 27″ iMac would look beautiful in my 32″ NYC apartment. Joking aside, I would certainly be able to make room for even the largest iMac at my place. It would be the best screen in the apartment, with a 5K resolution and 27″ size. It would also be my most powerful computer. For now. Then in 5 years someone will come into my apartment with a new iPhone and the iMac will be the second most powerful computer in my place. The iMac, like the MacBook Pro, isn’t user upgradable. It’s consumer oriented, not professionally oriented. In fact, it’s a desktop in name alone. If it had a smaller screen and a hinge, people would recognize it for what it is: an oversized laptop. Due to cost, size constraints, and power usage, the iMac uses parts that were destined for a laptop, not a desktop. That’s not to say you can’t have a powerful iMac with near desktop-class power, just that most models do not offer it. When you do get it, you once again fall into the trap of not being able to upgrade it. The benefits of a desktop computer are increased power and a longer lifespan due to all the parts being replaceable. On both counts, the iMac fails as a desktop computer. It’s nothing more than a big MacBook Pro that’s bolted to your desk. Which, seeing as you likely need a large USB-C dock for the MacBook Pro, almost describes Apple’s portable lineup as well.
The Problems with the iMac Pro
The iMac Pro is what the iMac should have always been. Easily accessed RAM slots, real desktop power using powerful desktop graphics cards and processors, and a beautiful design and finish. The iMac Pro is seriously cool. But, it’s also problematic. First of all, the reason it’s taken Apple so long to bring us something like this is that it’s an engineering nightmare. Packing all that power into the smaller chassis of the iMac means clever motherboard engineering and heat dispersal. Computer parts generate a lot of heat, and in a small area, it can be difficult to move that air around. That’s why my MacBook Pro wheezes like a pack a day smoker, a little bit of dust is enough to constrain the air passing through the cooling ducts of the computer, and it heats up. The new MacBook Pro will suffer the same fate, and the iMac will have to be designed perfectly to keep this from happening. It will still likely have heating trouble down the road. On top of that, all that engineering is expensive. A more traditional laptop can use tried and true arrangements, and costs a lot less to make. Not the iMac Pro. It’s incredibly expensive because Apple’s not making a Mac desktop with a traditional structure. Once again, that’s going to make the iMac Pro impossible to upgrade completely down the line. Sure, you’ll be able to throw a little more memory in it, like you could for older MacBooks (sensing a pattern?) but you won’t be able to swap the processor, GPU, or anything else. I had a 1999 PowerMac G4 in college (then 8 years old) that I upgraded with memory, a new processor, a new graphics card, and some improved cooling. It was more powerful than my MacBook, and I used it for games and web development. Now that’s a desktop computer, staying relevant with powerful upgrades. Once more, the iMac Pro is more like a laptop than a desktop.
The Problems with the Mac ProThe Mac Pro is supposed to be the successor to the PowerMac series. 4 or so years ago, it was. It was a big metal tower, using the same design as the PowerMac G5, and had a more traditional PC setup. Yes, it was still highly modular, and it wasn’t as easy as a PC to work on, but it was still very easy to upgrade, repair, and enjoy for many years. If someone had one that’s a decade old that’s been upgraded and is as fast as modern hardware, I wouldn’t be shocked in the least. The current Mac Pro isn’t like that. Instead, it’s a large trashcan-like appliance with a triangular core in the center for cooling. It’s so impossible to upgrade that Apple hasn’t upgraded it in years, giving it only small spec boosts that still leave it far behind the competition. Whoever designed it should have been fired for creating such an unprofitable waste of money for the company, but that didn’t happen, instead Jony Ive started spitting out designs for identical iPhones, and Apple kept him around anyway. The Mac Pro hasn’t been updated in years, it’s ancient technology now. It’s what happens when a designer thinks professionals want something pretty, rather than something that just works.
The Problems with the Mac Mini, MacBook, and MacBook Air
Slow, ancient, or born obsolete, that’s how I’d describe the rest of Apple’s Mac lineup, at least from a professional perspective. The Mac Mini hasn’t bee updated in years, neither has the MacBook Air. The MacBook, with it’s sole USB-C port, needs a special dongle to drive a display and charge at the same time (then again, so does the MacBook Pro, but at least that one has 4 ports). All of them have slow hardware, with the MacBook being the worst offender, possessing a processor that would be better in a tablet than a Mac. In fact, in quite a few benchmarks, the latest iPad Pro crushes the MacBook in performance. Though, the other two, ancient as they are, are likely slower than the MacBook, they at least have a good excuse for it. This sorry bunch of misfits is good for perhaps taking some text based notes, light photo editing, or sharing a status update on Facebook, but they’re certainly no fit for gaming, development, video editing, graphic design, automation, or, well, just about anything that uses the full power of a processor. I’d recommend them to light users, but even for light users, the MacBook especially, with its sole USB-C port, would be a burden I wouldn’t want to put on a friend or loved one. Apple needs to upgrade or discontinue the MacBook Air, give the MacBook another USB-C port, and upgrade the Mac Mini, which would be a very useful machine if it had newer hardware.
The FutureThe Mac Pro could be the answer for me, but it will never be portable. Apple will never have a truly professional portable again though, so it’s a compromise I’d have to make. The new Mac Pro is supposed to be more like the older one, with modular upgrades possible, a larger, more traditional chassis, and the ability to repair and upgrade it from home, with third party parts. If Apple makes this, it’ll be the computer every single person like me, with even one or two of my tech-related interests, will be buying. However, so many developers, artists, designers, movie makers, gamers, and enthusiasts, have already left the Mac, switched back to a PC. Who knows if Apple has left enough of a market here? We do know that Apple won’t be revealing this product for at least a year. It’s a shame, I could probably whip up a suitable Mac Pro replacement in a week with existing parts, but it wouldn’t be able to run macOS without some work. What’s taking Apple so long to finally do something for the professionals who have kept them in business for decades before the iPod and iPhone?
The Other Options
I could build a Mac. I could choose every last part and build the machine myself. It would be a “hackintosh,” a PC made to run macOS. It’s not easy, and involves cracked versions of macOS, specific hardware and drivers, and a slower upgrade cycle. However, you could build a machine that you can upgrade nearly indefinitely, part by part. Of course, that does mean you’ll also have a lot of work on hands for your primary computer, keeping it running macOS won’t be easy, will have bugs and issues, and will get rid of the whole “it just works” philosophy behind macOS software. You may also find that Apple figures out how to lock out these PCs forever, and then your gamble will cost you.The other option is to get an older Mac Pro, one that’s around 5 years old, and see if you can upgrade it to be powerful enough for daily tasks. It would require new graphics, memory, a solid state drive, and, if you can swing it, perhaps even a new processor. You may even need a new power supply and enhanced cooling. At that point, it won’t be anything like the original computer it was, but it would still be able to run macOS. That’s sort of what I did with the old PowerMac G4 I had. The benefit of these machines is they run macOS natively. The problem is, they won’t be able to be upgraded for very long. The PowerMac G4 I built was one of my most enjoyable projects, but it certainly isn’t one that should be repeated as often as you’d have to in order to keep the machine running.