Planning your Macs

My Uncle is soon to be without his laptop and desktop. An in our family, this means a Macintosh…with Skype installed. And this means, bouncing ideas off the family Mac geek: me.

Here were his ideas:

Idea 1:
Get 1 desktop and 1 laptop. For desktop, I am thinking of iMac rather than a Power Mac (which may be too large and iMac can do the most of PowerMac capability). For laptop, Mac Air may be good and light but it may lack some features like hard-disk, and the number of USB ports.
Idea 2:
Get a good laptop, a wireless keyboard & mouse, and a big LCD screen to hook up the laptop wirelessly.

I thought it’d be fun to share my thinking/email.

[My commentary after the jump.]

You can go with either—they’re both great ideas.

Idea 1: Desktop and maybe a laptop

I actually have this setup (2x2Ghz PowerMac G5 and a 15″ MacBook Pro 2.33Ghz Core 2 Duo).

For the desktop, I highly recommend the new iMacs. They’re very stylish and reduce desk clutter. The only exceptions I think are:

  1. You are doing intensive video processing (or game playing) and need a high powered graphics card.
  2. You are doing intensive photo, video work or scientific computing and need the RAM.
  3. You are in graphic design, photo or video production and need two displays.
  4. You need large, fast storage. If you just need large storage, you don’t need a Mac Pro. Do work on your local drive and then back up to USB, Firewire, or network drives very cheaply—500GB is the best value currently, the 640 GB drives are the “fastest”. I have 2.25 TB accessible via a Drobo over USB (the latest Airport Extreme hubs make them network drives if you like). The Mac Pro has a built in 4 drive system and can install high performance or SAS or RAID cards.

Among the iMacs, I considered getting the 24″ display for Dad because I figure as you get older, the vision gets worse. But I decided that it was too large for the working distance that Dad uses and opted for the 20″ one instead. Go to an Apple Store and see which one you prefer.

For a laptop in this scenario, I suggest the MacBook Air, because it compliments a desktop computer, which you plan on doing a majority of your work. The exceptions are:

  1. You plan on doing high power computing when mobile (video work, photography, graphic design, gaming, etc.) and need CPU and RAM
  2. You have firewire devices (video and hard drives) that you plan on attaching to it.
  3. You have a highly mobile internet solution and require an express card slot for internet access. (I think in the future, people will use their 3G cell phone via bluetooth to replace most of this.)
  4. You plan on using cabled internet a lot (have corporate firewall) and need the ethernet. Or plan on doing a lot of work between the notebook and your desktop system’s fileshare at the desk.
  5. The Macbook Air is too costly.

If you get a Macbook Air do not get the solid state drive version. Besides being outrageously expensive and having less storage, it is no faster. SSD is a technology that will be viable in a couple years and may revolutionize mobile computing when it is done right, but not right now.

The basic difference between a MacBook Air and the others is the concept of using the laptop as a mobile computing platform (moving your main computer from location to location) or using a computer as an “use anywhere” extension of a main computer. The MacBook Air is for the latter case.

Idea 2: Single all-purpose laptop

Other than as a file server or scientific computing workstation/webserver, and an accident of my poor choice in relationships, I’ve been on a single-laptop solution since 1993. Since 2002, single laptops actually were viable and since 2006 they have become excellent desktop replacements.

Check out my setup. Basically I leave a power supply, LCD panel, wireless keyboard, wireless mouse, and a USB hub at home and at work—all wired through a dual laptop/monitor stand. I just unplug, drop the laptop in my bag, go to the other location, and plug in. At one location, it is good to keep an external USB or network drive for Time Machine backups in case of computer failure or theft.

Here are few caveats I’ve run into.

  1. I’ve run into a horrible RAM swap issue when working on photography. My computer has 2GB expandable to 3GB only. I estimate that I need around 8GB do work with Aperture and Photoshop at the same time and at that point, I might have a CPU or, more likely, a memory throughput bottleneck issue on my laptop
  2. I can no longer use my external SATA drives—or rather, I plan on not using them. I moved to a Drobo for backups and different external setup for direct work. It will never get as fast as a Mac Pro though and sometimes I’m disk bound.
  3. I have batch jobs to do sometimes, like video compression or photography batches. It’d be nice to offload that onto a machine that can do it without slowing down my work, or when I’m away from my computer. For this sort of work though, a Mac mini would be fine.

I’m sure others can think of other caveats for their needs.

Given this, I’d probably get a Macbook now instead of of a Macbook Pro. The big loss is the graphics horsepower and the ExpressCard slot. I’ve weaned myself away from Firewire 800 dependency.

Parting shots

When you buy a computer, put the minimum RAM in it and purchase the RAM from a third party. OtherWorld computing has great installation videos, as well as good prices on upgrades and decent service.

Whenever you get a computer, no matter where the RAM came from, you’ll want to run memtest or TechTool Pro on the memory to make sure none of the memory is defective. Dealing with the subtle damage defective memory makes is very depressing.

If you get a laptop and are mobile daily, buy a new battery every year and a half. All the power cycles drain the battery and this has only been magnified by the “mag-safe” connector—pardon the pun. You can use Coconut Battery to track and log your battery life. Apple recommends doing a full discharge once a month. By the way, Apple does not have a battery recycling program, but you can exchange them at NewerTech for a discount.

I personally get AppleCare on every laptop I purchase but never on any desktop. I’m very hard on my equipment and have had every notebook I’ve owned go in for at least one repair. If you don’t carry around your laptop daily, you won’t need to do this.

11 thoughts on “Planning your Macs

  1. I go for option 1):

    * 2x2GHz G5 with 5.5GB RAM, 160+750GB HDD, a 23″ and 30″ display

    * a SSD MacBook Air

    I wouldn’t say the SSD is a complete waste of money – the superior read speed means it boots like a speed demon – all my apps are running with hardly a bounce, in less than 2 seconds, and my compiles are ridiculously quick. That makes me think I might use a SSD as boot drive when I upgrade my PowerMac to a Nehalem Mac Pro around the end of the year. That said the $1K premium is hard to justify.

    On the other hand I had to spend 3 months in Vancouver with only a first-gen 15″ MacBook Pro maxed out to 2GB RAM, running Aperture and stitching humongous 40,000×2,500 panoramas, and I did not feel particularly cramped.

  2. Fazal,

    I’ll admit that saying it is a “complete waste of money” is harsh, if I said it which I didn’t. In fact, I’ll go further and say “outrageously” was probably an improper adverb to be using. But then again, I think the myriad of times I used “only” in the post was similarly extreme. That was done for a reason and in future edits this language tends to get toned down. I do suggest you read the comment mouseovers and linked study though before feeling that my opinions don’t have a (mostly) sound basis.

    If you look at the link, the SSD version has superior non-sequential read speeds. During bootup, the reads are nonsequential as it loads a lot of little files (compiling a unix application is similar). The mouseover text explains this as well as mentioned that most of the tests claiming that the SSD version is inferior are flawed since they need to distinguish non-sequential reads vs. raw throughput on large files that these benchmarks do.

    Having said that, I think they could do even better, as flash RAM technology has the capability of reading as fast as regular dynamic RAM, hence my recommendation against it at this point. I personally think that the gain in non-sequential read speed (as well as the increased resistance to shock by it being electronic instead of mechanical) is not worth the cost in price and decreased performance and I think this would be true for 19 out of 20 MacBook Air owners, though I feel this will change soon—it’s a “disruptive technology.”

    Photoshop takes advantage of as the RAM that is available through a different system than the operating system. If you are running a lot of Photoshop filters (see my post on nik Color Efex Pro), then the system will start to swap if you flip back and forth between applications—this occurs when editing an Aperture tracked image in Photoshop. What program were you stitching with? I do my stitching on PTMac which only allocates/uses 1GB of RAM during the stitch (this is configurable). Also, when doing that, I don’t need to have file open in Aperture because the PSD/TIFF is imported and replaced, not dynamically updating like in the case I mentioned.

    Finally, for a lot of typical photographic workflows, the fact that an unpaired 3GB system outperforms a paired 2GB system shows that RAM size is a big bottleneck. The fact that my 2×2 Ghz G5 with 8GB handedly outperforms my dual core MacBook Pro with 2GB when working in Aperture roundtripping with Photoshop, but the reverse is true in regular Aperture use, only emphasizes that current notebook RAM limitations makes the Mac Pro worthy of serious consideration for professional work (which I am not).

  3. Don’t worry, I wasn’t defensive at all. “not quite a complete waste of money” is just my way of praising with faint damn…

    I was using Kekus’ Calico, which yields remarkably good results despite being fully automated, thanks to the University of British Columbia’s SIFT algorithm. Nowadays I use AutoPanoPro, which also uses SIFT but gives you more control to rectify curving horizons.

    I agree RAM is the limiting factor for PS and other apps, which is why I upgraded my MBP to the LED-backlit 4GB-capable 3G model as soon as it became available, but even the 1G model was competitive with my dual 2GHz G5, despite the latter having 5.5GB vs. 2GB. I only used one photo app at a time, and did not use PS at the time since it was not available native Intel, but Lightzone instead for tonal correction and cropping of the resulting panoramas (Aperture couldn’t deal with pixel widths over 32K). On the other hand that may have been because of old OS X bugs (fixed since) that would cause G5 performance to actually decline if you had more than 4GB installed.

    The importance of RAM only makes all the more galling Adobe’s refusal to release a 64-bit version of PS until Apple makes 64-bit Quartz libraries available, not just Cocoa. I always found John Nack’s feeble rationalizations as to why you don’t need 64 bits just as laughable as Intel’s efforts to justify segmented addressing way back when. Given what I keep discovering about Adobe bloat, I am chomping at the bit for a viable replacement. Did you know Acrobat includes a full copy of MySQL, and CS3 has not one but two instances of Opera embedded inside the app bundles.

    Given the shared memory bus bottleneck on current generation Intel chips, Bare Feats testing shows for most apps 8 cores perform barely any better than 4, so Nehalem should bring in major improvements, and I don’t think it makes any sense to get a Mac Pro today if you can wait 6 months and get at least 30% higher performance at the same clock speed.

  4. @Fazal: Yeah Calico is the fully automated version of PTMac which combines SIFT with the Panorama Tools and enblend. I think I’ve blogged about it twice. I do wish programs like Aperture and Lightroom would allow me to carry the file I used along with it as a sidecar or something.

    Good point about the memory bottleneck, I think I made a passing reference to it, but I should have emphasized it.

  5. @facebook (,,, and five others from IP: I appreciate having my own stalker, but if you are going to continue comment-stalking me, please use your real name and e-mail or I’ll have to mark them as spam.

    P.S. It’s not hard to unfriend someone on Facebook, think about using it.

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