Photo Computer Buyer's Guide Part 2 - Buying a Mac

This is the follow-up to my post a couple days ago, the aptly named 'Part 1'. In it I talked about the 4 most important parts that make up a photo computer and what you've really got to worry about. Today I'm going to get into specific machines.  Now some people will rip me for only talking about Macs, but that's largely to do with the fact that there are a million different Windows machines out there and at least the Apple line is a manageable post topic. Most of what I'm going to say would apply to a PC too, just figure out which model is most similar and you'll get a good idea.  Let's jump right in with the laptops. Macbook Pro The latest "Sandy Bridge" revision to the MacBook Pro from a couple months ago makes them an almost desktop replacement for me.  Finally we have laptops with processors which are as faster or even faster than a desktop.  In fact the new 15" beat a recent 8 core Mac Pro in Photoshop benchmarks. And with the new crazy fast Thunderbolt connection on there with drives being released soon, the little internal hard drive isn't so bad either.  Get a nice 120GB SSD as a boot drive and keep your images files on a nice big external drive or RAID array.  The internal screens are decent enough for most use, though I personally wouldn't base final decisions on one. Hell you could even get yourself a nice NEC screen (they just released a new 30" with DisplayPort).

So you say, "Perfect Bill, what's the problem?  Connect an external disk and monitor and I've got a workstation that can also be mobile when I need it.  Plus, I get a nice additional screen on the laptop for palettes and such."  This is all true and it's a great idea. My problem with it is two fold.  First, it'll cost a lot, but then most of these options aren't cheap. Mostly the problem is RAM, the laptops have only two memory slots on them. From Apple, this limits you to 8GB of RAM.  Which is a lot for a laptop a few years ago, but not quite enough for me as my primary machine. You may remember that I've got 12GB on my current desktop and was thinking of upgrading. This depends a lot on how you process your images though. If you're a Lightroom or Aperture guy and do only minimal edits in Photoshop, then you're probably fine with 8GB. In which case this might be a great solution for you if you need portability.

In the past month or so, OWC has released a 16GB kit for this new machines. That's two 8GB so-dimm modules. That's pretty amazing.  16GB gets you in the territory where I would use this as my only computer. The problem is that those 16GB cost $1600, or about the cost of the laptop itself.  Highest capacity memory modules are always at a crazy premium.  It was only a couple years ago that 4GB dimms cost hundreds of dollars each. Now an 8GB upgrade kit with two of them costs $100. So maybe it's a matter of time, but that's a pill that's a little too hard for me to swallow.

"How about the Air?" you ask. With a max of 4GB of RAM, a slow old Core 2 processor and a 128GB SSD, I'd say the Air is currently not an option for a serious photo machine.  Would I get an 11" to take with me on shoots and shuttle through doing selects in Lightroom?  Sure, but that's not worth $1200 to me right now.  That said, the Air has a much better screen than the low-end Macbook.

Speaking of the MacBook, we're talking about people who are looking for a photo editing computer here, so I'm going to skip over the low-end macbook because I've found the screens to be greatly inferior to the Macbook Pros and they come with a 2 year old processor and half the RAM. If you're going to spend $1000, spend $1200 and get the low-end 13" Pro.

Ultimately for me, I don't need to edit on the road very often and I like a big screen. So the laptop as a workstation doesn't float my boat considering the price premium. You however may love the idea of bringing your system with you wherever you go.

iMac The current iMacs are pretty great as well, and though they  are a generation behind the Macbook Pro from a CPU point of view, I think it's a matter of weeks before they're upgraded.  So if you're thinking of buying one right now (April 2011) wait.

Of course, the cool part about the iMac is that you get a nice big screen almost for free. In fact the 27" is a pretty good panel. Not as good as a pro external monitor because of it's glossy glare-exploding nature and lack of internal LUTs (see Part 1 of this series for an explanation), but if you're on a budget, you could do far worse. Plus you've got a display port on the back, so you could always upgrade to an additional pro monitor later.

As far as RAM goes, the iMac uses the same so-dimms as the laptops do, however instead of 2 slots, it's got 4 (the new ones that is, older ones had only 2 slots as well).  These 4 slots can each take a 4GB dimm which gives you 16GB of RAM at a very reasonable price. The kits are about $200 from aftermarket dealers.  Don't buy your RAM from Apple, they charge three times as much for the same 16GB.  Those giant 8GB OWC dimm will work in here too apparently, which gives you a maximum of 32GB which is amazing and more than you'll ever use.  That said, the memory would cost you $3200, so that $200 you were going to spend for the 16GB looks like the realistic max.

The achilles heel of the iMac is storage, though it's less of a problem than it used to be. There is normally one internal hard drive in an iMac.  In this last revision, Apple added the option of having an SSD & a hard drive at the same time which is pretty cool. That said, they charge you $900 for the trouble. That's a lot of money for what you get. You could then use a Firewire 800 drive as an ok level backup to bolster your overall capacity.

The better idea would be to wait for the next revision of the iMac itself which will, I'm sure, contain the new Thunderbold port. The nice 27" screen, 16Gb of RAM, an internal SSD for boot and applications, and then an external array of disks for storage would be an amazing bank for your buck.  Could could put the whole thing together for less than $3000 and it would scream. There is a setup that would get my seal of approval.

Mac Pro The granddaddy of the Mac line is the big pro desktop. Used to be the PowerMac back in the day and is now the Mac Pro since the Intel switch a few years ago.  These are very nice machines that hold their value far better than they should based on the tech in them.  Seriously, go look on ebay for 2-3 year old machines and you'll find some for 70% what they went for new.

They're big and with that size you get capacity.  Up to 12 cores, 32GB of RAM (64GB if you go aftermarket), 4 internal slots for hard drives which with today's 3TB drives could give you 12TB of internal storage.  This thing is a beast, and you pay for that capability. These things start at $2500 at the very low-end and quickly get to $3500 or far more with just a few clicks of the upgrade mouse. If you are going to buy a Mac Pro, don't buy extra hard drives or RAM from Apple.  This machine is build to be upgraded, the hard drive caddies are right there to pull out when you open the side of the thing up.

The main thing you've got to worry about when buying a Mac Pro is the CPU. And it comes down to how many cores you need.  For video guys or 3D rendering, the 12 core beasts are great. For photo stuff, they're overkill in my opinion.  4 or 6 cores is plenty. You can disagree and that's fine, it's your money but it's my blog.  Trust me, get a nice fast single processor machine and load it with RAM.

Downsides are still there with the Mac Pro line. Price being the main one.  Go spend $3500 on the box and then another $1800 on a nice monitor and you're up around $5000 for a system which to me is crazy for what you get.  You see, part of the reason Mac Pros are so expensive is that they use server chips, Intel's so-called Xeon line of processors. Basically they're the same as the i7 that is in the high-end iMac except they can be used in systems with multiple CPU.  But if you're only buying a Mac Pro with a single CPU like I suggested above, then that capability of the Xeon is moot. That's all Apple sells however, so you're basically spending extra money on a part you don't need.

Ideally there would be a plain old Mac desktop in the Apple line.  A smaller Mac Pro chassis with a single processor and room for 2-3 internal drives.  Basically a headless iMac without the screen and with more space for drives. They don't have this however, so you're stuck choosing between 'less than you want' and 'more than you need'. If money is no object then go trick out a nice $5000 Mac Pro.  I myself can't justify it for what you get.

Best Bets So Bill, what does this all boil down to?  Well, basically one of two options if you're not planning spending more than $3000

If you want a desktop and you're on a budget, and really want to buy genuine Apple hardware, my suggestion is to wait a few weeks until the new iMac comes out.  As I said above, buy the top of the line 27" with an SSD internal drive, upgrade the RAM to 16GB from OWC or similar aftermarket company, and get an external drive enclosure to plug in via Thunderbold. This setup would cost you less than three grand and would absolutely SCREAM. Seriously, if I were in the market right now, I might go that route.

If you absolutely need to go with a laptop.  Get the fast version of the 15" MBP. When you get it, upgrade the RAM to 8GB and replace the internal drive with a nice fast SSD like the OCZ Vertex 2 which are about $200 for 120GB. Should be enough capacity for your internal drive. You'll probably need to carry around a little external on long trips.  Just be sure to get the anti-glass high-res screen option when you order.  It's really pretty nice, has lots of real estate (1600x1050), and is a bit easier on the eyes than the glossy model.

There is one other option to consider however and that involves getting your hands dirty a bit.  The rewards however, can be amazing.  So in part 3 I'll discuss Hackintosh a bit.