The Best New Macbook Pro For Software Developers

Photo: courtesy of iMore

Between a few too many beers and Cuba Libres I was one of the few nerds from my team at work who followed the event of launching the new Macbook Pro. Not quite live tho. Nobody wants to ruin a perfect pint of Guinness after work by staring at Tim Cook’s boring and expressionless anti-visionary mug. But we all got the gist of it regardless. The first thing that knocked us off of our bar-stools was surprisingly not the amount of alcohol, nor the new features — I mean come on, all the major rumours proved to be true — but the price of these much-heralded new laptops. We were certainly not amused, and I for one went home that morning rethinking whether I should or not invest in a new Macbook Pro.

And then I thought some more. Had a Baileys coffee. Bitched some more about the missing ports, haggled with Apple to get my Thunderbolt 2 adaptors swapped for USB-C, and then I did — what any engineer should do — some research.

The fact of the matter is, I need to replace my existing machine — a 15" Retina Macbook Pro 2012 edition with sky-high specs. Wait, OK, I don’t need to replace it. It works just fine. I want to replace it. The main reason being mobility. However, I also want something that is powerful, a laptop that’s going to act as a desktop whenever I am at home. I have this home office type of thing going on, and I hate having more than one machine. Syncing between them and all that mumbo-jumbo was never really my scene either. While some people are 100% convinced that I have this pathological need to have two of everything I own, computers are just not on that list. Anyhow, long story short, as a software developer mainly geared towards web development, the Macbook Pro 13" was always the one I felt the most drawn to. It’s a bit like cayenne pepper. Small but powerful. And I like that. As a Hungarian who knows the value of tiny but mighty spices, I can appreciate great power in reduced form-factor. So 13" Macbook Pro it is.

But it comes at a price, and in the Republic of Ireland, and even the UK — thanks Brexit for ruining everyone’s life — the price is particularly high. No matter how well you’re paid.

So one mustn’t take any decision lightly when spending over 2.800 euros on a laptop. OK, the rest of this article is for those of you who didn’t faint. Yes, it’s steep. It’s bloody steep! But this is precisely what made me look into the details a bit more. You see, the Apple site, and to be fair, most sites, provide very superficial tech specs. Sure, the most important numbers are there, but those same numbers can also be misleading. Online reviews don’t help either. Most of them just read off the Apple site the specs like that’s an achievement or something. I will admit, I like maxing out specs, and choosing an i7 CPU, 16 GB RAM and 512 GB of SSD, while seemed like the obvious choice quickly blew the price up to an eye-watering 2.8+ K. So I started digging…

Let’s see if there’s a point to getting the version without the touch-bar and touch-ID, which is cheaper.

But not that much cheaper. And it comes at a great cost to performance and ports. CPU is about 45% slower, you only get one Thunderbolt 3 port (the other one is just USB-C), the RAM is slower and well, there is no Touchbar or touch-ID. None of the latter two are particularly useful or intriguing, but I see how in a couple of years it will be the norm so not having them could turn into a loss in the long-run. The CPU performance says it all though, and makes this choice a non option. That would be a severe downgrade even compared to my existing machine from five years ago.

What about getting the 2015 edition with maxed out specs? After all, it is only last years’s model.

But is it really? The Macbook Pro, as most of us know, has not gotten a whole lot of updates since 2012. Pretty much the same design with incremental internal updates. In many ways you still get the 2012 model. Not every though. The CPU is certainly an interesting one. Comparing the I7–5557U in the 2015 edition with the I5–6267U of the 2016 model — and yes, I know I just compared an i7 to an i5 — the result is pretty intriguing. It’s somewhat debatable whether the newer i5 is the winner in this scenario or not, but I am leaning towards it which I’ll go into more detail in the next section. The RAM is of lower spec in the 2015 model and while the difference between 1866 MHz and 2133 MHz might seem negligible, the reality is that RAM speed is at the core of efficient multitasking so I will take any extra MHz I can get, if there is a CPU and an SSD to support that. Which brings me to SSD speed. This is where things get really interesting. Just like years ago, Apple literally doubled the read and write speed of their drives, making the 2015 model a clear loser. You also don’t get the wide gamut screen and the added brightness, so all in all, while it sounds tempting to get a maxed out 2015 model, you do get the shorter end of the stick on many features.

So, biting the 2016 bullet it is. Let’s fork out some hard-earned cash. Piles of it. Or maybe not…

This is the absolute most interesting bit in this article and if I made you read all that stuff up until here, when in fact you probably just wanted to know which proper Macbook Pro 2016 is the right one for a developer, let’s just agree that I like writing incredibly long introductions. It’s all about the foreplay, innit? OK, maybe that’s an entirely different discussion… Anyhow, moving on, the three real Macbook Pro 2016 choices are the 2.9 GHz i5, the 3.1 GHz i5 and the 3.3GHz i7 CPU. I was very much tempted for the latter. I mean it’s an i7, right? It must be awesome compared to an i5. There is also a lot of erroneous information out there, stating that the i5 does not support hyper-threading. Both assumptions are dead wrong! Both i5 CPUs and the i7 support HT. The shocking reality is that the difference in performance between the 2.9 i5 and the 3.3 i7 is at most 15% at an extra cost of 360 euros! Makes you think, and definitely puts things into perspective. The 3.1 i5 offers a measly 5% performance increase. Not even worth considering. So, in terms of ideal CPU, the base model is your best option. Even 5 years down the line. When it comes to RAM, you get the best out there, so make sure you get plenty of it: 16 GB. Fun fact: the CPU is able to handle 32 GB. Too bad the 16 GB is soldered onto the motherboard. Now, SSD capacity is something very personal. I tend not to store mountains of data, so 256 GB is more than plenty. And my God, that 256 GB is blazing fast! So, all I am really upgrading, is the RAM. Everything else is stock configuration. That lands me at 2339 euros. That is a whole lot less than the 2.800 I was almost persuaded forking out. That allows for dongles and a holiday in Spain! Or half of my new 5K monitor I am planning to get. Life is good again!

At just a little over 2.3K, this is a fairly sane and justifiable investment. For a number of reasons.

The reality is, while the new Macbook Pro appears to be a lot more expensive, it doesn’t have to be. At least not the 13" model. It also comes with plenty of notable updates without even touching on size and weight reductions. An impressive i5 CPU with HT, blazing-fast SSD, Thunderbolt 3 (2 of the 4 USB-C ports), a much better screen, faster memory and arguably not so interesting additions like the larger trackpad, touch-Id and the touch bar and a marginally better integrated graphics card. It’s also a generally more solid build than the 2015 model which at the exact same configuration would cost me 2100 euros. Basically, I get all the hardware updates and more for 239 euros. You know what? I am going to say the previously unthinkable: that’s not bad. Not bad at all. You get quite a lot of extra oomph for a couple hundred bucks.

Going to miss the usefulness of the SD card slot, but man, I’m gonna love my new Macbook Pro! Tim Cook however, is still disappointing, and I am not going to change my mind on that…
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