To MBPr or not MBPr?

I started using OS X in 2004 when I was an undergrad. I’m now on my third Macbook Pro, and it’s nearing the end of its life (it’s an early 2011 15" model), so I had been looking forward to Apple’s announcement of new Macbook Pros for months. Needless to say, I was disappointed. I now find myself very much on the fence as to whether I should buy the new Macbook Pro, or switch to a Linux system.

I plan on using this post to keep track of my thinking on the subject. My hope in making it public is three-fold. First, I’m generally open to discussion and interested in what others think. It’s likely that in my thinking, I’m missing some angle, or weighting some criterion more heavily than I should. Second, it’s possible (though I’ll admit unlikely) that someone else may find my thoughts and perspective useful in making their own purchasing decision. And third, I have the naive hope that the marketing people from Apple (and Dell, System76, Lenovo, etc.) may see this and use it to inform their decisions going forward.

This will be very much a living document. I don’t plan on making a purchase until I need to, but my current system is getting flaky, so my guess is I’ll be making a decision in the next six months. Until I do, any time my thinking changes, or I encounter some new information or analysis, I’ll try to update this post.

What do I look for in a laptop?

I mainly use my personal laptop for my various side projects. Most involve some aspect of software development. From time to time I do some software contacting, which typically involves heavier use. I’ve also recently started teaching as an adjunct, and I rely on my laptop for that as well, both for preparing lectures and homework, and for giving lectures. And I do a fair amount of reading and writing.

While I have a desk at home with an extra monitor and keyboard, I don’t often use it for personal work. It’s primarily there when I work from home. I often use my personal laptop at coffee shops, or sitting at my kitchen table or on my deck, so a 13" screen really doesn’t cut it, as the laptop’s display is generally the primary display.

I also don’t want to spend $1,000 a year on laptops, so I want to be able to get four or five years out of a new one. That means I’m not just buying a system for today, I’m buying one for 2020 as well.

I’m also somewhat concerned with security and privacy, which is one of the reasons OS X is appealing. It also effectively rules out Lenovo as a possibility — they’ve screwed up too many times for me to trust them.

I really want to stick with OS X if possible. It’s been my primary operating system at home for more than a decade, and my primary operating system at work for more than two years. All other things being equal, I’d prefer a consistent experience between home and work. I also like how polished it feels — there’s a consistency of experience that I haven’t yet found in a Linux distribution (though Linux Mint — the OS I use on my family desktop — is pretty good).

That said, all of the desktop software I use is available on Linux, so compatibility isn’t a concern.

My thoughts so far

My main objection to the MBPr right now is the lack of RAM. 16 gigs is sufficient for the next year or so, but I doubt it will remain so for the next five. One of the things I’ve grown to dislike about Apple’s approach to laptops is they’ve removed the ability to upgrade the ram yourself. Part of why I’ve gotten so much life out of my current macbook is that I was able to upgrade the hard drive to SSD and double the RAM several years ago. It’s bad enough that you can’t do it yourself, but the fact that there’s no 32 GB option makes it difficult to stomach the price.

Apple seems to have put a premium on thinness (and weight) and battery life. Neither are all that important to me. I don’t travel often, so an extra pound or two really doesn’t affect me (the farthest I usually have to carry my backpack with a laptop in it is from my car to the classroom where I teach — some six hundred feet). I’ve also never understood the appeal of thinness — I usually use a laptop cooling pad anyway, even when I’m working on a table or desk. Obviously I don’t want something that’s too thick, but I don’t think an extra couple of millimeters is worth the tradeoffs.

Also, as the father of three children under the age of 10, living in a house with three cats, the MagSafe connector was incredibly valuable. Even in a coffeeshop it was useful, if someone pulled out a chair quickly, or didn’t notice the power cable snaked across a gap between tables. I’m disappointed that they’re discontinuing it (and I’d bet good money that decision was made my someone without pets or small children).

I’m also not thrilled with the need to purchase more dongles (and often carry them with me). I won’t need that many really, but it’s still a hassle.

  • HDMI (2x — one for my desk, one to carry around)
  • USB-A (2x — one for my desk, one to carry around)
  • Ethernet
  • Lightning

I’ll probably also want a portable USB hub, which could serve in place of multiple USB dongles (or even in place of the lightning dongle).

All things considered though, the new Macbook Pros are good laptops. The question is, are they worth the price? For the next month or so, I have access to the education discount, so I can get a 15" laptop for $2,249, though if I want more than the base model, it’ll cost quite a bit more.

Alternatives

Based on a brief amount of research, I’m primarily considering two alternatives (though I’m open to suggestions): the Oryx Pro by System76, and the XPS 15 by Dell. For similar hardware, they’re roughly $1,000 less than a MBPr.


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