We are continuing our series on how to choose and buy computer hardware for photography needs and today we will be providing suggestions on what Apple laptops are worth looking into. First, we will do a quick overview of the Apple line of MacBooks, then we will provide our top recommendations for doing post-processing work. This article has been written in collaboration with our team members who use Apple’s MacBook products exclusively and extensively for their photography work.
Apple makes a total of two different lines of laptops. First, there is a lightweight 13″ MacBook Air, then there is a MacBook Pro line, which comes in two sizes: 13″ and 16″. The latest 16″ MacBook Pro version released in 2019 has replaced the previous-generation 15″ model, and it looks like Apple has also discontinued the basic 12″ MacBook line.
For someone who is shopping for a solid Apple laptop for photography needs, all these choices might be overwhelming and confusing, so if you are wondering about which one to pick, below you will find a summary of each product line.
First, let’s take a look at the MacBook Air line of laptops. Apple used to make 11″ and 13″ versions of the MacBook Air, but the 11″ line has been discontinued for a while now in favor of the 13″ version. MacBook Air is an extremely lightweight machine and it also might look attractive at first.
However, when something is this lightweight, there will always be compromises somewhere, and that’s the problem with the MacBook Air line – they are fairly underpowered machines overall, and they are designed for light use, such as browsing the web, email, and entertainment. Although you can purchase a higher-spec MacBook Air model with a Quad-Core Intel Core i7 processor, it is only clocked at 1.2 Ghz, which is not great. There is no dedicated graphics card (GPU embedded into CPU) and there are only two Thunderbolt 3 ports, so if you have more than one device to connect, you will need to get a USB Type-C hub.
If you beef up the machine with 16 GB of RAM (maximum) and 2 TB of SSD storage, you are looking at spending $2,250 – that’s a lot of money and not as much value.
Both Photoshop and Lightroom will function, but you will need to arm yourself with some patience, especially when working with large, high-resolution RAW images and opening multiple applications at once. If you don’t shoot with a high-resolution camera and you need something that is very lightweight and compact for travel purposes, then the MacBook Air is not a bad option by any means.
If lighter weight is more important for you than performance, I would suggest investing in the top-end configuration for the MacBook Air. If your budget is tight, prioritize RAM over storage – I would not recommend anything less than 16 GB.
MacBook Pro 13-Inch
The MacBook Pro is a whole different beast. The Pro line is what everyone wants, since these machines are much more powerful for heavier post-processing workloads. The MacBook Pro 13″ (technically 13.3″) is a nice and compact machine – it can host fairly good CPUs up to 2.8 Ghz Quad-Core Intel Core i7, up to 16 GB of RAM and up to 2 TB of PCIe-based SSD flash storage. Both Photoshop and Lightroom will run fine on these specs, but you will still struggle with opening large RAW files and stitching panoramas with 16 GB of RAM.
The 13″ MacBook Pro has one limitation you should be aware of. Similar to the MacBook Air, it does not have a dedicated GPU and cannot host one. Many photo and video applications today provide support for GPU acceleration in order to get much faster performance (both Photoshop and Lightroom can take advantage of it), so if you are planning to make the MacBook Pro your primary editing machine, I would suggest considering the larger 16″ model below.
But if you are after lighter weight and smaller footprint, here are the three configurations we would recommend:
- Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 2.4 Ghz Intel Core i5, 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB SSD Storage – $2,179
- Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 2.8 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB SSD Storage – $2,699
- Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 2.8 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM and 2 TB SSD Storage – $3,099
MacBook Pro 16-Inch
Now let’s talk about the Mercedes-Benz of Apple laptops, the MacBook Pro 16″. I personally own the older but maxed out 15″ version that I use every day, but when the 16″ was released, I drooled over its specifications. Apple was able to push all the latest technology, lots of RAM, storage and 8-core CPU into a similarly-sized body as the predecessor.
Previously, all MacBook Pro 15″ versions were limited to 32 GB of RAM, but with the 16″ version, it is now possible to get up to 64 GB of RAM. This is a pretty big deal for some photographers and videographers out there since they are able to use just one laptop as a primary machine, instead of keeping a laptop for travel and remote work, then using a dedicated desktop for more serious tasks.
You can get up to an ultra-fast 8-core 9th-generation Intel Core i9 CPU with a base clock of 2.4 Ghz, and it is now possible to get up to 8 TB of fast SSD storage, which is insane! The 16″ Retina screen is great for photography work and you don’t have to strain your eyes – the screen is nice and big.
In addition to the built-in Intel HD Graphics GPU, the MacBook Pro 16″ models come with a dedicated AMD Radeon Pro 5500M video card (4 GB and 8 GB models are available), which is powerful enough to not only run post-processing software, but also render 4K videos in Premiere Pro, or even play graphics-intensive games. In short, this thing is a powerhouse!
I used to be a fan of Microsoft’s Surface Book machines, but after comparing Surface Book 2 to MacBook Pro, I decided to switch to the latter, because it was a better machine for photo and video editing.
Here are the configurations we recommend for photography needs:
- Apple 16″ MacBook Pro, 2.6 Ghz Intel Core i7, 32 GB of RAM, 1 TB SSD and AMD Radeon Pro 5300M GPU (4 GB GDDR6) – $2,999
- Apple 16″ MacBook Pro, 2.3 Ghz Intel Core i9, 64 GB of RAM, 2 TB SSD and AMD Radeon Pro 5500M GPU (4GB GDDR6) – $3,999
- Apple 16″ MacBook Pro, 2.4 Ghz Intel Core i9, 64 GB of RAM, 4 TB SSD and AMD Radeon Pro 5500M GPU (4GB DDR6) – $4,799
If I were buying a 16″ MacBook Pro for myself today as my primary machine for image and video editing, it would probably be the second option with 64 GB of RAM and 2 TB SSD. I struggle to see much value beyond these specifications, especially considering that one could spend up to $6,100 on the most beefed-up version with 8 TB of storage…
If I needed more storage for photos and videos, I would just buy external storage. The super-compact and lightweight Samsung 2TB T5 SSD drive has been on sale for a while now, and if that’s not enough, there are other higher-capacity options available, including a dedicated NAS unit.
Is Intel 10th Generation Worth the Wait?
Intel’s 10th generation processors have already been released, and we are already seeing PC laptops with these processors. Is it worth buying the above configurations, or should you wait for Apple to refresh its Macbook line?
While Intel’s latest and greatest processors are surely going to offer superior performance compared to 9th generation, I do not recommend that you wait until newer machines come out for several reasons.
First, the 10th generation Intel chipset is not going to offer more features compared to 9th gen CPUs – RAM is still going to be maxed out at 64 GB, and I seriously doubt Apple is going to offer superior GPU or storage options. Second, from what I have seen so far, it does not appear that the latest 10th gen Intel CPUs are significantly faster compared to their predecessors – most benchmarks show very small performance gains across the board. Third, we don’t know how long it will take Apple to refresh its MacBook Pro line – the company might wait and upgrade when 11th generation Intel CPUs are out, which could be a few years from now.
And lastly, with the release of new Apple MacBooks, you will need to wait a long time until you can get a good deal on them. Apple has already been running some promotions on their 16″ MacBook Pro through retailers like B&H, and as we get closer to the end of the year, expect to see many more deals (especially considering the current COVID 19 pandemic).
Don’t forget that you can never keep up with technology. There will always be something faster and better, that’s just the way it is – just like with cameras. If you have an immediate need for a solid laptop, I would recommend the 2019 MacBook Pros I listed above.
Hope this helps – please let me know if you have any questions!