I Bought A New MacBook Pro and Didn’t Pay an Arm and Leg!

Apple had a sale over the Thanksgiving weekend. The savings we’re exactly in Crazy Edie territory but $101 off a new MacBook Pro just about covers the tax (in NJ). My last MBP has been sitting in pieces on the bookshelf behind my desk at home. I bought it in 2008 and two years of daily commuting between NJ and NYC literally shook it apart. I used Apple’s sale as the thin, poorly veiled, excuse to buy a new MBP. The truth is I’m just addicted to shiny new computers and I had to feed the monster.

When it comes to buying a computer I have three criteria:

  1. Don’t buy something that will become obsolete in a quarter.
  2. Don’t buy less or more power than I need.
  3. Pay as little as possible while still buying something that won’t embarrass me in front on the cool kids.

When I met my wife she explained to me that you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes. A cool hip guy might walk around in an outfit from Target but the brand of his shoes will tell you if he is being ironic or a showoff or a cheapskate. In the 21st century you can apply the same criteria to computer laptops. Some guys (or gals) buy the most expensive luxury desktop replacement money can buy as if to say: “I’m bad!” Other guys buy the cheapest under powered plastic toy “puter” that buy.com has on sale as to say: “I make Scrooge McDuck look like Bill Gates! (The current Bill Gates not the earlier one who acted a lot like Scrooge McDuck before he got married.) Then there are understated nerds like me who try to say something nuanced with their laptops: “Yes it’s not the fastest, but we know that RAM and HD speed are more important than raw CPU speed for real world applications.”

After much research and discussion with my hardware otakus this is what I bought and why:

I bought a 15″ MacBook Pro with a 2.40 GHz Intel i5 core CPU with 320 GB hard disk and 4 GB of RAM. This is the least expensive 15″ model Apple sells at $1799. I asked Apple for one extra: A higher resolution LCD display (1680 x 1050 instead of 1440 x 900) at only $100 more. With the Apple sale I got the hires screen for free but at only $100 for 30% more pixels it’s a bargain–one of the few true steals to be found in the Apple Store.

The display resolution is why I bought the 15″ and not the 13″. More pixels means less scrolling and more productivity. But I could have bought the 17″ MBP with a whopping 1920 x 1200 screen resolution. But I’ve used the 17″ model before and it’s not really portable. As a hard core northeastern corridor commuter I need something that fits into a standard backpack, weighs less then a 3KG medicine ball, and actually fits on my lap in the crowded train car.

Apple has options for much more powerful (i7 core) and faster (2.8 GHz) CPUs. But while benchmark software will show you a 25% to 30% performance boost between the 2.40 GHz i5 and the 2.80 GHz i7 pure CPU speed isn’t the problem unless you’ve unclogged all the other performance bottlenecks in your laptop.

The the real roadblocks to a laptop snappiness are memory and storage speed and size. Modern operating systems accommodate today’s bloated software applications by organizing memory usage into “pages” and swapping these pages in and out of disk as needed. Adobe Photoshop is the exemplar: It can’t let you edit that 21.1 megapixel image without shuffling pages of memory around. Some operations, like filters, are CPU intensive, but most operations (reading, writing, zooming, scrolling, copying, pasting, …) are memory bound.

To lessen the bound of memory I ordered a 4 GB ram stick and a 7200 RPM 500 GB hard disk from a third party: Not Apple! Apple charges extraordinarily high prices for RAM and hard disk upgrades. To buff up my MBP would have cost an additional $550. The third party RAM and HD only cost me $154.31 and 1/2 hour to unscrew the back of the MBP and install everything. In the end I had a sweet new MBP with 6 GB of RAM and 1/2 a terabyte of storage. Photoshop is happy.

There is a risk that by upgrading you’re Mac you’ll ruin it and void the warrantee to boot. I alway get help from my hardware friends who show me how. There are also some good videos from MacSales that we’re really helpful. The voiding of the warrantee went from a definite yes to a maybe in the last few years. Apple reserves the right to blame your MacBook problems on you if you don’t use an authorized service provider.

For me, it was worth the Geek Cred to personally upgrade my MBP so I could have a great ice breaker at Starbucks:

“Oh, this that new MBP you got there?”

“Yes, but I haved $400 bucks by upgrading it myself and I got the hires screen for free on Black Friday.”

“OMG! 2G2BT! CSA!”