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How to Select and Configure a MacBook Pro

Last updated 2009-06-01 - Send Feedback
Related: hard drive, how-to, MacBook, MacBook Pro, Photoshop, RAID

Please first read How To Choose a Mac for overall tips and ideas on selecting and buying a Mac, as well as the Mac Performance Guide review of the 2008 unibody 2.8GHz MacBook Pro.

See the Optimizing Photoshop Conclusions page for suggestions for add-ons.

Recommended configurations

For photographers and Photoshop users, please see the Photoshop test results for large files to understand how memory and disk speed interact: it will help you choose a model and configuration. Even if you don’t use Photoshop, the numbers tell a revealing story.

Consider the faster CPU speeds only if you frequently perform tasks limited by CPU speed eg opening and saving files in Photoshop. Please see the general advice on CPU speed.

Don’t get a small 5400rpm hard drive for serious work: it’s just too slow. Get a 7200rpm hard drive included, or a large 5400 rpm drive (which can be as fast as a lower capacity 7200rpm drive). But if all you do is mail and web, then 5400rpm is fine. See Recommended hard drives. For such casual uses, get a plain MacBook, the MacBook Pro is overkill.

The solid state drive (SSD) is available at a stiff premium as of March 2009, and it’s not clear that Apple’s offering is all that fast. Get it if you must have the very fastest performance, and don’t need much disk space (it’s capacity is only 128GB at of Nov 2008). Anyone using a Mac above 10,000' (3200 meters) should also go with SSD.

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Lloyd recommends 64GB for iMac or Mac Pro for photography/videography.

Consider refurbished models

Please see the Refurbished page for details on why a certified refurbished Mac is an excellent choice.

The late-2008 and mid-2009 “unibody” models offer little or no performance advantages over the prior models. So it’s well worth considering refurbished models.

Screen size, mice and keyboard

Unless you love trackpads, I highly recommend purchasing a mouse. A wired mouse is perfect and always works, unlike wireless ones.

Add an external display and keyboard for a desktop “docking” solution, with vastly better ergonomics. The laptop screen becomes a second monitor for palettes and panels and stuff you don’t want cluttering the main screen. The MacBook Pro supports even the 30" Apple Cinema Display.

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Fast external drives for the MacBook Pro

See the Photoshop test results—the hard drive makes a huge difference. Expansion ideas are presented on the Optimizing Photoshop — Conclusions page.

For simplicity, a Firewire 800 external hard drive is usable, but its performance is mediocre compared to eSATA, even in the best case. Firewire is convenient for travel, its redeeming feature, and mini Firewire drives are compact and portable and bus-powered (no power brick needed). Forget about USB 2, it’s slow as molasses.

The 17" MacBook Pro (June 2009) has one valuable expansion feature: the ExpressCard/34 slot. The ExpressCard slot accepts a card that provides two SATA ports, such as the Sonnet Tempo SATA Pro, allowing much higher performance than with Firewire 800.

Coupled with an external SATA case such as the FirmTek SeriTek/2EN2, you can install two fast SATA hard drives, using them as either independent volumes, a RAID mirror, or a RAID stripe. See the Partitioning page.

Because the ExpressCard slot has limited bandwidth (~160MB/sec), installing two fast hard drives as a RAID stripe won’t produce the expected 220+MB/sec. However, you’ll see high speed across the entire striped volume (even the slow side), and with modern 1TB hard drives, the 32MB cache on each drive will speed up some operations.

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