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2016 MacBook Pro: the 16GB Memory Limit in the + CPU Speed vs Other Macs

See my Mac wish list at B&H Photo and see all 2016 MacBook pro models at B&H Photo.
See all 15" Apple MacBook Pro 2016 models or see all 13" Apple MacBook Pro 2016 models. MPG gets credit if you buy through those links.

Lawrence F writes:

What are your thoughts about the new MacBook Pro as it relates to Photoshop and Lightroom? Are 16 gigs of RAM enough?

MPG: for most users operating on up to half dozen images up to 50 megapixels (or perhaps even 100 megapixels), 16GB memory will get the job done. It may squeeze other applications if one works as I do with multiple apps all at once. However, the compressed virtual memory feature of OS X El Capitan and macOS Sierra is very effective at making 16GB work more like something closer to 24GB as compared to ealier OS releases—but if and only if the memory usage is amenable to compression, so it all depends. Still, let’s say that 16GB is the new 20GB in operational terms.

With the 2016 MacBook Pro, there is a mitigating factor that plays a VERY large role: the speed of virtual memory swapping. If I understand correctly (to be tested and proven once I get my 2016 MBP with its 2TB SSD), the internal flash drive (SSD) in the 2016 MBP approaches something like 3000 MB/sec (3 GB/sec) and presumably also has very low latency with its PCIe based SSD. With very low latency and high bandwidth, the effects of low memory and the accompanying virtual memory swapping will be mitigated to an unprecedented degree, greatly muting the performance hit of having only 16GB. Of course nothing beats having 32GB or 64GB of real memory.

MPG strongly recommends the 1TB or 2TB option in the 2016 model because there is no way to achieve similar performance externally, at least not yet and maybe never.

Shootouts from the 2015 MacBook Pro vs the 2013 MacBook Pro where the only significant difference is SSD performance show huge gains:

Ian K writes:

As a long time subscriber, I very much appreciate the quality of information presented on your site.

Like you and many other subscribers, I have been waiting “forever" for Apple to replace the Mac Pro. I am still using my old 2010 model purchased on your then recommendations and it has served me well with a few minor upgrades. I held off on the 2013 “trashcan” because I, like many others, thought Apple would be upgrading it soon; 2015..! 2016..!

Compounding the situation was the ever increasing power of the Mac Book Pro lineup which offered an alternative. The solution; wait until Apple looks after their original core users; professionals and prosumers, and releases an amazing new Mac Pro. Looks like the “team” at Apple tasked with this are still out to lunch.!

Which brings me to the current dilemma. If we assume that a new Mac Pro is not on the cards anytime soon, how does the new 2016 15in Mac Book Pro (high-end model) hold up against a 2013 Mac Pro for normal photographic use; Lightroom, Photoshop, etc? Is there going to be a huge difference in performance?

MPG: I’ll be testing to answer such questions specifically.

Unless a laptop is needed, I’d say go with the late 2015 iMac 5K: faster CPU and a 5K display are a big win—for less money. Right now, USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 have little to nothing to offer for desktop users except port compatibility hassles.

But assuming a laptop is the choice—first, see the above discussion of flash drive (SSD) speed. I expect the 2016 MacBook Pro to show modest performance gains vs the 2015 model: faster SSD plus slightly faster CPU and memory system. It depends on software however; internal bottlenecks in Photoshop or Lightroom may mute actual gains. Moreover the those programs use the GPU heavily now, and it’s not clear to me how powerful the GPU is in the 2016 MacBook Pro.

Still, I would say this as the bottom line: most users are likely to find the 2016 MacBook Pro shockingly fast and quite competitive with the 2013 Mac Pro. That’s assuming work that doesn’t push beyond what 16GB memory can handle and/or tasks that don’t benefit strongly from the 6 or 8 or 10 or 12 CPU cores possible in a Mac Pro (excluding specialty filters, Photoshop and Lightroom hardly use 4 cores well for most tasks). For example, Lightroom “Import” benefits from 8 CPU cores, but the slower clock speed and older CPU design of the 2013 Mac Pro (and slower SSD) means that actual gains are relatively modest. There are other considerations with only 4 CPU cores, but for most users these may not be a primary considerations.

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