I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Back to the Mac

Almost a year ago, I decided to sell my Mac Pro and MacBook Air, consolidating instead into one decked-out 15” MacBook Pro. At the time, having been annoyed by inconveniences and impracticalities of having multiple computers, I wrote:

But multi-computer usage still sucks for so many reasons, because most files, applications, and settings don’t sync. And if your laptop has a smaller capacity or lower performance than your desktop (as it probably does), it’s going to be less useful than you need, more often than you think.

It hasn’t gone as well as I would have liked. For the most part, it has worked, but with a few big drawbacks.

While it has a decent amount of CPU power, I frequently need more. And when I’m stressing the CPU, the fans speed up so much that it’s annoyingly loud. The noise becomes worse than an annoyance if it happens when I’m trying to record audio.

I already need more disk space than this laptop can hold, and with a new baby, I’m taking more pictures and videos than ever. External hard drives are slow, loud, unreliable, and ugly, and I hate the desk clutter they cause. I tried alleviating this somewhat with a Mac Mini server for archive storage and Time Machine, but it’s also slow and finicky.

The dual-GPU setup in the 15” has big drawbacks as well. When the discrete GPU is active, battery life is much worse and the laptop runs much hotter, and Lion is very bad at managing the switching: in practice, the discrete GPU is almost always active.

The discrete GPU always runs when connected to an external monitor. (Not that it does a very good job: I frequently see annoying video glitches and choppy video performance while running in dual-monitor mode.) Running in clamshell mode is impractical: the GPU runs hot and ventilation is reduced, so the fans tend to spin up faster and more frequently, and it runs hot enough that it would be unwise to run it in clamshell all the time.

But clamshell mode is exactly what I need. I hardly ever move the laptop from my desk. I even said as much when justifying this laptop last year:

I work at home now, and when I go on quick day trips, I hardly ever bring a laptop, preferring an iPhone and optional iPad instead. When I do bring my laptop somewhere, such as when traveling, I want more power and screen space than the Air offers so I can get work done. …

I need more time to form a concrete opinion, but it seems so far that this CPU’s awesome performance definitely comes at a cost of increased heat and reduced battery life. For my intended usage as a desktop most of the time, that’s an acceptable tradeoff.

What I failed to predict at the time was that this would result in the worst of both worlds. I had confined myself to the limitations of a laptop, but I really used it as a desktop the vast majority of the time. Even when I could take it away from my desk for a little while, I wouldn’t, because I didn’t want to disconnect all of the cables and rearrange all of my windows.

I went from having an awesome desktop and an awesome laptop to having one machine that served both roles poorly.

A few months ago, I decided to go back to the Mac Pro as soon as an updated model was available, and either keep the 15” for travel or trade it for an inexpensive 13” Air.

This week, the WWDC hardware updates happened, and the choice became more difficult.

The not-new Mac Pro

The Mac Pro was “updated” this week, sort of: it’s still the same two-year-old hardware, but with slightly tweaked CPU options (within the same two-year-old Xeon family) to adapt to Intel’s dwindling production of these old chips.

I was disappointed, to say the least. All indications suggest that we won’t see another new Mac Pro for over a year.

The new 15” Retina MacBook Pro

This looks like a great machine, but of all of the problems I have with my current 15”, it would only really solve one: it’s faster.

Almost nothing else would be meaningfully improved. Its single SSD that maxes out (very expensively) at 768 GB would actually make my storage problem worse. And it would be a complete waste for me to get a beautiful Retina screen only to keep it closed or ignored during the vast majority of my use.

I’d love to have a Retina-screened Mac, but not this Retina-screened Mac. I’d be better served by waiting for a Retina MacBook Air and a Retina Cinema Display.

(MacBook Air owners tempted by this Retina 15”: If you really want to buy one, make sure you’re not going to regret it when we presumably get Retina MacBook Airs within a year.)

John Siracusa is definitely making fun of me now

Neither option is ideal, but neither is my current setup, so I did something crazy.

I ordered a new-old Mac Pro.

It’s the 3.33 GHz 6-core model, which got a $700 price reduction in Monday’s “update”. It’s now “only” $3000, which sounds like a lot unless you’ve ever bought a Mac Pro with a fast CPU configuration, in which case you’ll probably recognize this as a low-midrange price.

I know first-hand that this is a very powerful machine: my wife bought this exact model for photography work when it was released two years ago. Even though this is two-year-old technology, $3000 is a decent price for this much power. I’d have to spend $3750 on a Retina MacBook Pro to get its highest CPU configuration — still slower than this Mac Pro — with a 768 GB SSD.

This new-old Mac Pro will make me very happy for the next 12–18 months until the next model comes out, and then I’ll decide what to do. If the next one sucks for some reason, I can skip it. And if it’s good enough to buy, I’ll sell this one, probably losing about $1000 on it. To me, it makes sense to buy 12–18 months of high-end computing happiness for about $1000.