Recommended Mac Hardware

Updated for latest 6/4/17 Announcements

These days I’m a Macintosh-only user. For a long time, I maintained both Windows and Mac systems, but something had to go to simplify my updating life, and that turned out to be things with Microsoft written on them. 

I regularly help others with Mac system recommendations, and I try to keep up with everything happening the in the Mac world. Here are my current thoughts.

  • First and foremost, if you’re considering any upgrade from a base model, stuff it with RAM first. More intelligently—if it’s a model that allows user-upgradeable RAM—buy the computer from Apple (or a store such as B&H) with minimal RAM and use a reputable company such as OWC to get a lower-cost option for the same upgrade. Apple’s prices for extra memory are way too high.
  • CPU’s and clock speeds aren’t nearly as important as they once were. Any i5 or higher processor tends to be just fine for most photographic work. It you want to upgrade the computing horsepower to your new Mac, pay close attention to the GPU (video) card. Not all software will take advantage of a dedicated GPU with extra RAM, but software that does tends to perform far better in photographic tasks on such machines than on the base models with embedded Intel graphics that use regular RAM.

I also advise getting an SSD over a spinning drive, but technically for most photographic work all that’s going to do is speed up your application start times and your final document saves (assuming you stick your files on the main drive, which I generally don’t recommend). A Fusion drive option (SSD+hard drive), if available, is fine. I’d tend to avoid the spinning platter-only drives these days, though.

Pretty much any new Mac these days can run Photoshop decently, though at the bottom end of the lineup you might find yourself getting noticeably slower processing on big files. That makes things easy for me in recommending models. Here’s where I think you should spend most of your time thinking about Macs:

  • 12” MacBook. This machine is delightfully light and competent. It has two drawbacks you need to know about: (1) it lags on CPU/GPU power to everything else I’ll recommend. This is the one machine where I’d strongly recommend getting the maximum CPU upgrade, and even that’s not going to gain you a lot. But processing speed isn’t why you buy this machine. You buy it to travel extremely light and still have decent post processing capability with you, albeit such processing will be slower than your desktop machine. (2) the single USB-C port scares people. A lot of solutions for that problem have appeared, some of them quite elegant, some quite extensive. Don’t let the one-port thing scare you. You may have to bring an extra widget or cable with you, but if you don’t want to be limited by input/output, you won’t be. However, for traveling photographers the drawback to Apple’s single socket approach is that the 12” MacBook doesn’t have an SD card slot. So you’ll have to travel with a card reader no matter what you shoot with. Still, we would have died for something this small and good only a few years ago. Recommended model: 1.3GHz Dual-Core CPU (i5) minimum, 8GB RAM minimum, 512GB SSD minimum. That's a US$1600 model. Configured fully, it's US$1950. So you're paying for portability.  Alternative: really only the more expensive MacBook Pro 13” models. That nets you a lot more CPU horsepower, another port, plus a better display.  
  • 13” or 15” MacBook Pro. These have long been many photographers’ go to portable machines. The most recent additions add wrinkles that are causing controversy, but the bottom line is still the same: these are great machines configured correctly. All of them have wide display gamut (P3) that’s bright, and all are Retina displays. You can go a bit smaller and lighter with less horsepower (13”) or you can go full out and get the cream of the crop (15”). I generally travel with a 15” that’s pretty much the best Apple sells (see recommendations, below). All of the options in these two lines are very credible models, and clearly faster than previous MacBook Pro Retina models. I wouldn’t quibble with anyone picking one particular set of CPU, GPU, display, RAM, and SSD options over another, as long as you’re aware of what you’re choosing and why. My older MacBook Pro 15” has been in sandstorms, bounced on seats over non-existent roads, vibrated to death with almost 200,000 air miles, and runs virtually constantly (it’s my second display in my office). The newest touch bar models have even fewer parts vulnerable to tough travel, but they are not user upgradeable, so make sure you buy what you need or will grow into up front. Recommended models: 13” 2.3Ghz i5, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD for the low end (US$1900). Or go all in with either the 13” (3.5Ghz i7, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD, touchbar) at US$2900, or right to the top with the 15” 2.9GHz i7 (or higher), Radeon 560 GPU with 4GB (or higher), 16GB, 1TB SSD (2TB available, but it’s costly), which is a whopping US$3200. Both 13” and 15” models have a number of choices (CPUs, GPUs, RAM, drives), so be careful in reconfiguring a MacBook Pro model as you'll be stuck with that configuration. The bad news is that the new MacBook Pros with touchbar are very pricey, and you’ll need an external card reader and some new cables/dongles. You can solve the entire port issue with any number of single dongles [affiliate link] that have appeared, though I prefer the HyperDrive or HooToo ones at the moment. Do you want the touchbar? Maybe. Not all apps have good use of the touchbar, so it will depend upon the apps you're using. The good news is that the you can mitigate the high price a bit by picking slightly lower specs, particularly getting a 13" without the touchbar. Just remember that all choices are now permanent and some can be restrictive.  Alternative: pick up a previous generation MacBook Pro Retina 15” while they’re still available. But you’re giving up CPU/GPU horsepower, and the display is not wide-gamut.
  • iMac 21" Retina 4K. This is a new, very welcome option. Apple has finally moved many of their recent capabilities into the lower end of the iMac lineup, and that has produced a very good compromise with a more modest price than usual. Here's the minimum level I'd consider for photography: 3.0Ghz i5, 4K display, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD. That model lists for US$1700.  You can really start tricking that out now, with 3.6Ghz i7, 4K display, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD reaching up to US$3000. Any of the options from that lower model I note to the highest end should serve you well for quite some time. 
  • iMac 27” Retina 5K (late 2015 model or later). Think of it as a really, really good monitor that comes with a free great computer. The monitor has a wide DCI-P Color Space (about the same size as AdobeRGB, but slightly shifted in which colors its extends). The DCI-P iMac Retina Color Space is a video-defined Color Space, but it’s still very good for a still photographer, too, and it’s what Apple is now standardizing on across the iPad and Macintosh line. It’s a better Color Space than sRGB and what most other monitors give you, for sure. The one drawback I find to the iMac display is this: it’s too reflective. You’re not going to want a window or a light source behind you. I personally prefer matte displays, but the iMac is more towards the glossy spectrum. Meanwhile, even the base machine is pretty well endowed in terms of CPU/GPU, but be careful of coupling slow spinning hard drives with these fast processors, even the Fusion combinations. Recommended models: start with the 3.4GHz i5 model and trick it out, as needed. Don’t buy Apple’s RAM options, as you can add perfectly fine and less expensive RAM from OWC, as I noted above. Indeed, you can add 32GB for about US$350, which should be more than enough for most people. Do get an SSD as your main drive; don’t opt for the Fusion choices. Whether you upgrade the CPU and GPU depends upon whether you think US$500+ is worth a bit of future proofing your computer or not. Alternatives: use a MacBook Pro 15” with external monitor(s), or opt for the pricey but powerful Mac Pro. Frankly, the Mac Pro is overkill for photography, but will make videographers sleep easy. 
  • iMac Pro (coming December 2017). Unusually, Apple pre-announced a top end computer that may hold some appeal to photographers. I use the words "some appeal" because the things this model changes from the 27" Retina 5K model really appeal to videographers more than still photographers. Instead of 8 CPU cores, this new model will have up to 18. The upcoming model has a far better GPU and the ability to cram up to 128GB of RAM and a 4TB SSD inside. The price is going to be as insane as the specs. I really see this model as overkill for almost all photographers, but on the other hand it will be a really slick product for videographers in need of speed. 

What, no Mac Mini? No. The current models were really a step backwards as far as photography use is concerned. They make for great low end mail/browsing machines, but not so much photographer enthusiast machines.

Of course, the thing that scares most people away from Macs is the pricing. An 27" iMac configured about at the bottom of what I’d suggest is going to set you back about US$2300 when all is said and done (base configuration, extra RAM, SSD). Still, that’s a wide gamut 5K monitor you’re getting with the computer. Try pricing wide gamut 4K displays and the iMac suddenly looks less expensive than picking up an equivalent build-it-yourself Windows machine with a good monitor.

And yes, the new touchbar MacBook Pros are very expensive, too. You might get out the door with a 13” decently configured for less than US$2000, but not the 15”. And don’t forget to purchase Apple Care for whatever you get. That extends probably the best consumer electronics customer service out to three years for your computer. With my heavy abuse of my MacBook Pro, I’ve gotten more than my money’s worth out of Apple Care, no questions asked. 

The other thing that sometimes holds up potential Apple Mac updaters is the retirement of Firewire (and now Thunderbolt 2 and the old style USB on the portables), coupled with the need for high-speed external drives (even the new Mac Pro models no longer have extra internal storage bays). Most of us photographers need plenty of drive space. 

The typical answer for both Mac desktop and laptop is a USB 3.1 or Thunderbolt RAID. Or two. Or four. The temptation is to cheap out and just buy one external enclosure and mirror the drives in it. I say no. If you’re going for performance, buy two external enclosures and mirror one on the other. You can then also choose between RAID 0 (performance) or RAID 1 (additional mirroring) depending upon your paranoia level. How did I get to four RAIDs? Paranoia and video, in combination. 

On my new iMac Retina I have two main RAIDs: one running in RAID 1 (mirror) for application and photo data, and the other running RAID 1 for video. The RAIDs are automatically backed up by Carbon Copy Cloner, but each individual raid with data is also a mirrored setup to another raid pair, so it’s a redundant backup. Plus, of course, I have a Time Machine drive and a backup to the SSD, plus off-site backups. Yep, a lot of cables, and a lot of copying going on in the background (mostly in office down time). 

The good news is that Thunderbolt and the latest USB-C the MacBook Pros use can be daisy chained, so that cable situation is well under control. The real issue is all the power cables for the RAIDs, all of which have to go to a UPS, which in turn is plugged into a whole office surge protection system. 

I sure miss all those internal drive bays of the old Mac Pro (seven if you use third party tools to create them). 

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