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2013, a good MacBook Pro year?

Posted 2013-10-09

I bought Apple laptops in 2002, 2003, 2007, 2008 and 2011. So that's one every two years on average. In 2008, I learned the hard way that I really need to have a decent backup computer in case my primary one fails. So a while back I decided that I should probably buy a new computer every two years, and keep the previous one as a backup for another two years. So I'm due for a new laptop this year.

Which brings up the question: is 2013 a good year for buying a new Mac laptop?

One important consideration is CPU speed. The good people over at Primate Labs have compiled a long list of results for different Macs running their Geekbench benchmark. What's interesting here is that single threaded performance for the highest end MacBook Pro increased by 70% between mid-2009 and late 2012. In addition to that, in 2011 the 15" MacBook Pros went from dual core to quad core, which obviously improves multithreaded performance quite a lot. But since then, the speed improvements have been rather modest.

But there's more to life than just a fast CPU. Such as fast I/O. So I went to support.apple.com and looked up the tech specs for the MacBook Pros released since 2006. By 2007, the MBPs were fully 64-bit capable, supported 4 GB RAM, had Firewire 800 and 300 Mbps Wi-Fi. In 2009, the Expresscard/34 slot was replaced with an SD card slot, and the RAM ceiling went to 8 GB. In 2011, the Wi-Fi speed reached 450 Mbps and Thunderbolt was added. Last year Apple added USB 3, and we saw the new high resolution, slimmed down MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

Once we got to see the new MBPwRD (or rMBP or high resolution MBP) last year, it was obvious that this was the future of laptop computing. Or all computing, really: it won't be all that long until all computer screens reach "retina" resolutions. However, the MBPwRD has a few important weaknesses. One is networking. The 300 Mbps limit on my mid-2011 MacBook Air is a frequent source of frustration: transferring files over my home network at 22 MB/sec (on a good day!) is no fun. The MBPwRD should be about 50% faster, and you can plug in the Thunderbolt-to-GE adapter without losing your external screen. But 1.3 Gbps 802.11ac would be really, really sweet.

Speaking of external displays: apparently the MBPwRD can handle two (three?) of those... but only at a resolution of 2560x1600. So either you get to use the built-in high resolution screen, or you can use a nice, big external low resolution screen. Thunderbolt 2 should allow for 4k resolutions on external screens.

In addition to faster Wi-Fi and Thunderbolt 2, based on this year's MacBook Airs and iMacs, we can expect updated MacBook Pros to have better battery life and very fast PCIe-based SSDs.

So for those of us who are still on 300 or 450 Mbps Wi-Fi, USB 2, and low-to-average resolution screens, the new high resolution MacBook Pros that we all think are coming soon will be a very solid upgrade. Apart from the high resolution display and faster Wi-Fi, I'm also looking forward to much better external HDD performance over USB 3. Sure, a Thunderbolt-connected SSD array is going to blow a 2.5" USB 3 drive out of the water, but then again, that USB 3 drive only costs 60 euros and it should still be a good deal faster than its USB 2 predecessor.

On the other hand, Intel's broadwell architecture is coming (although likely not until 2015) and maybe next year will be the year of the MacBook Air with Retina Display...

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