Replacing The Desktop

Forget frames per second. Forget phase-detection points. Throw buffer size out the window. The speed and power of a camera doesn’t mean a thing if a photographer gets hamstrung when he or she is processing images. I know countless photographers who spend top dollar on a pro DSLR and then purchase an entry level desktop or laptop to save money. The result is a workflow that’s fast up front and then slow on the back—it’s the camera equivalent of having a camera with a massive sensor and a teeny buffer. You’re going to capture beautiful photos and then miss a lot of shots while you wait for your camera to process images.

For the Mac-based photographer, there’s an increasing array of choices, thanks to the new MacBook, Apple’s ultraportable, but low-powered laptop. Many Mac photographers opt for a combination of a MacBook Air in the field and a more powerful iMac or Mac Pro back in the office. That has been my workflow choice for years, since the MacBook Air has provided all the processing power I need for on-the-road performance and the MacBook blows the doors off of anything I’ve ever used.

But, at a certain point, it started to become clear that I might be able to kill two birds with a proverbial stone and use only a MacBook Pro for both studio and location work. The tradeoff would be a bit of weight and size in my bag relative to the MacBook Air, but I’d get a much more powerful workflow in the field. Back at home, I could reduce some of the confusion and clutter that comes with running two systems. After all, if I’m importing images into a program like Lightroom in the field, I don’t really want to have to move the catalog over when I return.

Spec Sheet

The new MacBook Pro with Retina Display comes in two sizes and a total of six stock configurations, with a variety of custom-build options. The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro with 2.7 GHz dual-core i5 is $1,299. A fully tricked-out configuration of the 15-inch model has a 2.8 GHz Quad-core Intel i7, with Turbo Boost up to 4.0 GHz and a 1 TB flash drive, and comes with dual graphics cards. It packs both the Intel Iris Pro Graphics card and the AMD Radeon R9 M370X with 2 GB of GDDR5 memory onboard and 16 GB of RAM.

With that configuration, the MacBook Pro comes to $3,199, which puts it just above the price of the entrylevel Quad-core dual GPU Mac Pro ($2,999) and a few hundred dollars below the dual GPU 3.5 GHz 6-Core Intel Xeon E5 model.

On the other hand, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display comes in at a few hundred dollars more expensive than a comparably configured iMac with Retina 5K, with a much smaller display (obviously).


The power of today’s portable computers allows them to replace the desktop for most users. That means more flexibility—and more lattes.

This is a bit of a (pardon this) apples to oranges comparison; the Mac Pro is a powerful machine and the dual graphics cards give it a level of performance for graphics-intensive tasks that the MacBook Pro can’t reach. But it also contains a lot of power that applications like Lightroom don’t take advantage of (yet). The Mac Pro’s level of power is designed for high-end video editing and rendering, so some of the performance is lost on photo editing.

The MacBook Pro has much more connectivity than the MacBook Air, which makes it more powerful for media professionals. There are multiple USB ports, full HDMI and dual The power of today’s portable computers allows them to replace the desktop for most users. That means more flexibility—and more lattes. (Cont’d on page 76) Thunderbolt 2 ports. That makes it possible to connect the MacBook Pro to any number of high-end devices from RAID systems to studio monitors.

It’s also possible to connect the MacBook Pro to a 5K display, a first for Mac laptops. That means you can go from image capture to full-scale video editing with the MacBook Pro.

Interestingly, the high-end graphics card option, the AMD Radeon R9 M370X, is based on a relatively older chipset, code-named Cape Verde, which was released in 2012. AMD essentially rebranded an older card when they increased the amount of RAM on the card. This allows the card to run a bit faster than some competing cards, even at a lower clock speed. It’s an odd choice to have this as the topend graphics cards in the pro-level laptop—we suspect that the next refresh of the MacBook Pro will have a more modern card inside.

The Desktop Is Dead

To test whether the MacBook Pro could replace my Mac Pro, I stopped using my Mac Pro for a few weeks. My previous workflow would be to create a new Catalog in Lightroom for a client shoot and to import images into that Catalog in the field. While working remotely, I’d start with keywords and captions, editing and adjusting and delivering anything the client needed for a deadline.

While the MacBook Air is powerful, often the process of working with a whole shoot of images would cause the fans to kick on and the machine to slow down, albeit only slightly.

Back at the office, I’d export the Catalog and import it into my Mac Pro, where I’d finish any editing work, a step that would slow me down a bit.

With the MacBook Pro as my main machine, I simply connect to my dualdisplays at my office and then move the folder of images from my internal flash drive on the MacBook Pro to my studio RAID, where they’re instantly backed up to Backblaze and to my studio backups.

I had been worried that the processor and graphics card inside the MacBook Pro wouldn’t keep up with the image editing needs of Lightroom and Photoshop, but that’s not the case. I’m finding very little difference in performance in real-world tests. Lightroom takes a fraction of a second longer on the MacBook Pro to switch from Library to Develop, but sliders and adjustments seem to perform just as fast.

Recently, Adobe announced they’re optimizing their applications to take advantage of dual GPU systems, which means that over time the Mac Pro will see performance boosts that the MacBook Pro can’t touch (until such time as the MacBook Pro gets a dual graphics card), but currently the performance of the applications is on par with the performance of the laptop.

By focusing all of my energy on a single computer, I find that I’m having a much smoother workflow, as well. I can connect everything in my office via a Thunderbolt dock, so all I have to do is plug in the power cord and one Thunderbolt cord, and I can run my two monitors and all of my drives.

While the video card on the MacBook Pro is fast, we can’t help but wish for a faster card, especially when spending more than $3,000 on a computer. Certainly, the MacBook Pro didn’t feel slow as a result of the AMD card, but it didn’t feel blazingly fast either. We’d like to see an option for a more modern card in the top-end configuration. As a result, it might be a good idea for photographers on the fence about a new laptop to wait another cycle before jumping in.

Still, the MacBook Pro might be the perfect laptop for photographers on a budget, or photographers looking for a more streamlined solution for their working day. It’s powerful enough for your most complex tasks and yet light enough to take just about anywhere.

If you’re doing high-end retouching work, video editing and multimedia, you’ll need to get a desktop. If you’re a working location photographer, the MacBook Pro is the go-to machine for your studio and your backpack.

You can reach David Schloss on Twitter or Instagram @davidjschloss.

Leave a Reply

Menu