Hardware advice: Apple MacBook

This page is part of the Hardware Advice series

macbookproIn recent years the MacBook laptop series have become increasingly popular. These laptops are often viewed as a different kind of computer since they run on a different operating system: Mac OS X. Most other computers run Microsoft Windows. The TU Delft mainly uses Windows as well.

On this page we’ll discuss the main things to consider when making the decision of choosing a MacBook or not.

Graphics

In the latest MacBook line-up only the most expensive 15-inch Pro model comes equipped with a dedicated graphics card: the AMD Radeon R9 M370X (in previous years the MacBook Pro was fitted with nVidia Geforce graphics). We’ve however had mixed experiences with (the drivers of) mobile Radeon cards in CAD applications. On paper this card is sufficient to comfortably run the programs used at Architecture. At this point the latest models remain untested. As a result we cannot confirm whether this laptop will in reality perform properly and as expected. For now we’re still a bit reluctant in recommending the latest MacBook Pro. Purchase at your own risk! If you however already own a previous generation MacBook with nVidia graphics adapter, you should be good to go.

The MacBook, Macbook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro models don’t have a dedicated graphics adapter at all. These only have integrated Intel graphics adapters (HD Graphics / Iris Pro) and should thus be avoided.

The software that you’ll be using requires a dedicated graphics adapter and one that can be used for professional 3D graphics applications. Examples of these applications are: McNeel Rhino, Autodesk Revit, Maya and 3ds Max. Looking at the system requirements that these vendors use, integrated graphics solutions such as Intel Iris are not suitable.

OS X vs Windows

OS X is an operating system that is very different from Windows. Professionals in other industries choose Apple mainly because they like how OS X works and supports their workflow.

A lot of software is available for both Mac OS X and Windows. For Architecture some of the most commonly used software only runs on Windows and not on Mac OS X. Autodesk Revit and Rhino with Grasshopper are well known examples that only run on Windows.

There is a solution: you can run Windows alongside OS X on your MacBook. This does have specific hardware requirements, however. The Storage section covers additional requirements for storage. If you plan to run Windows virtualized in OS X, you need at least 8GB, but preferably 16GB memory. It will be impossible to run Windows on your MacBook if it does not meet the hardware requirements.

Running Windows running on your MacBook requires extra effort to get everything installed and configured. It’s not an out-of-the-box solution and you need to keep two operating systems up to date.

If you are familiar with OS X and prefer it over using Windows, then make sure you’re MacBook is capable of running Windows and be prepared for the additional setup this requires. You will have to switch back and forth between OS X and Windows.

Storage

All models come equipped with flash storage. Flash storage is very fast, so that is great, but the capacity is limited. Higher capacity flash storage is more expensive compared to conventional hard disk drives.

Because some of the software only runs on Windows, you will have to run Windows alongside OS X. This means you need additional storage capacity. A clean windows 8 install may only take about 20 Gigabytes, but when you install the software you’ll regularly use, you need at least 70 gigabytes to be able to work properly. So anything less than 256GB flash storage is insufficient to be able to run Windows on your Mac.

Battery and power

MacBooks are known for their great battery life. This is one of the big advantages of MacBooks. Apple provides well engineered batteries that are designed to retain 80% of their capacity after 1000 load cycles. Compared to other high-end workstations, MacBooks have less powerful graphics adapters, which use less power. This combined with well balanced power management also enhances battery life.

The AC power adapters have lower capacity than the maximum power usage of your MacBook. This means the adapter is light and portable. But under maximum system load this means the battery needs to be used as well. Normally this is fine, but for tasks that require maximum performance for a long period of time, such as rendering, physics simulations or video encoding, it could mean your battery will run out and your system slows down. Your MacBook will not run on maximum performance without battery.

Hardware upgrades

Upgrading memory or replacing the hard drive after purchase is near impossible. The memory (RAM) is soldered to the motherboard and the Flash drive (SSD) is a non-standard format. With most other systems there is the option to upgrade memory or storage later, whenever and if you need it. With a MacBook you need to bite the bullet when you buy it, because you can’t change it later.

Warranty

A MacBook comes standard with 1-year limited warranty. EU regulations requires vendors to offer at least 2 years, so for major hardware problems you should be covered during the first two years after purchasing a MacBook Pro.

You can extend your warranty by purchasing an AppleCare Protection Plan. This means you get 3 years carry-in (or mail-in) repairs. It provides global repair coverage for both parts and labor. You can bring your MacBook to any Apple Retail Store or other Apple Authorized Service Provider.

During repairs you will not get a replacement laptop. Repairs generally take one to two weeks. If you don’t have access to an alternative, this might be a problem. Hardware failure usually occurs at the worst possible moment (just before deadlines), so take that in consideration.

Summary and Conclusion

When you choose a Mac, there’s limited options for the models that are suitable for working with professional 3D applications that are used at the faculty of Architecture. You need a dedicated graphics adapter, because the Intel Iris Pro will not suffice. Also you need to buy the right configuration right away, as hardware upgrades are not possible.

Besides aforementioned issues you need to take into account that a MacBook with sufficient performance is much more expensive, especially when compared to the TU Delft Laptop Project high performance laptop.

If you are set on buying a Mac for your Architecture studies, the 15-inch MacBook Pro with AMD Radeon graphics is the only viable option. All other models are insufficient, especially the MacBook, MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. Avoid them for your Architecture studies.

Students can get a small discount if they order through Apple Store for Education: the price for the laptop already exceeds €2500 in this case (as of November 2015). Please note that AppleCare Protection Plan warranty is not included by default. Adding warranty brings the price up to €2815.

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