Opinion

By Ben Hart,

Working from home: buying a MacBook

In the last article we looked at Windows laptops, and briefly Chromebooks. In this week’s article we will be looking at the Apple alternative, both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, and the advantages that they have over their Windows counterparts. We’ll also have a brief look at the iPad Pro too, which, especially when combined with its optional keyboard / case, can perform many of the essential tasks that users rely on their laptops for, and could potentially provide many users a decent, lightweight and easy to use alternative to a fully-fledged laptop. 

Text Box: Pictured: the big Apple

The Apple MacBook Pro remains a favourite of professional video and photo editors, and music producers, with it being an excellent machine for productivity. We’ve played around with Apple’s online configurator to come up with a few examples of models at different price points and performance levels. The starting price for the 13-inch MacBook Pro is £1,299, although at this price they come with an older eighth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory and a relatively small 256GB solid-state drive.If we were tomax out theconfigurator on the larger 16-inch model, we could reach the dizzying heights of £6,699, although to be fair this is with a whopping 8TB solid-state drive.

If we were to forgo the 8TB drive and go with a perfectly respectable 1TB, the top-spec system comes in at £4,499 – still a lot of money but within the realm of possibility for professionals looking for a powerful machine fit for purpose. For the four and a half grand you get the larger 16-inch screen, a ninth-generation eight-core Intel Core i9 processor, 32GB of DDR4 memory and a discrete AMD Radeon Pro 5600M graphics card. Compared to Windows devices, these prices seem excessive and specs underwhelming, but it’s important to remember you can’t really make direct comparisons between Macs and Windows machines due to the different operating systems and the fact that Apple’s systems are better optimised and often more efficient, doing more with the hardware they do have, as Apple have had total control of the design process, building the computer from the ground up to run Mac OS. Apple’s machines also have other components that PCs lack; for example, the latest MacBook Pros have the Apple T2 Security Chip – an early introduction perhaps to Apple’s forthcoming self-made ARM-based processors which are said to be launching by the end of the year, thereby ending Apple’s 15-year relationship with Intel.

Pictured: a slide from Apple’s recent WWDC (World Wide Developer Conference) highlighting the potential of Apple Silicon – Apple’s self-made processors coming soon to Macs and already used in iPhones and iPads

Mac’s big advantage over Windows in particular – its main competitor – is that Apple design and have full control over the entire ecosystem, building both operating system and hardware from the ground up to complement each other. This aids efficiency, and means Macs are optimised better for the software that runs on them, and vice versa. Apple also make an entire suite of office and productivity software, again, optimised to work exclusively on the Mac platform. Because of this, it’s hard to make direct comparisons between Windows machines and Macs, and this will be even more the case when Apple introduces the first Mac to run on its own, Apple-made processors – commonly known as Apple Silicon.

These new processors, based around the ARM architecture, are set to be a game changer, with higher-performance, and higher power efficiency extending battery life, and with better integration between Macs and other Apple devices such as iPhones and iPads which have been using Apple Silicon for some time now. The first Mac with the new processors installed are said to be being released by the end of the year, although Apple will still be selling Intel-based Macs for another two years, gradually transitioning to their own CPUs.

MacOS and Bundled Software

Users generally find MacOS easier to get to grips with than Windows, and unlike Windows it comes with a number of powerful apps included. This is one area where Apple reclaim some ground on value for money, with an included office suite including the word processor Pages and spreadsheet Numbers, both of which are fully compatible with Microsoft Office files, GarageBand – a powerful digital audio workstation (DAW) for music production and basically a pared-down version of the professional, highly-respected DAW Logic Pro X, a photo editor appropriately named Photos and powerful video editor iMovie, again, a pared-down version of the professional Final Cut Pro video editor. Again, all of these come bundled with every Mac, and are all first-rate, highly powerful applications. You also have the option to upgrade to the full, professional-grade digital audio workstation Logic Pro X, for £199, and to the professional-grade video editor Final Cut Pro for £299. For professional-grade music and video editing suites, these prices are remarkably competitive, with similarly performing alternatives, such as the DAW Pro Tools coming in at around £500, and video editor Adobe Premiere available on a subscription model, and costing around £240 a year.

The MacBook Range

MacBooks are superbly engineered machines, squeezing every last bit of space in the housing to cram in all the components into a device with a relatively small footprint, all the while ensuring thermal and acoustic performance stays within acceptable boundaries; in other words, making sure the thing doesn’t run too hot (which can hurt performance – once a processor reaches a set temperature it throttles its own performance to cool down and avoid damaging itself) and that it doesn’t run too loudly, with noisy fans distracting the user from their work. The new models feature Apple’s proprietary T2 Security Chip and Touch ID for increased security, and the MacBook Pro devices also feature the Touch Bar, which is a thin touchscreen that runs across the top of the keyboard, providing an extra method of input. You also get the full suite of free software that Apple includes with all its devices, including a powerful office suite and music and video editing applications.

For

  • Excellent solutions for anyone from students to professionals
  • Apple’s usual stunning design
  • Excellent connectivity, including Thunderbolt over USB-C
  • Proprietary Apple T2 Security Chip (MacBook Pro models only)
  • Touch ID system further aids security
  • Touch Bar adds an extra level of control
  • Apple’s excellent suite of software that comes bundled with every Mac

Against

  • The price Apple charges for its devices is high compared to Windows PCs
  • Some components in particular are priced extortionately – £400 to upgrade solid-state storage from 256GB to 1TB is extreme when you consider that a 1TB WD Blue SN550 Ultra-fast NVMe solid state drive can be had for £106.98 on Amazon
  • Less software available on the Mac platform than Windows
  • Less powerful components than a similarly priced Windows machine
  • Apple Silicon round the corner so now may not be the best time to buy

The MacBook Air

Available in gold, as pictured here, silver or space grey finishes, the MacBook Air fills the lower-end of Apple’s laptop line-up, and is beautifully crafted from 100% recycled aluminium alloy. These aren’t especially powerful machines, and with prices starting at £999, they don’t offer especially good value for money when compared with a Windows laptop around the same price. However, these are premium, ultra-lightweight devices with stunning aesthetics, and they allow users entry to the MacBook ecosystem at a relatively affordable price, at least by Apple’s standards. All MacBook Air models feature an excellent 13-inch high resolution (2560 x 1600 pixel) display, ensuring excellent picture clarity and sharpness, as well as offering superb colour reproduction thanks to Apple’s True Tone technology. Weighing just 1.29 kilos, these are incredibly lightweight machines, despite having a relatively decent list of specs.

The base model, costing £999, disappointingly has just a dual-core Intel processor – we would recommend always going for at least a four-core processor. The rest of the specs aren’t bad for a machine aimed at students and the more casual user, with 8GB of DDR4 memory, a 256GB solid-state drive, Intel integrated graphics processing, a large trackpad, Apple’s excellent touch ID system and two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports. There is a higher spec base model, retailing for £1,299, however at this price we would recommend going for the MacBook Pro base model, which has pretty much the same specifications, but with a superior cooling system allowing the processor to run faster.

The model we would recommend is the base £999 model, but with the processor upgraded in the configurator to the four-core tenth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, adding an extra £100 to the price, bringing the total to £1,099.

The MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro 13-inch base model – £1,299 from Apple

  • Eighth-generation four-core Intel Core i5 processor
  • 8GB DDR3 memory
  • 512GB solid-state storage
  • Integrated Intel graphics processing
Pictured: a user editing video content in Final Cut Pro, a powerful piece of professional grade software available for just £299

The base model MacBook Pro’s specification is rather underwhelming, with an eighth-generation four-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of DDR3 memory, when DDR4 is the norm now, and a fairly small 256GB solid-state drive. The same money could buy you a Windows machine with a six-core, ninth-generation Intel processor, at least 8GB of DDR4 memory and at least a 512GB NVMe solid-state drive. Having said that, as we mentioned previously, Macs do manage to do more with less, so it’s not fair to make direct comparisons. And you do get Apple’s excellent suite of bundled software.

MacBook Pro 13-inch with upgraded specs – £1,999 from Apple (base model)

  • Tenth-generation four-core Intel Core i5 processor – 2.0GHz / Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz
  • 16GB DDR4 memory
  • 1TB solid-state drive
  • Integrated Intel graphics processing

Here we have specced up a machine to what we think the minimum requirements for a decently powerful and fast MacBook Pro should be, capable of tearing through productivity and office tasks, with no slowdown, and plenty of storage space.

MacBook Pro 16-inch – £2,399 from Apple

All 16-inch MacBook models come with a discrete graphics card, allowing them to be used for more graphically intensive workloads – 3D rendering, video or photo editing, CAD or even gaming. The base model comes with a perfectly respectable spec, with a 2.6GHz six-core ninth-generation Intel Core i7 processor with “Turbo Boost” up to 4.5GHz, 16GB of DDR4 memory, an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M graphics card with 4GB graphics memory, a 512GB solid-state drive and four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports. This will provide the power needed by many professionals looking for a machine capable of thundering through intensive workloads, although if a user should desire more power, there are further options such as the model we’ve specced below.

The top-tier 16-inch MacBook Pro – £4,499 from Apple (base model)

  • Eight-core ninth-generation Intel Core i9 processor – 2.4GHz with “Turbo Boost” up to 5.0GHz
  • 32GB 2666MHz DDR4 memory
  • AMD Radeon 5500M graphics card with 8GB VRAM (graphics memory)
  • 2TB solid-state drive
  • Four Thunderbolt USB-C ports

We have specced this machine out to provide truly high-end performance fit for professional users. We upgraded the CPU to a slightly faster version of the already installed ninth-generation Intel Core i9 eight-core processor, and have increased the memory, again DDR4 thankfully, to 32GB, and upgraded the graphics card from the AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 4GB of graphics memory (VRAM) to the AMD Radeon Pro 5600M with 8GB of VRAM. We also upped the 1TB standard solid-state drive to 2TB, adding a substantial and somewhat hard to justify £400 to the overall price of the thing. Coming in at £4,499, this is certainly not a laptop for the everyday user; but, for professionals, who the device is aimed at, this will tick all the boxes.

The iPad Pro – starting at £769 from Apple

The iPad Pro, as pictured above with its optional Magic Keyboard (not to be confused with every other keyboard Apple sells that that they have helpfully also call Magic Keyboards), is a powerful and slimline device, powered by Apple’s own silicon, which as we mentioned previously will eventually power all of Apple’s devices.

The 11-inch iPad Pro with 256GB storage and Wi-Fi connectivity costs £869, with the Magic Keyboard costing £299, coming to a total of £1168. It may not be cheap, but it provides a fantastic experience, with the Magic Keyboard finally giving iPad users the sense of a real typing experience, not to mention support for a mouse, which Apple has only just added with their recent iPad OS update.

When it comes to shelling out money for a MacBook there's two schools of thought. Check out our breakdown on what type of MacBooks are best for what work and if you need one.

For many users, the iPad Pro can now offer all of the basic computing features that they need, and can serve as an actual replacement for a computer. The iPad’s operating system is very easy to navigate, and the device’s sleek industrial styling is incredibly easy on the eyes. The device also features an absolutely fantastic camera, beating the cheap webcams found on laptop computers.

The 4GB of memory and 256GB of storage would be low for a laptop, but Apple have made their operating system exceptionally efficient, and it requires far less memory than a Windows machine or even a MacBook. We must address the elephant in the room though – the price. For £1168 you could buy a MacBook Air or an excellent Windows laptop, such as the ASUS ROG ZEPHYRUS G14 – £1,099 from Scan.co.uk that we mentioned in our last article, which is a far more powerful device. With the iPad option though you do however get all the free apps that come bundled with Apple devices, including Pages, GarageBand and iMovie. Tablets have their unique appeal, and it’s not hard to see why people fall for the allure of the iPad Pro.

In the next article, our final in our working from home series, we’ll be giving you some hacks on getting the best out of your working from home setup. See you then.

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