MacBook Pro 2010 – A Photographer’s Dream?

After almost 10 months of waiting, Apple announced the latest upgrades to their MacBook Pro line of computers.  And while many seem disappointed with Apple’s latest product release, I’m thinking that this may represent the new standard for photographers and other media professionals.

For those who haven’t been following the release closely, the latest generation of 15″ and 17″ MacBook Pro models have been upgraded to use Intel’s latest Core i5 and i7 processors.  (For those curious, the 13″ line of MacBook Pros has stayed with the Intel Core 2 Duo line of processors, but did see a speed bump as well as more RAM standard.)

In addition to the upgraded processors, the other hot news is the change in graphics cards.  All 15″ models now come with a discrete graphics card – an NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M.  Models are available with either 256MB of graphics memory or, for the higher end model, 512MB.

For a full review of all the latest options, I suggest reading the Engaget’s description of the updates, or their Review of the MacBook Pro Core i7.

So what does all of this mean to photographers?

Processing Power

Pure processing power has always been on the list of necessary features for a photographer’s laptop choice.  Converting RAW images, running programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture and storing / cataloging the hundreds of images taken every day is simply a processor intensive task.  And while the previous MacBook Pro machines were indeed powerful, over the course of the last 10 months, a lot of upgrades have come about in mobile processors.

In an effort to stay competitive, Apple made a smart decision to include the latest Core i5 and i7 processors in this generation of MacBook Pros.  Early benchmarks of these Intel processors has shown very favorable results and these should prove to provide an even better user experience to anyone doing complex computing.  While there have been many complaining about the lack of a quad core option, Apple has always been conservative with their laptop specs.  I guess, in this case, I’d rather have a rock solid laptop with slightly slower processor than the latest and greatest processor at the sacrifice of stability and build quality.  However, I’m sure many would not agree.

Screen Resolution

While the upgraded processor is a huge draw for running Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom, the other huge news is the ability to add a higher resolution screen to the 15″ product line.  For me, this alone makes these a huge step above the previous generation MacBook Pro for any sort of photographic tasks.  And while the 17″ does have an even higher resolution, many mobile professionals can’t justify the additional bulk.  In fact, most professional photographers I’ve conversed with feel that the 15″ is the best option with regards to bulk and horsepower.

While some may argue that there is really very little gain from the new higher resolution screen, let’s do some quick math.  The 13″ screen has a standard (non-upgradable) resolution of 1280×800 or 1,024,000 pixels.  The standard 15″ resolution of 1440×900 pixels equals a total pixel count of 1,296,000 (for those doing the math, that’s only a 26.5% increase over the 13″).  And while this does indeed make a difference, if you’re anything like me, the more pixels the better — especially for a program like Adobe Lightroom.  Enter the new upgrade option from Apple.  For only $100 more (for glossy, $150 for a matte option), the latest 15″ can be ordered with a 1680×1050 pixel resolution for a total pixel count of 1,764,000.  This is a 36% increase over the standard 15″ configuration and a whopping 72% increase over the 13″ model!  That’s huge!  I’m sure we’ll see many people upgrading for that feature alone.

Graphics Processing

The NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M has received its fair share of criticism in the last week.  However, since this chip was manufactured exclusively for Apple, and has only been released for a week, I really feel it’s too early to pass a harsh judgment.  In fact, early reports show it being more than adequate for most users.  Also, according to many (including the above Engadget review), the latest version of Photoshop (CS5) will take full advantage of the upgraded GPU.  I can only hope that Lightroom 3 (when released) will also follow suit as rendering a couple GB of images can currently take a noticeable amount of time.  Only time will tell how well this graphics option will perform.


Personally, one of the biggest reasons I’ve stuck with my 3+ year old MacBook was the fact that the MacBook Pro line simply didn’t offer enough incentive to upgrade for my uses.  And when Apple announced the new 13″ Pro models, I thought I’d finally found my next laptop.  However, with the discrete graphics option now standard on the entry level 15″ models, and the option to add a higher resolution screen, I really feel that the 15″ MacBook Pro is the perfect portable photographic companion!


The new MacBook Pro arrived and my Initial Impressions are posted (as well as unboxing photos).

8 thoughts on “MacBook Pro 2010 – A Photographer’s Dream?”

  1. Mark, enjoyed your review and looking to upgrade myself. Couple of questions that I need to answer when deciding between the 15 vs 17 MBP. Since I have invested in a Canon 5DII with 21MP resolution and shoot raw – will I be missing image detail of my photos on a 1680×1050 resolution screen that I could be enjoying on the 17″ 1920×1200 screen?
    The other question is how slow, or fast are my transfer options between the 15 or 17″ MBPs? Looks like FW800 or the express/esata port on the 17 are my choices. When downloading hundreds of images this gets important. Or some speculate that there may be a refresh of the MBP this year with USB3, even faster.
    Would appreciate any insight as I muddle over the best option for my use. Mike

  2. Mike: I too struggled with resolution issues, but my struggle was between the 13″ and the 15″. The high resolution screen sold me on the 15″. While I’m sure the 17″ would be an awesome computer, for me, personally, I find that a 17″ laptop is simply not portable enough for my needs. I guess I figure that at that point, I might as well purchase a desktop machine plus a netbook for about the same price.

    When you do some math regarding display resolution vs. photo resolution, you’ll soon realize that even a 5MP image is larger than either of the screens. What this means from a display standpoint is that the image will have to be scaled down for either screen. In reality, image clarity is what suffers when you shrink an image to view it. You’re gaining about 23% more pixels with the 17″. However, in comparison to a 21MP raw image, you’d be downsizing the image by around 89% on the 17″, and by around 91% on the 15″ display (and that’s assuming you are viewing the image full screen with nothing else visible). Realistically, there is very little difference from that perspective.

    To me, the best way to really understand your image clarity is to view the image at 100% zoom. For this, either resolution will show you enough pixels to see the affects of sharpening or other clarity enhancements.

    At the end of the day, I really think that the processor speed and RAM are better investments for image processing than the slightly larger screen. I guess for my uses, the high resolution 15″ is the tipping point in that equation — your mileage may vary.

    Your question regarding photo download options touches a bit on a more sore subject for Mac enthusiasts. It’s a real shame that Apple did away with the Express Card slot on the 15″ and didn’t replace it with either USB 3.0 or eSATA. However, in reality, I’ve found that a good USB 2.0 card reader is tolerable for my uses and therefore, I decided not to wait for future improvements. (As a note, I have not been able to justify hunting down and paying the price premium for a firewire card reader).

    Since I’m still operating with a Core 2 white MacBook, I really felt that the i5 series was the perfect upgrade path and that it offered enough of an improvement for me to pull the trigger on the new machine. However, if your current machine will keep you happy (and you feel that you really need a faster download interface), waiting for the next revision may be worthwhile. My opinion is that Apple tends to use established technology and seldom offers cutting edge interfaces. For that reason, I’m not sure I would expect USB3 in the immediate future. I hope I’m wrong.

    Good luck in your decision! I can’t wait for mine to arrive! Should be here any day! I’ll be writing more once it arrives.

  3. Mark: thanks for taking the time to respond to my questions. Agree that the higher resolution option on 15″ makes it a stronger candidate. I am currently using an alienware laptop of same resolution, but not portable at 10+ lbs! I want to make sure I get a true portable laptop this time. I did not realize how large the 17″ really is until I discovered that it would not fit into any carry on bag I own, but the 15″ will just make it. Agree, if you going to buy the resolution and real estate of the 17″, then why not just get a desktop, larger screen too (eg 24″ even better). And since you can now get the identical package (RAM, CPU, HD, etc) in both 15″ and 17″, the size/res are really the only difference in the larger MBP – but then why not have the portable 15″ for mobility, and a larger display at home for processing, since I really don’t envision processing while I am traveling, just viewing from the days shoot. Did I get the shot or not, do I need to reshoot tomorrow?
    I guess now I have to decide on a decent monitor. Have read mixed reviews on Apple’s cinema displays (24″), and gloss screen is still not working for me – I am in the US Foreign Service so I move around a lot and don’t have much control over my environment at home(s). The 30″ seems overkill for me. Some of the critism I have read online seems to be directed at the quality of the display also. DO you have experience with the cinema monitors, or what other brands/models would you recommend? I have never owned a stand alone monitor. But would want to have one as part of a system with the MBP.
    Thank you for clarifying the different resolutions and photo resolution. Now all I need to do is decide between the Canon 5D and 5DII! But I won’t go there!
    Finally, regarding the ports on the 15″, I admit I am not 100% certain what is “fastest”. I understand the express card is the most fast, then fw800, then usb2, is that correct? I currently live with USB 2.0 on my AW laptop, its not that bad. So if I wanted to use the fw800 on the 15″, then I would need to change the cable on my camera to firewire, and also the cable on my portable harddrive, right?
    ANyway, thanks again for sharing your insights on all this. I am not in a hurry, plenty of time left before they ship me off to my next overseas assignment to see what Apple does this fall. Will be looking forward to your review of your new MBP!

  4. Mike:
    Glad to hear I’m being helpful! There are precious few good reviews of the new MacBook Pros from the perspective of photographers.

    Yes, after reading the actual measurements of the 17″ and actually thinking about carrying it around, it becomes pretty clear that it’s not for the faint of heart! And you do make a very good point since it is possible to get the same basic configuration on a 15″ model, it does seem to make sense to get the 15″ plus an external monitor.

    External monitors are tricky. To get one that’s really true color and calibrates well, you do have to spend quite a lot of money — something I’m not really willing to do. To give some perspective, I’m using a 22″ Samsung LCD which has served me rather well. It’s by no means color perfect, but good enough after a careful calibration to trust for sending photos to get printed — which is really all I need anyway. If you’re doing very color critical work, I’d say you’d probably have to spend a lot. The Apple Cinema displays look nice, but I too have heard that they are somewhat overpriced for the quality and color rendition they provide. I think for the same money as a 30″ Apple display, you could pick up an 24″ Eizo ColorEdge series display which will be far superior for color critical work. I think if it were me, I’d probably go that route as a 24″ display is plenty for the average user.

    With regards to your question on ports and cables. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t believe either Nikon or Canon have firewire ports on their cameras. From my understanding, you’d have to buy an external FW800 card reader to take advantage of the firewire port. As a side note, I have noticed that my external USB 2.0 card reader is much faster than hooking a cable up directly to my camera. I can’t really speak to your hard drive as some have a firewire port and some do not. I do know that my current external drive (from Other World Computing) has a firewire 400 port (all my current MacBook could support), but from what I’m told, FW800 is backward compatible. I’ll find out soon I hope!

    Thanks for the comments and this discussion! It’s nice to discuss tech things with another photographer!


  5. Hi Mark,
    So how are you enjoying your new MBP 15″, and when do you think you will post an in depth review?
    Also, speaking of monitors, the Eizo is probably going to be out of my price range. How do you like your Samsung monitor, and can you give me some feedback on it?
    I want to read your review, but I have pretty much made up my mind on the MBP 15″, still not sure about glossy vs. matte, and need to find a decent monitor that will suit my needs. Only reason I say I am stil undecided on screen is that I think the glossy screen may have an advantage over the matte with deeper contrast. But I am no means an expert on the subject!
    Best regards,

  6. Mike:

    I’m planning on doing an in-depth review of the new MacBook! I’m really enjoying it so far and am about half way through writing my review!

    My Samsung is an older model 226BW which I think has been out of production now for a while. It’s nothing spectacular, but it does get the job done! The interesting thing about it is that it has the same resolution as the new MacBook but it’s a 22″ screen — which really puts in perspective just how densely packed the high resolution 15″ screen is.

    Personally, I really like the glossy screen. I don’t work outdoors very often or with overly bright lights so the glossy doesn’t seem to give me bad reflections. However, your mileage may very.

    I really will be posting a full review soon. But I feel like I should work with it for a little while before making any judgments (so far, I haven’t found anything I don’t like!)

  7. Mark,

    I am looking at the 15 inch MBPro. Do you think the 1GB Graphics card will be that much faster than the 256 MB one? I am a budding pro photographer and want processing speed in PS but I am also living with a budget. I don’t want a machine that will be too slow as soon as I get it. What do you think? Most of my work will be portrait work.

    also, how significant do you think the anti-glare screen is? Will a clear film accomplish some of it?

    Thank you so much. I really like your site.


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