Mac Perfeshunal

June 1st, 2009  |  Published in etc  |  2 Comments

One time, back when I had a cat, I got a laser pointer and used it to play with the cat. One afternoon I was playing with the cat when the phone rang, so I answered the phone and absent-mindedly traced up and down the basement stairs, watching the cat chase the laser dot. Eventually the cat began to sort of pant, which is not something you often see in a cat, but evidently the thrill of chasing the dot was outweighing the considerable impulse for utter sedentary worthlessness that particular cat shipped from the factory with.

Like my cat, my MacBook sometimes begins to pant after an hour of intensive work. I can tell it’s panting because I can begin to hear the hard drive, the fans spin up, beachballs become more common and apps I launch late in the session start taking a while to stop bouncing. God help me if Time Machine decides to wake up. Actually … I helped me with that: I just do a full backup with SuperDuper each night because Time Machine makes me cry when it’s processing a lot of changes. And there’s the inevitable “Oh, there’s a Flash ad on a site in a background tab so it’s time for Safari to spike the CPU to 90%.”

All of this causes me to think that I’m probably using a consumer-grade laptop more heavily than it was meant to be used.

So looking up the Mac product line, it seems that the next incremental step up across the line is the 2.66GHz iMac, which provides a little more CPU, better graphics card and a faster (7200RPM vs. the MacBook’s 5400RPM) hard drive. The iMacs remind me of Apple’s fundamental genius: When you go to the online Apple store, it looks like there are just a few choices, which is how Apple people are supposed to like it. But for having only four distinct product lines (iMac, Mac Pro, MacBook, MacBook Pro, mini), Apple does a wonderful job of coaxing the interested buyer ever further up-line. Unlike their counterparts over in the WinPC world, Apple’s lower-end desktops are pretty resistant to buying in cheap and selectively upgrading here and there to get the right mix of components.

Anyhow, next up in the laptop line is the mid-range 15” MacBook Pro, which gets me improvements in the graphics card, but with the 5400RPM hard drive you’d expect in a notebook. You can’t score a 7200RPM hard drive in a MacBook until you wander into the territory of the 17” model. The MacBook Pro line is clearly nicer than the plain old MacBooks, but I’m not sure the performance improvements are there.

Then, looming over both the iMacs and the MacBook pros is, of course, the Mac Pro, which might as well be made of platinum and unicorn horns, because I don’t think I can justify buying into that line at $2,499.

All of that causes me to look at the lashed up raft of components bobbing around under my desk that I think of as “the Spare Box” and wonder if I’m not better off building it up. I don’t want to build a Hackintosh or anything like that. I’d probably turn it into a Linux box running a pretty stripped desktop environment (like XFCE with all the eyecandy turned off). There’d be other adjustments to make: I’d have to decide whether to dust off ~/.emacs.d or dig out the bundle of Komodo Edit customizations I saved last year during my eeePC kick. I’d be looking at running GIMP instead of Photoshop/Fireworks. In the end, though, I want something that can deal with a workflow that involves running a lot of stuff side by side: text and graphics editors, Windows in a VM, etc. I suspect the things that are hurting me right now are the 4GB ceiling on RAM and the slower hard drive.

Right now, here’s the MacBook and the Spare Box side by side:

MacBook Spare Box
CPU 2.4Ghz Core 2 Duo 1.6Ghz dual Celeron
Memory 4 GB (Maxed) 1 GB (4 GB max)
Hard drive 160GB 5400RPM SATA 500GB 7200RPM SATA
Graphics GMA X3100 integrated Intel, but the motherboard specs don’t say what

The motherboard in the Spare Box can accommodate up to 4GB of RAM. CPU compatibility seems to be with LGA775 processors, which the mobo manual claims goes up to Intel Core 2 Duos. The box currently has a 380W power supply, which seems to limit any candidate for a graphics card upgrade a little. I’ve got a Linksys GigE card stuck in one of the two PCI slots, and a FireWire card stuck in the other. There are two remaining slots: one PCIe and one PCI 16.

Looking at the two machines side by side, it seems as if any improvements in the Spare Box will involve losing everything but the case, the hard drive, the DVD-RW and the GigE card.

So what would you do to graduate from a 2.4GHz MacBook if you were out to build or buy a Web developer’s machine? Anyone been back and forth between the MacBook and MacBook Pro? Anyone care to comment on bang-for-the-buck on the newer quad-core Intel and AMD processors? Where’s the happy medium between the “merely nice” of a sub-$1,000 Dell or mid-range iMac and the “+5 Computer of Awesomeness” that is the Mac Pro?


  1. Michael Burton says:

    June 2nd, 2009 at 11:31 am (#)

    Well, you’ve got to consider both your current and future needs. And of course your self worth. Macbook Pro w/ Intel for the win…

  2. Adding a New Drive to a MacBook :: dot unplanned says:

    June 4th, 2009 at 3:11 pm (#)

    […] I upgraded my MacBook’s hard drive from the stock 160GB/5400RPM Hitachi to a 320GB/7200RPM Western Digital Scorpion. The extra space is welcome, but right now it’s in the middle or re-indexing Spotlight so it’s impossible to say whether the snappy will manifest. It was a pretty inexpensive upgrade that ought to help in the short term while I decide what to do about the longer term. […]

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