MacBook Semi-Pro

Photo Credit: Marco Arment

“The MD101LL/A, pixelated to simulate the quality of its screen.” Photo Credit: Marco Arment

In early January, I read this blog post by well-known programmer and Apple community personality Marco Arment. In the post, Marco outlines some of the reasons why the MacBook Pro “model 101” still sells so well, despite the fact that it has gone virtually unchanged since 2012 (that’s a long time in computer years to still be selling something like that as a ‘new’ computer). With old parts and a non-Retina display, this MacBook Pro is cheap enough that price-conscious buyers of a Mac laptop will consider it. But most tech enthusiasts steer clear of it because it uses a slow 5400rpm hard drive and the screen is noticeably pixelated compared with any Retina screen. (All other Mac laptops have solid state flash storage now and most have Retina displays with much higher pixel density making text and images appear much crisper). But reading Marco’s article on why it still sells so well and is appropriate for some limited number of people had an unintended consequence for a fellow tech enthusiast: I bought one.

To understand why I made such a counterintuitive decision, a little background info would help. I am a fan of editing video and other media on the Mac platform and have been since high school where I got my first experience of it with Final Cut Pro (and even iMovie before that). But not being independently wealthy, buying a Mac Pro or maxed-out MacBook Pro to edit video has always been out of the question due to cost considerations. I had been experimenting with a Hackintosh over the past few months (which will be the subject of a future post) for use as a video editing workstation, but it was like stepping on eggshells when even a simple Mac OS update could render it useless if the settings change or the wrong kernel extension gets installed.

So with the professional option being ruled out due to cost and the unprofessional Hackintosh route being a little too risky for a stable editing platform, I was in the market for a semi-pro option. That’s when Marco’s article started the gears turning in my head: “what if I could turn that laptop into a humble video editing system?” The low cost was a big draw and the upgradeability of the memory and storage was an even bigger benefit since Apple charges a lot for upgrades. I had some SSDs from a previous video editing setup that I could repurpose, and with an inexpensive memory upgrade I could really make it a powerful little laptop.

Better yet, when I checked Apple’s website to see the specs of the “model 101” laptop I found that Apple was selling a refurbished base model for even less. I had to consider this buying decision for a while because it just seemed so contrary to my normal preference to buy the most modern computer available. But in the end, the reasons for buying an inexpensive, expandable, upgradeable laptop from 2012 outweighed the reality distortion field of Apple’s marketing materials extolling the virtues of the latest generation of their laptops.

Marco’s post is well worth a read on the details of how the “model 101” can be upgraded to a much better device on the cheap, but in my case here were the upgrades I added:

  • Two Crucial BX100 1TB SSDs
  • An optical bay conversion kit for the 2nd SSD
  • 16GB of Crucial DDR3 laptop memory
  • External enclosure for SuperDrive (DVD-burner)
  • A hard plastic protective case for the laptop (because it only cost $8 for such an old model)

Is it an absurd amount of upgrades for such a modest laptop? You bet. But it finally gave me the holy grail of my Mac ambitions: a portable video editing workstation with enough internal flash storage to leave spinning hard drives out of the picture (except for an external Time Machine backup drive). Now, there are some major caveats to editing video on this device. Most notably, the processor is a lowly dual-core Ivy Bridge mobile processor, not a 4+ core Mac Pro. And that screen doesn’t give you much room to edit in (despite having decent color calibration): a 1280 by 800 resolution. However, with the included Thunderbolt (I) port, you can connect a much larger external display with a miniDisplayPort adapter (which I had from years ago).

Two months into using the semi-pro MacBook, I can say I have no buyer’s remorse. There are tradeoffs, but are worth it:

  • It’s a tank compared with more svelte devices like the 13-inch MacBook we own (since 2011), but since I rarely take it out of the house it doesn’t bother me.
  • Although I occasionally find myself straining to see the detail on the screen when scrolling through lots of text, I am spoiled by the Retina display in my iPhone and my work laptop.
  • While the dual-core Ivy Bridge processor is somewhat limiting for heavy video encoding, it has enough RAM to run lots of powerful applications like Photoshop, Audition, and Final Cut Pro at the same time.
  • Usually I prefer to connect it to an external monitor for this, but I can edit the podcast that Joe and I are doing together with ease.
  • It may not be as fast as the PCIe-based flash storage in modern Macs, but it has enough internal flash storage (still plenty fast) to hold the 1.3TB of 1080p 60fps ProRes-encoded video of Molly’s first year.

Now, all I need to do is find the time to edit it all …

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