Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Choosing A MacBook for NUS Students

I get asked pretty often about which MacBook I’ll recommend. It’s difficult to give a good detailed verbal answer when I’m asked this question in person. So here’s a much more long-winded answer for anyone who cares to listen to my opinion on this topic. It’s pretty clear to me which MacBook is the right one to get, but it is not so easy to explain the reasons behind the choice.

Let’s put this in some context. My focus here is on a Mac notebook recommendation for tertiary students, particularly those who are (or will be) studying in NUS. With the new academic year coming up soon, many people seem to be very interested in this topic. By narrowing the target audience, it makes it easier make a more meaningful recommendation.

I’m also assuming, as the title suggests, that we’re only looking at Mac notebooks. So, if you’re here to get some input, you should either have already decided you want a Mac, or you’ve almost quite decided you want a Mac. With the multitude of Wintel choices out of the way, it makes choosing so much easier.

First, let’s recap on the current MacBook choices:

Model Display CPU RAM Storage Price Weight, Height
MacBook Air 11″ 11.6″ 1366×768 Intel HD 4000 1.7GHz Core i5 4GB 64GB SSD / 128GB SSD $1328 / $1428 1.08kg, 0.3-1.7cm
MacBook Air 13″ 13.3″ 1440×900 Intel HD 4000 1.8GHz Core i5 4GB 128GB SSD / 256GB SSD $1638 / $1988 1.35kg, 0.3-1.7cm
MacBook Pro 13″ 13.3″ 1280×800 Intel HD 4000 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 / 2.9GHz dual-core Core i7 4GB / 8GB 500GB / 750GB $1548 / $1948 2.06kg, 2.41cm
MacBook Pro 15″ 15.4″ 1440×900 GeForce GT 650M 2.3GHz / 2.6GHz quad-core Core i7 4GB / 8GB 500GB / 750GB $2348 / $2728 2.56kg, 2.41cm
MacBook Pro 15″ with Retina Display 15.4″ 2880×1800 GeForce GT 650M 2.3GHz / 2.6GHz quad-core Core i7 8GB 256GB SSD / 512GB SSD $2728 / $3528 2.02kg, 1.8cm

The prices listed above are with educational discount. The base configuration is listed, and there are too many variety of upgrade options that you should explore in the Apple Store if you are interested.

Most students are going to be concerned about budgets. (Many working adults too, actually.) I think we can safely rule out the MacBook Pro 15″ with Retina Display, because it is simply too expensive. If you are lusting for the Retina Display, well, yes, it is very lovely. But it is very expensive. Be practical.

I will suggest to rule out the non-Retina Display 15″ choices too. Even the basic model at $2348 would quickly add up to pretty expensive if you take up an SSD upgrade, something which I strongly recommend. There more reasons too that the MacBook Pro 15″ isn’t very suitable:

  • Lugging 2.56kg everyday to school, and then from lesson to lesson, very quickly becomes a burdensome chore.
  • The 15″ display size isn’t really much of an important feature.
  • Neither is the quad-core processing power. I’ll explain more later.

Great, we’ve now narrowed down our choices to just three basic options. I think most students should have naturally gravitated toward these same choices:

  1. MacBook Air 11″
  2. MacBook Air 13″
  3. MacBook Pro 13″

Some people may consider the MacBook Air 11″ for two reasons: First, it’s cheap, and secondly, it’s so portable (light and small dimensions). However, I feel the portability has a serious trade-off. The 11″ display is a little too small to work comfortably.

There was a time when I reasoned that if most of the time I could hook up to a big external monitor, the 11″ display is really not much of an issue. Later, however, I realize that it becomes a pain if you do sometimes need to work somewhere else without the external monitor. This could be quite frequent for students who need to work in school or other common place, and particularly so when you consider working on projects with other classmates.¬†Besides, the MacBook Air 13″ isn’t much less portable, and it offers a few more useful features over its 11″ sibling.

Super, so we’re now down to the MacBook Air 13″ and MacBook Pro 13″. So how do the two stack against each other? Let’s compare the base model of both.

MacBook Air 13″ MacBook Pro 13″
Resolution 1440×900 1280×800
CPU 1.8GHz Core i5 2.5GHz Core i5
Storage Capacity 128GB 500GB
Storage Type SATA3 SSD 5400rpm HDD
Gigabit Ethernet No Yes
Firewire No Yes
Kensington Lock No Yes
Weight 1.35kg 2.06kg
Thickness 0.3-1.7cm 2.41cm
Price $1638 $1548

I’m listing only features that are different (i.e. features which are identical in both MacBooks are not shown above). Green coloured items are the better features. So now, do we simply count which MacBook has more plus points?

We know it’s not going to be so simple to compare. That’s why you’re reading this, right? Clearly, some features are going to be more important, and they would be different for different users.

Do you care more about portability, or about capability? The MacBook Air is ultra-slim and light. The MacBook Pro packs more compute power and larger disk capacity.

If you have not had opportunity to experience the benefits of an SSD, let me share a tip with you. SSDs are absolutely awesome. They are the best upgrade you can give to any notebook. They breathe a new lease of life to an aging notebook. The SSD will make up for an otherwise slower CPU.

For the record, the MacBook Air’s 1.8GHz Core i5 scored 6092 on GeekBench, while the MacBook Pro’s 2.5GHz Core i5 scored 6668, or about 10% better. The MacBook Air’s SSD can be about 4x faster than the conventional hard disk in the MacBook Pro. Which would you choose?

My take is that you don’t normally need that much pure compute power. Hence, I don’t think the quad-core processors are really useful. Sure, maybe you do have occasional need for plenty of computing power. Could those heavy lifting be done elsewhere, like a desktop at home, or a server in school? If we’re talking about NUS students here, you should have easy access to plenty of resources for such CPU-intensive jobs. Your notebook doesn’t need to be the powerful one. But you don’t want it to wait. You still want it super fast even doing your simple stuffs. Hence, this is my suggestion: slower CPU is okay, but you better get a fast disk and plenty of RAM.

For the majority of simple tasks like email, web surfing, wordprocessing, doing powerpoint presentations, or even app development using some IDE or doing graphics in PhotoShop, the 1.8GHz Core i5 more than suffices. It really makes things feel a whole lot faster when the user experience gets a speed boost. It is the SSD that will help speed up boot time, application load times, file opening times, etc. The SSD will make your computer feel a whole lot faster.

Is it clear where I’m going with this? I’m suggesting the MacBook Air 13″ is the one. At the risk of repeating several points, let me explain:

  • It is lightweight. If you’re going to carry the notebook everyday, and from place to place multiple times within the day, you really want something that’s truly portable.
  • The 11″ might have fit the portability requirement even better, but you are sacrificing too much screen usability. You still need to use the notebook to get productive work done, so my advice is to not compromise on the screen size.
  • The 1440×900 resolution is great. That’s even higher resolution than the MacBook Pro 13″. You get higher DPI, but more important, you get to see more things on the screen.
  • The SSD makes everything fly.

I’ll make a recommendation on an upgrade option. The MacBook Air is not designed to be upgradeable. The RAM is soldered on. 4GB may seem enough now, but if you’re going to keep the MacBook Air for another 3 years, 4GB is not going to be enough, maybe, after the 2nd year. Take the 8GB upgrade now.

The RAM is also going to come in very useful if you’re going to do any sort of virtualization. Yes, you will probably need to do some sort of virtualization, because, well, you’re probably going to need Windows for various sort of reasons. I know, there’s always Office for Mac if you need Word or Powerpoint (and they are better than the Windows equivalent), but surely there would be more stuffs. Things like SPSS. Or like Computing students might need Visual Studio.

I’ll also recommend that you take the 256GB SSD. I know it adds on to the cost. But 128GB, today, is pretty small. If you are very tight on budget, I’ll still recommend taking the 8GB RAM upgrade (you can’t upgrade it yourself later), and consider an aftermarket SSD upgrade later.

Now, let me address the few areas where the MacBook Air 13″ isn’t as good as the MacBook Pro 13″.

  • Processor speed: I’ve mentioned above the MacBook Pro 13″ is only about 10% faster. It’s a decent margin, but not huge, and I don’t believe you need as much CPU horsepower as you do a speedy storage.
  • Storage capacity: SSD is really expensive and the 128GB on the MacBook Air 13″ could be a real limitation. I recommend going with the 256GB configuration, but that’s still not even close to the 500GB on the base MacBook Pro 13″. My suggestion is to optimize your storage. Learn to use external disks, network disks, SDXC cards, etc. Music and photos can easily be moved to an external disk or flash storage.
  • Gigabit Ethernet: Having wired Ethernet is convenient. But the reality in school if that you are most likely going to use wireless all the time. In NUS, wired ethernet ports in public and common spaces are not easy to find anymore, since the network providers are focusing more on wireless availability. If Gigabit Ethernet is truly important, get the Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet dongle for just S$38.
  • Firewire: Surely that’s a non-issue. I believe many people haven’t even actually seen a Firewire connector.
  • DVDROM Drive: You don’t use it most of the time. But I know, the few times that you want to use it, it can be so frustrating when you don’t have one. You need the DVDROM drive to install some software, and maybe you occasionally want to burn a CD or DVD to use on another computer. To address the need for software installation from DVD or CD media, Apple provides a Remote Disc feature that lets your MacBook access the CD or DVD drive from another computer. If you need to burn a CD or DVD, well, just do it on some other computer. Removing the DVDROM drive lets you have a MacBook Air that’s very thin and sleek, and I don’t think it is worth giving this up for the convenience of the rare occasion when you might need to use a CD or DVD.
  • Kensington Lock: This is convenient to have, but not all that important. The MacBook Air 13″ is light enough to carry it around with you most places, and it’s fast to sleep/resume. You could also keep it in your locker (personally not recommended).

The MacBook Pro 13″ has the advantage of being more upgradeable. Its RAM is not soldered on, comes in more conventional module format, and it is the normal non-low voltage sort. Easy to find in Sim Lim Square. The hard disk is also of the conventional sort, so you can easily find SSD replacements at Sim Lim Square (or even online shops overseas). The MacBook Air 13″ actually has a replaceable SSD too, but its SSD module is of a proprietary type, which is also different from their previous generation proprietary SSD module connector. OWC makes SSDs for previous generation MacBook Airs, and while we can expect they will update with a 2012 SSD type, they are the only 3rd party supplier so they don’t really need to be very competitive with their prices.

The DVDROM drive on the MacBook Pro 13″ can even be swapped out if you so prefer to have a 2nd HDD instead. The MacBook Pro 13″ is essentially quite upgradeable. The MacBook Air 13″ is more like a sealed product. Sort of like an iPad or an iPhone. You’re not supposed to open it up for any reason.

Note that the new 2012 MacBook Airs all have a new MagSafe 2 power connector. It’s incompatible with the old power adapters. Apple sells for S$13 a simple convertor that connects your old MagSafe power adapters to thee new 2012 MacBook Airs (as well as new MacBook Pro 15″ with Retina Display).

It seems like there’s still plenty more to say on this topic. But let’s take a break. The next round, I’ll address other issues about using a Mac in NUS. I hope this post has been useful to those trying to get some advice on which MacBook to choose.

Update (25 July 2012): Check out the NUS/NTU/SMU Mac deals too.

4 thoughts on “Choosing A MacBook for NUS Students

  1. Extremely useful read since I’m thinking which Mac to get when I begin my 1st year in August.

    Looking forward to the ‘issues about using a Mac in NUS’. Hopefully soon.

    Will bookmark this page.

  2. This was an extremely good and insightful read.
    I just have one query though.
    How is the 128gb ssd gonna work out?
    I mean, there will be the bundled adobe cs6 design&web premium which would take up a alot of space. then there will also be office for mac, which aint small either right? plus vmware fusions and the windows os, and antivirus software which would be better on the native ssd..
    It feels like the 128gb would max out before there could be other work done.
    Obviously an external memory is required, but all the above softwares that i mentioned, they would perform faster if directly installed on the ssd yea? so would the 128gb be too small?

    Hope you can get back to this question asap! thank you very much!

    1. I would definitely recommend to go for the 256GB SSD. If your budget is very tight, sacrificing the SSD would be the better choice than to sacrifice RAM, because you could go for aftermarket upgrade for the former. I used to have a 160GB SSD on my MBP and I think that was barely enough. But I’ve heard from a friend who manages to use just 100GB despite having all the usual apps (including CS5.5 and a Windows VM). However, clearly you would face constraints and maybe have to decide on some things not to keep in the SSD (e.g. music, photos…). I’ll update my post with more on this subject. Thanks for bringing this up!

      1. Thank you for the reply!
        If its possible to keep all the core softwares (those I mentioned) to within 90-100gb of the ssd and the rest on say, an external harddisk, then I think its more worth for the $ to be spent on upgrading the ram then. Usb3 aint bad actually.
        Because unfortunately the price per gb ratio for ssd aint very affordable yet still, less so for macbooks with their proprietary ssds, which is very very ex, from what you say then yea, upgrading ram is the way to go for me!
        Thank you again!

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