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Alternatives…

Meanwhile, in Apple’s Mac marketing department:

Screenshot from Muv-Luv Unlimited, providing five equally bad choices

Look, you hardly need me to pile on to what’s already been said about the state of the Mac — @mjtsai is doing a bang-up job of that — but when even long-time Mac fans like @flargh say that the message is “Apple to creative pros: go f*** yourselves”, you’ve got to hope that someone with a corner office is listening.

Because in the here and now, I am badly overdue for a new Mac, and I hate all my choices.

There’s an entry on this blog called Hail Xeon, which I wrote on April 18, 2008, when I set up my Early 2008 Mac Pro. That is the machine into which I am typing this blog entry. In the interim, I’ve gone through four iPhones (original, 3Gs, 4s, and 5s, and yes, that’s overdue for a replacement), and four iPads (1st gen, iPad 2, 4th gen, and I just ordered an iPad Pro 9.7″ with Target’s Black Friday sale discount).

For the first 6 years or so, I wouldn’t have thought twice about replacing my Mac. This is the best computer I’ve ever owned. However, it is inescapably dated at this point, with legacy ports (Firewire instead of Thunderbolt, Bluetooth that can’t do AirDrop, etc.), an aftermarket Radeon 5770 graphics card that can’t drive a 4K display, and it’s not supported by Sierra.

The ideal time to upgrade would have been 2014, when the cylindrical Mac Pro was new, but finances were really bad back then because of how much iOS contracting had dried up. It’s only after a couple years of solid day job with MathElf, and a little book income on the side, that I’m back on my feet again.

But with a couple thousand in the bank, and a substantial credit limit on the S-corp Visa, what am I supposed to buy? There is no obvious drop-in replacement for the tower Mac Pro.

Apple released no new desktop Macs in 2016. We are made to believe that the new MacBook Pro is a suitable “pro” machine, but I am deeply skeptical. It certainly looks like extensive tradeoffs have been made to fit the computer into the ever-smaller case, trading power for aesthetics as modern Apple is wont to do. The big point everyone’s been arguing is whether a 16GB RAM limit is sufficient for a “pro” machine? As I noted on Twitter the other day, I burn about half that with a typical iOS developer stack:

And the fact is, every time I’ve had a Mac with upgradable RAM, I’ve eventually decided to upgrade it. Even if 16GB is enough for today, 20+ years of empirical evidence suggests it will not hold up for me over the life of the machine.

Plus, I’ve never liked having a laptop as my main computer (even though I’ve had to do this for work). I’ve long thought the ideal was something super-portable like an iPad for when you’re moving around, and a superior desktop for when you’re not.

And will the performance hold up? Because the thing is, I don’t just develop. I also do video work. And video isn’t just about editing. On election night, I tried something foolhardy by livestreaming Muv-Luv Unlimited, a PC game running in Parallels. That means I need all of the following, at the same time, with no glitching:

  • Windows 10 running Muv-Luv Unlimited in Parallels (I usually assign 2 cores to my virtualized PC)
  • Wirecast: screen and video capture, graphics overlay, and audio capture
  • Wirecast: x264 encode to upload to the Wowza livestreaming ingest server
  • Wirecast: ProRes encode to save a local copy
  • Slack and Twitter apps to chat during the stream

On previous occasions, I’ve also livestreamed Xcode or Motion as part of my show on invalidstream. Those apps are hefty enough on their own — but I need them to run side-by-side with the heavy lifting being done in real-time by Wirecast’s encoders, with no swap and no process starvation. This doesn’t just require a lot of memory, it also takes a lot of CPU cores.

(EDIT: to clarify, my Early 2008 Mac Pro is almost up to the task. Its 8 cores seem to divvy up the work nicely. However, running the x264 encode at 480P gets me dangerously close to 100% CPU usage, so I usually knock that down to 360P, which isn’t even standard-def. I think what I’m seeing here is the limits of the Xeon’s single-core performance, and running on a modern machine might work better since the new version of Wirecast can do GPU encoding, but on Mac this feature is limited to integrated Intel GPUs)

Wirecast livestream production window

It doesn’t inspire confidence that The Verge’s MacBook Pro review says that even the high-end model “starts lagging pretty seriously” when editing a non-trivial 4K project.

So, what are the desktop Mac options? After all, The Verge’s review says a three-year old iMac handled the video editing just fine, and the iMac is at least less neglected than the Mac Pro. Curtis recently had a blog where he evaluated the new MBPs against older models (and desktops), and the fastest performance in his test was the 5K iMac. Probably not a surprise, as this it’s the only Mac desktop to be updated in the last two years.

But… it maxes out at four cores. Will that work for me? Maybe? Probably? But I don’t like having to worry and wonder, and of course with the iMac design, Apple has once again compromised power in the name of aesthetics, prioritizing the thinness of a side of the machine the user doesn’t actually look at. And I certainly don’t want a Mac that might have to spin up its fans when I’m on a livestream, since I’ll have a live microphone right sitting next to it.

What’s left to consider? Should I have ruled out the three-year-old Mac Pro? Everyone points out that Intel has barely moved the needle on CPU performance, so maybe a hypothetical modern Xeon wouldn’t be significantly different than what’s already shipping in the Mac Pro (although I suspect GPUs are a different matter altogether).

Or maybe reset the shot clock for a year with a used 2012 Mac Pro, which seem to be going for about $1,000, and wait to see if Apple is going to put out a new Mac Pro, or kill the product altogether.

And if that happens, then what? Settle for the iMac and hope it works for me? Get a Mac mini for Xcode and move my video work to Windows, where creative professionals are still welcome?

These choices suck, and I’m mad at Apple for leaving me in the lurch like this when I’m shopping for my fourteenth goddamn Mac. Michael Tsai put it so well:

Lastly, I think a lot of the frustration from Mac users is that Apple deprioritized their needs yet saw fit to dedicate huge teams and resources to making $17,000 gold watches, automobiles, and original TV shows. So the decisions about the Mac are clearly not driven by a need to focus.

It’s really sad to see Apple driving the Mac to ruin. And as a Mac and iOS developer, I can’t even leave; I’m along for the ride.

Comments (5)

  1. “For the first 6 years or so, I wouldn’t have thought twice about replacing my Mac.”

    So sayeth many a Mac user. And yet cannot understand why Apple does not care so much about the Mac.

  2. Rob VS

    Thank you for writing this. I have an almost identical dilemma (but my early 2008 Mac Pro has 4 cores), and even though there’s still no clear answer, I guess that there’s comfort in knowing that I’m not alone.

  3. James Edmondson

    I am teaching myself Swift 3 using Hacking With Swift books. I’m learning from them but I am always interested in discovering other learning resources. I’ve completed a number of apps but I’m still at the beginner-intermediate level.

    I wonder whether you might advise me which of your books would teach me how to implement a particular app idea in Swift 3 code. My app idea is called “Carpool Playlist.” It solves the following problem: I have one iPod Touch that stays in the car. There are four playlists on the iPod, one for each of four passengers. When I want to switch playlists, I must remember where I left off of List A when going to List B. When I want to return to List A, I have to remember which song was playing on List A to pick up where I left off. There does not seem to be a way to store where I was on List A, except in my head.

    I want to build an app that stores where I am in each playlist when I leave the playlist in the iPod’s memory. I want to have four buttons on the lock screen, one for each passenger. I want to be able to touch a button and have the music player return to that person’s playlist at the position where it was last playing.

    Apple may not offer this as a built-in feature because Apple wants every passenger to buy his own iPod/iPhone rather than having four people share one iPod. Nonetheless, I want to build an app myself that I can at least load onto my own iPod Touch. I may try to post it to the App Store as well.

    Will one of your books will teach me how to write this app in Swift 3 for an iOS 9 or 10 device?

    Thanks,
    Jim Edmondson
    Forest Hills, NY

  4. As a graphic and web designer, it looks like I will be attempting keep my mid-2010 Mac Pro in service with every upgrade strategy I can afford, until the inevitable software upgrade renders the beast obsolete. But given the contraction of the design industry, a new Mac Pro is that anyway within my current budget. Aside from the premium cost of the machine, still needs a display, and I would have to replace my entire suite of externals. And as you’ve noticed, even the two-year-old iMac arguably has better performance. Since I’m not doing high-end video, or 3-D CAD, and the like, four Cores will probably suit my needs just fine.

    But yes, as a creative professional, I definitely have that butt-hurt feeling of being kicked to the curb. For us pro users, there’s an increasing howl of, “WTF, Apple?” What’s Good luck trying to layout pages, or Code webpages on IOS. And what about the poor schmucks trying to write IOS apps?

    So good luck with your recent purchase, hope it works out well for you, not that Apple is helping much…

  5. Doug Weinfield

    If you’re willing to spend the money or have the tech skills, a 2010-2012 (or 2009 with the 2010 firmware update) Mac Pro is about as fast as the 2013, if you add in the following:

    AHCI PCIe SSD storage blade

    Current video card

    2 six core 3.46Ghz Xeons

    eSATA card.

    Sorry, no Thunderbolt. But for everything else, pretty good at a fraction of the price.

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