Photographers are familiar with the marketing strategy of ensuring that the mass market sees the professionals using the gear. White Canon lenses are everywhere at sporting events and that’s very beneficial for the brand. Likewise, creative professionals are often seen with a MacBook Pro laptop, even though Apple’s share of the overall computer market is small.
‘No-one fires you for buying IBM’ and for years, an Apple Macbook Pro laptop has been a default choice for many in the industry. But just like Canon and Nikon haven’t properly realised that the future is in mirrorless cameras, so to Apple has opted to focus their attentions on the much larger, more lucrative smartphone market and let their computing division atrophy with mistaken design goals and increasingly unjustifiable prices.
Of course there will be plenty of people who only use their Macbook Pro laptops for watching YouTube who will queue up to buy the latest model. But for those of us who want to use their laptop for demanding professional work for several years before upgrading, we need to look beyond the formally safe choice for the best MacBook ‘Pro’ alternatives in 2017.
What Specifically Is Missing?
Apple has some of the best marketing ever created. It sells dreams, a lifestyle, and even deeper, an identity. Like it or not, we generally buy based on emotion and then backwards rationalise to justify our choices. It’s easy to get suckered into buying the Apple MacBook Pro without properly considering why we’re doing so, and then still believe that it’s our own free choice. So what’s actually missing?
Where Do I Put My SD Card?
The main thing for photographers and videographers has been the removal of the SD card slot. As we see the faster XQD card get adopted by pro cameras like the Nikon D5, it’s clear that the SD card will be eventually replaced. But I know that all of my cameras use SD cards, and I’ll not replace them for a few years. Nor has Apple provided an alternative card slot. Getting the photos from the SD card onto the laptop and then backed up on the external drives is one of the main reasons that I carry a laptop on location. Having to remember to buy and bring an external adaptor is another thing that I need to think about. Like the iPhone removing the headphone jack, it seems to be sacrificing function for design.
16GB Ram, Really?
Even the most expensive MacBook Pro available today has a maximum of 16GB ram memory. Worse, it’s not even upgradeable later. I’m already seeing 20gb ram memory in use while video editing, so this laptop is not future proof for professionals who will increasingly be asked for 4k and higher resolution video. Why was such a fundamental feature crippled like this? Battery life apparently.
How Can I Upgrade It?
SSD drives are getting bigger, and getting cheaper. It won’t be long until the hugely expensive 512GB you’d choose for a MacBook Pro as a minimum for professional work becomes limiting. Easy enough to just swap it out for the latest model? No. Nor is there space for a second drive. Everything comes in one piece that will probably eventually end up in a landfill site somewhere in the third world. But at least it’s thin.
Fit to Slim To Thin To Anorexic
There’s a certain point where focussing on getting thinner becomes pathological. Certainly I like that laptops have become lighter and slimmer. But Apple has sacrificed usability and functionality for design and marketing specs. Specifically, battery life, the shallow feel of the keyboard and overall computing performance could have been improved if the laptop was a few millimetres thicker. A laptop is not a tablet.
The Battery Doesn’t Last As Long
Batteries get old and eventually die. Your laptop’s battery will deteriorate depending on how you use it, and eventually you’ll need to keep it plugged in to use it. With many laptops, you can just swap out the old battery for a new one. This is also useful if you’re travelling away from AC power and want to carry a few spare batteries. But the Apple MacBook Pro won’t let you change the battery. So essentially your portable device has a planned obsolescence that will prompt you to upgrade the whole laptop as the battery fails.
You Want How Much For It?
There’s no getting around that the Apple MacBook Pro is a premium product. And for years there has been a clear value proposition to support that high price. They were built better, and with better components than the competition, and the high resale value reflected that durability and attention to detail. But the prices have been steadily moving towards paying more for a better quality product that will last longer and perform better, to just paying more for a luxury image. Compare it to paying more for a ThinkTank photography bag with the best quality zips versus paying more for a Prada handbag. As a business expense, a MacBook Pro is increasingly hard to justify.
Someone Stole My Macbook Pro
Imagine that you had several thousand stacked up in 20s. Would you turn your back on it with strangers roaming around? With professional work, we have to trust the people around us. The camera is usually on our back or in our hands, but often we have to leave our laptop unattended. And if you read the fine print, insurance won’t generally cover that. A Kensington lock uses a little hole to attach a cable to something secure. It’s not going to stop a proper thief, but it will keep your safe from opportunists. No idea why this was omitted when it’s so useful.
What Other Options Are There?
The most highly recommended MacBook Pro alternative laptop at the moment is Dell’s XPS 13. They’ve created a beautiful, relatively powerful laptop with a bezel-less screen that allows it to be smaller than most 13” laptops. Dell also has a XPS 15 with a larger screen and slightly more power. They’re small and light, and compromise upgradeabilty to be so. Not as affordable, but much more upgradeable are Dell’s Precision series of laptops. These are known as workstations, which means that they’re designed for business use. The XPS series have incredible, world class screens.
The ASUS Zenbook Pro UX501 laptop is a cheaper alternative to the Apple MacBook Pro and the Dell XPS 15. It features good looks, although the build quality isn’t as good. It’s popular but if you’re on a budget, check out the ASUS G501 which is better value. Both feature a 4k screen, which is nice but still causes problems with some software that haven’t been updated to cope with the added pixels. RAM maxes out at 24gb, which is still enough to edit larger videos (and silence any MacBook Pro user.)
The Apple MacBook Pro may be hard to resist. It does have a phenomenal screen that’s bright, colour accurate, P3 wide gamut and the best current compromise between 1080p and 4k at 2880×1800 resolution. The Thunderbolt/USB-C ports really are the future, so if you can deal with remembering to carry lots of adaptors, then they’re great to use. The trackpad on the MacBook Pros is unsurpassed. The memory is also very fast which can be useful. But no, remember why this article exists at all.
A lot of computer gamers on the go have created a market for high performance laptops that focus on specs and performance. Have a look at the snappily named ASUS ROG G752VT-DH72 best gaming laptop, which provides a lot of power. It does have a big 17” screen though. Although it’s optimised for gaming, it will be very capable for image and video editing too. Gamers tend to upgrade their laptops fairly regularly too, so there are often good discounts available on last month’s model or even lightly used laptops available for less.
Also from Dell is the Inspiron 15 7000 gaming laptop, which provides less power for less money than the ASUS ROG (Republic of Gamers) model. If you’re on a relatively tight budget, shop around for this Dell. Getting anything cheaper when you do video editing and Photoshop editing can become a false economy in the long run when you’d need to update sooner.
The Microsoft Surface Book is another option worth looking at. More tablet than laptop, the touch screen can be a great way to edit photos with an optional stylus. Connectivity is low, and it’s not as powerful as the Apple MacBook Pro 15 laptops but it can be a good way to manage photos and do light editing when you’re travelling. Capped at 16gb RAM despite the high price.
The Lenovo P70 Thinkpad is a powerful workstation laptop with quite a heritage. The IBM Thinkpad laptops have evolved over years to become durable, proven laptops for professionals who need the extra power. The P70 has a 17” screen and plenty of power. It’s also highly upgradeable with user replaceable RAM memory and space for several storage drives. It’s also heavy and expensive so is better if you’re not going to move very often. Chinese Lenovo took over the Thinkpad laptops, and apart from a bit of spying, have kept standards high. The 4k screen is excellent.
The Lenovo P50 Thinkpad is very similar but with a 15” screen so it’s slightly more portable. It’s still significantly heavier and bulkier than most of the other options mentioned at 2.6kg but not direly so. It is upgradeable, powerful and exceptionally durable. The keyboard has to be felt to be appreciated; it’s often raved about as the best keyboard on a laptop and really does feel amazing and a lot better than the Dell and Apple laptops. The screen is abysmal compared to either, and indeed most other laptops too however.
The HP Zbook G3 is also certainly worth a look. It’s another workstation laptop so it sacrifices portability for power and durability. Workstations are expensive, so you’ll want to shop around for deals. Occasionally large corporate IT departments will sell unwanted stock which can potentially be great value.
Which Did I Choose?
After a great deal of research, I bought the Lenovo P50 workstation laptop.
- Upgradeable – I want my laptop to last at least three years. In that time I expect that I’ll need more memory. The Lenovo P50 can have up to 64gb ram and has space for two M2 SSD drives and a 2.5” drive.
- Connectivity – There are plenty of ports on the sides and back of the laptop including a Thunderbolt/USB-C, four USB 3 ports, HDMI and more. And that now-precious SD card slot that swallows the cards completely so they don’t snap off in transit.
- Powerful – Choose from i7 and Quadro processors for excellent performance, and Quadro graphics cards. Plenty of ventilation to keep everything cool and working at 100%, it’s been silent or very quiet even under load.
- Secure – A fingerprint reader is faster than a password. Has a smartcard reader too and a few other security features but that’s more of a corporate thing.
- Replaceable Battery – Great to not have to replace the whole laptop when the battery goes, and useful to be able to carry spares for extended travel. Battery life has been excellent, tested at over eight hours.
- Durability – Tested to military standards for dust, drops, vibration, temperature and a few more things. Keyboard is spill resistant. Feels solid enough for life on the road.
- Keyboard – It’s so lovely to use, feels amazing and actually inspiring to write with. It has two different backlit settings. Much better than the competition.
- Warranty – Because it’s a business laptop, you can get a three year warranty depending on where you get it.
- Understated Design – This isn’t important really, but it looks very good. Black and professional with clean, simple design that clients will be okay with, and that won’t attract thieves like a silver laptop might.
- Abysmal Screen – The 4k screen is apparently not so bad but some software isn’t 4k ready yet and it eats battery life. The 1080p screen is terrible for colour at 37% aRGB and 57% sRGB and brightness at 236 nits. Can be replaced.
- Heavy and Bulky – 2.6kgs and fairly bulky. You definitely notice carrying it, but I’ve been happy to accept the positives that the larger size allows.
- Speakers – They work but they’re not great compared to the Macbook Pro and the Dell XPS 13 and XPS 15.
As digital photographers and videographers, especially if we’re travelling, a laptop is essential for our professional work. It used to be that Apple provided a great tool with their MacBook Pro laptops. However as these become more about design and luxury, we’re forced to look for alternatives. I’ve done so and shared my research in this article, dated 2017. I’m writing this on a Lenovo P50 Thinkpad workstation laptop, which is heavier and has a terrible screen for visual artists, but still manages to provide enough value overall to make it the rational choice. Your needs are different, so hopefully some of the other options I’ve mentioned are useful. I’d recommend using the laptops before you decide. The Dell XPS is nice but feels consumer-orientated compared to the luxury of the MacBook Pro and the professional heft of the Lenovo P50 Thinkpad. Comment below to let others know what you chose as the best MacBook Pro alternative for photographers and videographers!