Replacing Stolen 17″ MacBook Pro – Time For A Retina?

July 24, 2012

Easy question: Which more painful? Losing your computer or losing your data?

I’ll tell you what’s more painful than either: stupidly falling asleep with your front door wide open, waking up to find that you’ve been robbed. Now you’ve lost your computer and your dignity…for you suddenly realize, while walking around in your underwear chewing on a handful of almonds, that in spite of promising yourself to lock the door before going to bed, you not only forgot, but you closed your bedroom door and blasted the AC all night, sleeping the deep dreamless sleep of a real-life Homer Simpson.


Luckily for me, a mere two days before this practically self-inflicted home robbery, during which the ballsy thief made off with my MacBook Pro and my Nikon D700, I realized that I needed to back up six month’s worth of work files sitting on my laptop. In the intervening week since it happened, I’ve managed to reconstruct most of what was lost, with a few paltry exceptions that will cost me time, but not money, and blessedly, no further indignities.

So it could have been worse. The thief plucked the choicest targets of opportunity sitting on my desk…but also sitting on my desk were three RAID enclosures that represent the sum total of my work for the last 10 years. The thief ignored the data completely. So even as I shouted curses into the heavens in one direction (perhaps towards the Lord Who Taketh), I promptly turned and offered thanks to the other direction (towards the Lord Who Giveth).

All of which led to a 9-hour marathon of giving reports to the Beijing police, frantic phone calls to my wife (who was in another city with the kids at the time), solicitation of translation, my door being blackened from top to bottom with fingerprint powder, and finally an euphoric zen-like state where I was going around to my friends offering pithy Truths like, “It’s small potatoes in a long and complex process called life.” And, as embarrassed as I am now to say it, I even remarked, “you do as many nice things as you can for people and then you die.”

The bonus Gift from the Cosmos was re-discovering what an absolute angel my wife is. She kept her cool the whole day long as I was getting her to phone in translations for me with the officials, as she guided me through the existential crisis of whether to buy a new computer that day…or not…whether to replace my 17″ MacBook Pro…or not…until she finally said, “Of course I’d like to save money, but you have to do whatever you need to do, and I won’t blame you.”


But since this blog is supposed to touch on technical considerations, here’s the upshot of my dilemma in replacing my machine.

Stolen MacBook Pro 17″

  • 2.2 Ghz i7
  • 8 Gb RAM
  • 256 Gb SSD (oh yeah, it really makes a difference)
  • 750 Gb HDD in the DVD drive bay (thanks, Other World Computing)
  • Tons of software
  • OSX 10.6 (the last “good” OS – a very tricky downgrade from Lion)


  • Will Final Cut 7 run properly on Lion? (It will)
  • Will I ever get around to upgrading from Final Draft 7 to Final Draft 8 so I can use it on Lion? (No choice)
  • The 17″ has been discontinued…does that mean Apple will somehow drop support for it? (We’ll see)

I went the same day to a few computer shops and on-line retailers in Beijing to find out what a new 17″ would cost. I discovered to my immediately-spiking anxiety level that only one shop had a 17″ available, and it was their floor model. So in all of Beijing, I was faced with a sudden “buy it NOW BEFORE IT’S GONE!!!” hard-sell from the guys at Sundan (kind of like a Chinese version of Future Shop).

So here’s the shop-and-compare that I was suddenly forced to do, made all the more difficult because it ends up being an Apples-to-Oranges comparison.

MacBook Pro 17″ (late 2011) vs. MacBook Pro 15-inch Retina vs. MacBook Pro 15″ (Early 2012)


The prices were almost identical between

  • 17″ 2.4 Ghz / 4 Gb / 750 Gb
  • 15″ 2.6 Ghz / 8 Gb / 750 Gb (Classic)
  • 15″ 2.3 Ghz / 8 Gb / 256 SSD (Retina)

But the goal is to replace and surpass what was lost, so for the first two options, I’m adding about $500 for the RAM upgrade to 16GB (Yes, you can put 16 Gb of RAM in the late 2011 MBP), the SSD drive and cradle. The high-res display option on the 15″ Classic is a must, so that bumps the price $100.  The Retina has highest-res screen of them all but there’s no space for a second hard drive and that 256 SSD is just way too small for the long term, so really I’d need the higher-end model with a bigger drive and more RAM. Both the newer laptops would require the purchase of a $160 Thunderbolt ExpressCard reader for my SxS cards from the ALEXA. The Retina model is too damn highfalutin’ for something as prosaic as FW/800, so I’d need another $30 dongle to connect to my backup drives, and I’d probably spring for the $80 external DVD drive. So the real list and prices ballooned to:

  • 17″ 2.4 Ghz / 16 Gb / 256 SSD / 750 Gb HDD – $2950
  • 15″ 2.6 Ghz / 16 Gb / 256 SSD / 750 Gb HDD + High Res screen — $2960
  • 15″ 2.6 Ghz / 16 Gb / 512 SSD (retina) — $3270 USD

Price-wise, they’re within spitting distance of each other. So, on to other considerations.


Side-by-side, the 17″ display just smokes the 15″ Retina, in spite of the lower resolution. Why? Because it’s big enough to work on, big enough to put two documents side-by-side on the same screen without leaning in and squinting, big enough to run Final Cut Pro with it’s tiny little buttons. The 15″ Classic is almost out of the running just because of it’s limitations here: the high-res version gives you some extra real estate, but not enough (1680 vs 1920 px resolution), and so it’s the worst of both worlds; smaller size, lower res.

I have exceptionally sharp eyesight thanks to laser surgery, and as I type this I can’t see any pixels on my 17″. The 17″ is already pretty much “Retina.”

Expansion / Ports

Apple made a lot of sacrifices in the Retina to achieve something I don’t need: a MacBook Air capable of editing Hollywood movies.

The 17″ has Firewire 800, Thunderbolt, but lacks USB 3.0. I don’t have any USB 3.0 devices as of now, so this isn’t a big issue for me. More importantly, it is the only model on the list with a ExpressCard slot for the smooth mating ritual of my Alexa’s SxS cards with Final Cut Pro. Avoiding dongles and card readers is worth something to me when I’m bouncing around in a van going between locations, backing up footage and grading rushes for a producer.

The 15″ has everything the 17″ has except the ExpressCard slot, plus USB 3.0. Why Apple went with the SSD slot is just totally beyond me, when the Express Card slot gives you so many more expansion options: ExpressCard-SSD adapters, for instance, sit flush with the side of the machine and accept SSD cards anyway. There’s ExpressCard modems that hold SIM cards for 3G Internet access, SATA adapters, etc…The whole “Pro” philosophy to me is about giving people lots of ways of getting data on and off a machine. The best processors in the world are useless if you can’t get your material onto them, and the ExpressCard architecture was basically designed to give Laptops a Way Out.

The 15″ Retina is just too much of a leap in a different direction for me – sexy as hell, but Apple made a lot of sacrifices to achieve something I don’t need: a MacBook Air capable of editing Hollywood movies. It’s small and light compared to the 17″ but I’d hope to get three years’ of use out of it, and…really? The RAM is soldered to the motherboard? Give me a break


Late 2011 – “Sandy Bridge” i7 (32nm). Early 2012 – “Ivy Bridge” i7 (22nm) – reported as a (maybe) 5% speed gain for same clock speeds. Personally, it makes not one bit of difference to me if a video takes 55 minutes to render or 58 minutes to render.


The Late-2011 17″ MacBook Pro is still the coolest, best, most Pro computer Apple has ever made. It just does everything.  My previous 2.2 Ghz early-2011 model was the only computer I’ve ever had that felt like it was “enough.”

So that’s what I bought.

And just to thumb my nose at that ballsy thief out there, I named my hard drive Phoenix.

Appeal to Apple: bring back the 17″ MacBook Pro.

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