The Best Apple MacBooks For Getting Started With Software Development

At DigitalCrafts, we require our students to bring an Apple MacBook (Air, MacBook, or Pro) to class. The core reason behind this is Apple's unified platform - we can instruct students knowing all their devices and models behave in the same way. Otherwise, getting a full-stack web application up and running would vary greatly from student to student, and greatly increase the amount of time needed to get through the course. We also require Apple devices because the fact is most professional developers use a Linux OS or MacOS (which is basically a clone of Linux, itself) and although there are more options emerging lately with impressive specs, Apple's devices have enjoyed comparatively superior hardware over other Linux OS laptops - such as Dell's Ubuntu line.

There are many other reasons why MacBooks are so popular, but the most popular reasons seem to be:

  • It's Unix core means MacOS has a good shell/terminal
  • You can dual boot windows and MacOS
  • You need a iMac or MacBook device for OSX/iOS development
  • The hardware build quality is second to none.
  • MacBook's and MacOS enjoy constant updates and support.
  • MacBooks are easier for IT in large departments since their multiple configuration options share a unified platform.
  • Simple preference or aesthetic taste

If you are just getting into software development, or even if you are just looking for your first Apple computer, there might not seem to be that many options. In fact, with the recent unveiling of the new MacBook Pro line this November, Apple has reduced its lineup even further by eliminating the popular MacBook Air line — a popular option for most first-time Mac users.

Let's begin by looking at Apple's new lineup:

MacBook Pro

The new Apple MacBook Pro line met some harsh critical review after its reveal this month. I won't go into the details since, if you have done any research at all into new MacBooks you have probably come across many complaints:

  • Its memory (RAM) options are the same as they were since 2011.
  • It is pretty much not upgradeable, meaning you cannot replace its battery, add more RAM, or even more Hard Drive space unless you buy the device with them.
  • MacBook Pro processor speed, RAM, and Hard Drive space options seem lackluster and expensive.
  • Apple has removed the function keys (F1, F2, F3....) in lieu of their new Touch bar.
  • The new MacBook Pros no longer carry USB ports, requiring an adapter to plug your devices in.
  • And a host of other points various reviewers have pointed out.

In terms of performance, there definitely seems to be less value for your dollar when compared to previous models and available upgrades. However, it has to be argued that the new MBP line does include some serious future-thinking with the addition of the — let's face it — cool OLED display bar and USB-C ports. Apple seems to be betting on changing the way people think about how we connect and interact with our devices. It remains to be seen if this move will be looked back upon as a progressive leap, or a dumb move.

I really can't recommend the new MacBook Pro for new developers simply because it represents a sizable investment (the barebones 13" model starts at $1500, and doesn't include the Touch bar). If you have to have the coolest, newest tech out there — then so be it. However, going a step lower or a few years back in the apple line will save you a lot of dollars and you really won't be missing much.

Macbook

The MacBook can be summed up in one word — mobility. Price, performance, size, options... the MacBook is at the bottom end of the new apple notebook line. However, if you want the smallest form factor found pretty much anywhere in a laptop, it's pretty hard to beat.

The main drawback of the MacBook, in terms of performance, is it's m3 or m5 processor (depending on the model) which represents a step lower than the lowest model of MacBook Air. Although the performance decrease versus the Air isn't that much, it still means you are spending around $400 for a slightly reduced form factor, retina display, and a USB-c port.

I've personally never witnessed a developer using a MacBook in the wild, although I'm sure they are out there. As someone new to development, you likely won't need anything super powerful — and the MacBook would suit anyone well who needs their device on them at all times where it's small size and weight are ideal. However, realize you will be paying for it in terms of performance and hard cash.

MacBook Air

As a user for over 3 years, I have taken my little Air to the beach, through the jungle, and many other places I didn't think I'd be able to cart a laptop around. 

The MacBook Air has everything you need as a new developer or software engineer at a price that is much easier to swallow than some of Apple's other new line options. In my time with it I've loaded it with Outlook, Photoshop, and many other heavy programs and in my experience - It can run almost anything you'd need, with one big caveat: don't expect it to run them very quickly.

That said, if you have to opt for a new Apple laptop as a new software engineer, this is the one I would choose. The only choice you need to make is how much hard drive storage space you need and in my opinion, $200 is a hefty price for 128GB when you can get a USB-3 external hard drive at a fraction of the cost. But, if you really

One other big checkmark for the MacBook air that the other new models can't match is it's established resale value. When compared to other computer hardware and devices, Macs and MacBooks have always held their value very well. In fact, it's not uncommon to get about 40-50% back on what you paid for a device (if it's in excellent condition) after a couple years — a return you would be hard-pressed to find with any other brand of laptop

 

Used MacBooks

Used Apple devices are a great option, especially for new developers. But, you have a huge range of choices when compared to buying new. Rather than cover all the various years, makes, and options available out there I'll make it simple - What I recommend for beginners, and where to get them.

First, let's go over the device. After a ton of research, comparing, and talking with quite a number of long-time apple users who have used these devices professionally for years I came to understand that you can go pretty far back in terms of years in the Apple MacBook Pro line and still get an amazing device. And so, I landed on what I'd argue is the best choice for someone just getting into the Apple devices as a new software engineer or developer: 

The Apple MacBook Pro MD104LL/A 15.4-Inch Laptop (Mid 2012).

  • 2.6 GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7 processor
  • 8 GB DDR3 RAM; 750 GB - 1 TB SATA Hard Drive
  • 15.4 inch LED-backlit display, glossy widescreen display 1440-by-900 resolution
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M 1GB Graphics
  • Mac OS X v10.8 Mountain Lion, but can be loaded with the newest OS or flashed with a little work.
  • 7 Hour Battery Life
  • Average price ~$850.00

2012 might seem like a long time ago, but you'd be surprised how well this laptop has kept up. In fact, as I am writing this post, I have at least 3 of these models in the room with me being used by two developers and a CTO for a small startup.

Why? Because they haven't needed to "upgrade" to a new device. The MD104LL/A is the last model of MackBook Pro that offered users the ability to swap out batteries, upgrade RAM, and swap or upgrade storage. In fact, you can spend around $300 to swap out it's 8 GB RAM chips to 16 GB and add a 1 TB SSD and this device can be just as zippy as any new model MBP.

 

Pros:

  • At $850, it's about half the cost of the entry-level MacBook Pro.
  • If you decide you need more memory or storage, you can easily swap things out yourself
  • The battery can be replaced if it gets on in cycles
  • USB, Ethernet, and Thunderbolt ports
  • SD card slot for cameras or extra storage
  • CD/DVD "Superdrive" if you ever need to watch DVD's or burn them

 

Cons:

  • Older processor
  • Comes with SATA Hard Drives, not Solid State
  • No HDMI input
  • Noticeably Heavier
  • Non-retina
  • No USB-3 inputs

 

Where to buy a used or refurbished Apple MacBook

There are a couple things to consider when looking at refurbished devices. If you are looking at newer models of MacBook Pro or MacBook Air then you have a couple good options, depending on how you feel about it. You can check out Apple's refurbished store for starters. You will be paying a bit more going through their store, but you can be sure you will get an as-close-to-mint used device as you can get.

Similarly, other stores like Best Buy, Walmart, Newegg, and so on have their own options on refurbished devices. If you happen to have a rewards membership or a deal through your credit card, these may make a lot of sense. Just make sure to check any promotions, rewards programs, or offers to see if they exclude "refurbished" devices — many do.

If you are a bit more adventurous, or if you are looking at devices past 2013 (like my recommendation) these retailers probably won't carry them. Instead, I suggest Amazon. The reason being that the device is still covered under their return policy. There is always a chance you might get sent a MacBook case full of sand, but at least you have an established recourse. My one caveat is to only buy from sellers with a ton of positive reviews regarding similar devices. There is still a chance they might send you something defective or broken, but at least you know you won't be left with it in the end.

If you are interested in taking me up on my recommendation, click here to visit the amazon page for the MD104LL/A and look through the used and refurbished options.

One final point on used devices - Be extremely wary of "protection plans" offered outside of Apple. Read through retailer plans carefully before considering them, since refurbished devices often carry special caveats or conditions. I would avoid any protection plans through Amazon.

 

 

Author
Jason Ephraim

Campus Director, Houston