A Steadfast Computer Gets Upgraded

After some close calls with my primary tool, constant companion and security blanket, a 2014 MacBook Pro, I decided it was time to replace it with a new model. That was two years ago.

When I discovered that MBPs had “advanced” since 2014 by ditching the mag lock power connector and the SD card slot, and had incorporated a questionable keyboard technology and a touch strip that no one seemed to know how to use, I held off. These seemed like big steps backward to me and so, I waited.  My old laptop wasn’t broken, it was just showing some limitations as I took on new projects, including time lapse movies.  

Finally, a new model of MacBook Pro was announced that restored the mag lock, the SD card, and used the older keyboard without a touch bar.  I was excited to order one.

In all of my previous computer purchases, I had never regretted configuring it with the most memory and the largest disk drive available, following the example of my grandfather who once had to choose between a standard speed CPU or the faster option, priced at a premium.  His reasoning was simple:  he was 87, and didn’t know how many years he had left, but he certainly didn’t want to be waiting on a slow computer!

This time I had to re-assess my philosophy.  Apple did not make it easy- the memory and disk drive are no longer upgradeable, and in order to have the maximum memory, the highest performance CPU was a pre-requisite.  This pushed the cost of the computer well beyond my comfort level- I didn’t want to be carrying around a device that exceeded $5K in value;  I would worry all the time about damage or theft.  

The performance of the new Mac, at any of its option levels, would far exceed my current computer.  I decided I could live without that top level, aimed at cinematographers, 3D rendering, and physical modeling and simulations.  We will see if it carries me another 8 years.

In the end, I ordered a MacBook Pro that compared to my old one like this:

Old laptop:
MacBook Pro, 15” Retina display, 2014, MacOS Catalina (10.15.7)
2.5 GHz quad core Intel i7
16 GB memory
2TB SSD storage (upgraded from 512 GB SSD)

New laptop:
MacBook Pro, 16” Liquid Retina XDR, MacOS Monterey (12.2.1) (same laptop size, bezel reduced to almost nothing)
3.2 GHz Apple M1 Pro, 10 core CPU, 16 core GPU, 16 core Neural 
32 GB memory
4TB SSD storage

I ordered this computer in February, but it would not be available until March.  I requested that it be delivered to an Apple store, so if it arrived when I was not home, it would be in safe hands rather than sitting in front of my house, where package thieves live.  The popularity, or the difficulty in manufacturing it, caused the delivery date to be postponed twice.  I finally got notice that it was available while I was out of town in mid-May.  I got a further notice that if I didn’t pick it up soon, it would be returned and the purchase cancelled.  That didn’t seem quite right to me; I had waited three months and now if I didn’t pick it up soon it would be returned?

Fortunately, I got home in time and picked it up a few days ago.  I then had the challenge of transferring the data and working environment from my old computer to this new one. There are basically two options, both of which I have used in the past.  One is to gradually rebuild the environment by installing the applications and copying the data as one encounters the need for them.  This has the benefit of eliminating all the old unused files and utilities and services from long discarded work, keeping a clean computational environment.  But the process goes on for weeks and months, as one encounters each tool that needs re-installation over the course of your work.  It is not a problem if interruptions are tolerable, but for someone impatient to just get the work done, it becomes a series of unplanned delays.

The other approach is to use Apple’s “Migration Assistant” an automated method to transfer and configure, everything on the old computer, useful or not, to the new one.  Feeling the freedom of large storage and a fast CPU, I chose to use this option, but with my 1.5TB of applications and data, I needed to think about how best to do this.  A terabyte of data is an amount beyond our comprehension, until that is, one has to copy it.

The default data channel used by Migration Assistant is wifi.  Both old and new computers connect to the local wifi network and the transfer is performed.  My home network uses protocol 802.11n, which means that it can transfer data at a rate of roughly 10 MBps (megabytes per second).  A terabyte would take more than 24 hours to transfer.  Who knew? 

I’m glad to have done this brief estimate, because I then explored other ways to do the transfer.  I discovered that I could connect the computers directly.  My old Macbook Pro had USB2 connectors and also an Apple Thunderbolt port, which I normally used to connect an external monitor.  USB2 has a data rate of 480 Mbps (~5X faster than wifi), but Thunderbolt and USB3 can run ~50X faster than wifi.  I found a cable adapter and connected the two computers.  If it was just an issue of data transfer, it should take about half an hour, but with all the complexity of putting everything in its proper place on the new computer, it took about three.

I’ve now had a day to use my new computer.  It is the same pleasant experience as with my trusty old MBP.  There have been a few interruptions to establish credentials and preferences, and to update applications to take advantage of the new CPU, but it has not been annoying, and I’m extremely pleased at the responsiveness and performance.  Lightroom, Photoshop, and LRTimelapse are my most demanding applications and they now complete their tasks at a smooth natural pace.  I don’t have reason to go for coffee to kill time.

My initial reactions:

  • It is just like my old MacBook Pro, only faster
  • I love the fingerprint ID on the power key, avoiding password entries.
  • Believe it or not, 32GB is not enough memory.  I still get the warning that I am running out.
  • The keyboard and/or trackpad “jumps”.  I don’t know what is going on yet, but I have had occasional skips as I am typing, to some previous paragraph, which starts inserting new text into the wrong place.  Maybe my touch is too heavy for its sensitivity.
  • The battery life is amazing.  Even though I had replaced the battery in my old laptop, it seemed to drain in a few hours.  This one sips energy at a much slower rate.

My old MacBook Pro will be demoted to become a local server to manage my photo libraries and archives, and as an emergency backup machine in case the new one meets some unexpected catastrophe (like a spilled glass of wine– I’ve seen it happen). I will be very pleased if I get another eight years of computational mileage from it!

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