The Apple iMac vs MacBook Pro: A Photographer’s Conundrum

iMac and MacBook Pro

I’m currently in the market for a beefier system to replace my MacBook Air, which serves me well but just isn’t powerful enough. After a few minutes of browsing at my local Berlin Apple Store, it didn’t take long for my attention to dart from my first choice, a 15″ MacBook Pro, to the big, beautiful iMacs. I had long ago forsaken my 20″ Intel iMac for a more practical and versatile 15″ MacBook Pro, then sold it and switched to an 13″ Air to be even more portable.

Yet looking at the gorgeous 27″ iMac desktops made me realize just how much I miss working on a desktop. My new conundrum: Should I keep my 13″ MacBook Air (I absolutely need a laptop) and purchase a 27″ iMac, or opt for a 15″ MacBook Pro? How does an iMac vs a Macbook Pro compare in everyday use?

Rather than a provide a pure performance-based perspective, which you can find on other blogs, I opted to talk about pros and cons of each qualitatively. I’m not trying to steer you in one direction or the other but just merely documenting my thought process. Obviously I’m biased toward my own preferences and experiences (and Macs as well).

The MacBook Pro: Portable, but portable enough?

15" MacBook Pro Retina

A $2,000 debit from your bank account gets you a 15″ MacBook Pro Retina with the following features as of Winter 2013:

  • 2.0GHz quad-core Intel Core i7
  • 8GB  memory
  • 256GB SSD
  • Intel Iris Pro Graphics
  • 15.4″ screen with 2880-by-1800 resolution

The Retina MacBook Pro combines all the power of a desktop in a very small package. In terms of speed it can hold its own well enough against the iMac (specs below). At 4.5 pounds it weighs almost exactly the same as the older 13″ MacBook Pro models with SuperDrives. Yet my mid-2012 MacBook Air comes in at only 3 pounds. Its 1.8GHz i5 may not blow the MacBook Pro’s Haswell i7 out of the water, but it’s fast enough to handle RAW files from my Canon 5D Mark III on the go. I can fit the Air in my camera bag and would have no problem lugging it around for a day. As for the MacBook Pro? It wouldn’t be fun.

My thought was that I could sell my Air for approximately $1,000 USD, purchase the Pro for $2,000 and only spend $1,000 in the process. An extra $500- $900 would get me a nice IPS monitor for use at home. After playing with the 15″ Pro extensively, however, I knew I just wasn’t portable enough. There’s no way I could comfortably use it on an economy class tray table for an extended period and it would take up half the table at a typical European cafe.

The 15″ MacBook Pro Retina is perfect for mobile studio work or someone who wants to edit back at the hotel. I like to keep my computer close, however. I recently made a trip to Amsterdam and was able to pack all my DSLR gear, clothing, toiletries and my MacBook Air into a carry on. Bringing a Pro instead of an Air would have made this harder.

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Photo: LoKan Sardari

The Beauty of the iMac

27" iMac

You can get the following iMac for $2,000 at

  • 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5
  • 8GB memory (upgradeable to 32GB)
  • 256GB SSD (or a slightly slower 1TB Fusion drive)
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M with 1GB video memory
  • 27″ screen with 2560-by-1440 resolution

Two things appealed to me most about the 27″ iMac compared to the MacBook Pro: upgradeability and screen size. The ability to upgrade the RAM myself to 16GB or 32GB is a huge money-saver. The MacBook Pro RAM is not user-upgradeable. As nice as the Retina screen is, the huge iMac screen simply blew me away. It’s large enough to have two windows open at once side-by-side yet so elegantly designed that it doesn’t look like a mammoth.

Throw a Rain Design turntable underneath, place it on a big table and I have a very comfortable workspace for editing photos. I soon realized what I’ve been missing most from my setup is a big screen and seamless setup. Forget the rest.

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Photo: Chris Jagers

Why I’m Buying an iMac instead of the MacBook Pro

The Retina screen is similar in resolution to the iMac screen. The power is similar enough. For only $1,000 I could have upgraded to a faster system, but instead I chose to keep my MacBook Air and spend $2,000 on a new iMac (a $3,000 cost in total). Why? This setup lets me have the best of both worlds. I can still enjoy the strong portability of my MacBook Air but have the comfort of a desktop system at home. The 15″ MacBook Pro Retina would be a screen upgrade for me and is still portable, but it compromises too much in both areas.

I do 95% of my work on a computer and doing everything on a 13″ MacBook Air for the last year has taught me not to compromise on this. The practical side of me kept pushing for the MacBook Pro because of price, but even if I bought a monitor to go with it deep down I knew it just wouldn’t be portable enough for my needs. It’s all about picking what’s right for you. Soon I will be the happy owner of a 27″ iMac.

Cover photo: Kansir

  • Alain Latour

    Thanks for the article. May I ask which clock that is?

  • Maulik Sutariya

    that’s the iPad Clock App.

  • jmeas

    thanks for this write up. i’m in the exact same situation as you were in. i do heavy car photography, needed a larger screen and slightly more Harddrive space. about 20% of the time, i travel and would need a laptop or something to actively back up my shoots as i go. about to trade my MBP Retina for a 27″ imac late 2012 model. thinking about picking up an older macbook air for the traveling. thanks again, this was a huge help, my gripe was how much of a downgrade going from a 15″ retina to a 27″ 2560×1440 screen would’ve been.

    • Daniel Foster

      Glad I could help! Enjoy your new iMac.