Home Tech Apple MacBook Refresh: Hoping for the ideal travel computer

MacBook Refresh: Hoping for the ideal travel computer

  Whether at home or abroad, the slim and light MacBook has the potential to be the ideal travel companion. It just needs a bit of a boost in processing and we
Whether at home or abroad, the slim and light MacBook has the potential to be the ideal travel companion. It just needs a bit of a boost in processing and we’re hoping this autumn’s refresh will bring just that

The first-generation MacBook, the slimmest Mac with its bright 12in screen and single port, has been my travel companion for the past 3½ years — which is more like 35 years in computer generations. It wasn’t the fastest Mac when it was introduced — even then it was pretty slow but it represented a great compromise as a travel companion. 

  My then new MacBook in Greece during the summer of 2015. It is now showing its age and has become too slow for serious photo processing
My then new MacBook in Greece during the summer of 2015. It is now showing its age and has become too slow for serious photo processing

Since then software bloat and the increasing size of photographs I wish to process have both taken their toll on an already rather lethargic computer. Even a year ago it was time to change, but I couldn’t really make up my mind what to do for. For the office desk I still use a four-year-old late 2014 iMac which, so far (and thanks to my speccing it up to the nines when I bought it) it is still doing a reasonably slick job. 

  The retina screen of the MacBook was a massive advance on the wishy washy presentation on my previous MacBook Air
The retina screen of the MacBook was a massive advance on the wishy washy presentation on my previous MacBook Air
  Tom Bihn
Tom Bihn’s Empire Builder travel case is one of the finest carry-alls for computer and photographic gear when embarking on an air trip.

I considered transferring to just one computer — a 13in MacBook Pro with a top specification — which I could use at my desk (with a suitable monitor) and as a travel computer. But, on balance, I think having two computers is a good idea. Late last year I had some problems with the iMac and for a couple of days it was out of action and that was when the MacBook proved a lifesaver. With almost faultless synchronisation and with highly accessible cloud storage such as Dropbox and iCloud, running two computers is no longer the logistical nightmare it was even five years ago. 

So I will almost certainly continue with a desk machine and a lightweight laptop. I’ve considered the new 13in MacBook Pro as a replacement for the MacBook but it’s the extra weight that worries me. The MacBook is so light and slim — my current model tips the scales at just 915g — that I think I would soon come to regret the extra 455g of the Pro. 

On my recent trip to Hong Kong, for instance, I used my long-trusted Tom Bihn Empire Builder case as onboard luggage. I reviewed this case for Macfilos back in 2012 and consider it one of the finest travel cases ever made. It is just so practical and it is just like new even after six years of heavy use. 

  Under the front flap is an effective organiser for notebooks, pens and small items while Tom Bihn
Under the front flap is an effective organiser for notebooks, pens and small items while Tom Bihn’s accessory pouches (and their lanyards which clip into O rings sewn into the bag) provide secure stowage for cash, credit cards, plugs, cables and odds and sods

Last week the Empire Builder swallowed my MacBook and my photographic gear (consisting of a Billingham Hadley Small padded insert housing the CL and two lenses and the Sony RX100 IV), all the essential stuff (cables, chargers and anything that I would absolutely need if my hold luggage was lost or delayed) and the MacBook. Incidentally, the Billingham Hadley Small, sans insert, squashes down to a relatively small package which fits easily into the main suitcase, ready to resume daily duties with its temporarily absent padded insert on arrival.

  The customisable main compartment can accommodate a padded computer case or (as my preference) the laptop can be stashed behind a hard fibre divider. There is sufficient room for a Billingham Hadley Small or Hadley Pro insert to keep camera gear secure
The customisable main compartment can accommodate a padded computer case or (as my preference) the laptop can be stashed behind a hard fibre divider. There is sufficient room for a Billingham Hadley Small or Hadley Pro insert to keep camera gear secure

Thus stocked, the Empire Builder was very easy to carry, but I wouldn’t have wanted to add much more weight. On occasion I do need to carry heavier photographic equipment than the lightweight CL and Sony RX100, so keeping the laptop weight to the bare minimum is more important than a bit of extra processing power. 

Before I bought the MacBook back in 2015 I pondered long and hard on the choice between this slimline slowcoach or a fully-specced MacBook Pro. Sense prevailed and I have not regretted choosing the MacBook. Every time I travel I marvel at its dimensions and light weight.

Despite similar doubts, I think my future lies with another MacBook because it is capable of providing adequate performance in a very light and easily handled package. I would love to have the extra oomph of a 13in MacBook Pro but really cannot justify it. As I get older, I don’t want to start adding pounds unnecessarily. On the contrary, I constantly seek lighter solutions.

It is, therefore, encouraging to hear rumours of an upgraded Mac Book model, possibly at the Apple event next month. There have already been several upgrades since my machine left the production line, so with luck, a late 2018 MacBook will show a really significant improvement over my present computer. I hope so. When I get my hands on the new version I will let you have my views. 

MacBook upgrade rumours




  1. I am eternally grateful to my 2012 MacBook Pro with DVD drive that I bought in November 2012 – it still runs a dream, no dramas with image files yet. I did increase the memory at purchase, and have replaced the he drive with a decent ssd, but other than that it has been an awesome servant.

    I suspect next year I will need to replace it, but at this stage I do not really know what with.


  2. I’m surprised they let you into Hong Kong seeing that you were carrying an Empire Builder case. I’m sure that they thought that those days were behind them……..Did you also take your pith helmet ?

  3. I wonder whether renewing the hardware is going to substantially improve throughput, if it is the "Adobloat" that is causing the slowdown, we don’t have disks or limited memory issues and the recent Intel gateways are far more efficient than earlier times. Most communication between peripheral components and the processor are now purely electronic. It is my contention that the MacBook, is a fine instrument and has got years of good use left in it.

    As you suggest at the outset Mike, it is the software which is the next slowest component, and that is getting slower, almost on a sliding scale. It would seem that the more popular a software product becomes, the more bloated and slow. Electronic stuff either works or it doesn’t and Moores Law no longer seems to apply, it must be something else that is causing the slowdown.

    A while back on this very blog, I seem to remember William Fagan wrote about his use of Iridient Developer for raw processing. I was attracted to it, even though William was specifically referring to its use with the Fuji X-Trans sensor.

    I have been using this extremely small package, presumably written by an actual programmer, as opposed to a Microsoft coder (or the like) which adds massive bulk to any application, and find that it is great for efficiently developing both scanned negatives and a huge selection of raw files, more than any other program that I have tried.

    Until my daughter stole my MacBook I found that Iridient runs as fast as I need it to, and performs all of the stuff that the raw section of Lightroom does. It doesn’t allow one to perform inpainting or blemish/scratch removal and I am not sure why that is, I suspect that these functions are best performed on non-raw files, or possibly cannot be performed on raw files, since no other package (I have looked) handles these functions on raw files either. Anyway, I prefer to see that lamp-post sticking out of my subject’s head, not really, as my headmaster said… must try harder.

    Iridient seems to be costing me around £20 per year, so that would make an upgrade to your nifty little MacBook for minibux. Not only that, but should you have an issue, you can email the programmer and get a reply from him… No call centres.

    Another great little application is "Raw Power", this is written and managed by the bloke who was behind Apple’s Aperture, which I used to use. It works either stand alone, or called out of Apple’s Photos application that is delivered with MacOs. This is even smaller than Iridient but worked with Photos, allows for inpainting and wizards and whatnot.

    I would also like to recommend, for the same reason, FastRawViewer, this loads a folder full of raw images for simultaneous viewing and subsequent chucking out of unwanted images. I use this and can look directly at the SD card as an opening operation, then Iridient or Raw Power are invoked.

    Anyway, maybe worth a try before you add to that pile of dead laptops in Lagos and furnish Apple with another grand or so.

    Meanwhile I seem to have been reduced to (re)owning a 2009 iMac and no longer having any mobile facility. I don’t quite understand how she gets away with it? Now that really is a reason to go and get a new one… Maybe early next year, though that software managed function bar would upset me muchly, so I hope they don’t include that on the new model.

    • Stephen, thanks for your considered reply and lots of suggestions. My problem could well be down to Adobebloat and maybe it is time to consider an alternative, such as one or other of your suggestions, purely for use on the laptop. That way I can see if things speed up to the point where I could squeeze another year out of the MacBook.

  4. "..It is now showing its age and has become too slow for serious photo processing.." ..? I must be doing something wrong: my Mid-2013 13" MacBookAir still seems perfectly fast enough – to me, anyway – for photo importing, processing, fiddling with in iPhoto (NOT the hideous "Photos"), Photo Ninja 2, FocalPoint 2, Viveza 2, Graphic Converter 7 ..and so forth. And even, very occasionally – so why am I paying the subscription, I wonder? – Photoshop.

    Note that I always keep my photos on a small (teeny) external, very fast SSD, so it’s no effort for the Mac to file and process them, and I don’t think I’d swap this MBA for anything – at present. Small, light, clear screen, fast (1.7 GHz Intel Core i7), with two USB ports, and a built-in card reader. I use it for video editing, audio editing and photo editing.

    As I said ..I must be doing something wrong!

      • Maybe you’ve got on your laptop one of those horrible "safety" apps which banks recommend ..which do nothing but slow everything down. Maybe you’ve got some "security" (..usually just the opposite!..) software which is constantly virus-scanning, etc. Don’t say you’ve downloaded that scamware ‘MacKeeper’ (..which reduces everything to a crawl).

        Like Stephen, below, I’d guess it’s some software problem – throw out anything old which you don’t need; put pictures on an external SSD; use ‘Activity Monitor’ to see what’s hogging your processor (Applications>Utilities>Activity Monitor) and do light housekeeping and then a restart!

        • David, thanks. I certainly haven’t downloaded MacKeeper. I think I wrote a piece about it a few years ago. As you might have noticed, I did install Bitdefender (reluctantly, but I think about time) a couple of months ago and wrote about it. However, I don’t think this is the culprit. The computer has been slowing noticeably over the past year. If I were really worried I would do a clean install and start from scratch (which I now tend to do always with a new Mac rather than use Migration Assistant) but I’ve deemed it is time to change. One of the main factors is that the internal SSD is too small and I’d like to have 1TB to play with. At the moment the disk is pretty full and, of course, that slows things down. I accept that using an external SSD is a good option and it is something I have done in the past.

          • I bought an extended capacity (1TB) internal SSD for mine (..oh, and another for my Beloved..) from Other World(?) a.k.a. MacSales in the US, and they worked great for about a year. Then suddenly my B’s didn’t seem to be working well, and – as she hadn’t used anywhere near its capacity – I took it out again and she reverted to her original 500GB SSD, and she’s had no problems since.

            Just to be on the safe side, I did the same with mine, too. So I don’t know if my bigger internal SSD would have failed or not! ..But, till I swapped it back out again "to be on the safe side" I had no trouble with mine.

            Computers always "..slow.. noticeably over the past year.." and always need 10% minimum empty space to run briskly. But you probably know all this, as this is "Macfilos"!

          • Indeed, I’ve dispensed enough advice on this subject in the past. While in HK I bought a 2TB external HDD and offloaded a lot of superfluous stuff. I also changed the status of a number of Dropbox directories to online only, thus freeing up a lot of space. This did improve matters. When travelling I always like to back up my shots to the Cloud just in case of loss of computer/drives/luggage etc. I’m reluctant to rely entirely on external drives unless I have two mirrored devices, with one travelling in hand luggage and one in hold luggage.

  5. I own and use the current version of the MacBook (the 2017 model with 1.3 GHz Core i5 (ultra-low power version), 8GB RAM and 512GB SSD. I previously had the 2016 version which was broken and replaced.

    The 2016 version (one version newer than yours) was adequate for LightRoom use with 20 MP Canon 6D files, but sluggish with 18 GB Leica M Monochrom or 24 MP Leica M-D or M10 files, though definitely still usable. Other applications like Acrobat, Word and the like are very fast and the computer rarely keeps me waiting. It even does a good job running Parallels Desktop with Windows 7 (4 GB RAM allocated to the VM) and Windows under the virtual machine is also very fast and pleasant.

    The 2016 version was a lot slower, and was usable, but very annoying with high-resolution Leica files.

    At this point I’d wait for a 2018 model and even if it is an incremental upgrade, I’m sure it will perform very well. I’m certainly thrilled with my 2017 model and have no problem using it for for another year or two.

    • Andrew, I do intend to wait for the upgrades next month. I have been tempted before but held off. Probably, however, it is now time in any case to get a new MacBook. I will await the reviews with interest.

  6. Mike, I hear you on the two computers scenario, but I love the simplicity of a single MacBook Pro (with a monitor connected for some purposes). That said, I’m reaching a point of considering a MacBook to replace my iPad Pro. I don’t (or rarely) travel with the MBP, but I do with the iPad. But having a keyboard and some of the Mac apps would be a better situation.

    On Tom Bihn, I’ve been using an Aeronaut 45 for years and I absolutely love it! It still looks brand new and it holds more than those roller carryons. But after seeing this post I also decided to purchase a Pilot. I’ve been thinking about switching from a backpack to a "briefcase". The Empire Builder looked like too much bags for my needs. That said, should I get the MacBook I may have to reconsider. I travel fairly lightweight, though, so the Pilot should suffice. I’m hoping my Leica Q fits inside.

    • I too admire the single-mindedness of one computer with a dock and monitor. I always think the iMac is a waste of a good monitor and I am actually quite intrigued by the new rumours of a "pro" Mac mini later this year. That might be a better bet for me than an iMac. As I mentioned in the article, though, having two computers can be a lifesaver if one of them goes out of action for a day or two. I can’t do the blog from an iPad, sadly, for technical reasons, and I need to have a working Mac available all the time. It has occurred to me to buy a MacBook Pro as a replacement for the iMac but keep the old MacBook as a backup pure and simple.

      I am a great fan of Tom Bihn and it’s a great pity he is little known in the UK. I am afraid I would overindulge if there were a UK agent. The hassle of sending off to Seattle curbs my enthusiasm. I haven’t tried the Pilot but have eyed it on occasion. The Empire Builder is actually not that big but has lots of pockets and places to stuff things — just what I like.


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