MacBook Air, now starting at US$999 and with USB3 and Thunderbolt onboard. Photo courtesy Apple.

Apple, of course, rolled out new Mac laptops yesterday. The most desirable of these – new MacBook Pro laptops with ultra-high-resolution Retina Displays – will require a significant budget, with pricing beginning at US$2199. And it could be worth it for those who can afford them: while Apple has quietly eliminated its 17″ machines, the high-density displays should nonetheless make the 15″ real estate ideal for fitting pro app UIs on the go.

But the most important thing to say about Apple’s machines from a music standpoint is that the forward advancement of I/O has made almost any of these models a good choice. Let’s take a look at the “low-end” machine, the MacBook Air. It’s still the most portable and most affordable of the lineup. But so long as you don’t need to make use of the GPU or do really heavy CPU-based rendering, it has more than enough horsepower to handle audio applications. The Air is also standardized on 4 GB of RAM, though I think it’s worth maxing it out at 8 GB if it’s your primary machine.

The new Air comes with two USB 3 (USB 3, not USB 2) ports, along with Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt, in turn, will break out to FireWire as needed. And even that’s a bit of overkill. Most audio hardware and fast hard disks still run just fine on FireWire 800 and USB 2, maximizing the speeds those buses provide. There’s a reason, for instance, the MOTU interface we covered last week sticks to USB 2, like many of its rivals: it doesn’t really need the added bandwidth. But for Air users, this all means a chance to grow: via Thunderbolt, you can connect high-resolution displays and audio with loads of I/O. Universal Audio will be one of the first vendors to make use of that, and an Air with their Apollo DSP and audio I/O platform could be an ideal combination. See our previous coverage:

Apollo: UA Adds Low-Latency Effects in Audio Interface, Proves FireWire, Thunderbolt are Cool

At the January NAMM trade show, Apogee was also teasing their Thunderbolt plans; you can expect the likes of MOTU and others to follow suit soon.

My advice is this: there’s no reason to hold off buying an audio interface or hard drive. USB2 and FireWire800 are just fine for these. But there’s also every reason to make sure any computer you buy supports at least Thunderbolt, and optimally, has a dedicated USB3 port, too. I expect some interesting applications on the Thunderbolt side, definitely, and for Mac-centric products, the fact that it was deployed first means that even the Apple machines with Thunderbolt and USB2 should support a lot of intriguing accessories in coming years.

Whereas their tendency has sometimes been to reduce the number of ports on laptop revisions, Apple is being pretty generous with I/O on the MacBook line in general. The upgraded “conventional” MacBook Pro (the one minus the Retina Display) includes two USB 3 ports, one FireWire 800 port, and one Thunderbolt port. The Retina Display models include two Thunderbolt ports and two USB 3 ports. I can’t recommend the US$1199 MacBook Pro over the similarly-configured MacBook Air; I think most people would prefer the Air’s higher screen resolution and lighter weight and enhanced portability. But the MacBook Pro with the conventional display remains a decent middle-ground, and you’re likely to find those machines even cheaper in used, refurb, and open box deals.

Next-generation MacBook Pro is thinner – but doesn’t skimp on ports or pro audio power. Photo courtesy Apple.

Thunderbolt is available across Apple’s whole product line, too, minus the Mac Pro (thanks to a reader for that catch), though not yet USB 3. So even a Mac mini could be a nice, future-proof purchase – an extra rendering node that can be a capable studio machine, for instance.

The reason I focus on I/O is, a lot of the quality of the audio production experience today is dependent on that external hardware. It’s an audio interface you love that has the ins and outs you need to connect gear you want to record. It’s the fast, large external hard drive for recording multichannel audio. It’s the big display for viewing your whole edit session at once.

If you do a lot of rendering (high track counts with lots of soft synths or effects, or mixing in video production and the like), CPU differentiation will matter. The Air is at the low end of the scale here, though still with decent CPUs onboard. The iMac, oddly enough, becomes the best bargain: quad CPUs combined with a great display makes the all-in-one Apple’s best bang-for-your-buck, provided it doesn’t have to move. And the Retina Display models, in turn, have something to recommend them other than just the looks of the screen: they have some seriously-powerful CPU iron in there.

Otherwise, though, you can basically choose the form factor and price you want and go from there.

See the comparison chart at Apple:

What about the PC? As far as I’m concerned, if you like Mac OS, it’s pretty easy to justify an Apple machine – especially with the mini and Air under a grand. If you don’t like Mac OS, by the same token, if you prefer booting Windows or Linux or spend most of your time in that software, you’re probably going to consider a PC. PCs still have an edge for those who prefer maximizing their dollar in a tower form factor, and there are some decent-looking laptops that cost less than the Air – particularly if it’s important to you to get a GPU. This is just an aside, though; I can’t keep up with the complexities of the PC market well enough to recommend a particular model; I’d have to become a full-time PC laptop reviewer. And, of course, I think that’s a big part of why so many people choose Apple. This isn’t a PC review, though, so consider this only a footnote.

  • Chad

    Can you no longer burn discs?

    • Peter Kirn

       There are still optical drives on the mid-range models. There aren’t on the new Retina Display models – but I don’t think this is a deal-killer. I think you’d get an external drive, and be thankful your machine was thinner and lighter on the road. (You still have loads of I/O.)

    • Chad

      What about buying a CD and playing it on your laptop and converting it to WAV files or whatever.  That’s just… not possible anymore?  So weird!

    • Peter Kirn

      You use an external drive.

      How often I use CDs: *all the time*

      How often I use CDs away from my desk: *almost none of the time*

      How often I wish my laptop were lighter when I’m carrying around: *often*

      You can do the math.

    • Chad

      I guess that’s true.  Still… feels weird that the macbook wouldn’t have a disc drive, but I guess I can acclimate.  The disappearance of the 17″, literally my machine for a decade now, is more distressing.

    • James Husted

      I agree about the loss of the 17″ – I have had 3 of them (still do) and it will feel weird going to a smaller screen. As for retina displays – I don’t need them. I can’t really see the pixels on the screes I have now at normal viewing distance. That is a lot of system resources moving pixels around. 

    • youngcircle

      Chad, Chad, Chad you’re a silly one! I’ll explain: now youll have to start going to the Cloud with your wav files, there’s a Kinko’s there, they’ll burn you a “cd” but you’ll probably get a Wink Wink with it

    • Sleepy Tom

      how is 2 usb and 2 TB “loads of IO” ? 

      it is LOADS OF DONGLES – dongle for firewire, dongle for video, dongle for ethernet… Dongles which add an extra connection between crucial devices, dongles which reduce reliability, dongles which get left behind at gigs / home requiring frequent last minuet runs to the Apple Store. Dongles which will cost you ANOTHER $200+ on top of the cost of the machine.

    • Smuff

      Your article is wrong (if I am reading it correctly) there is no Thunderbolt on the new Mac Pro

      “Thunderbolt is available across Apple’s whole product line…”

    • Sparque

      Not the right laptop for you, I fear.

  • papernoise

    The new retina displays look like a tempting upgrade… still I’m not totally sure. The whole point of the retina display, though is to have a much higher pixel resolution, than the one you are actually using, so you don’t see the pixels anymore. So you get a 2880 x 1800 pixel matrix. 
    The basic resolution you get displayed is still the same, i.e. 1440 x 900 pixels. having one “software” pixel represented by 4 pixels on the screen. You can choose to go for a higher resolution in the settings, having the choice between 1680 x 1050 and 1920 x 1200. In this case the OS renders the screen at a much higher resolution, then renders it back down to the actual screen res. Apparently this works fine, though I’d have to see it first before I believe it.
    I worked for some time on a 15″ macbook pro from last year with the optional 1680×1050 display and I must say that I did totally hate it. Everything is so small that my eyes got fatigues really quickly, you start to sit at 20 cm from the screen to be able to make out the interface and that has a not so good effect on your posture. In fact I think it was a really good choice for Apple to stick for years to the apparently low resolution of 1440×900 on 15″ screens.
    My opinion on this: If you want a bigger resolution get a second screen, or a 17″ laptop… oh wait, they just killed those? Hmm… well ergonomics never were a priority for Apple.

    • Peter Kirn

       Remember, they’re doubling density, not effective resolution. So they’re aware of this issue. I think it should be a better-looking screen that’s easier to look at for periods of time – but of course, I’m not on the review list, just guessing.

    • papernoise

      well the 17″ was a mess to carry around I guess. But most people I know don’t move their laptop that much anyway, and for those it was a nice solution.

      About the resolution thing: the screen will certainly be more pretty to look at (just look at the latest iPad screen for comparison) but I doubt it will be less fatiguing. The main fatigue factor in tft screen still is the lamp, and we’re not going to see a solution to that problem anytime soon I guess.

    • Peter Kirn

       Also, the 17″ laptop was many things, but “ergonomic” I think was a stretch.

    • heinrich zwahlen

      I totally agree..just switched from older 1680/50 mac to 1440/900 and it’s a much better size.
      So i certainly would not want to have things even smaller than that.

  • erja

    To me, the most tantalizing thing announced yesterday was the cryptic phrase “inter app audio” on the slide of new iOS 6 features.  Even a standard, Apple-blessed version of audio copy/paste could make existing plugins much more useful open up a new class of music apps.  We’d have plugins, and the potential for fairly powerful mixing.  I mean, just being able to do a few more fine-grained dynamics/EQ adjustments to some Garageband tracks would really expand its appeal.

  • heinrich zwahlen

    If you want speed and storage get the old model of the mac book pro and add a 500 GB SSD..
    Not sure how easy it would be to upgrade from 256 to 500 on the new mac book pro and apple wants 1000 for the bigger drive. 256 just aint gonna cut it unless you only want to carry an external drive around.

  • Chad

    It’s hilarious to me.  I’m a music professional.  What I want is a 17″ retina screen with a disc drive.  I lose on both counts.

    • Sleepy Tom

      Yes x10!!! – 17″ with retina – don’t give a monkeys about optical drives myself but i need ethernet on a wire. I’d like upgradable SSD ideally hotswap in a bay in the side of the machine alongside the flash memory for the OS to live on.  Oh and put a f***ing number pad on the keyboard too! If HP can manage to do this on my 15″ PC laptop then wtf is the problem with apple doing it? After Effects is a massive ball ache without a number pad!

      Given they haven’t (really) updated the MacPro can we not have a desktop replacement macbookpro? I’ll take 3 Thunderbolts, 3 USB3, 1 Ethernet, 1 FW800 and 1 HDMI please – I would pay a lot of money for this machine (more than the top of the range 15 retina costs!)  
      But pro users are no longer a market for apple – they make this crappy thin laptop for idiot users who want to do 9 camera iphone footage edits in imovieproX. 

    • Shane

      Agree with you about the Mac Pro… However, with this latest Macbook Pro update, Apple just released an ethernet adapter for Thunderbolt. You should be fine with your wired connection with this $10 adapter. Thunderbolt is fast enough to support most of the older interfaces via adapters.

    • Sleepy Tom

      But i want a projector plugged into TB1 and a video capture card in TB2 and a Projector in the HDMI + wired network + external hard drive. 

      Macs have always had poor connectivity and the tradition continues with these new ones. 
      Its OK fanboys, i will buy one of these machines, but i’m waiting to see what comes in version 2.1 of the retina mbp. maybe some of these concerns will be addressed? maybe these ones will catch fire? (wouldn’t be the first time mac made a flammable computer)

    • Leon Trimble

      what’s wrong with owning 9 iPhones?

  • Florian

    I’ve got a question:

    Am I missing something about the benefits of the retina display for music production software besides let’s say a much more detailed view of waveforms, fonts?

    • papernoise

      the waveforms will look a lot prettier 😀
      no in fact there is really not advantage, except if you can bear to work at 1680×1050 or higher on a 15″ screen.

    • Florian

      Actually I have a 15″ MacBook Pro with a high res Display and I have no issues with the smaller fonts.

      Thanks for your reply. 😉

    • Sparque

      By default it will show very sharp 1440×900 content, but it can also emulate 1680×1050 and 1920×1200 at high quality.

  • Obscure Robot

    The new Retna machines are clearly aimed at developers of iOS applications as well as the visual artists who support them. Apple dropped the line-in port along with firewire on these machines. Line in isn’t critical when you’ve got a nice external interface, but it can be very convenient when you don’t have your big interface handy, or didn’t want to drag it along. The death of Firewire is disappointing because those 400/800 Mb/s ports were just fine for audio, and completely separate from the USB bus where you typically hang your external hard drives.

    Even more disappointing is that Microsoft seems to be rushing headlong into the tabletifiaction of everything even faster than Apple. Windows 8 will be a disaster for everything other than AngryBirds.

    • Sleepy Tom

      line in is also good for people who use skype in places which are not utterly silent 

  • Matt Leaf

    It’s a great time to own two Macbook Pro’s

  • Anil

    The air almost makes me wish I dealt with only audio and not audiovisuals; it boasts the perfect form factor with amazing horsepower. And if I have to push the envelope of whim a bit further, I am really not a huge fan of the black bezel so the air is the prettiest laptop out there IMO (13″ is fine since I am producing at home with an external display). The new Macbook Pro is a bit heftier than I hoped it would be actually, but the apple FW-TBolt adapter (although a minor factor) sort of sealed the deal for me. I really wasn’t looking forward to cashing out hundreds on TB hubs and having to carry it around with me but I am also not at all ready to part ways with my Fireface 800 either. Question is: do I cash out for 16GB RAM and will the 256GB storage be enough? Nevertheless, I am really glad that I will no longer have to carry around a dead optical drive (and this is not the first but the second replacement!) Oh, and I think here is the best design compromise: 15 inch with flash storage, discrete graphics, no retina (as in not so many battery packs) and therefore less weight and tapered design (a.k.a. 15″ air with NVIDIA GPU).

    • Anil

      Oh and I find the biggest bummer to be the soldered, non-user replaceable parts. 

    • Sparque

      The price you pay for a thin and solid laptop.

  • Bo

    I desperately need a new portable notebook for my day job, so the updated Air looks perfect. Could someone give a hint on how powerful a fully loaded Air is music wise? Like in terms of tracks/plugins in an Ableton project?

  • it’s the fucking CEO himself

    It’s the best MacBook Pro ever made. I’d gladly exchange my 17″ one for this.

    And to those of you who complain about anything:
    It’s all been covered already:
    • Firewire -> Adapter
    • Ethernet -> Adapter
    • Disc-Drive -> Adapter
    • Line-In -> Soundcard

    But if people go as far as wishing a numpad on a MacBook, I don’t know if I can even take it serious.

    • Obscure Robot

      I’m not sure if you’ve ever used a laptop before, but adapters and dongles suck. Particularly when you have to replace them at Apple’s prices.

    • +1 Keypad

      Number pads are incredibly useful if you use Sibelius.  Don’t disregard other people’s needs and write them off as not “serious” just because theirs aren’t in line with yours.

  • David

    On a side note, if you picked a comparably luxurious PC brand and reviewed their newest and greatest offerings you’d have an equally easy lineup as with Apple here. Just saying.

  • RichardL

    With the addition of the far more ubiquitous USB 3, I suspect mainstream Thunderbolt is now a dead-end. Too little, too late, too expensive. As a video port it’s fine — sort of. But for storage I think USB 3 will kill Thunderbolt except for displays and few very expensive high-speed RAID and SAN applications. 

    Also driving a high res display kills Thunderbolt for some high-speed data applications because the display steals too much bandwidth. It may be this can be solved with a second bus. I wonder if the new machines with two ports suffer from this issue. Is the second Thunderbolt port just a convenience port that shares the same Thunderbolt bus or did they put the second port on a second bus? Or can you chain displays now?

    • Anil

      I think this (fate of TB) depends on how aggressively Intel will push it.

    • pck

      intel + apple have just started to push thunderbolt. do you really think it is a dead-end? thunderbolt is a much more capable interface. just wait to see usb 3.0 vs. TB latency figures and you will realise it is not “too little”, and it is backed by those two biggest copanies in personal computer tech in the world.

    • Sparque

      “Also driving a high res display kills Thunderbolt for some high-speed data applications because the display steals too much bandwidth”No it doesn’t – it’s got 2 pci lanes and 1 displayport lane.

  • Guimoreno2

    Does anybody know if there are any Thunderbolt – Firewire or USB 3.0 – Firewire adaptors that work in the Mac Air for connecting and audio interface? That’s about the only issue that still prevents me from buying one. 

  • ghost dog

    I do understand moving with the times and I only use the cd/dvd on my 17″ to burn purchased CDs.i.e the new Oliveros 12 CD box, to mp3,and to watch DVDs, but I look at my 1000+ CD collection and DVD collection and get annoyed that its another format that is slowing going away.
    Personally I liked the audio in so I could record LP’s and cassettes to mp3. Now I will have to go and get another freaking adapter box (CD/DVD) to have on the small table.
    On the upside my net label (vicmod records)is looking more legit to the wider world :-)

  • joel in Dallas

    I’ll stick with PC’s. Half the price and I can change the battery and do upgrades. And Windows 7 64 bit is a fine OS, although I do like Mac OS / BSD.

    • rgb

      Wow, thanks for contributing to the discussion. Very helpful. Windows machines are cheaper? I never knew. And gee, you can change a battery. What a revelation. Who cares that only 5% of portable owners ever buy a second battery (a real number, not made up) and that with 5-7 hour battery life there is no reason to carry a second battery around. But thanks for moving the  discussion forward. 

    • David Prouty

       I thought he contributed nicely. I will stick to Windows because a top spec Apple sucks compared to what I can build for $2000 dollars less.

    • weep

      Uhm, you’ve somehow managed to contribute even less. You can build it for what purposes? It sucks how? What are the components of this $2000-less Windows machine? I mean really, there might be people considering to switch platforms. No use in declaring you can ride unicorns without any indication as to how.

    • joel in Dallas

       I understand your point of view. I used to be an Apple Fanboy also.

    • REGEND

      you can run OS X and BSD on a plain vanilla PC or laptop. there is a lot of compatible hardware out there and some OS X distros are now legit because you actually have to have a purchased copy of OS X to boot from.

  • David Prouty

    Power users be damned. Win8 and Apple want you to play Angry birds but just try to get some real work done. Big box PC’s are no longer priority and soon you power users will be holding on to your 7 year old machines as the only thing you will be able to buy is an underpowered phone.

    I will buy a new machine when they include Midi ports like on an Atari ST. Just joking.

  • Paul McEvoy

    Any thoughts about what equivalent or generally excellent PC laptops would be?  No flames please, just suggestions.

  • Robert Halvarsson

    Great new tech. But I cannot help to wonder that the industry needs to move past a ‘consumer ethos’ if we are to challenge the enviromental problems we are facing with a sense of integrity. It would be great if Apple would be part of this shift of focus.

  • pineapple express

    That sucks they are killing the 17″.  I’ve always had one and take it back and forth to school every day.  Fits perfectly in my backpack and has amazing amount of screen real estate (same as imac) for its size.

    Also sadly missing from the new MBP is a matte display option. Sorry, not everyone wants to stare into their own reflection as they use the computer.

    Once you are used to using a larger screen it is very hard to switch to a smaller one…imagine if they made the nextgen iphone screen smaller. So, I will probably pick up a new, old stock 17″ MBP as my next computer…although I anticipate the prices going up not down.

  • amundsen

    I hope the new fans are really more discrete, because on the 2011 MBP 17″ they are really too noisy. So the “any model great for music” assumption should be double checked. The way Apple neglects the Mac Pro line is also a pity. For the first time I am not sure my next computer will be a Mac.

  • kent williams

    Buying an Apple Laptop certainly means dealing with fewer choices, and OS/X is a nice operating system.

    I’ve always used Windows machines for my music work, because the Apple price premium always bothered me.  The rest of my family are very loyal to Apple, but their experiences with hardware and software problems over the years lead me to believe that any quality advantage is more apparent than real.

    I work all day on a Mac Pro, and all the software I work on is cross-platform — OS/X, Linux, Windows.  As a long-time computer professional, I’m of the opinion that arguing over platforms is a waste of time — they all solve the same problems in slightly different ways.

    As for keeping up with Windows laptops, there are a lot of them on the market, but choosing one isn’t as bewildering as you might think.  They aren’t all that different under the skin — they’re all manufactured by a small number of factories in Korea or China, in some cases, made by the same company that make’s Apple’s Laptops.

    The main component I always insist on is a video chip with its own memory. I’m sure it’s not like the bad old days, but having video and the CPU competing for access to memory doesn’t seem like a good idea for a real-time application like music software.  The early ‘shared memory’ video solutions were really bad; newer ones are probably much better.

    I bought a couple of Dells, but the last machine I bought was an Asus.  The Asus laptops are usually very competitively priced for their features, and the build quality is good.  Toshiba has a good reputation as well.  Buying Dell is a crapshoot — build quality varies widely between models.  

    There are some companies that sell laptops specifically for music production, but they charge a premium for vetting the hardware decisions for you, and end up costing very close to the price of an Apple Laptop; if you’re willing to pay that kind of money for a computer, you might as well buy Apple anyway.

    Having hundreds of choices for PC Laptops versus 4 or 5 for Apple Laptops might seem bewildering, but if you’re price-sensitive, spending an afternoon comparing machines on or might save you $1000 compared to buying a Macbook.  I’m just sayin.

  • Alan Senderowitsch

    My main doubt about getting an Air is something I think remains unclear until the TB-FW adapter arises: Will be possible to have a display and a FW audio interface connected at the same time via Thunderbolt? I suppose the need of two TB ports in at least one of the devices in order to do daisy-chaining. Am I correct?

  • robduro

    The New MacBook Pro: Unfixable, Unhackable, Untenable

    • Hello

       This the useful comment, right here.

  • Philip Cunningham

    PC is not synonymous with Windows/Linux. A Mac is a PC too.

  • Bob

    Mac posts really draw the trolls out of their playpens..

  • busman

    “Most audio hardware and fast hard disks still run just fine on FireWire 800 and USB 2, maximizing the speeds those buses provide. There’s a reason, for instance, the MOTU interface we covered last week sticks to USB 2, like many of its rivals: it doesn’t really need the added bandwidth.”
    That may be true, however (and please do correct me if I have this wrong) my speedy USB3 hard drive will slow down as soon as I plug that USB2 interface into the port as both USB and Firewire busses only run as fast as the slowest device on the bus.

    I’m not even sure if those UBB3 physical ports are running on discreet busses.  Anyone know if they are?

  • Crisis

    The new 15inch MacBook Pro maxed out is more expensive then the last model 17inch MacBook Pro Maxed out… I usually get the maxed out model for my recording studio (If I wanted to just serf the web I would buy a PC)… I CAN NOT see my self spending almost $4000 for a 15inch laptop and then having to buy a external CD drive, a firewire to thunderbolt and a ethernet to thunderbolt adapter on top of having to spend damn near $4000. That ridiculous. A retina display is useless in the AUDIO field (pre & post) unless your doing music videos. This is the 1st time in 10 years of dealing with apple that I’m considering a custom PC for my studio unless the new iMac’s and/or Mac Pro’s do not go up in price when the decide to release them NEXT YEAR. The 17inch was a PERFECT desktop replacement. And I can’t believe people are crying about caring around a laptop that’s a little less then 2 inches bigger then the 15inch Macbook Pro… LMAO… I have NO problems at all caring my 17inch MacBook Pro around… Compared to the 15inch MacBook there’s barely any NOTICEABLE difference at all… I guess you have to put both of them next each other to see for your self and not assume! And if you have compared both in person and still feel the 17inch is MUCH heavier then the 15inch then maybe you need to eat your Wheaties more often… LoL. Apple needs to wake up because they fell asleep after Steve Jobs passed. P.S. I don’t want Mac OSX to feel like iOS… SMFH!

  • Raaphorst

    wondering how quiet it will be. my MBpro blows the fans like h#ll

  • svlutz

    I do not have too much knowledge about computer hardware specs, so excuse the possibly supid question. Why is there no big advantage of the 13″ mb Pro over the 13″ mb Air, the Pro Model has a faster processor in terms of GHz.
    Anyway, i am not quite sure how important GHz really is for making music. I am currently using a 2 GHz dual-core Macbook, would an update to the 2,5 GHz i5 dual core Macbook be remarkably better for me?

  • Raaphorst

    what about the fannoise? I would love to see some serious music tests on quietness of laptops since I am recording acoustic guitars and voices a lot. 

  • Rob

    I’m just starting out as a serious voice artist. Not tech savey. We own Mac products and I have a simple Tascam Interace with a great mic. Do I move forward, starting out my career with what I’m familiar with or do I make the jump to PC products?