I mean with advice, not money. Dear LazyWeb: I’m about to replace the MacBook Pro that I’m typing this on, and not sure what to get. The problem is the pictures. I’m actually seriously thinking about buying a Windows (!) box.

In recent years I’ve been running with this perfectly-OK 13" SSD-based Google MacBook Pro. Its death knell approaches, and there are lots of options.

Here’s the Problem · (I’m looking at you, Adobe.) I take pictures. I use Lightroom to process them. I like it. The current camera emits DNGs that average between 20-25M, and I take them dozens or hundreds at a time. Lightroom 4 is, um, not faster than Lightroom 3 and I see no evidence that Adobe knows how to make any future version faster. Lightroom on the current machine is just barely fast enough, where “just barely” means “not really”.

My current machine has a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; other Mac options are a 13" Air with an i5 at a lower clock rate, a 13" MBP with what looks like the same CPU, or a 15" MBP with a Quad-core i7 and 8G (the others have 4). The price is, surprisingly, sort of a wash.

For the non-Lightroom stuff I do (Android software development, blogging, tweeting, Chrome) any of these would be equally excellent. If I thought the Air would hold up to my Lightroom demands, I’d be there. But I’m dubious. So... Dear World:

Is there anyone out there running Lightroom on a 13" Air with lots of 20M+ DNGs, and if so, is it OK?

If the Air Won’t Fly · I suppose Plan B would be the MBP with the i7. That’d have to be better than what I have now, but... Dear World:

Is there anyone out there running Lightroom on a 15" MBP with SSD and 8G, and if so, how is it?

Plan C would be to get the Air, accept that it’s just not gonna be my photo hub, and go buy some sort of meat-grinder to run Lightroom and nothing else. The idea would be that yes, it’d go on the road with me, but it’d live in the carry-on/roll-aboard and only come out in the hotel room after a day’s shooting.

I suspect that if you’re looking for maximum CPU and memory without overspending, you’re looking at a Windows box. And I have to say, recent versions of Windows seem much less painful than in days of yore. Of course, I wouldn’t dream of trying to reconstruct my software-development and blogging infrastructures in such a place; but as a standalone Lightroom appliance, it might be just the ticket... Dear World:

Is there anyone out there running a portable (or even luggable) Windows computer as a Lightroom appliance? If so, do tell.

Plan D · Maybe I’m missing something obvious... Dear World: Here’s your chance to enlighten me.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Chris (Mar 28 2012, at 00:02)

Rumour has it that there will be a 15" MacBook Air out in the next couple of months.

i7 with 8gb ram and a 256/512 SSD should sort you right out. Probably a higher res screen too.

Im waiting to see what comes out


From: Alan (Mar 28 2012, at 00:02)

Wait until the upcoming MacBook pro refresh supposedly in April. You will either get a much better machine for the same money or save some money on a machine you are considering now.

I've been in a similar situation for a couple months.


From: Arnaud (Mar 28 2012, at 00:08)

I use Lightroom on MBP 15" from last year using a regular hard drive (no SSD).

The DNGs I process are smaller at 10Mb each but this machine is good for lightroom use.

Another option might be to have a big imac at home that would be the main machine for image processing and an Air for on-the-road stuff.


From: Geoff Arnold (Mar 28 2012, at 01:08)

Why are you ignoring the MacBook Air with the BTO i7? That's what I have.

That said, I think you should split your resources. The MacBook Air is such a dream of a machine that once you have one, you'll never want anything else. Then I use an iMac with 12GB RAM and an external 2TB FireWire RAID for all my serious photo/video crunching.

Windows? Meh. My partner has a nice little Windows laptop, but it's forever restarting spontaneously to install updates, taking her open files with it.


From: Pierluigi Ruotolo (Mar 28 2012, at 01:39)

I use Lightroom 4 on a MacBook Air 13" i7 4GB RAM 256 GB SSD plus a Lacie thunderbolt drive (it's faster than the internal SSD) and eventually an external monitor and USB drives or SD cards for long time storage. If you want a faster machine just wait for the next air spec upgrade, that probably will include a 15" model and (I hope) a better or dedicated video card.


From: Joel (Mar 28 2012, at 01:39)

So the i7 in the 13" MBP is quite different from the i7 in the MBA. Also the 13" MBP can have 8Gb of ram. All in all I think there is actually a decent chance that lightroom won't be snappy enough on the MBA but good enough even on the smaller MBP.


From: KTamas (Mar 28 2012, at 02:09)

I have a 13" early 2011 MBP (i5 2.3 GHz), with 8 GB of RAM and a Vertex 3, which is still pretty much the fastest SSD you can get right now.

Lightroom is...okay. Thing is, I pretty much gave up on the idea of Lightroom being fast, ever. Maybe if I'd get a dual-CPU quad-core Xeon box with 24 GB of RAM, or something... okay, I'm exagerrating, but you get my point.

It will never be 'fast', but it will be, well, 'less slow', and I can definitely feel the difference between my old C2D laptop and this one. So I'm pretty happy with it right now. If only there'd be even less lag when switching between Library and Develop...


From: Matěj Cepl (Mar 28 2012, at 02:24)

As a Red Hatter I have to add that buying a real hardware doesn't have to mean using Windows, right? I have no idea whether Gimp/Krita would satisfy your needs, but I would give them a try.


From: Graeme Tait (Mar 28 2012, at 02:56)

I know you can always be waiting for better hardware but Intel's next generation of processors, Ivy Bridge, is due out in the next few months. So seriously, wait. Apple are very likely to have new Macbooks ready for sale as soon as these processors are released.


From: Dirkjan Ochtman (Mar 28 2012, at 03:19)

I'll echo the others that say you should wait for the upcoming MBP refresh.

Also, Windows 7 is seriously unexciting and doesn't really hold a candle to OS X. Especially when you do some development, don't underestimate the utility of not having to run cygwin to get a Unixy environment and a reasonable shell.

Maybe Windows 8 will be good, but chances are it's too schizophrenic to really call on, resulting in a neglected old-style Windows environment + a dumbed down, limited cool tile board.


From: Jurgen (Mar 28 2012, at 03:36)

Echoing a couple of other posters - unless you absolutely must upgrade RIGHT NOW, give it another month. The rumour mill is churning out stuff about a 15" MacBook AirProThing due to land in the next month or so, which could change things for you (and me!) dramatically.


From: Dave Pawson (Mar 28 2012, at 04:09)

If photo stuff is your issue, is it processing or viewing? how about a docking station and make use of a big screen (perhaps even hi Q screen) at home. Is it really just short term viewing when travelling?

HTH Dave


From: Ryan (Mar 28 2012, at 04:53)

A Mac Mini?


From: Fake Sigi (Mar 28 2012, at 05:06)

Echoing what the above commenters have said, the MacBook Pro line is due for a refresh shortly (no later than May, I would posit based on history). Rumors of retina displays have been flying for a while. And the processors, whether Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge, will be a huge jump from what you have.

If you're happy with the 13", my recommendation would be to wait for the new model, max out on processor speed, and go with SSD, with an optional Optibay install for a second drive.



From: Luke Tymowski (Mar 28 2012, at 05:23)

Get a 13" or 15" MBP with 4 GB of RAM, then visit Memory Express, or your preferred local computer shop, and get 16 GB of RAM. Should cost about $150 CDN. Takes five minutes to replace the memory.

I've done this on a couple of Macs at work, and I've put the same memory into my Mac Mini, which is my main photo processing machine.

I also use a MBA 13" with the i7 upgrade. Runs Lightroom just fine, but if I had to do it over again, I'd get the 13" MBP so I can put 16 GB in it. Makes a huge difference.

You can upgrade Sandy Bridge-based MBPs to 16 GB, earlier MBPs to only 8 GB.

Ivy Bridge-based MBPs, due in the next month or two, will give you about a 10-15 % performance increase, but a much better low-end video card (15" MBPs have two video cards, 13" just the low-end card).


From: Paul M. Watson (Mar 28 2012, at 05:55)

Problem with any of the Windows alternatives is the trackpad. The Mac trackpad has me spoilt rotten. No other laptop comes close. Not an issue if you use an external mouse for image editing I suppose.


From: Bud Gibson (Mar 28 2012, at 07:03)

I'm going to assume your problem is not in import. For processing, you need RAM and a fast processor. Also, make your lightroom cache on the SSD as large as possible.

Other than that, the advice everyone else is giving is good.


From: Paul (Mar 28 2012, at 07:08)

I have a MacBook Air and I recommend waiting for the new MacBook Pro's to come out that will allow you to up the ram a bit. At 4 Gb ram its useable but barely with Aperture so I assume it would be the same with Lightroom.


From: David Smith (Mar 28 2012, at 07:12)

All I can say is that the first thing I did with my 2011 13" MBP was to replace the Apple-installed (4GB) RAM with 8GB from Crucial (for $49 instead of the $250 that Apple wanted).

As the sage said, "Algorithms are for people who don't know how to buy RAM."


From: Bud Gibson (Mar 28 2012, at 08:39)

Thinking some more on this:

You can increase RAM beyond the stated Apple boundaries and you can get SSDs that connect to the SATA subsystem at faster speeds than the out-of-the-box version Apple provides. All of this can be done for less cost than getting equivalent Apple-supplied components.

Check out Other World Computing:


I did it with an aging macbook pro, and it breathed new life into the machine. If it were me, I'd get a stripped down new Apple computer and upgrade using those components.


From: Martin Heller (Mar 28 2012, at 08:45)

Tim, why are you restricting yourself to portable machines?

I have a Windows 7 2.6 GHz Phenom quad with 8 GB of RAM and an NVidia GTX 260, and an OS X Lion iMac 2.8 GHz i7 with 16 GB of RAM and a Radeon HD 6770M. The iMac runs Lightroom 4 a lot better, more than I can really explain by the difference in hardware.


From: Adam Maas (Mar 28 2012, at 09:23)

One thing to remember is that current i5 & i7 CPU's are significantly faster, clock for clock, than a Core 2 Duo. You should see a notable speed increase from the i5 in the current Air over your older C2D Air.


From: Arvind (Mar 28 2012, at 09:34)

I've shamelessly used a dual boot Windows 7 & "linux" on all my machines, grounded or otherwise. Mine is a split personality in that I run gentoo linux since I love cutting myself with OSS developments now & then but when I need to used quality paid software, I use Windows without feeling bad about it.


From: David Terei (Mar 28 2012, at 10:34)

> Is there anyone out there running Lightroom on a 15" MBP with SSD and 8G, and if so, how is it?

I run the current 15" MBP, 8GB of RAM and just a regular disk not SSD. It works great with lightroom, very pleasant to use. My old computer sounds similar to your current specs and the MBP was a huge upgrade in the usability of lightroom.


From: Ian (Mar 28 2012, at 13:38)

Windows 7 actually annoyed me to the point where I bought a used Mac - 15" Macbook Pro. (Been using Windows by default since the 3.x days)

If you are actually willing to lug around two machines, just buy a 15" Macbook Pro and upgrade it to at least 8GB. The display and the horsepower will knock your socks off: well worth a couple of extra pounds over the Macbook Air. (Though the latter is undeniably sexier)

Recommend investing in a 'Tilt' cooling shell (http://www.themadminds.com/pages/tilt) to help cool the back left corner of the case cool when you are doing all that graphics work.


From: David Magda (Mar 28 2012, at 17:27)

Apple hardware runs Windows, Linux, and OS X just fine. Wait for the impending refresh and make a decision then based on the new hardware specs.

You'll get a quality machine with flexible OS choices.


From: David Pitkin (Mar 28 2012, at 19:29)

You did not mention battery life, does that matter to you on your laptop? I say this as a MBA4,1 owner with an i7 who lusts after my Core2Duo battery life in an 11"


From: Beat Bolli (Mar 29 2012, at 02:05)

This may or may not be relevant:



From: Will Emerson (Mar 30 2012, at 01:11)

You aren't specific if your problem with Lightroom is in importing photos or viewing them or editing them or exporting them. If it's importing, find the best card reader, probably firewire 800 or thunderbolt? and the fastest cards. My biggest complaint with Lightroom is waiting for it to render raw images the first time after importing. That is when you are most anxious to see what you got and it's painful on an older computer. Editing seems pretty quick. Exporting is less painful since you can choose a batch of photos and walk away.

My one experience with Lightroom 3 on a 3 core 64-bit Windows machine at a client's was not good. Trouble importing and lots of crashes.

Good luck.

Will Emerson


From: John Brinkema (Mar 30 2012, at 08:47)

Have you considered the Cloud? That is, put windows and the software you need out on a Cloud resource; access it on demand (i.e., fire it when needed and when not have it sit on storage not costing much besides storage), choose virtual cloud CPU/memory resources that you need for your software, and buy a Mac Air (in April/May) for for Cloud resource access device and general joy.

TOTB (think outside the box)



From: Karl Voit (Mar 30 2012, at 14:57)

A very severe disadvantage of any Windows box is often neglected: you're going to have a decent anti-malware running in the background.

This means at least 30% of your CPU is going to be spent on scanning for viruses and such.

Scanners using less CPU are simply not effective enough.

So if you need the full strength of your hardware, Windows can not be of any choice at all.


From: Michael Bernstein (Mar 31 2012, at 10:25)

I'm also using Lightroom 4 to process 12MP raw images. My experience doing this on a 1.7GHZ MBA (i5) is definitely not smooth. Disk speed and RAM are not an issue (LR never uses more than 1GB, and the machine has an SSD). It's all about CPU.

I'd guess that the 4-core MBP will offer better performance, though I'm still dubious how snappy it will be for larger images (21 or 36MP).


From: Ian (Apr 02 2012, at 12:31)

Karl said,

"A very severe disadvantage of any Windows box is often neglected: you're going to have a decent anti-malware running in the background.

This means at least 30% of your CPU is going to be spent on scanning for viruses and such.


Hold on there a minute, we're not running Windows 3.x on a 486 box anymore.

Yes you really need to run a virus scanner on a Windows machine, however:

* even while actively scanning it should not be using anywhere near 30% of your CPU

* you should not need to run a system scan more than once a day, a full drive scan once a week, maybe once a month depending on your browsing habits & risk tolerance

* you can schedule your scans to run at times that are least likely to inconvenience you (lunchtimes / evenings typically)

* always-on passive scanning should not take more than one or two percent of your CPU, most of the time less than that

* if you don't like your virus scanner there are plenty of others to choose from including some good free ones


From: Jon Jennings (Apr 02 2012, at 16:24)

If you're looking non-Apple, Asus have some interesting stuff in the new release of their Zenbook coming out with the Ivy Bridge launch.

The Zenbook's pretty attractive already I think (13", i7, SSD), but the new version will include a full-HD IPS screen. Oh - and finally a backlit keyboard LOL


From: Karl Voit (Apr 04 2012, at 10:45)

ad Ian:

* 30% less CPU is almost a third(!) less processing power

* scans based on string comparison is not the most important method any more. You have to scan for malicious behavior. This has to be done constantly and costs you many CPU cycles. All effective malware products are using *multiple* scanners in parallel.

* I follow (good) tests for malware scanners and each of them come to one conclusion: effective scanners need processing power. If your scanner needs less CPU cycles, it is a bad scanner.

Sorry, if you need your metal power, you have to switch to an operating system that does not need a virus scanner (yet).

And yes, I do think that at least Mac OS X is going to face way more malware within the next years. This will bring the scanner problem to this platform as well. Despite the efforts to lock down Mac OS X to an appstore-only system.


From: Josh Tolle (Apr 07 2012, at 16:05)

I'm super late to the party here, but have you thought about setting up an always-on Mac Pro at home and then using Remote Desktop to get into it? You could upload the files from whatever your portable machine you use, and process them at home. This also brings up the possibility of processing them in a headless fashion if Lightroom is scriptable and you have a standard processing regimen through which you step before tweaking individual files. Just a thought.


From: Jonathan Borden (Apr 08 2012, at 12:11)

Hi Tim !

I've gone back to keeping native RAW files eg CR2 and/or whatever other RAW formats rather than converting to DNG. Kept on an openindiana/zfs box in the basement. The reason is that I found some programs eg DX0 that don't treat DNGs the same. In any case my desktop 8 core 12gb hackintosh isn't blazing ly fast at importing. I'm thinking that' Lightroom isn't so CPU bound so get whatever feels good. Using a desktop hackintosh that also triple boots into Windows 7 and Ubuntu finds me almost always booted into OS X lion with VMWare running both windows and Linux. The place where real performance is needed is video editing/transcoding.

I've also got an MBP early 2011 because the hardware is so nice.


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