Image: Jason Koebler
Apple’s MacBook lineup now features the impossibly thin MacBook Air, the impossibly thinner MacBook, a whole host of MacBook Pros with Retina displays that look gorgeous, and a heavy, middling laptop it hasn’t updated or changed the specs on since 2012. Guess which one is the right choice for lots of people?
The 2012, non-Retina, regular ol’ MacBook Pro is the most compelling—and maybe the best—laptop Apple sells. Its battery doesn’t last as long as its glamorous siblings, it’s not the lightest or the prettiest, but, with a little tweaking, it can arguably become the most powerful.
And that’s the key thing: tweaking. The 2012 MacBook Pro is the only computer Apple sells that has any level of post-purchase customizability worth talking about. While the new, much buzzed-about 2015 MacBook has been engineered to remove every tiny little bit of waste from its internal chassis (there’s one shared USB/charging port. One!), as have the MacBook Airs and more visually stunning Retina MacBook Pros, the 2012 MacBook Pro has plenty of space inside for you to tinker. This customizability also means the computer is much more easily repaired than any of Apple’s other models.
First, let’s take a look at what Apple sells you as stock. The standard MacBook Pro is the only computer that Apple sells that still has a DVD drive or optical disc drive of any sort. It’s the only laptop that has an ethernet port. It’s the only laptop that has Firewire. This may or may not matter to you, but it’s worth mentioning. A base model is $1,099, but if we’re trying to make this a workhorse, let’s soup up the only thing that isn’t easily modifiable. An extra $150 gets you a 2.9 GHz dual core Intel i7 processor, which puts it on par with many of Apple’s newer (and more expensive) laptops.
From there, the computer becomes your own canvas.
If that DVD drive doesn’t matter to you, you can rip it out and put another hard drive in: “Most folks replace their optical drive with an SSD,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixIt, which we profiled in November, told me. “It’s pretty cheap to have a 1 TB spinning drive and a 256 GB SSD.” The computer also uses standard RAM, so you can buy 16 gigs of it for a pittance, pop it in in a couple minutes, have a very, very fast computer. If your main reason for buying an Apple is OS X versus, say, an incredibly thin form factor, why would you choose anything else?
“Apple’s refusal to add this display to a full-featured, upgradeable laptop almost seems punitive at this point.”
The idea that the 2012 MacBook Pro is still a good computer is quickly gaining traction in tech circles. Earlier this month, Marco Arment, cofounder of Tumblr and inventor of Instapaper and Overcast podcasting app, wrote about the curious popularity of the computer.
“It’s an open secret among Apple employees that the [computer] still sells surprisingly well—to a nearly tragic degree, given its age and mediocrity,” he wrote. Later in the post, however, he notes that, given its upgradability, it’s a “surprisingly compelling” buy.
“As we’ve progressed toward thinner, lighter, more integrated Macs, we’ve paid dearly in upgradeability, versatility, and value,” he wrote. “There are many Macs to choose from today, but in some ways, we have less choice than ever. The [computer] represents the world we’re leaving behind, and our progress hasn’t all been positive.”
LOOK AT ALL THE PORTS. Image: Apple
Apple doesn’t release specific sales figures for specific products, so we can’t know how many of these computers it’s still selling. But the fact that a company that desperately attempts to be make the lightest and thinnest everything is still selling a nearly four year old computer without making any upgrades whatsoever means that it must still have customers making it worth the company’s while. Its continued existence (like skyrocketing secondary market prices of the iPod classic) also suggests that not everyone is thrilled with the direction Apple is taking its computers, that there are customers who yearn for the days when it was possible to buy a computer and continue to upgrade it for years, essentially rebuilding the device as parts break or upgrading it as parts become cheaper and faster.
Apple doesn't seem particularly happy about this fact, by the way. The computer is buried on the pages where you can actually look at its specs or buy it, and when you try to pull up pictures of the thing, Apple shows you pictures of the Retina-display model.
Wiens and his company, for example have spent the last several years railing against Apple’s insistence on making its computers impossible to upgrade and difficult to repair. He says his employees now uniformly use classic 2012 MacBook Pro laptops. The only thing he wishes is that Apple would offer a version of the computer with a higher-resolution screen (“Apple’s refusal to add a Retina display to a full-featured, upgradeable laptop almost seems punitive at this point,” he told me).
If you want a computer that’s going to last a few years, you could do worse. Apple computers (well, all laptops) notoriously have batteries that fail a couple years into their lifespan. Well, guess what? The 2012 MacBook Pro is the only Apple laptop that has an easily replaceable battery.
“The battery is the biggest deal for me, and it’s easy to swap,” Wiens said. “Size and thickness is a non-issue. They’re very portable, durable machines. And modularity equals flexibility.”