The Best Travel Computer for the Serious Photographer

MacBook Pro 15"

A common question that I get from readers is: "which computer is the best for the traveling photographer?" Now's a great time to look at this, because all of the players have just been revised. The options for Mac users are tempting: iPad 2, MacBook Air (11" and 13"), and the MacBook Pro 15".

Since our focus is travel, let's start with weight, horsepower, battery, and resolution:

  • iPad 2 3G $829 - 1.35 pounds, 1GHz dual-core Apple A5 processor, and 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit glossy widescreen Multi-Touch display (1024 x 768), 10 hours of battery life.
  • MacBook Air 11" $1,399 - 2.3 pounds, 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 3MB shared L2 cache, 11.6-inch (diagonal) high-resolution LED-backlit glossy widescreen display with support for millions of colors (1366 by 768), 5 hours of battery life.
  • MacBook Air 13" $1,799 - 2.9 pounds, 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 6MB shared L2 cache (upgraded option), 13.3-inch (diagonal) high-resolution LED-backlit glossy widescreen display with support for millions of colors (1440 x 1900), 5 hours of battery life.
  • MacBook Pro 15" $2,349 - 5.6 pounds, 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with 6MB shared L3 cach, 15.4-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit glossy or optional antiglare widescreen display with support for millions of colors (1440 x 1900), 7 hours of battery life.

The next step is to decide what's most important to you in the "processing power vs weight" category. The MacBook Pro 15" is the fastest machine with the most storage. If you're capturing video and large Raw files, you're going to appreciate this muscle. A great machine for serious pro assignment photography.

The iPad with the optional Camera Connection Kit is a great choice for vacation travel, when you won't have as serious processing demands. It can handle Raw files and video, but it works best when you select a handful of favorite shots and play with those. The photo applications for the iPad are also quite affordable compared to the MacBooks. Typical price is $1.99 to $9.99 each.

The MacBook Air 13" strikes a compelling balance between the other two. It's weight is closer to the iPad 2, but it has much of the muscle of a MacBook. It's not as fast or contains as much storage as the new MacBook Pro 15", but it does run Photoshop, Aperture, Lightroom, and iPhoto very well. And the solid state drive does give it a very snappy feel. iPhoto comes with the machine, and you can get Aperture for $79 in the Mac App Store.

I've posted three articles on Macworld Magazine that dig deeper into these scenarios: Field testing the MacBook Air for photographers, A photographer's workflows for the MacBook Air, and A photographer's workflow for the iPad. Once you feel for which direction you want to go, check out the appropriate article for more details.

Bottom Line Considerations

Price -- iPad 2 3G with 64 GBs of Flash memory: $829 US; MacBook Air 11" with 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4 GBs Ram and 128 GBs Flash storage: $1,399 US; MacBook Air 13" with 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4 GBs Ram and 256 GBs Flash storage: $1,799 US; MacBook Pro 15" with 2.2GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7, 4 GBs Ram, 750GB Serial ATA Drive @ 5400 rpm, and 15-inch Hi-Res Antiglare Widescreen Display: $2,349 US

Connectivity -- The iPad comes with 3G cellular built-in ($15 month) so you have access to the Internet practically anywhere. The MacBooks have built-in WiFi requiring a network to browse the Web.

Space -- The iPad 2 and MacBook Air fits in most photo backpacks. The MacBook Pro requires a dedicate laptop storage area, which usually increases the size of your bag.

Power and Battery -- No doubt that MacBook Pro is a beast when it comes to power. The question is, how much power do you need on the road? The MacBook Pro also gives you 7 hours of battery life, 2 hours better than the Air, but not quite the 10 hours you get with the iPad.

I do a lot of traveling, and most of it includes assignment work. I'm currently using the first generation iPad and the beefed-up 13" MacBook Air (as listed in this article) on the road. My video editing is light; I'm usually preparing short movies for YouTube. I do shoot Raw with a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 60D. I haven't had any problem processing those files using Aperture on the Air. I would consider myself a light-duty pro photographer. Take this information and decide where you fit, then make the perfect choice for you.

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Derrick, what about the 13" Macbook Pro?? Over the Air, it gives you the option of 8Gb RAM, massive storage, built in ethernet, firewire, much faster processor, whilst still weighing significantly less than the 15" Pro and taking up less room in your bag.

Derrick, Nice summary of the available Apple products that fit several workflow and travel situations.
I myself use the 1st gen iPAD or Win7 laptop depending on circumstances.
Your 5d II uses CF cards - how do you deal with the limit of supplied power by the iPAD to a USB card reader? Or have you been using the 60D or S95 as the pairing with the iPAD?
I have been directly connecting my 7D to the iPAD. It works fine. I shoot RAW.
Is there a strategy for backup in the field when using the iPAD? Beyond a small number of shots while retaining RAW?
thanks, Jay

When I pair the 5D Mark II to the iPad, I now use the USB cable instead of the card reader. However, most of the time I'm using the 60D or the S90 when I'm in "iPad Only" mode.

For back up, I don't erase the cards...

As soon as I read "serious photographer" and "I'm using the 60D or the S90...", I stopped caring about the opinion in this article.

Then "Heco Nights," you're a snob. I've authored several books on photography, am the pro photographer evangelist for Lowepro, and have worked numerous serious events, such as the Olympics in Beijing.

And you failed to notice that the other body was a 5D Mark II and L glass.

Derrick - Allow me the reminder of SirRodSpode's question in the very first comment. I too would like to know your thoughts about the 13'' mbpro. I'm getting wildly different answers about it's performance running Aperture. Does it really suffer that much from the lighter graphics card?

As to Heco Nights - we've all known equipment snobs who never carry anything but the biggest and the best. They deserve every missed shot because they left their heavy, cumbersome, $$$ rigs behind. Your "Nimble" podcast remains one of my favorites.

OK, let's look at the new MBP 13", which is a heck of a good machine. Compared to the MB Air, it is heavier (4.5 pounds vs 2.9 pounds), and just as important for photogs trying to fit their laptops into camera bags, thicker at .95" vs 0.11-0.68 inch. The Air's wedge shape does make a positive difference when sliding it into document compartments in various bags.

But in terms of power, the new 13" MBP is a beast, plus you can get it with a solid state drive if you want those snappy read/write times. It will cost you less, between $1,200 and $1,500, compared to the $1,800 for the souped-up 13" Air... unless that is, you add the Solid State Drive, which will add $650 to the price tag for a 256 GB model.

So, if you don't need the reduced weight and thickness, or the additional resolution of the Air (1440x900 vs 1280 x 800 ), then I think it's an excellent choice. Nice of Apple to release these new models for us :)

How can you claim to make a "Serious" comparison without mentioning the different color gamuts of these laptops' displays?

I have yet to figure out what it is about "gear" be it photography or computer or what have you... that brings out not only incredible rudeness but outright *ahem* pissing contests over who knows more and is more "serious". Good grief! OTOH I will try to stick with my general rule of not feeding the trolls and move on to more important and fun things.

A great overview Derrick! I'm not looking to do major post processing work while traveling, I have a large home computer for that! Nor would I want to waste most travel time sitting in front of a computer fiddling with photo minutia. I can do that at home every day of the week if I want.

The ability to look at the photos on a larger screen and get an idea what I'm capturing and even what glaring mistakes I'm making is the main aim of a travel device for me. The teensy screen on the back of my camera is not anywhere near large enough for a good look.

Still - it's a very tough choice and I am awaiting the ipad2 and a good close look at that before deciding. Thanks for pulling it all together in a post!

I've been traveling for about 7 weeks now (India, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia) mostly hardcore backpacking with a 1st gen iPad, camera connection kit and a Pentax DSLR and Panasonic LX5.

The iPad is a godsend given it's extremely light weight and long battery life compared to a computer. Very easy to tote, and it reads RAW files directly from the Pentax and Lx5 directly. There's some nice affordable apps like PhotoGene and FilterStorm which make both quick edits and batch uploads easy. I'll never carry a computer again.

As for the camera snobs, the Panasonic Lx5 is seeing much more action given it's portability and speed. The DSLR is only used for extreme wide angle (15mm) and telephoto (400mm+). The Panasonic is a fantastic camera for enthusiasts, all the manual controls easily fall at hand.

You should correct the battery life of the MacBook Air it isn't 5 hrs it's 7 hours. Only the 11" has a 5 hour battery.

You said "I now use the USB cable instead of the card reader." How are you connecting the 5D via USB?

Ash, what led you to the LX5 over say an S95?