hardware

Mac hardware options for indie devs, Spring 2020

It's not all roses, I can tell you that.

My adventure into Hackintosh land was successful but ultimately fruitless for my work as iOS/watchOS/tvOS developer using Xcode. It does not look like this is something that will be resolved anytime soon, if ever. By all accounts, OpenCore developers do not care about AMD as they are way too busy with Intel side of things. I don’t care about Intel-based Hackintoshes, price/benefit is not worth it versus buying Apple Macs.

Thus once again I find myself reviewing computer options that Apple offers. This article is aimed at small companies and serious indie developers who do this for living; not for home and hobby use.

We are a small agency exclusively using MacBook Pros. Currently those are 2016 models, which are in their 4th year of use. Great machines, working 50+ hours every given week. Upgrading to 2019 MBP models would certainly be a welcome upgrade as we would jump from 4-core to 8-core CPUs.

But they are still laptops, as in — mobile machines. If you don’t use them as such, it makes little sense to buy one. I spent 4 years working in coffee shops, traveling a lot, always having the MBP with me. I could do my work anywhere and MBP was great choice. For the last 2 years though, we are primarily desktop bound and those laptops are almost never going anywhere. Hence, desktop Macs.

At least there, if you spill your coffee over the keyboard, you change the keyboard in an hour and move on. We had few cases of coffee incidents all over the MacBook Pro which meant 1 to 4 weeks of machine being in service and those repairs are very expensive. For tiny companies like our, it is not feasible to have extra machines on stand-by, just in case. If you are 10+ person company, it makes sense to have one or two machines extra; options to instantly buy something you need are not always available in Serbia.

So when we purchase a computer, we need it to work reliably and for a long time, 3+ years minimum. Reliability is the key. General business math is that computer we purchase should yield us at least 10x ROI over 3 years. That means 3k machine should lead to minimum 30k over 3 years. 2 machines, 60k. That leaves enough money for business and private spending; paying off mortgage and car, family and business travel and other bits of joy and life. Plus have enough to purchase new models at the end of the cycle.

So…options?

Mac mini is not an option, don’t even look at it.

iMac line offers the same CPUs as MacBook Pros. When you look closely, 27-inch iMac is pretty much identical to 16-inch MacBook Pro with a bigger display and faster single-core-clock CPU.

iMac seems like the most sensible upgrade path for us if it wasn’t for the very reason I went on the said Ryzentosh adventure: we need more than 8 cores. Way more. Ana is increasingly working with machine learning and is very interested in AR. She also regularly runs at least one VMWare instance with some heavy software running in it while she’s coding in macOS. I wrote previously why I need as many cores as I can get.

Thus iMac, with its maximum of 8 cores, is an OK upgrade but you stay locked into the config you buy. Nothing in those machines is upgradable which is why I’m always looking at the top of the line. You spend ~$3500 and you should look at earning 35k.

Then there’s iMac Pro and Mac Pro. Both of those are using almost the priciest line of Intel CPUs: the Xeon W series. This is infuriating to even look at, with that monstrosity of the socket 3467 they live in. iMac Pro is closed-off and impossible to upgrade as you can imagine it to be.

If you think Mac Pro is more open to CPU upgrades — think again. At least you can add storage (apart from the boot SSD), RAM and change graphics cards as you want. Buying such an expensive machine in its lowest config is not sensible to me, thus this 9.5k config is what I would go for.

Look at the prices then check your math and business outlook. Can you earn 80-100k over 3 years, per developer?

However you look at this, prices are not for the faint-hearted indie devs. People like to compare high-end configuration of Mac Pro with equivalent Dell or Lenovo or HP models and prices are not much different for configs in the 30-50k range. But these less expensive configs reveal that Apple models are far pricier than say HP’s Z workstations:

It’s 5.5k versus 9.5k. That’s almost double for the same CPU, memory and storage and comparable graphics card. That’s just staying in Intel’s backyard. With AMD you can get better machine for 2x less money. Here’s what ~$2500 gets you:

I deliberately picked more expensive and feature-rich components. It’s an amazing powerhouse for the money. Windows customers not buying AMD-based configs are crazy.


I personally think, being Apple customer for 10+ years, that hardware quality Apple gives you is well worth the price if you can put all of that hardware to good use.

So, to summarise…

iMac Pro is just non-sensical to even consider. I am well aware it’s a great machine but looking at the hardware in it and the package you get it in – it’s a ridiculous product. The only useful upgrade over regular iMac are the CPU options with many, many cores. Those CPUs are not worth 4k price hike over regular iMac 27-inch. Not by a long shot.

Mac Pro remains as the somewhat reasonable purchase but again — if and only if you put all that it offers to good use now, starting today.

We can’t. We simply don’t do anything that would make business sense to buy it. You don’t change machines with price tag of 10k or more every 3 years. They should work double that as minimum, preferably even longer. If you think that in 6-8 years you’ll be able to expand and upgrade that machine as you want (the most basic promise of desktop computers)…well think again.

Bottom line: for indie devs and companies under 3-5 people, looking for desktop purchase this year: top of the line iMac 27-inch is most sensible option. If you can wait, you should; wait for next iMac refresh and purchase it then. It should give you 3+ years of piece (if nothing breaks 🤞🏻) and you can peacefully wait for ARM-based Macs or whatever new iMac models appear then.

Oh, make sure you buy top of the line iMac with SSD. HDD or Fusion drives in 2020 are just an insult at those prices; which is the reason to wait until next refresh as that will probably bring 2x more SSD storage at same price and more modern AMD Navi GPUs (5x00 series).