That maybe a nigh-on ten-year-old design, but the mid-2012 MacBook Pro (A1278) is still the best laptop Apple have made. There are people who say that the model which superseded it (the A1502 Retina MacBook Pro) is the best one. I won’t fight them on that – those 2015 MacBook Pros are still excellent machines, with many of the same attractive qualities as the A1278 – but they are wrong.
The A1278 is more serviceable and more upgradeable. You can easily change the battery when its performance inevitably starts to wear out (as happens to all batteries). You can change and upgrade the storage (in my own mid-2012 MacBook Pro, I have fitted a 1TB SSD as a system drive, plus a 2TB SATA disk in place of where the original optical drive used to be). And you can change the RAM up to an actual maximum of 16GB in a matter of moments.
With the A1502 model, on the other hand, changing the battery is difficult as the original battery is glued in place – and a replacement battery can cost up to five times what a new battery for a mid-2012 MacBook Pro costs. You can still change or upgrade the storage – but the NVMe SSD this model requires also costs a lot more. RAM is soldered onto the Logicboard and cannot be replaced or upgraded. And although you gain onboard HDMI and more Thunderbolt 2 ports (compared to the A1278), you lose Ethernet and FireWire 800 ports.
However, if you are content with your specs (or happy to spend more time and money on maintenance) the 2015 Retina MacBook Pro is still a very good machine, and very nice to use. It’s after 2015 that things really start to go downhill…
For the last five years, Apple have insisted on producing worse laptops than they did in the past. Gradually removing all the features people actually liked and used, whilst at the same time making the machines all but impossible to repair or maintain.
Consider some of the features of the older MacBooks I have mentioned which no longer appear on the newer models… Apple’s MagSafe charger design is a work of true genius. It’s subtle pieces of brilliance in design like MagSafe which in the past have set Apple’s products apart from the herd, and made it worth paying the premium for their brand. So in 2016, Apple discontinued this universally-acclaimed design in favour of charging over USB-C on their new A1707 MacBooks (which iFixIt scores a lousy 1/10 for repairability).
Likewise, the mid-2012 MacBook Pro and the earlier Retina models produced alongside it feature a scissor-style keyboard using a mechanism Apple calls a ‘Magic Keyboard’, which in my opinion is an absolute joy to type on. In 2015, Apple started using their ‘Butterfly Keyboard’ mechanism instead – a keyboard mechanism which is painful to use, received consistently negative reviews, and was actually the subject of a lawsuit – purely for the sake of slightly thinner MacBooks.
This single-minded pursuit of thin and lightweight has resulted in laptops which are less repairable, less upgradeable, have keyboards which hurt your hands, and feature next to no connectivity (a MacBook Pro which has four USB ports – one of which has to be used for the charger – and nothing else is not, in my opinion, Pro at all).
So although they may seem chunky by today’s standards, the mid-2012 MacBook Pro is still a vastly more Pro device than almost all the MacBook models released after it. The specs are still comparable to much more recent machines – and if you happen to buy one with lower specs, you can upgrade it to the maximum for around £100, with less than an hour’s work. You can plug in almost everything you might need to plug in, without having to take out a mid-sized bank loan to purchase Apple’s own cable adaptors. And you get all the advantages of some of Apple’s best design work – especially the MagSafe charger.
The only serious downside of the older A1278 is that the onboard graphics chip seriously limits performance if you are running a very graphics-intense workflow (video editing or rendering, for example). It is possible to get around this, although the workaround is a clunky and not-especially-portable solution.
A couple of years ago, Apple finally opened up the use of external graphics cards with MacBooks, recognising that thermal throttling on graphics issues is one of the biggest causes of loss of performance for MacBook users. Officially, eGPUs are only supported on Thunderbolt 3 enabled Macs running macOS 10.13.4 (‘High Sierra’) or later. However, it is possible to force eGPU support on Thunderbolt 2 Macs (including the A1278 MacBook Pro) using the PurgeWrangler script, which is something I have done successfully prior to my Cheesegrater Mac Pro build.
(I should note that since I did that, Mayank Kumar who designed the PurgeWrangler script has released a new version called Kryptonite, which supersedes PurgeWrangler as it does not need root level kernel modifications requiring System Integrity Protection to be disabled on your Mac. I have not personally tried Kryptonite, as I have not used my eGPU much recently.)
I would not recommend taking this route unless you know that you are going to be running lots of heavy-duty graphics on your Mac. But it is always worth being aware that these types of modifications are available for certain specific use cases.
In conclusion, the only thing you gain by opting for a MacBook built in 2015 or later is a marginal saving in terms of size and weight. Personally, I would always rather have a computer which is slightly bulkier, but is actually fit for purpose and which can be repaired when it goes wrong.