Computers tend to be one of those big-ticket items that make it on to many holiday shopping lists. With the current state of the economy, choosing the best machine for your money is probably a bigger concern for would-be computer shoppers this year than in the past.
If you’re thinking about buying a Mac for your family (or even yourself), understanding Apple’s product line can be important to making that right choice, whether you’re a longtime Mac fan or someone just considering switching from a PC.
MacBooks – From Air to Pro
Notebook computers on the whole tend to be more popular than their desktop counterparts and Apple’s lineup is no exception. With models that pack as much power as a desktop but with portability, the attraction is obvious. Apple’s current MacBook line includes four models, three of which were unveiled last month. Each model is aimed at specific tasks and types of users.
The low-end MacBook, with its white plastic case, is an update to the previous generation of MacBooks. Based around a 2.1GHz Intel Core 2Duo processor and Intel GMA X3100 integrated graphics chipset, these are good entry-level notebooks.
While they lack the flashy new unibody aluminum construction and oversized glass trackpadsof the brand new designs, they’re still good workhorse machines for students and home users. They can easily perform office tasks, run Windows (either via Apple’s free Boot Camp utility or a third party virtualization tool), and offer plenty of punch for typical Internet tasks like video chat using the built-in iSight camera that is standard across Apple’s notebook line. If you’re looking for a good basic Mac at low costs, they’re worth considering with a price tag starting at $999.
A step up in price is the new aluminum MacBook starting at $1299. These machines offer some new features, including the unibody construction and a very high-end display.
The display is probably the one thing that differentiates these machines at first sight from both the lower-end white MacBook and from many bargain PC notebooks. Based on an LED backlight, the display of the MacBook is incredibly bright and crisp and really should be seen in person to be appreciated (at the same time the LED backlighting reduces power consumption and increases battery life). If you’re looking for a machine to watch any visual content (even if only movies while on a plane), but still want a smaller form factor and lower cost, the MacBook is a great choice.
Beyond its screen, the MacBook packs a fair amount of power for most users with a 2.0GHz or 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor and NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated chipset. Like the lower-end MacBook, this is more than ample for home, office, and Internet tasks. Hard core gamers or graphics and video professionals might want to consider a higher-end MacBook Pro with its greater power and graphics chipset options as well as its larger (but equally bright and crisp) display. However, many users will be quite happy with the new MacBook.
But there is major caveat to the new MacBook, particularly for long-time Mac users: the lack of a Firewire port. Firewire, originally introduced by Apple in the late nineties, provides an interface for connecting high-speed peripherals like hard drives. It also provides an interface to many digital video cameras (sometimes under the name IEEE 1394 or Sony iLink).
If you currently rely on Firewire hard drives or plan to use a video camera with your Mac, this could be a major issue. If you have a video camera (or are planning to buy one) and are considering the new MacBook, you’ll want to ensure the camera supports USB 2.0 connectivity and that it offers support for using it with a Mac (you may also want to check camera reviews on retailer or manufacturer websites to be sure a model you’re considering actually works well with a Mac).
Depending on the cost and availability of an appropriate camera, you may find a different Mac model is a better option – Firewire camera support has been around both the digital video camera industry and the Mac for much longer and may be more reliable.
Up from the new MacBook is the new 15-inch MacBook Pro. Apple has always positioned the MacBook Pro (like the PowerBook line that it replaced) as a solution for professionals that have more computationally intensive needs.
As such, it offers somewhat faster processors (either 2.4 GHz or 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo) and graphics chipsets (the new MacBook Pro actually offers two graphics chipsets in each machine, the NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT with 512MB of video memory for greater performance and the same integrated GeForce 9400M as the new MacBook for better power conservation and battery life with no dedicated video memory).
The MacBook Pro also offers a larger screen at 15-inches. If you’re someone who does professional video or graphics work or if you’re a gamer, the MacBook Pro will likely be appealing for these reasons. However, with a $700 price jump from the entry level MacBook to a starting price of $1999, you may find the MacBook a better choice, particularly if you commonly don’t use high-end media applications.
In addition to power, the MacBook Pro also offers greater screen real estate and it comes with a full set of common ports. The only exception is again with Firewire. While the MacBook Pro does still ship with Firewire, it does so using a Firewire 800 port. This port, which is the latest version of the Firewire standard, offers twice the data transfer speeds of the original Firewire port (Firewire 400). But because the port is itself different, you’ll need to use a Firewire 800 to Firewire 400 adapter to connect older devices.
Next up is the 17-inch MacBook Pro. Unlike the new MacBook and 15-inch MacBook Pro, the 17-inch model did not get updated with the rest of the lineup in October. However, that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in power. With a 2.5GHz Core 2 Duo processor and NVIDIA GeForce 8600 M GT graphics chipset with 512MB of dedicated video memory, this machine can still give the new MacBook Pro a run for its money.
The big difference between the two is the 17-inch display and the new features of the more recent 15-inch models. Although form fact may limit the portability of the machine, it is one of the most amazing notebook displays (again, it is LED-based for bight and clear visuals) on the market. The sheer size of the screen makes this machine a complete desktop replacement. It also offers the complete range of ports. Of course, all of this does come with a price range of $2799.
The final MacBook contender is the ultra-portable MacBook Air starting at $1799. Originally introduced last winter and updated in October, the MacBook Air offers the most limited performance with either 1.6GHz or 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo and integrated NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics chipset.
It also is the most limited in terms of ports (offering only a USB, audio, and video) and other frills. To keep the size down, Apple designed the MacBook Air without a built-in CD/DVD drive or the ability to be expanded in any way. (But an external DVD drive is available and the MacBook Air can access disks inserted in another computer on a home or office network.)
The results of those trade-offs is a very lightweight machine that is easily carried anyplace. Although the Air isn’t going to replace an existing machine, it is a great second machine to complement an existing Mac or PC desktop.
Desktops – From Mini to Pro
While Apple’s notebook lineup tends to be more popular, the company also offers a range of desktop models. As with the MacBook line, Apple has differentiated its desktop offerings into three core groups: the Mac Mini, iMac, and Mac Pro.
The Mac Mini is the lowest cost Mac model on the market, starting at $599. The Mini is a desktop machine that is designed to provide decent but not stellar performance in a minimal form factor. Roughly the same size and shape of five CD jewel cases stacked on top of each other, the mini is as much a miracle of engineering as most notebooks. The mini ships without a display, keyboard, or mouse and without a built-in camera, but it does include a range of common ports and, like all Apple’s products, includes support for wireless Bluetooth devices and for all major wireless networking standards.
With Core 2 Duo processors at 1.83GHz and 2.0GHz and an integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics chipset, the mini won’t be winning many speed contests, but it will meet the needs of most users in terms of office and Internet tasks, as well as home media functions like working with home movies and photos using Apple’s iLife suite.
It will also run Windows passably for most consumers. If you’re looking for a good entry-level desktop Mac, the mini is a great value packed into a small form factor. Note: the entry-level Mac mini, unlike other Mac models, ships with only a combo CD-R/RW/DVD drive that cannot record data to DVDs (though this is available on the more expensive $799 version).
While the mini can seem a little bare bones, the iMac line ships with everything you need in a one box. Apple’s well-known all-in-one machine offers a very crisp display that rivals the screen quality of most HDTVs of similar sizes. The iMac ships with a full range of ports and is available in 20-inch and 24-inch models with processors ranging from 2.4GHz at the low end to 3.06GHz at the high end. There are varying graphics chipset options from both ATI and NVIDIA, though all offer dedicated video memory. The result is somewhat better performance and a complete out of the box solution than the Mac Mini.
The current iMacs offer everything that most home users (and many office users) will need both in terms of performance and features. Like the MacBooks, the iMac includes a built-in iSight camera and (like all Macs save the Mac Pro), it includes support for the Apple Remote and Front Row media center, which can make it a perfect home entertainment machine.
The one potential downside to the iMac is that it is an all-in-one. Should one component be damaged or should you eventually decide to upgrade, you will be forced to repair or replace the iMac as a single unit. This contrasts to the Mac mini and Mac Pro (and most PCs) where you can replace just the computer and retain an existing display. In fact, the freedom to use an existing display and thus reduce the cost of buying a new Mac can be a solid argument in favor of the Mini over the iMac.
The final Mac on the list is Apple’s high-end Mac Pro desktop. The Mac Pro is designed to offer performance and expandability. It is the most upgradable of Mac options on the market (offering four internal hard drive bays, two optical drive bays, and three PCI Express expansion card slots – one PCI Express 2.0x16 slot and two PCI Express x4 slots). Unlike the rest of Apple’s lineup, which offer no more than two RAM slots, the Mac Pro offers up to eight.
The Mac Pro is the only Mac model (aside from the Xserve rack-mounted server) to offer more than two processor cores. It is available with one or two quad-core Intel Xeon 5400 processors, offering up to eight cores, meaning that it can pack far more punch than any other Mac available. While this level of performance may be overkill for most consumers, gamers and media professionals will more than appreciate the computational and rendering power offered by the Mac Pro.
Of course, all that performance comes a price, with the Mac Pro ranging in cost from $2299 to $4399 depending on the processor options chosen alone. The base configuration, which can be customized at Apple’s online store, is an dual quad-core model at 28GHz for $2799. Like the iMac line, a number of graphics chipsets from both ATI and NVIDIA are available (the Mac Pro can also support multiple graphics cards).
As you might expect from such a highly expandable machine, the Mac Pro offers a full range of ports, including digital optical TOSLINK in and out. However, given it’s aim of being high-powered pro workstation, it comes without support for some of the features common in other Mac models, such as the iSight camera or support for the Apple Remote. (But the Front Row environment is still available when using keyboard short cuts or the Remote application for the iPhone/iPod Touch).
Beyond the considerations of the various Mac lines, you should be aware that the most recent models introduced in October (the new MacBook, MacBook Pro, and iMac models) rely on a new display connector known as Mini DisplayPort. This emerging standardfor connecting computers to displays is currently only used on Apple’s Cinema Display line. You will need to use an adapter for any other displays. Adapters are available to convert from to both DVI and VGA for use with older or non-Apple displays.
Another, more recent revelation, is that Apple has implemented content protection on the computers to prevent copyrighted content purchased from the iTunes Store to be played on devices that might digitally record it. (This is based on the same technology that is implemented by Blu-ray players and most HD set top boxes such as those from cable companies).
You may want to keep this in mind when planning purchases of any devices (such as third-party displays, projectors, and HDTVs) – either looking for compatible displays or opting for an earlier Mac model with a standard DVI port output.
Used or Refurbished Macs
If your budget is limited, you might also consider purchasing a used or refurbished Mac. Like a good car, most Macs tend to offer pretty good performance even if they’re a couple of years out of date.
You can sometimes find good deals on sites like eBay or Craigslist or other classified outlets. If you are in the market for a used Mac, however, you should investigate the age and models within your price range. In some cases, the difference in price between a used Mac and a newer model aren’t worth opting for the lower cost in the long term (also like a good car, Macs tend to hold their resale value).
With support for pre-Intel Macs uncertainin Apple’s upcoming Snow Leopard release of Mac OS X, your best bet for a used Mac is most likely one of the Intel models introduced in the past two years (all of which also offer the ability to run Windows if needed).
That said, an earlier iMac or Mac mini can make a very good option for someone who just needs basic Internet access. EveryMac and Low End Macare two sites that can be helpful for researching past Mac models.
Apple itself also offers offers refurbished Macs for sale. Refurbished Macs can come from a variety of sources (such as used demo machines, business leased machines that are returned at the end of the lease, and customer returns). Apple does certify that these Macs have been restored to factory conditions and functionality and does offer a one year warranty. While many users report no problems with refurbished Macs, you may want to opt for extended warranty coverage if you purchase one, just to be on the safe side.