Picking the Right Apple: A Guide to Apple's Mac Lineup

An overview of the Mac line, from the MacBook Air to the Mac Pro desktop. What’s your best choice?
Posted November 19, 2008

Ryan Faas

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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 trackpads of 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.

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Tags: video, Apple, Intel, Mac OS X, MacBook

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