Opinion: Which Mac should I buy?

Between the Macworld forums, Mac OS X Hints, and conversations with family and friends, I spend a lot of time helping people. And the two questions that come up the most frequently also happen to be the two that are hardest to answer.

  • Which Mac should I buy?
  • When should I buy my Mac?
  • It’s easy to understand the motivation behind the first question: people want to get the best Mac possible without going over their budget. As for the second question, people want to buy a Mac safe in the knowledge that it won’t become instantly out-of-date thanks to a forthcoming upgrade.

    Both questions are hard to answer—I’ll explain why below—but I’m still going to take a stab at tackling both. Yes, without even knowing what Macs you’re interested in, I’ll attempt to tell you which one to get and when to buy it—a pretty amazing trick, I think. I’ll do this even with the World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC)—and the possibility of a new hardware unveiling—less than two weeks away.

    Which Mac should I buy?

    The difficulty : It’s hard telling people which Mac is the “right” one for them to get because everyone’s situation is different. Like the Diff’rent Strokes theme song says, what might be right for you may not be right for some. A graphic artist working on 300MB Photoshop images needs a much different machine than someone who just reads e-mail and surfs the Internet. So giving anyone advice is a troublesome proposition, because you need to know quite a bit of background information before you can offer meaningful feedback.

    Personally, I find it hard to make any machine recommendation without knowing the following information:

  • Budget: How much are you willing to spend to get a functional system (machine, keyboard, monitor, mouse)?
  • Timeframe — when do you plan on buying? How soon do you need the machine?
  • Intended usage: As best as possible, explain how you’re going to use the machine. Office applications, coding, movie editing, games (and what kind of games)—these are all things that factor into this. Try to give approximate time splits, as in 30 percent gaming, 60 percent office apps, and 10 percent video editing. The more info you can provide on the machine’s intended use, the better the advice you’re likely to receive.
  • Portability: Are you looking for a machine that offers you a degree of mobility? Or do you have one place in mind where you plan to use the computer? This will help determine whether you should consider a laptop or desktop.
  • Even with all of the above information, it’s still hard to say, “Ah right, based on that, then Machine XYZ is perfect for you!”—there are just too many variables involved. However, with the above data, it’s at least possible to say, “Well, based on that, then I think Machine ABC or DEF would be a good fit.” The more data the potential buyer can provide on their usage and budget, the easier it gets to make a recommendation.

    My answer : And before I give that recommendation, consider what the response might be if a friend were to ask you “So which car should I buy?” With the exception of the ‘portability’ question, you would want to know your friend’s budget, buying timeframe, and intended usage before answering the question. There are other things, obviously, but the point is that you wouldn’t feel comfortable answering the question without having more information available.

    So now assume your friend tells you all of the above, and then asks which car to buy. Now you might have a few recommendations, but I bet that all of them would end with the same general advice: “You need to go look at and drive each of these vehicles to see if they really do meet your needs.” Nobody would blindly purchase a car they’d never seen or driven, based solely on the recommendation of a friend. And in that observation lies my answer to the question of which Mac someone should buy.

    Assuming I have all the relevant background info, I will often make a suggestion for one machine or another to a prospective buyer. However, I will also tell people that they’re shortchanging themselves if they don’t go “test drive” the Macs at a local reseller before buying. It’s just common sense—I know I wouldn’t plop down my hard-earned cash until I had a chance to use a machine in person, and I think it’s odd that others will make buying decisions solely on the advice of others. I realize that not everyone has a locally-convenient Apple reseller, but even if it’s a two-hour drive, I think the time investment is well worth it. There’s no substitute for seeing and using the product you’re about to buy before you make that final decision.

    I’ve also found that employees at Apple stores (both Apple-owned locations as well as independent resellers) are a cut above what I run into at the typical big-box electronics retailer. These people are great sources of information about which Mac would best fit your needs, so take advantage of their expertise and talk with them as well.

    Regardless of the budget, I always advise people to buy the fastest Mac in the range that fits their needs—having more speed may not be required for your current tasks and applications, but it will help keep your machine usable for a longer period of time.

    In the past, answering this question also required a discussion about processors—G3 versus G4 versus G5. With the move to the Intel family of chips, however, this part has gotten somewhat simpler: with the exception of the entry-level 1.5GHz Mac mini, every Intel-based machine Apple currently sells is powered by a Core Duo processor.

    So in short, the answer to “Which Mac should I buy?” comes down to “the one that’s right for your intended usage, and that you’ve had a chance to actually use to make sure it’s a fit for you personally.” I wouldn’t ever buy a car without some “hands on” time, nor would I do so with something as major as a large technology purchase. Now for an even harder question…

    When should I buy my Mac?

    The difficulty : Keeping in mind that most people ask this question in the context of wanting to buy a Mac that stays on the cutting edge, when you think about the answer to this is “Never.” It’s never the right time to buy any piece of cutting-edge computing hardware because it’s guaranteed that something faster, sleeker, and cheaper will be coming along “any day now.” So no matter when you choose to buy, your machine will most likely be technically out of date within a reasonably short period of time after your purchase.

    Note that this does not mean the machine is obsolete; it just means you no longer have the fastest whatever-it-is on the block. Here’s where it’s important to remember that you’re buying this computer to do certain things. The arrival of a newer, faster machine doesn’t suddenly make your purchase useless—it will still do those things you bought it to do quite easily, and it will do them for many years to come.

    But there are still steps you can take to reduce the risk of having a new-and-improved machine come along before you can even get your new purchase home.

    Unlike some other technology companies, Apple provides little help, since there’s no roadmap of upcoming products. The company never talks about any product until it’s released. Part of that philosophy is financially-driven—many people wouldn’t buy Machine X.1 if they knew that Machine X.2 was due out in three months. But competitive and marketing reasons also figure into Apple’s silence. By not discussing new product plans, the company at least slows down the copy cats (remember all the G5-like enclosures for PCs?). Apple’s silence also creates a buzz in the air around its product unveilings.

    Still, it’s never fun to buy a machine on Tuesday only to have something faster and better come along on Wednesday. With that in mind…

    My answer : You should wait as long as possible to purchase your Mac, and then buy it. Once you’ve made the purchase decision, don’t look back—have no regrets about the decision, and don’t lament the arrival of a faster and cheaper machine, even if it’s announced a week later. As I noted, there’s never a “right” time to buy, so you should just hold off as long as you can, then buy and move on.

    With that said, there are some things you can do to possibly avoid the problem of buying just before Apple revs its lineup. First, Apple’s biggest annual event is Macworld Expo, held each January. It’s very common for new machines to be introduced at this show. So if it’s November or December and you haven’t yet purchased a new Mac, it’s probably in your best interest to wait until Expo to see what’s announced. Often times, however, the newly-introduced machines aren’t immediately available—but you may be able to get a price break on the current machines after the new ones are announced, if you need the computer immediately.

    The other annual event that’s gaining importance in Apple’s eyes is the WWDC (which kicks off next month). Historically, this event was only for developers, and there wasn’t much focus on hardware. In recent years, however, Apple has introduced several products including the PowerMac G5, the iSight video camera, and the 30-inch Cinema Display. So it seems that the WWDC conference should also go on the list of blackout dates, around which you should avoid hardware purchases. (Historically, the WWDC has been in June, but it’s in early August this year.)

    Seen graphically, the “buying calendar” for a new Mac might look something like this:


    Avoid buying in the red zone, and you’ll minimize the chances of a product revision coming out shortly after your purchase. Of course, this is predicated on Apple keeping WWDC in August each year. Also, as Apple’s business has grown, it has taken to introducing products at press events held during all times of the year. While the above strategy helps avoid obvious periods for product launches, it’s no guarantee that something faster won’t come out the day after you make your purchase. If that happens, just remember the “don’t look back” portion of my advice, and enjoy your new Mac.

    Some people say that you can get a good feel for what’s coming up by keeping an eye on the rumor sites. In my experience, however, those sites are wrong as often as they’re right, so the question would be which reports one chooses to believe. Personally, although I enjoy reading the rumor sites to see what people think is coming up, I wouldn’t base a purchase decision around the rumored release of a product.

    Conclusion

    Of course, the nature of these two questions is that there really is no single “right” answer. The question of which Mac to buy is clearly based on your individual needs, and there is no right time to buy. But by providing your friends and Apple reseller employees with good info on your intended uses and paying some attention to the scheduling of a couple of key Apple events, you can wind up with the machine you need while minimizing the chances of making your purchase immediately before a major revision is released.

    But if all else fails, remember “don’t look back.” Regardless of which machine you buy, and what happens after you buy it, you should be content knowing you’re using the finest operating system on the finest hardware available.

    [ Senior Editor Rob Griffiths runs the Mac OS X Hints Web site. ]

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