Excerpt: Take Control of Buying a Mac

Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from Take Control of Buying a Mac, a $10 electronic book available for download from TidBits Electronic Publishing. The 91-page ebook helps readers figure out which Mac to buy, reveals Apple’s release schedule, compares different Mac resellers, and offers step-by-step instructions for moving data to a new Mac. Purchasers save 30 percent on Take Control orders through the end of 2006.

Once you’ve decided on a model of laptop or desktop Mac, the next task is to figure out which options you need. In some cases, Apple has limited the options for specific models in a way that helps solidify your decision. For instance, if you currently want a laptop with an ExpressCard slot, the MacBook drops out of consideration.

CPU (type, number, and speed)

For many people, the main decision to make when choosing which model of a particular Mac line to buy revolves around the CPU, for the simple reason that the type of CPU, the number of CPUs, and the CPU speed relate directly to how fast the Mac will be.

All current Macs use the Intel Core Duo, Core 2 Duo, or Xeon chip for the CPU. (One now-obsolete Mac mini model used the Intel Core Solo chip.) All of these are available only in a dual-core configuration (two CPUs on a single chip). The table below shows a basic comparison of some of their differences, but there’s not much of a decision to make, since your choice of machine determines the CPU type.

Comparison of the CPUs

Intel Core Duo Intel Core 2 Duo Intel Xeon
Good to great performance for Mac OS X About 10 percent faster than the Core Duo Highest performance (up to two times faster than the PowerPC G5)
Used in the first-generation Intel-based iMac, MacBook, and MacBook Pro as well as the current Mac mini Used in the second-generation Intel-based iMac, MacBook, and MacBook Pro Used only in the Mac Pro, which includes two of them to provide quad-core performance
No 64-bit support 64-bit support for scientific applications 64-bit support for scientific applications

The main decision to make revolves around CPU speed, also commonly called “clock speed,” as measured in gigahertz (GHz). To make an informed decision, you must understand a few facts:

  • Within a chip model, such as the Intel Core Duo, clock speed tracks with CPU performance, though not directly. A 1.83GHz Core Duo will be faster than a 1.66GHz Core Duo, but it won’t necessarily be 10 percent faster.
  • You can’t compare clock speeds between chip models in a particularly relevant way, so don’t get caught up trying to compare a 1.66 GHz Core Duo with a 3GHz Xeon.
  • Obviously the recommendation of what clock speed to choose depends on the speeds that are available and the price premiums that the faster clock speeds command. My experience is that Apple charges disproportionately more for the fastest Macs, so unless you know you need every last bit of performance, look instead at the middle option if there are three choices, and the bottom option if there are only two choices. That option will generally provide the best bang for your buck, though of course if you’re at the end of the budget rope anyway, the slowest option may be all you can afford.

    Whenever I’m trying to compare the performance of different Mac models, I visit the Bare Feats Web site because Rob Art Morgan has run many comparison tests over the years, and you can generally find a comparison of the models that interest you. Other publications, including Macworld , also usually run benchmark tests on new Macs.

    Note: System performance is governed by more than just the CPU. Other important variables include the frontside bus speed and the amount of Level 2 (L2) cache. Apple generally provides these details in the technical specifications for each model (click the Tech Specs link on each model’s Web page).

    The frontside bus speed governs the speed with which data can be transferred between the CPU and the Mac’s main memory. Since almost everything the Mac does relies on reading and writing data from memory, the faster the frontside bus speed, the faster the overall performance. Comparing bus speed between Macs is only occasionally useful. For instance, at one point the iMac G4 had a 167 MHz frontside bus, whereas the comparable models of the less expensive eMac had a 133 MHz frontside bus. With the same G4 processor, the iMac would thus outperform the eMac.

    My statement about the CPU constantly needing to read and write from main memory isn’t quite accurate, since modern CPUs have a small amount of high-speed L2 cache memory on the actual CPU chip. Whenever possible, the CPU tries to read and write from the much faster L2 cache memory, but since there may be only 2 to 4MB of cache memory (as opposed to 512MB to 2GB of main memory), only frequently accessed pieces of data sit in the L2 cache. Nonetheless, L2 cache can significantly improve overall performance, so all other things being equal, a CPU with L2 cache will outperform one without it, and the more L2 cache, the higher the performance.

    RAM

    It’s said that you can never be too rich or too thin, and to that I’d add that you can never have too much RAM. All Mac models now ship with at least 512MB of RAM, which is generally sufficient for most uses. Given today’s RAM prices, don’t be afraid to go to 2GB or more of RAM for productivity machines. (And yes, I realize it wasn’t all that long ago that we thought 1GB was an amazing size for a hard disk.)

    Mac OS X eats RAM for lunch, and since you have no control over how the operating system or applications use RAM, trying to save money by skimping on RAM is a false economy.

    However, it can be hard to recommend buying RAM as an option with your Macintosh if you’re buying it from Apple, because Apple traditionally charges more, sometimes a lot more, for RAM than other vendors. In part, Apple charges more because it buys higher-quality RAM, but I think RAM is also one of the areas in which Apple increases the profit margin. Another aspect of the situation is that adding RAM can turn a stock machine that Apple can ship directly into one that’s a build-to-order Mac that requires someone to open it up, install the RAM, and test the Mac again, all of which adds cost. Most other vendors of Macs don’t mark up RAM as much, and you can find the best prices on RAM from companies that specialize in selling RAM, although you generally must then install it yourself.

    Currently, upgrading a MacBook from 512MB to 2GB RAM on Apple’s online store adds $500 to the cost of the Mac (replacing the two standard 256MB RAM modules with two 1GB modules). Two 1 GB RAM modules for the MacBook from Kingston Technology, a company known for high-quality RAM, costs $420, and the same RAM costs $334 from Crucial Technology, another reputable vendor. It’s also worth checking the price-comparison service dealram, where I found a vendor selling the necessary RAM for only $238.

    What should you do? You won’t go wrong with Apple’s RAM, if you’re buying through Apple, though you’ll usually pay more. When I buy from another vendor, I generally go with the RAM they add. However, if I’m adding RAM myself, I look for a mid-priced vendor with a good reputation and excellent return policies in case of trouble.

    Tip Unfortunately, just as prices vary widely, so too does RAM quality. Just because a company says their RAM works in a particular Mac model (and you must always check before buying!) doesn’t mean it will work perfectly. Several Take Control authors discovered that cheap RAM they’d bought for their PowerBooks worked fine in Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar but caused constant crashing problems in Mac OS X 10.3 Panther. Swapping the bad RAM modules out for more expensive modules solved the problems. If you suspect you have bad RAM because your Mac is being oddly unstable, you can try Memtest, a free memory tester utility. Don’t assume that its long tests are necessarily better than its short tests; both have their uses.

    Optical drive

    Over the years, Apple has offered six optical drives: a CD-ROM, a CD-RW, a DVD-ROM, a short-lived DVD-RAM drive, a Combo drive (which combines CD-RW and DVD-ROM), and a SuperDrive (which combines CD-RW and DVD-R). Although current Macs come with only Combo drives or SuperDrives, let’s compare the different drives in case you run into the obsolete models in older used Macs:

  • CD-ROM drives are the bare-bones option, because they can only read CD discs, which is necessary for installing new software. They can’t write CD-R or CD-RW discs, nor can they read or write DVD discs (which is starting to be a problem for installing software; Apple’s iLife ’06 comes only on DVD, and getting a CD version of Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger requires extra effort). The main advantage of a CD-ROM drive, of course, was that it was cheap, so older low-end Macs that you buy used may come with a CD-ROM drive.
  • CD-RW drives can read CD discs and can write to both CD-R and CD-RW media, although they can’t read DVD discs of any sort and thus suffer from the same limitation as the CD-ROM drives in that arena. CD-RW drives were a nice step up from plain CD-ROM drives, since you could use them for backup or for burning discs to share files with other people, but they were quickly supplanted by Combo drives. Again, you’ll find CD-RW drives only in used Macs.
  • DVD-ROM drives could read CD and DVD discs but couldn’t write either. They appeared in only a small number of Macintosh models between 1999 and 2001.
  • DVD-RAM drives were optional with even fewer Macintosh models in 1999 and 2000 before Apple bowed to public opinion in 2001 and started selling a CD-RW drive. DVD-RAM drives could read both CD-ROMs and DVDs and write DVDs, though in a data-only format that couldn’t be played in a consumer DVD player. DVD-RAM’s main advantage was that it could rewrite discs many times, but this required special media that was initially fairly expensive.
  • Combo drives are an excellent middle-of-the-road option because they let you read and write all CD media. You can use them not only for installing new software that comes on CD but also for burning CDs for transferring files between computers (holding up to 700 MB of data per disc), making audio CDs, or backing up your important data. Combo drives can also read DVD discs, so you can install software from DVD, watch DVD movies on your Mac, or read DVDs burned by someone with a SuperDrive.
  • SuperDrives can do everything. They can read and write CDs and read and write DVDs. So you can use a SuperDrive for installing software, sharing data on CD, or even burning DVD discs that can either contain data or hold video that can play on any consumer DVD player connected to a television. However, since SuperDrives burn using the DVD-R standard, they can burn discs only once, unlike DVD-RAM drives.
  • Which should you buy with your Mac, assuming it’s an option (Apple increasingly includes the SuperDrive as the base configuration) and the price difference isn’t a problem? If you plan to use iMovie and iDVD to create video DVDs, you’ll need the SuperDrive (or a third- party DVD burner, with iDVD 6). And if you’re planning to use your optical drive to back up your important data, a SuperDrive is better than a Combo drive because it can write DVD discs with up to 4.7GB of data, compared to the 700MB that can fit on CD.

    That said, most people won’t go wrong with a Combo drive, which works fine for backups, even if you’ll need to swap more discs in and out, and which can play DVD movies for those long plane flights. Because I have a SuperDrive in my Power Mac G4, when I bought a 12-inch PowerBook I saved some money by sticking with the Combo drive on the PowerBook. I figured that if I ever needed to burn a DVD, I could do so on my Power Mac instead of the PowerBook.

    Note: You aren’t limited to buying an optical drive from Apple; other manufacturers sell SuperDrive equivalents that work with the Mac. External SuperDrive equivalents may be faster than Apple’s SuperDrive and may have additional capabilities. LightScribe, for instance, enables the drive to burn an image into the disc surface, eliminating the need for a pasted-on label or label marker. However, I generally recommend that you stick with Apple’s drives when buying a new Mac, mostly because Apple won’t ship a Mac without some sort of internal optical drive (with the exception of certain educational configurations aimed at use in classroom situations).

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