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).

    Hard drive

    How large a hard drive should you buy? In the past, Apple used to charge more of a premium for hard drives, but that’s no longer a significant issue. Today you would pay roughly the same amount for a hard drive from another vendor as you would to buy it already installed in a Mac.

    Nowadays the question of hard drive size mostly comes down to whether you plan to work with very large image files (in Photoshop, not just photos in iPhoto), audio (creating audio, not just playing it in iTunes), or video (using iMovie and iDVD), all of which can consume vast amounts of disk space. If you have no interest in any of those things, there’s no reason to buy anything but the smallest possible hard drives to keep the price low. For very large image manipulation, audio recording and processing, and videography, err on the other side and buy the larger drives. You may still want an external drive for storing copies of video clips or for making backups, but life will be easier if you have a large internal drive.

    Tip: Although Apple typically doesn’t provide many options for drive speed, it’s also important to have a fast drive for certain types of audio and video work. Drive speed is measured in rpm (revolutions per minute of the drive spindle), and today’s fast drives are commonly 7,200 rpm. Laptop drives are usually slower, either 4,800 or 5,400 rpm, and may not be acceptable for certain types of work because of that. However, drive performance is affected by a variety of factors besides spindle rotation speed, including cache size, number of platters, and media density, so don’t assume that a 7,200 rpm drive is always faster than a 5,400 rpm drive. If you’re buying a drive to use in audio and video work, it’s worth spending some time comparing current drive models to make sure you buy a high-performance drive.

    Video card

    With Power Macs (but no other models, all of which have video circuitry built in), you have some choices of what video card will drive your monitor(s). Whether you should care depends on what you plan to do with your Mac; realistically, if you should be considering a more expensive video card, you already know you need it.

  • If one of your primary uses for your Mac is 3-D gaming, it’s worth buying the fastest video card available from Apple. Faster and more capable cards provide cinematic-quality visual effects. However, if you’re lusting after a video card model that Apple doesn’t sell (and you’re buying a Mac Pro), stick with the cheapest possible video card and replace it with the one you want.
  • Graphics professionals who create 3-D-rendered images and animations should also probably buy the fastest and most capable video card, or at least increase the amount of VRAM (video RAM).
  • Everyone else, save your money. You won’t notice the difference in normal usage.
  • Displays

    All Macs can connect to an external monitor, and Mac Pros and Mac minis of course need one (the Mac Pros support two, without requiring the purchase of another video card). Apple sells excellent displays, and a multitude of independent manufacturers sell monitors in a wide range of prices and qualities, which are often directly related. I don’t recommend buying a cheap monitor for everyday use, since your eyes will suffer from reading fuzzy text or dealing with inconsistent brightness.

    Also recommended are displays sold by Dell, which work fine with Macs and are often much cheaper than comparably sized displays from Apple. Dell constantly has sales on monitors, so go into the Home & Home Office area or the Small Business area on Dell’s Web site, and check out the Dell Deals pages.

    The table below outlines Apple’s current set of monitors, all of which feature DVI connectors, along with a pair of USB 2.0 ports and a pair of FireWire 400 ports.

    Comparison of Apple Monitors

    Monitor Resolution (in pixels) Notes
    20-inch Apple Cinema Display 1,680-by-1,050 An excellent workhorse monitor and the best value
    23-inch Apple Cinema HD Display 1,920-by-1,200 Slightly more expensive per pixel than the 20-inch Cinema Display
    30-inch Apple Cinema Display 2,500-by-1,600 Compatible with only specific Mac models that have dual-link DVI cards; expensive, but truly impressive

    Apple’s monitors are all flat-panel LCD screens that show images at an extremely high quality and with no visible flicker. They tend to be more expensive than monitors from other companies, but I’ve never heard from anyone who’s been unhappy with one of Apple’s monitors.

    Tip Many third-party monitors have an aspect ratio of 4:3; however, the Apple Cinema Displays instead use a wide-screen 16:10 aspect ratio, which is similar to the aspect ratio used for movies and high-definition television. If you plan to watch lots of DVD movies on your Mac, consider a Cinema Display; it can fill the entire screen with the picture, whereas monitors with other aspect ratios have to resort to letterboxing, with black bands on the top and bottom of the screen that reduce the amount of the screen used for the image.

    AirPort Extreme card

    All of Apple’s current Mac models come with or can accept a Wi-Fi- compatible AirPort Extreme card for connecting to (or even creating) wireless networks. The card costs about $80 by itself and is usually not difficult to install if you decide to do it yourself at a later date.

    If you’re buying a laptop, you want an AirPort Extreme card; it’s extremely useful. Luckily, it’s built into all of Apple’s current laptops by default. In 2001 I bought one of the first white iBooks with an AirPort card and replaced the iBook with a 12-inch PowerBook several years later, and I haven’t yet used the modem in either laptop to connect to the Internet while traveling (which I do at least five times each year). I’ve always been able to find wireless Internet access, and although I generally frequent the kind of and events that would be likely to provide it, wireless Internet access is becoming more commonplace.

    Tip A number of Web sites offer directories of Wi-Fi “hotspots”—public venues where you can access the Internet through a wireless network connection. However, if you’re traveling, you may not be able to get online to use those sites. The solution is the JiWire Hotspot Locator, a utility that knows about many thousands of hotspots around the world. You can run it without an Internet connection, and if you remember to update it at some point when you’re online, you can be assured of having the latest information.

    If you’re buying a Mac Pro, an AirPort Extreme card is less critical (they’re standard equipment on the iMac and Mac mini). Because Mac Pros seldom move, it’s easy to connect them to each other or to a high-speed Internet connection’s cable or DSL modem with standard Ethernet wiring. Thus, an AirPort Extreme card is mostly useful if you want to locate a Mac Pro in a remote part of your house or office. If you can’t figure out how to run Ethernet cable to where you want the Mac Pro to sit, adding an AirPort Extreme card is a great solution.

    Of course, with networking, it takes two to tango, so to complete your wireless network you need another Mac with an AirPort or AirPort Extreme card, or a wireless gateway like Apple’s AirPort Extreme Base Station or AirPort Express Base Station. (A wireless gateway connects to your Internet connection and lets all your Macs share that single connection as well as communicate with one another over the wireless network. Read Glenn Fleishman’s Take Control of Your AirPort Network to learn what you need, how to set up all the networking gear, and how to solve common problems.

    Tip You can buy any Wi-Fi-compatible wireless gateway that supports 802.11g. Hardware from vendors other than Apple is often quite a bit cheaper than Apple’s, but you’ll find the clumsy Web interfaces more trouble than the elegant Macintosh application used to configure an AirPort Extreme Base Station or AirPort Express Base Station.

    Bluetooth module

    Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology that replaces cables. You can use Bluetooth to sync address book data with certain cell phones, for instance, and Apple sells a wireless Bluetooth keyboard and mouse whose lack of wires reduces your desktop clutter.

    As of this writing, all Macs other than the Mac Pro and the low-end iMac include Bluetooth support, and adding a combination AirPort Extreme/Bluetooth module adds $79 to the price of a Mac Pro. Third-party Bluetooth adapters that plug into your USB port are available for slightly less, but I recommend sticking with Apple’s internal Bluetooth module if you can. Aside from the added elegance of an internal solution, Apple’s Bluetooth module coordinates frequency use with the AirPort Extreme Card. Since both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi share the 2.4 GHz band, this coordination means that both your Bluetooth and your AirPort Extreme gear will work more harmoniously than if you were to use a third-party Bluetooth adapter.

    Should you ante up for the Bluetooth module? If you have or can conceive of getting a Bluetooth cell phone, headset, wireless keyboard, or mouse, the answer is yes, because being able to synchronize data or connect to the Internet with your phone is extremely helpful, and wireless keyboards and mice nicely eliminate cable clutter. The only reason to avoid Bluetooth is if you’re buying a Mac Pro that you intend to use in such a way that neither AirPort Extreme nor Bluetooth would be at all important.

    Warning Unlike every other option, if you want Apple’s internal Bluetooth module, you must purchase it with your Mac. It’s not available separately, so if you pass on it and later want Bluetooth, you’re limited to the external Bluetooth adapters.

    Tip If you have a Bluetooth phone, you must check out Salling Clicker, which turns your phone into a remote control for your Macintosh. Salling Clicker supports AppleScript, so you can do neat things like have a script automatically set your iChat status to “On the phone” when you’re talking on your cell phone; another script can set your iChat status to “Away” when your cell phone isn’t close to your Mac. Very cool stuff.

    Extra battery or AC adapter

    When you buy an MacBook or MacBook Pro, you may wish to purchase an extra battery or AC adapter at the same time. A second AC adapter can be handy if you regularly tote your laptop between home and the office, for instance. If you spend a lot of time working on cross-country airplane flights, a second battery will keep you active from takeoff to touchdown (well, at least the portions of the flight on which they let you use electronic devices).

    Tip You can expect the life of your battery to drop over time; after a year or two, your original battery may provide only half to two-thirds of its original run time. I like to buy a second battery then, since that way I can use the new battery most of the time and retain the older, weaker battery for the relatively few instances when I need more power than a single battery charge will provide. If you do this, make sure you label the two batteries clearly; it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference otherwise.

    You can buy batteries and AC adapters from companies other than Apple, with the main advantage being slightly cheaper prices. I’ve had mediocre luck with third-party power accessories and have relied on them only for old laptops for which Apple no longer makes new batteries or AC adapters.

    AppleCare

    AppleCare is Apple’s extended service and support warranty. It extends both the standard 1-year hardware warranty and the 90 days of free telephone support on new equipment to 3 years. It also includes a copy of Micromat’s TechTool Deluxe (a stripped-down version of TechTool Pro). If you buy an Apple monitor at the same time as a Mac mini, MacBook Pro, or Mac Pro and enroll it when you buy AppleCare, Apple covers the monitor for no additional cost. The cost of AppleCare varies widely: it’s currently $150 for the Mac mini, $170 for an iMac, $250 for a MacBook or Mac Pro, and $350 for a PowerBook or MacBook Pro.

    Since AppleCare is essentially an insurance policy, it’s difficult for me to tell you whether it will be worthwhile to you. As with all insurance, you’re gambling that the money you spend on AppleCare will be at least equal to the amount you’ll save in covered repairs, free phone support, and peace of mind. There’s no way to predict whether your gamble will pay off.

    That said, this is the strategy I practice, and it’s my recommendation to you as well: I always buy AppleCare for laptops, and I never buy it for desktops. My reasoning is that the following facts are true only of laptops:

  • A laptop suffers a lot of wear and tear during normal use. And even normal use by a careful user exposes a laptop to more extreme environmental conditions than a desktop Mac will ever see.
  • Laptops are made with much finer tolerances than desktops, and even very small variances in those tolerances can cause problems.
  • Laptop components are packed extremely tightly, which makes it more likely that cables and connectors can be stressed.
  • You open and close laptops regularly, stressing the screen hinge and the screen itself.
  • You constantly plug in and unplug cables with a laptop, stressing solder joints and other connections.
  • The fact that Apple charges proportionally more for AppleCare on laptops lends credence to my recommendation, and I’ve sent almost every laptop I’ve owned back to Apple at one point or another, whereas I’ve seldom had a desktop Mac need service from Apple.

    Tip Needless to say, AppleCare is a high-margin item, which means that you can often get it cheaper from an Apple reseller. For instance, as of this writing, Small Dog Electronics offers AppleCare at $20 to $50 less than Apple does through the Apple Store (and you can save another $5 with the coupon in the back of this book). Keep in mind that you must buy AppleCare for a Mac while the Mac is still within its 1-year hardware warranty. So, if you want to play the odds, you could wait until near the end of your 1-year warranty and decide then whether your Mac is likely to need expensive service (or whether you’re likely to need to call Apple telephone support for help).

    Other stuff

    Along with all the options that relate to the actual functioning of your Mac, if you buy through Apple’s online store, it will try to sell you an iPod, Apple monitors with appropriate adapters for laptops, Apple software, Apple’s .Mac Internet services, and more.

    I can’t advise you whether to buy these items, but I will note that there’s no particular advantage to buying them with a Mac. You can get them any time you like, usually for the same prices, or, if you shop around and pay attention to sales, for less.

    [ Contributing Editor Adam C. Engst is also the publisher of TidBits and of the Take Control ebook series. He has written numerous technical books, including the best-selling Internet Starter Kit series; his latest book is Take Control of Buying a Mac ( TidBits Electronic Publishing, 2006). ]

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