Excerpt: Take Control of Buying a Mac

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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