The $2,500 solution

The cover story of the next issue of Macworld (you do know that we still publish a dead-tree edition, right?) is the latest in a decades-long tradition of stories about what to look for when you’re buying a new Mac. In working on this story, which I wrote with Senior Editor Jonathan Seff, I was reminded of the most peculiar thing about every Mac I’ve ever bought.

They all cost the same amount.

During the 1990s I bought four Macs. Those purchases spanned that decade, from my first Mac in early 1990 to a Power Mac in late 1999. And yet, each time I totaled up the final price tag, it was always within hailing distance of $2,500. (It brings to remind that scene from “Rain Man” in which Dustin Hoffman suggests that both a candy bar and a new car cost “about a hundred dollars.”)

I admit I was not an early Mac user. In early 1984, just as the first Macs were rolling off the assembly lines, I took a small amount of my college money and invested in... An Apple IIe. Yeah, I was on the cutting edge. But it sure beat the Commodore PET that it replaced.

I spent my first year in college writing papers on that Apple II. But during my sophomore year I joined the college newspaper, which had just converted to an all-Mac operation. Within months I was hooked. I wrote my papers on the Apple II, but used a transfer program to bring them over to the Mac for formatting and printing in Word. Within a quarter I was writing my papers on the Mac. And at that point, I needed a Mac of my own.

That first Mac SE I bought on sale at the UC San Diego campus bookstore in the spring of 1990, mere months before it was replaced by the Mac Classic. (Probably why it was on sale. Clever, Apple.) It was a bargain at just under $2,500.

In November of 1992, I was in journalism school and had a serious case of PowerBook envy. The first generation of PowerBooks had taken the world by storm, and when the second generation arrived I knew I wanted one. Visions of writing stories while traveling on BART danced in my head.

Then I won an award at the journalism school (sponsored by Reader’s Digest, of all organizations) and along with the trip to Reader’s Digest headquarters in Pleasantville, New York, I won a cash prize of $2,500.

Well, what was I going to do? The universe had sent me a message. I went to UC Berkeley’s student computer store, The Scholar’s Workstation, and ordered a PowerBook 160 for a slight student discount off of its $2,430 retail price.

Three years later I was a MacUser editor living through the heady days of the Mac clone era. I bought my first (and as it turned out, only) non-Apple Mac: a Power Computing PowerWave. Unlike the Apple systems I had previously bought, this one was built to my specifications. I filled out my order form, chose my RAM, hard drive, and other configurations, and calculated the grand total: just under $2,500.

Four years later, the song remained the same. With my clone showing its age, I finally decided to enter the G4 era. I went to Apple’s online store and carefully specced out a Power Mac G4. The model I picked? It had the low, low price of... $2,499. Gah!

But change is afoot

At some point during this decade, the rules changed. When the iMac and iBook were first introduced as low-cost Macs, the “power users” in the Mac world — and I’m including myself in that number — turned up their noses at those under-powered and unexpandable (and sometimes funny-colored) systems.

But a strange thing happened when Apple made the transition to Intel processors: those so-called low-end Macs have ended up with a whole lot of power, with dual-core processors, fast powers for external expansion, and support for large external monitors.

Today, when I go to Apple’s online store, the first iMac I see is a 2.8GHz model for $2,249. When I configure an iMac to the specs I’d consider generous — 24-inch, 2GB of RAM, 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, and a 750GB hard drive — it’s closer to $2,000 than $2,500. And of course, my main machine is a 1.8GHz MacBook Air. Ticket price for this model: $2,099. It replaced a MacBook. Ticket price: $1,499.

Sure, I could jack the price of either the iMac or the MacBook Air to $2,500 if I was desperate to hit my old-school magic number. (Apple’s RAM prices can do that in a hurry.) But my point is, I don’t need to.

My old rule of thumb — buy a professional Mac desktop model or laptop for about $2,500 — has gone by the wayside. Time was, the only desktop Mac I’d ever consider would be a Power Mac. But the Mac Pro (with only a single configuration — a single 2.8GHz quad-core Xeon model — under $2,799) is simply overkill for me, as it is for all but the users with the most extreme performance and expansion needs. (Macworld's Dan Frakes would probably point out that what I really want is a Mythical Mid-Range Mac Minitower.) The Power Mac G5 in my home office is stock; the only thing I’ve added to it over the years is a second internal drive, and external storage is plenty fast these days. I can’t remember the last time I even considered buying an expansion card.

So here I am, in 2008, considering the purchase of an iMac rather than a Mac Pro, and at a price that’s definitely below the old ‘90s levels. I’m not saying that the same will be true of other people — everyone’s got their own quirks when it comes to shopping for a Mac. But what I am saying is, if you’re still following your old rules for buying a Mac, you might want to stop and survey the landscape as if you were seeing it for the first time. What you see might surprise you.

What do you look for when you’re buying a new Mac? Let me know in the comments below.

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