Mac shopping advice

In our recent story, we talked about the new rules involved in picking your perfect Mac. Once you've made that decision, however, there are still some things to ponder before pulling out your credit card.

Where to Buy

You have many choices to consider when you’re shopping for a Mac.

Apple Retail Stores Apple has made a massive retail push in recent years—both online and with its brick-and-mortar Apple Stores. And shopping with Apple has its advantages. An Apple Store lets you test-drive the computers you’re interested in. And if you want more information, the well-trained Apple Store salespeople can provide it. It’s worth remembering, however, that Apple Stores don’t carry all third-party peripherals and software. (Visit www.apple.com/retail to see if there’s a store near you.)

Apple.com Shopping with the online Apple Store has its advantages, too. People who preorder items from the virtual Apple Store as soon as those items are announced are likely to receive them before they’re available from other online outlets. Apple.com is the only place to order a custom-configured Mac. Also, the online Apple Store offers refurbished Macs at a savings of $200 to $400 on current models, and you can save even more on previous-generation computers. These Macs come with the same warranty as new Macs, and you can extend support for them with AppleCare, making them a good alternative if you don’t need the latest model or would like to get a little more computer for your money (as long as you don’t mind the fact that these systems once had something wrong enough with them to require their exchange).

Everywhere Else Apple tightly controls the price of its computers, so you won’t get a substantial savings by shopping elsewhere—but some discounts do exist. For example, you may save just $5 when you buy a MacBook at Amazon.com, but as we wrote this, Amazon.com was offering a $75 rebate on that computer, as well as a 25 percent discount on AppleCare for the MacBook. Some online stores also offer free RAM upgrades, software, or printers when you buy a new Mac (free, that is, after you send in mail-in rebates, as with the Amazon.com deal). And you can often save sales tax by ordering online, although shipping charges can negate much of those savings. For people who want a new Mac today and don’t have an Apple Store nearby, stores such as Best Buy and Fry’s carry them (just be sure to do your homework before you go, since the staff probably won’t be as knowledgeable about Macs as the staff at an Apple Store). And while many Apple Authorized Resellers have disappeared, thanks to Apple’s efforts in the retail space, there are still some that offer great service and support.

Beyond the Basics

Choosing the Mac you want is the most important decision you’ll make, but it’s not the only one. You’ll also want to mull over many enhancements and add-ons.

Monitor, Keyboard, and Mouse If you’ve purchased a Mac mini, you need everything that attaches to it, while only a monitor is a necessity with a Mac Pro. However, any Mac you buy may benefit from a keyboard, mouse, and monitor—yes, even a laptop that you use as your primary computer at home. Not everyone cares for the feel of Apple’s Mighty Mouse or its ultrathin keyboard. If you don’t, consider third-party input devices. And while Apple’s displays are beautiful, they’re often pricier than the competition’s.

RAM A RAM-starved Mac will slow down as OS X uses the computer’s hard drive for storing data that could otherwise be stored in available RAM. Also, programs such as Photoshop consume RAM like it’s going out of style. So it’s a good idea to have as much RAM as you can afford. In most cases, you’ll find that RAM is more reasonably priced if you purchase it from someone other than Apple. Although it’s convenient to have Apple install RAM at the factory, it’s more expensive, and installing or replacing RAM in most Mac models is easy enough for most users. RAM dealers such as Crucial and Other World Computing sell quality RAM at prices that almost always beat Apple’s by a wide margin. You can max out most Macs (except the MacBook Air, which comes with 2GB and stays at 2GB, and the Mac Pro, which takes lots of expensive RAM) for about $100, and this is a good place to drop a little extra money.

Hard Drive If you’re going to deal with a lot of media files, adding storage to your Mac makes sense. And you’ll certainly need to add a drive if you intend to use Leopard’s Time Machine backup utility. Apple offers the option of purchasing many of its computer models with higher-capacity hard drives. Some shoppers may balk when they realize that Apple’s prices are higher than those of third parties, but in the case of the MacBook Pro, iMac, and Mac mini, you’re better off sucking up the expense than doing it yourself. Cracking open these sealed computers is not easy. Upgrading a Mac Pro’s hard drive (or installing additional hard drives) is a piece of cake, however—definitely shop around for internal 3.5-inch SATA drives priced less than the drives Apple offers. And it couldn’t be easier to install a replacement 2.5-inch SATA drive in the MacBook via its battery bay. And all Macs can connect to external hard drives via either a USB 2.0 port or a FireWire port (if it’s present). For people with desktop Macs other than the Mac Pro, expanding storage through an external drive is the easiest and most cost-effective way to go. Additional storage for your laptop is a bit more problematic in that it, too, may need to be portable (if you intend to take it with you). Thankfully, you can purchase a portable hard drive, or you can build your own with a portable drive enclosure and a 2.5-inch hard drive from a company such as Other World Computing, WiebeTech, and Transintl. Faster-spinning hard drives perform better but typically cost more; however, if you’re capturing video, for example, the increased rotational speed will come in handy.

AppleCare You can extend Apple’s support and repair period from the included one year to three years by purchasing an AppleCare Protection Plan for your computer. Priced between $149 (for the Mac mini) and $349 (for the MacBook Pro), AppleCare is a worthwhile safety net. Motherboards and display replacements can be very pricey—close to the computer’s original cost—and if one of these expensive items goes kaput during the second or third year of coverage, you’ll be happy you took the AppleCare precaution. (You don’t have to purchase AppleCare when you buy your Mac—you can add it at any time during the first year.)

Printer As popular as PDF files are, we haven’t yet achieved a paperless world. Whether it’s photos, invoices, or homework assignments, chances are you’ll want to print something with your Mac—so you’ll need a printer. Apple routinely offers a rebate on some printers (currently up to $100) when you purchase one at the same time as your Mac. You’ll not only save money when shopping but also have the assurance that the printer is compatible with your new Mac.

USB Hub Today’s computers are tied to a host of peripherals—printers, scanners, audio interfaces, cameras, input devices, iPods, external storage devices, and more. So it doesn’t take long to fill your computer’s USB ports. If you’ve got an expansive peripherals plan, you should purchase a USB 2.0 hub. Powered hubs (which must be plugged into an outlet) are preferable to hubs that pull power from your computer’s USB port, because they have enough power to drive any USB peripheral you attach to them. Unpowered hubs do not.

Software All Macs ship with enough software to get you started and then some. But these tools may not be enough. Be sure to calculate the price of the software you need to get important tasks done—$400 for Microsoft Office 2008 or $79 for Apple’s iWork, for example.

Connectivity The days when the Internet was optional are over. Updates to Mac OS and the software you run on your computer will come via the Internet, as will your e-mail and, most likely, an increasing amount of your news and entertainment. All Macs except the Mac Pro include wireless networking as standard equipment, and all but the MacBook Air carry at least one Ethernet port. If you haven’t plumbed your home or office for Internet access, now is the time. And while you’re at it, add a router (a wireless one if you’re purchasing a laptop) to the mix. Laptop users should also consider a 3G wireless card (either the USB or the ExpressCard flavor) and an accompanying data plan so they never have to be out of the Net’s reach.

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