Buying Guide: Macs
Products mentioned in this article
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re thinking about buying a new Mac and in need of a little guidance. Fortunately, we’ve tested (almost) every standard-configuration Mac model currently in Apple’s lineup. We’re quite familiar with Apple’s Macs, and we’re happy to help you choose the right Mac for you.
This buying guide provides an overview of all the Mac models available, and what each model is best suited for. To get more details, you can read the full review for each Mac by clicking the “Read our complete review” links.
What is it? The MacBook Air is Apple’s ultrathin, ultralight laptop. It comes in two sizes: 11 inches (2.4 pounds) and 13 inches (3.0 pounds).
Who’s it for? The MacBook Air is ideal for anyone who is always on the go, doesn’t want to be bogged down by a regular-size laptop, and also needs a computer that’s more versatile than an iPad.
What are the specifications? The two 11-inch MacBook Airs have the same 1.7GHz dual-core Core i5 processor. The main difference is storage: The $999 model has 64GB, while the $1099 model has 128GB.
The two 13-inch MacBook Airs both use a 1.8GHz dual-core Core i5 processor. Again, the main difference between the two is storage, as the $1199 model has 128GB, while the $1499 model has 256GB.
All MacBook Air models come standard with 4GB of RAM and integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 technology. Apple claims 5 hours of battery life for the 11-inch models, and 7 hours for the 13-inch models.
How do I connect stuff? The MacBook Air has built-in Wi-Fi for connecting to a network. It also provides built-in Bluetooth for connecting a mouse or other peripheral. If you want to connect to an ethernet network, you need a USB Ethernet Adapter.
Thunderbolt is the MacBook Air’s high-speed connector. The laptop also has a pair of USB 3.0 ports, which will work with devices that use USB 2.0. If you have a FireWire 800 drive, you need to buy a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire Adapter.
How fast is it? The MacBook Air is quite capable of handling everyday tasks, such as emailing, Web browsing, using office applications, and more. You can even use it for editing short videos, and for working with JPEGs from your iPhone or point-and-shoot camera.
The flash storage in the MacBook Air really helps the performance. For example, the MacBook Air actually outperforms several of the standard configurations of the non-Retina MacBook Pro, which uses a hard drive (solid-state drives for the MacBook Pro are available for an additional cost).
Macworld’s buying advice: The MacBook Air is a great laptop for someone who does general-purpose work and moves around a lot, such as students or the self-employed. If you’re planning to buy an 11-inch model, go for the one with 128GB of storage—since you can’t upgrade the storage after purchase, you should buy the model with the most storage that you can afford.
Apple sells two types of MacBook Pros. I’ll cover the standard MacBook Pro first.
What is it? The MacBook Pro is Apple’s performance-oriented laptop. It's bigger and heavier than the MacBook Air, and it's designed for more-demanding tasks.
Who’s it for? The standard MacBook Pro is for the user who wants a portable computer that doesn’t sacrifice a lot. The MacBook Pro isn’t as fast as an iMac desktop system, but it can be faster than the MacBook Air at certain tasks.
What are the specifications? The current models feature Core i5 and Core i7 processors. Two 13-inch standard MacBook Pro models are available. The $1199 model has a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, and a 500GB 5400-rpm hard drive. The $1499 model includes a 2.9GHz dual-core Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 750GB 5400-rpm hard drive. Both 13-inch models use the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics subsystem.
Apple also sells two 15-inch standard MacBook Pro models. The $1799 model has a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 4GB of memory, and a 500GB 5400-rpm hard drive. The $2199 model offers a 2.6GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 750GB 5400-rpm hard drive. Both 15-inch models have two graphics processors, the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 (used to help preserve power), and the Nvidia GeForce GT 650M (used when faster graphics performance is necessary). The $1799 model’s GeForce chip comes with 512MB of video memory, while the $2199 model’s GeForce chip has 1GB.
The standard MacBook Pro is also the only Mac laptop with a built-in SuperDrive. If you need to burn or read optical discs and you’d rather not use an external drive, the standard MacBook Pro is the laptop for you.
Apple used to offer a 17-inch standard MacBook Pro, but phased it out in favor of the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro.
How do I connect stuff? Like all Mac computers, the standard MacBook Pro has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. What makes the standard MacBook Pro more attractive than the other Mac laptops is that it offers ports that Apple has phased out of the MacBook Air and the Retina MacBook Pro.
First, if you have FireWire 800 drives that you use on a regular basis, you’ll be happy to know that the standard MacBook Pro comes with a FireWire 800 port. None of Apple’s other laptops have FireWire. If you don’t want to carry an adapter for your FireWire drive, the standard MacBook Pro is your only choice.
The standard MacBook Pro also has a gigabit ethernet port, which you can’t find on the MacBook Air and the Retina MacBook Pro.
Like all Mac laptops, the standard MacBook Pro has two USB 3.0 ports.
How fast is it? Both 13-inch standard MacBook Pro models are slower overall than the 13-inch MacBook Air—blame the performance hit on the MacBook Pro’s hard drive, which can’t keep up with the MacBook Air’s flash storage. However, the MacBook Pro has a huge performance advantage over the MacBook Air on tasks that are processor intensive and don’t have to read or write to the storage device a lot, such as video editing.
The top-performing standard MacBook Pro is the $2199 15-inch model. To get even more speed from these laptops, you can customize your order and swap the hard drive for a solid-state drive, but you’ll have to pay between $100 and $1000 extra, depending on the size of the SSD. The SSD will boost the Pro's performance to the extent that it surpasses the performance of the MacBook Air.
Macworld’s buying advice: The standard MacBook Pro is for the mobile user who doesn’t want to sacrifice a lot of features. The hard drives create a performance bottleneck, so if you want to get the best performance, consider customizing the laptop with an extra-cost SSD that replaces the hard drive. The fastest standard MacBook Pro is the $2199 15-inch 2.6GHz Core i7 model. If you want a laptop for travel and can’t decide between a standard MacBook Pro and a MacBook Air, go with the MacBook Air unless you really need built-in FireWire; you might also consider a Retina MacBook Pro.
Retina MacBook Pro
What is it? When Apple updated the MacBook Pro last June, the company bumped up the speed of the standard MacBook Pro, but all of the attention was focused on the Retina MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro with Retina display is the model that Apple will follow with its MacBook Pro line going forward.
The Retina MacBook Pro features a high-density display with so many pixels that images and text look especially smooth and clean—at normal viewing distances, you can't discern individual pixels.
Who’s it for? The Retina MacBook Pro is for the demanding user who wants a portable computer that also performs well. The Retina MacBook Pro models sit at the top of the performance chart of Mac laptops.
What are the specifications? The Retina MacBook Pro is available in sizes of 13 inches and 15 inches.
There are two 13-inch models, one with a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 and 128 of flash storage for $1499, and the other with a 2.6GHz dual-core Core i5 and 256GB of flash storage for $1699. Both 13-inch models have the same amount of memory (8GB), and the same graphics processor (Intel HD Graphics 4000).
You'll find more differences between the two 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros. The $2199 model has a 2.4GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, and 256GB of flash storage. The $2799 model offers a 2.7GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU, 16GB of memory, and 512GB flash storage. The 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros have two graphics processors: the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000, and the discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 650M with 1GB video memory.
The screen is the marquee feature of the Retina MacBook Pro. The 13-inch Retina display has a native resolution of 2560 by 1600 pixels, and OS X offers a scaled resolution up to 1680 by 1050, which surpasses the 1440 by 900 resolution of the standard 15-inch MacBook Pro. The 15-inch Retina display has a native resolution of 2880 by 1800 pixels, and on those laptops OS X’s highest scaled resolution is 1920 by 1200 pixels, which is equal to the native resolution of the discontinued 17-inch MacBook Pro. With these high-scaled resolutions, you can have the workspace of a larger-screen standard Mac laptop on a smaller Retina MacBook Pro, if you can tolerate the smaller icons, text, and other graphics on screen. If you use a third-party app such as QuickRes, you can set the Retina screen to use resolutions higher than the scaled settings OS X offers, including the native resolution.
The Retina MacBook Pro does not have a SuperDrive, so if you need one, you have to buy an external USB optical drive.
How do I connect stuff? No need to worry about wireless connectivity: The Retina MacBook Pro has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
It’s the wired connectivity you need to be concerned with. The Retina MacBook Pro has two Thunderbolt ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, and that’s it. If you want to connect a FireWire device, you need to use a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire Adapter. Fortunately, you can use USB 2.0 devices with the USB 3.0 ports without a problem.
If you wish to connect to an ethernet network, you need a USB Ethernet Adapter.
How fast is it? The Retina MacBook Pro’s processors, flash storage, and 8GB of memory combine for impressive performance results. The 15-inch models are faster than the stock configuration of the quad-core Mac Pro, Apple’s desktop workstation. Both the 13- and 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros are faster than the stock configurations of the Mac mini, Apple’s affordable desktop computer. And the Retina MacBook Pros offer a significant boost over their non-Retina counterparts.
Interestingly, the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro was only about 14 percent faster than the 13-inch MacBook Air in our testing. But if your work requires a lot of heavy-duty processing, note that the MacBook Air may throttle itself down to keep the temperature at an optimal level, which will affect performance.
Macworld’s buying advice: For the most demanding mobile Mac user—that is, someone whose work requires a lot of processing power—the Retina MacBook Pro is the ticket. The two 13-inch models are nearly identical except for the amount of storage; buy the model with 256GB of storage, if your wallet permits. The $600 that separates the two 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro models is a hefty chunk of change; you do get more machine for $2799, but you’re not losing much if you go with the $2199 model. If your work mostly involves Internet access and other productivity tasks, go for a MacBook Air.
Next page: Mac mini, iMac, and Mac Pro
What is it? The Mac mini is Apple’s entry-level desktop Mac. It is slower than Apple’s other desktop computers, the iMac and Mac Pro, but it remains fast enough for general-purpose use.
Who’s it for? Apple targets first-time Mac users with the Mac mini. If you’re switching from a PC, you can use your PC’s keyboard and mouse with the Mac mini. The Mac mini is also ideal as a secondary Mac in your home, and it can integrate into your home entertainment center.
What are the specifications? What makes the Mac mini stand out is its small size. It doesn’t take up a lot of desk space.
Apple sells two Mac mini models. The $599 model has a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 CPU and a 5400-rpm 500GB hard drive. The $799 model includes a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 processor and a 5400-rpm 1TB hard drive. Both Mac minis come standard with 4GB of memory and an Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics processor.
The Mac mini does not include a display, keyboard, or mouse. You’ll have to provide your own, or you can customize your order to include these devices, for an additional fee for each.
Since the Mac mini lacks an optical drive, you need to buy an external USB optical drive if you want to read or burn CDs and DVDs.
How do I connect stuff? Like Apple’s other Macs, the Mac mini has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It also has USB 3.0 (four ports), Thunderbolt (one port), and an SDXC card slot.
The Mac mini provides a FireWire 800 port for connecting external hard drives and other devices. It also has a gigabit ethernet port, in case you want to connect to a wired network.
To connect a display, you can use the HDMI port or the Thunderbolt port. You might have to buy an adapter if your display doesn’t have HDMI or Mini DisplayPort (which connects to the Mac mini's Thunderbolt port). If you own a display with VGA and/or DVI output, you need either the Mini DisplayPort-to-VGA Adapter or the Mini DisplayPort-to-DVI Adapter, which each cost $29.
How fast is it? The Mac mini won’t set any speed records. The $599 Mac mini is the second-slowest Mac in Apple’s current lineup. The $799 Mac mini is 25 percent faster than the $599 model—a significant boost. Regardless, don’t let the performance turn you away from the Mac mini. For general use and for editing of short videos, the Mac mini does just fine.
Macworld’s buying advice: For new Mac users switching from a PC, the Mac mini is an excellent machine. It’s a great choice for shoppers on a budget, or for someone who wants a second computer in the home. It handles everyday usage well. If, however, you want to use a Mac as a production machine for video editing or some other task that requires processing power, consider an iMac.
What is it? The iMac is Apple’s iconic all-in-one computer. Made of aluminum, the iMac has a built-in display and looks stately as it sits on your desk. It also offers top-notch performance.
Who’s it for? The iMac is great for both novices and demanding users. It can handle general-purpose and heavy-duty tasks equally well. It’s also ideal for someone who is conscious about their workspace, or someone who needs to buy a complete computer setup (keyboard, mouse or trackpad, and display).
What are the specifications? Four iMac models are currently available. Two of the models have 21.5-inch displays, while the other two have 27-inch displays. All iMacs come standard with 8GB of memory and a 1TB hard drive.
The 21.5-inch $1299 iMac has a 2.7GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics processor with 512MB of video memory. The 21.5-inch $1499 iMac includes a 2.9GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and an Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics processor with 512MB of video memory. The hard drives in the 21.5-inch iMac are 5400-rpm drives.
You can’t upgrade the 21.5-inch iMac after you buy it, so you might want to pay an extra $200 for a memory upgrade to 16GB. The $1499 iMac also offers a Fusion Drive upgrade for $250, and a 3.1GHz quad-core Core i7 upgrade for $200. (The $1299 version doesn’t have a Fusion Drive or processor upgrade.)
The 27-inch $1799 iMac provides a 2.9GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and an Nvidia GeForce GT 660M graphics processor with 512MB of video memory. The $1999 iMac has a 3.2GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and an Nvidia GeForce GT 675MX graphics processor with 1GB of video memory. The hard drives in the 27-inch iMac are 7200-rpm drives. Both 27-inch models offer Fusion Drive or flash storage upgrades. Another option for the $1999 model is an upgrade to a 3.4GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU for $200.
On the 27-inch iMac, you can upgrade the RAM easily. The machine has four RAM slots, accessible through the back. Apple installs the standard 8GB as a pair of 4GB memory modules, so you can add more RAM after you buy the system. If you prefer, you can upgrade the RAM at the point of purchase to 16GB ($200) or 32GB ($600).
The iMac comes with Apple’s Wireless Keyboard and Magic Mouse. If you order online from the Apple Store, however, you can switch the keyboard to a wired version with a numeric keypad, and switch the mouse to an Apple Mouse or a Magic Trackpad, for no extra fee. You can opt for both a Magic Mouse and a Magic Trackpad for $69.
The iMac does not have an optical drive. If you want to read or burn CDs and DVDs, you need to buy an external USB optical drive.
How do I connect stuff? Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are built-in. All iMacs have four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, a gigabit ethernet port, and an SDXC card slot.
If you want to connect a FireWire device, you need to use a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire Adapter. USB 2.0 devices can connect to the iMac’s USB 3.0 ports.
How fast is it? The iMacs are among Apple’s fastest computers. The $1499 iMac runs neck-and-neck with the $2499 quad-core 3.2GHz Mac Pro. The $1299 iMac provides a significant boost over the Mac mini. If you decide to get a 21.5-inch iMac with a Fusion Drive, the processor upgrade to a 3.1GHz Core i7 CPU, and 16GB of RAM, you’ll have a machine that’s blazing fast—it's the second-fastest Mac we’ve tested so far.
Our test results of the 27-inch iMac models were heavily influenced by hard drive performance. Even though the $1799 and $1999 iMacs we tested both had 7200-rpm drives, the drive in our $1999 iMac had a smaller cache than the one in the $1799 iMac. The result: The $1799 iMac was 8 percent faster than the $1999 iMac in our tests.
We can also talk about the performance of a built-to-order 27-inch iMac with a 3.4GHz quad-core Core i5 processor upgrade, Nvidia GeForce GTX 680MX graphics with 2GB of video memory, and a Fusion Drive. This iMac is the fastest Mac we’ve tested, though such a configuration will set you back $2599.
Macworld’s buying advice: For new Mac owners, the $1299 iMac is a good alternative to the Mac mini, providing a nice performance boost. If performance is your top priority, consider the Fusion Drive upgrades, or even the processor options. Also, if you want a 21.5-inch iMac, the 8GB of RAM should be fine, but buying the RAM upgrade at the point of purchase could save you some hassle in the future. The 27-inch iMacs are ideal for demanding users who need as much speed as they can get.
If you already have an iMac that’s less than three years old, the new iMac may be a harder sell. You’ll see a performance boost, but you’ll sacrifice some features, such as the SuperDrive.
What is it? The Mac Pro is Apple’s workstation. It’s meant for professionals who need flexibility with the machine itself.
Who’s it for? The Mac Pro is ideal for professionals who use applications that are designed to employ as many processing cores as possible—video-editing applications, image-editing software, 3D programs, and the like. The Mac Pro is also good for people who need to use expansion cards, or who want a Mac that’s capable of holding more than one internal drive.
What are the specifications? You'll find two standard-configuration models. The $2499 Mac Pro has a 3.2GHz quad-core Xeon processor and 6GB of memory. The $3799 Mac Pro provides two 2.4GHz six-core Xeon processors (for a total of 12 processing cores) and 12GB of memory. Both models include a 1TB hard drive, a SuperDrive, and ATI Radeon HD 5770 graphics hardware with 1GB of video memory.
What makes the Mac Pro appealing is its build-to-order options. You can add up to 32GB of memory, upgrade to a hard drive with more capacity, upgrade to a solid-state drive, add multiple drives, and more. The Mac Pro also has PCI expansion slots.
How do I connect stuff? The Mac Pro provides a lot of connectivity options—though not necessarily the most up-to-date offerings. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are built in. Although the Mac Pro has USB 2.0 (five ports), it does not offer USB 3.0. The machine has four FireWire 800 ports, and two gigabit ethernet jacks. Audio professionals should know that the Mac Pro has optical digital audio input and output TOSLINK ports.
The Mac Pro is the only Mac that Apple offers without Thunderbolt.
How fast is it? Mac Pro models excel when running software that takes advantage of multiple processing cores, such as high-end video-editing programs, 3D graphics applications, image editors, professional audio software, and so on. But with general, everyday tasks (emailing, Web browsing, and running office applications), the iMac and the Retina MacBook Pro outperform the Mac Pro.
Macworld’s buying advice: Do you absolutely need to buy a Mac Pro now? You might be better off waiting until later in 2013. Apple CEO Tim Cook says that the company is “working on something really great,” which seems to hint at a total revamp of the Mac Pro.
If you do need one now, carefully consider what you plan to do with the machine. If you are doing professional work and require hardware flexibility, the Mac Pro will serve you well. If you’re a power user who edits video while also performing general tasks, consider an iMac or a Retina MacBook Pro.