Macs

Mac buying guide: How to pick the right computer

Mac mini

What is it? The Mac mini is Apple’s entry-level desktop Mac. It's slower than Apple’s other desktop computers—the iMac and the 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, so you’ll have to provide your own—or you can customize your order to include these devices as extra-cost options.

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 four USB 3.0 ports, one Thunderbolt 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 either 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'll 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—it's among the slowest Macs in Apple's lineup. But don’t judge its performance too harshly. For general use (writing, email, Web, social media) and for editing 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 substantial processing power, consider an iMac.

Read our complete review of the Mac mini (Late 2012)

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 a 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 ideal for someone who needs to buy a complete computer setup (keyboard, mouse or trackpad, and display) and wants to maximize workspace efficiency.

What are the specifications? Four iMac models are currently available. Two of them 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 Intel Iris Pro integrated graphics. The 21.5-inch $1499 iMac includes a 2.9GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 750M graphics processor with 1GB of video memory. The hard drives in the 21.5-inch iMac models are 5400-rpm drives.

You can’t upgrade the 21.5-inch iMac after you buy it, so consider paying an extra $200 at the outset for a memory upgrade to 16GB. The 21.5-inch iMac also offers a 1TB Fusion Drive upgrade for $200, a flash storage upgrade to 256GB for $200 or to 512GB for $500, and a 3.1GHz quad-core Core i7 processor upgrade for $200. The $1299 model doesn’t have a processor upgrade.

The 27-inch $1799 iMac carries a 3.2GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 755M graphics processor with 1GB of video memory. The $1999 iMac has a 3.4GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 775MX graphics processor with 2GB of video memory. The hard drives in the 27-inch iMac models 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 3.5GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU for $200.

You can upgrade the RAM on the 27-inch iMac 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. Or 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 to get both a Magic Mouse and a Magic Trackpad for $69 extra.

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 (not Thunderbolt 2), a gigabit ethernet port, and an SDXC card slot.

If you want to connect a FireWire device, you'll 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, but their hard drives are a performance bottleneck. If you can upgrade to a Fusion Drive or to flash storage, you'll gain a significant performance boost. The $1299 iMac's graphics performance is good enough for games, but the discrete graphics in the other iMacs are much faster.

Macworld’s buying advice: For new Mac owners, the $1299 iMac is a good alternative to the Mac mini, providing a nice performance increase. If performance is your top priority, consider a Fusion Drive upgrade, or even a faster-processor option. On a 21.5-inch iMac, the 8GB of RAM should be fine; but buying the RAM upgrade at the point of purchase could help you avoid 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.

Read our complete review of the 21.5-inch iMac/2.7GHz (Late 2013)

Mac Pro

The new Mac Pro (2013).

What is it? The Mac Pro is Apple’s workstation. It’s designed for professionals who need a powerful and flexible machine.

Who’s it for? The Mac Pro is ideal for professionals who work with applications that use as many processing cores as possible—video-editing applications, image-editing software, 3D programs, and the like.

What’s the catch? The Mac Pro is in short supply. As of this writing, if you order one now, it may take at least six weeks before your new Mac Pro arrives at your door. Hopefully, Apple will be able to ramp up production of the Mac Pro soon and cut the delivery time down.

What are the specifications? You’ll find two standard-configuration models. The $2999 Mac Pro has a 3.7GHz quad-core Xeon E5 processor, 12GB of memory, and dual AMD FirePro D300 graphics processors with 2GB of video memory. The $3999 Mac Pro provides a 2.5GHz six-core Xeon E5 processor, 16GB of memory, and dual AMD FirePro D500 graphics processors with 3GB of video memory. Both models include 256GB of flash storage.

The Mac Pro offers buyers some appealing build-to-order options. You can add up to 64GB of memory, upgrade to 512GB or 1TB of flash storage, upgrade the graphics, or upgrade the processor (to a 12-core CPU).

How do I connect stuff? Unlike the previous Mac Pro, the new Mac Pro has no internal options for connecting PCI expansion cards or internal storage drives. The new Mac Pro relies on its six external Thunderbolt 2 ports for add-ons. If you have an old Mac Pro tower and PCI cards and/or drives that you want to use, you’ll need to buy a Thunderbolt expansion chasis for the cards and external cases for the drives.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth come built-in on the new Mac Pro. The machine has four USB 3 ports, dual gigabit ethernet jacks, and HDMI. Audio professionals should know that the Mac Pro has a combined optical digital audio input and analog output minijack. The computer doesn’t have FireWire connections.

How fast is it?  Apple says that the new Mac Pro is a “video editing powerhouse” capable of handling 4K video editing, that 3D applications will see “ultrafast rendering,” and on and on. And our first set of tests reflect that. If you use Final Cut Pro X, you'll see huge performance gains. If you use applications that can take advantage of as many processing cores as are available, then the Mac Pro really shines.

However, if you're more of a "prosumer" than a professional—someone who is a expert Mac user, but doesn't use high-end apps—then you're not going to see a big jump in performance. You're probably better off with an iMac, especially if you use the iLife apps a lot. iLife actually performs better with the processors in the iMac than those in the Mac Pro.

Macworld’s buying advice: If you are doing professional work and require extreme processing capability, the Mac Pro will serve you well. If you’re a power user who doesn’t need expansion capability, and uses iLife often instead of any pro apps, consider choosing an iMac or a Retina MacBook Pro instead.

Read out complete review of the Mac Pro

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a previous article that includes the most up-to-date information as of December 24, 2013.

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