Buying Guide: Macs
Products mentioned in this article
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.