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In the past, the school determined a college student’s computer options. If it demanded that its students use a Windows PC, a PC is what they got. That has changed now that Intel-based Macs can boot into either Mac OS or Windows XP (or, for that matter, Linux). The only thing left to figure out is which Mac makes the most sense for your student and your budget. How do the three less-expensive models compare as university-bound machines? Here’s how we’d analyze the problem.

Mac mini

Pros: Inexpensive; compact; Front Row software; Apple Remote.
Cons: Limited hard-drive space; not a great gaming machine.

Apple’s least-expensive Macs—the $599 1.5GHz Intel Core Solo Mac mini and the $799 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo mini (both   )—are good if you already own a USB keyboard, USB mouse, and monitor, and if your work is simple (writing papers, surfing the Web, and sending e-mail). With Universal programs (such as the iLife and iWork apps), the mini is surprisingly fast. While Microsoft Office apps run quickly enough under Apple’s Rosetta translation technology, more processor-intensive, non-native apps such as Adobe Photoshop don’t. Because of its relatively small hard drive (60GB or 80GB standard, 100GB or 120GB optional), the mini isn’t optimal for storing video, and its graphics card is too poky for intense games. ( full review» )


Pros: Fast; big display (on 20-inch model); roomy hard drives; elegant design; built-in iSight camera.
Cons: Not portable; not easily upgradable.

The iMac is available in two configurations; a 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo with a 17-inch display, for $1,299, and a 2GHz Intel Core Duo with a 20-inch display, for $1,699 (both   ). The iMac has a few obvious advantages over the Mac mini, namely a keyboard, mouse, and built-in monitor, as well as a faster graphics chip set and more-expansive hard drives (160GB and 250GB). The iMac outperforms the mini in all our performance tests; gamers will especially appreciate the iMac’s high frame rates in 3-D shooters. And if you’re burning movies and media, both iMac models come with a SuperDrive for creating DVDs. Apple also introduced an $899 iMac for the education market. ( full review» )


Pros: Fast enough for most tasks; portable; built-in iSight camera; attractive design; affordable.
Cons: Not good for graphics-intensive games; target for thieves; weak speakers.

If your student would rather have a laptop that he or she can carry from the dorm to the lecture hall, library, and Internet café, the MacBook (   )—available from $1,099 to $1,499—is your best bet. Despite its relatively light weight and low cost, its performance compares favorably to that of the MacBook Pro. Of course, the MacBook has a few disadvantages: its 13-inch screen may feel too cramped for some people, its graphics hardware is too weak for hard-core gaming, the low-end model can’t burn DVDs, and, as with any laptop, the MacBook is an easy target for thieves. ( full review» )

Student discounts

If you can prove that you’re a student, you can take advantage of great deals for your Mac. But caution: These discounts end soon.

Buy a Mac, Get an iPod Apple is currently offering a free iPod nano (via a mail-in rebate) when you buy a new MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac, or Power Mac G5. The offer ends September 16.

Office Hours Trying to get you hooked early, Microsoft is offering a $50 rebate on its Office 2004 Teacher and Student Edition (regularly available for $150). The offer ends September 12.

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