This article is an excerpt from the e-book
Take Control of Buying a Mac
, by Adam C. Engst (2005; reprinted by permission of
TidBits Electronic Publishing
The cost of a Mac system hasn’t changed much over the years. Of course, you get a lot more for your money now than you did in the past, but one way or another you’ll probably spend somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000 on a new Mac. That makes a Mac one of the most expensive items you’re likely to buy in an average year, so you’ll want to make sure you choose the right model. Here’s how to make that choice.
Lending weight to the decision is the fact that you’ll probably have to live with the Mac you buy for some time. So even though the industry moves rapidly, you’ll want to make sure that your new computer can handle whatever you might throw at it in the future, until you want to (or can afford to) upgrade again. Obviously, your needs determine how often you upgrade: a graphics professional might upgrade frequently to take advantage of every speed boost, while a family with average e-mail and Web needs might be happy waiting three or four (or more) years between new Macs.
I’ve bought ten desktop and seven laptop Macs in the years I’ve been working on the Mac, and I’ve also helped innumerable friends, relatives, and readers pick what to buy and when to buy it. There are many correct answers here—everyone’s needs are different—but the process I describe will eliminate the uncertainty and stress involved in choosing the Mac that will best fit your needs. Picking your new Mac can even be fun.
There are three aspects to the decision: choosing between a desktop and a laptop Mac, picking the right model, and selecting the appropriate configuration and expansion options.
Which kind of Mac?
Desktop or laptop? Many people make this decision instantly, without any trouble. Perhaps it’s obvious that only a laptop will fit your lifestyle, or perhaps you need to supplement the desktop Mac you already have at home or work. On the other hand, perhaps your employer provides you with a Windows laptop that you carry when you travel, in which case a desktop Mac might be just the ticket. And of course, you might be able to make a good argument for needing both a desktop and a laptop.
But if you’re not entirely sure whether you need a desktop or a laptop Mac, answer the questions in the
Desktop or Laptop? questionnaire
on the next page—give yourself one point for each question to which you can answer yes, and then add up the points in each category. The category in which you have the highest score is probably your best bet.
Your scores won’t necessarily be the final word on whether you should buy a desktop Mac or a laptop Mac. But thinking about the answers to the questions should help you analyze your needs and desires, and comparing your final scores should make the answer a bit clearer.
How they rate
Ratings, prices and product guides for Apple’s current desktops and portables.
G4/1.42GHz (Combo drive)
G4/1.42GHz (Combo drive)
G4/1.5GHz (Combo drive)
Power Mac G5iMac G5Mac minieMac G4
Desktop or Laptop?
Answer the following questions and award yourself one point for each yes answer,
in each category—Desktop and Laptop.
The category in which you have the most
points is probably your best bet.
Do you expect to move many times in the next few years?
Do you travel frequently and primarily on business for which you need a computer?
Do you live or work in tight quarters where you’d have trouble finding a spot for a desktop Mac?
Do you need to work in different places (library, conference room, and so on) frequently?
Is your work environment so uncomfortable that you’d rather use your computer while sitting on a couch or in an armchair?
Can you work effectively on a relatively small display?
Do you like the feel of Apple’s laptop keyboards? (Test them in person if possible.)
Do you use external peripherals infrequently?
Are you careful with small, expensive, fragile objects?
Do you prefer to use your Mac in a common living area with other people around?
Do you lust after a truly cool laptop Mac?
Would you mind buying your next Mac a bit sooner than would be necessary with a desktop Mac?
Is performance less important to you than portability?
Total Laptop Points:
Is your life relatively fixed in the sense that you aren’t likely to move frequently?
Do you travel infrequently and primarily for pleasure (making a computer an unwanted and unnecessary load)?
Do you live or work in spacious quarters with plenty of room for a large Mac and monitor?
Do you work in pretty much the same place all the time?
Is your work environment comfortable?
Does your work (desktop publishing, large spreadsheets, and so forth) require a large display?
Do you prefer a full desktop keyboard (from either Apple or another manufacturer) to a laptop keyboard?
Do you regularly use an external hard drive, printer, USB media card reader, or other peripherals?
Do you prefer relatively durable electronic devices that are difficult to damage?
Do you prefer to use your Mac alone to avoid interruptions?
Do you lust after a truly cool desktop Mac?
Is it important that your Mac remain useful as long as possible?
Do you need the best possible performance?
Total Desktop Points:
Pick the right model
Now that you’ve decided whether to buy a desktop or a laptop, you must determine which particular model makes the most sense for your needs. For the past several years, Apple has divided its computer product lines into two categories:consumer and professional.
Despite this basic division, there are plenty of reasons that you might want a professional Mac for home use or a consumer Mac for the office.
If you’ve decided that your next Mac is to be a desktop unit, then deciding whether to buy a consumer-level Mac (an iMac, a Mac mini, or an eMac) or a professional-level Power Mac should be relatively easy, because Apple did a good job of differentiating the two product categories.
Here’s one way to decide which desktop model is right for you:
First decide whether any of the features listed in “Desktop Pros and Cons” are must-haves, and whether any are deal breakers. For instance, if you must have multiple internal hard drives, a Power Mac is in your future. Similarly, if you can’t imagine how you’d find enough money in your bank account, or space in your office, for a Power Mac, concentrate on the iMac, the eMac, or the Mac mini.
If there are conflicts between your must-haves and your deal breakers, list them in order of importance and see if that clarifies matters. To continue our example, if you want support for multiple internal drives but you can’t afford a new Power Mac, you must either give up on the drives or consider buying a used Power Mac.
If you don’t have any must-haves or deal breakers, mark the items in the table that are important to you and then compare the number of marks in the two columns. If there are more marks in the Consumer column, consider the iMac, the eMac, or the Mac mini; if most of your marks end up in the Professional column, a Power Mac may make the most sense for you.
When evaluating these pros and cons, try to keep both the present and the future in mind. Perhaps you don’t need a lot of disk space right away, but if you’re planning to use a digital camcorder and iMovie in a few months, you’ll want more storage space for your video clips.
Desktop pros and cons
How Apple’s consumer and professional desktop systems compare:
||Consumer (iMacs, eMacs, and Mac minis)
||Professional (Power Macs)
||Tend to be much less expensive.
||More expensive, particularly if you must also purchase a new monitor.
||Use space efficiently because of the built-in monitor (iMac and eMac) or the small size (Mac mini).
||Tend to require more space, either under or on your desk.
||Usually more stylish.
||Fairly stylish within the constraints of providing a large, boxy case and separate monitor.
||All additional storage must be external; can accept less total RAM, thoughthis is seldom a problem; can’t add expansion cards, though most people don’t need them.
||Can often accept additional internal drives of varying types; highest possible RAM capacity at any given time; can accept a variety of special-purpose PCI cards.
||Usually very good, but not the best.
||Will provide the best performance available at the time of purchase.
Only the built-in display or screen mirroring (where the external monitor shows the same picture as the internal monitor), unless you use
Screen Spanning Doctor
; Mac minis require a monitor but are less flexible than Power Macs.
||Can run multiple displays of varying sizes in either screen-mirroring or extended-desktop mode (in which the second monitor makes your desktop that much larger) with no fuss.
||Usually very quiet, since they’re more commonly used in living spaces.
||Historically have ranged from quiet to extremely loud, so check before buying.
||Require few cables.
||Require many cables.
While Apple has clearly differentiated its consumer desktops and its professional desktops, it hasn’t made such clear-cut distinctions with its laptop offerings. That’s largely due to the fact that the most important feature of a laptop—its size—cuts across the iBook and PowerBook lines.
To determine which laptop size is right for you, first decide whether you’re buying the laptop as your primary Mac (for everyday use) or secondary Mac (for traveling or times when you can’t access your desktop Mac).
If this laptop is going to be your main Mac, lean toward the laptops with larger screens—because larger screens increase productivity. Also, PowerBooks with larger screens tend to have faster CPUs than those with small screens; if this is your only Mac, that extra performance helps.
If, on the other hand, you’re buying this laptop to supplement a desktop Mac, then trading screen size and performance for a smaller and lighter package that’s easier to carry and costs less may make more sense.
Once you’ve decided on the laptop size, you need to choose a particular model.
Laptop pros and cons
How Apple’s consumer and professional portables compare:
||Larger and heavier than the smallest PowerBook, but smaller and lighter than the larger PowerBooks.
||Size and weight vary widely, depending primarily on screen size.
||Slightly more utilitarian and durable.
||Lower RAM capacity; no PC Card slots; fewer and slower ports.
||Higher RAM capacity; PC Card slots on larger models; more and faster ports (such as FireWire 800).
||Lower performance in terms of CPU speed, CPU cache size, and bus speed.
||Excellent performance, though not up to the standards of desktop Macs of the same generation.
Either 12 or 14 inches, though both show the same amount of information in 1,024 by 768 pixels; have to use
Screen Spanning Doctor
if you want additional screen space.
||12, 15, or 17 inches, with the amount of information displayed increasing as screen size increases; supports both screen mirroring and extended-desktop mode.
||12-inch model currently available only with a Combo drive (CD-RW/DVD-R).
||All models come with a SuperDrive (CD-RW/DVD-RW).
Here’s my laptop buying advice:
If this laptop is to be your primary computer, choose between the 15- and 17-inch PowerBooks, basing your decision on price and whether the larger model would be awkward for how you plan to use it. If you can’t afford even the 15-inch PowerBook, choose between the 12-inch iBook and the 12-inch PowerBook, with the 14-inch iBook as an alternative if you might prefer to have a larger screen in exchange for slightly less portability.
If you’re buying the laptop as a traveling Mac, choose between the 12-inch iBook and the 12-inch PowerBook, both of which are excellent. The price and performance differences aren’t great, so make your decision based on the PowerBook’s other advantages, such as the SuperDrive option and extended-desktop support with multiple monitors.
Tip: Multiple monitors
Whether you would want to attach multiple monitors to your Mac depends on your budget, your desk, and your Mac’s purpose, but I’ve used a pair of monitors with every desktop Mac I’ve owned since my SE/30 in 1990, and I wouldn’t work any other way. Research shows that increasing screen size increases productivity, since you spend less time scrolling. Other studies show that two smaller monitors attached to a computer increase productivity more than one large monitor. You don’t need more than one monitor if you use your Mac only to browse the Web and read e-mail. But if you work in several applications simultaneously, moving data between them as you go, I encourage you to think about a multiple-monitor system.
Tip: Apple Store
Even if you decide not to buy from
Apple’s online store, I recommend using it to figure out what to buy. Apple provides a clean and understandable interface for choosing options and comparing the prices of all Mac models and configurations.
Tip: Mac mini
The Mac mini, which starts at $499, achieves its low price by eliminating a keyboard, a mouse, and a display, all of which you must buy separately. So although the Mac mini is a good deal, it’s not necessarily as inexpensive as it may seem.
Case Study: Terry Delaney
My friend Terry wanted advice on the type of Mac he should buy for his son to take to college. After talking with Terry about his son’s needs, which included some video production with iMovie, I recommended a 12-inch PowerBook. Although its performance didn’t compare with the performance of the Power Mac line, it performed much better than iBooks at the time. Its price and portability made it more attractive than the 15- or 17-inch PowerBook. It had a SuperDrive for making DVDs and backups. (Never underestimate the importance of backups!) It could drive an external monitor in extended-desktop mode, which can be very handy when working with multiple applications simultaneously. Had Terry’s son needed the laptop purely for e-mail, Web browsing, and basic word processing, I would have recommended the 12-inch iBook instead, since the additional performance and flexibility of the 12-inch PowerBook wouldn’t have been necessary.
Case Study: John Hylas
John lives on his sailboat, on New York’s Cayuga Lake, seven months of the year. When the weather turns cold and the marina closes, he takes his boat out of the water and finds someone who needs a house sitter for a few months until he leaves for his annual two-month stint in Hawaii. (His wandering lifestyle is made possible by his unique skill at squeezing the best possible performance from Cornell University’s synchrotron.) So when he asked me what Mac he should buy, I told him that the obvious choice was a laptop—and that since it would be his primary Mac, he should choose one of the larger-screen PowerBooks. He ended up buying a 17-inch PowerBook G4 that was loaded to the gills, and he has become a total convert, particularly since he’s realized he can do some of his work in coffeehouses with wireless Internet access.
Contributing Editor Adam C. Engst is the publisher of
and of the
e-book series. He has written numerous best-selling technical books.