Buying the right Mac for your needs

Looking to buy a new Mac? Buying a new computer is a major purchase. With Macintosh, you are looking to spend around $1,000 (at least). With that kind of expense, its important to make sure you buy the right Mac. There are many factors to consider in choosing the right Mac for you so that you will be happy with it for the next three to four years.

Let’s look at some of these variables and a few other tips to make the most out of purchasing your new Mac.

Portable or Permanent?

Before we get into anything technical, ask yourself where you will want to use your Mac? Do you want the portability of a laptop or do you prefer the larger screen and power of an iMac? While an iMac can be semi-portable – its not that cumbersome if you are moving, its not something you want to drag down to the local café.

Personally, I used to prefer a desktop. In the last few years, laptops have gained in power to the point where its really not a huge difference (depending on your needs). So for me, portability is more important than a large screen and stronger processor.

So, first off – do you need your new Mac to be portable (MacBook / MacBookPro) or will it be permanently on a desk? (iMac)

Note: I am not going to include the Mac Pro in this article as the Mac Pro is a specialized desktop for high-end audio / video / graphics / scientific applications. If you are not a professional in these fields, it is way more than you need. For the price of one Mac Pro and the Display to go with it, you can buy two iMacs. (or three MacBooks).

How much Mac do you need?

Some people will just buy the most expensive one because they can – but do you need the extra horsepower of a $3,700 Mac Pro with display just to check email? Others will buy the cheapest Mac Mini and wonder why they have such a hard time editing video.

So, what will you do with your Mac? Are you planning to just write papers with Microsoft Office, check emails and browse the web? Are you a musician, planning to create music with programs like Logic, Cubase or Digital Performer? Do you design with Adobe Creative Suite? Or are you looking for something to edit video with, whether its a full-on feature presentation with Final Cut Pro or just birthday parties with iMovie?

Most people are going to want something in the middle – where its internet usage / email / documents most of the time with the occasional iMovie editing / Garageband / Videogaming fun. However if you are into things like music, design and video – you’re going to need something extra.

How long do you want your Mac to last?

In addition to usage, you must consider the technology of the future – How long do you want to use your Mac before it becomes totally obsolete? While you can’t stop progress, you can set yourself up for the day when your new Mac isn’t so new anymore. The best way to do this is by avoiding the cheapest machine you can find. Memory, processor speed and expandability (USB/FireWire ports) are important here.

Typically your computer should last anywhere from 3-5 years depending on how you use it.

Which one to choose?

Typically, Apple will have three options: The lowest price which is also the least powerful, the middle price and the most expensive which is the high-end model. This varies by product line – the MacBook Pro’s most expensive model is also larger. The iMacs as well have larger models available. As far as the larger screen size of a MacBook Pro or iMac, it’s a luxury unless you are doing design / video / audio work where having a large screen is a huge advantage.

Processor speed roughly translates into how quick the Mac will complete a process such as rendering video, applying filters in Photoshop and how many tracks / instruments you can run in an audio sequencer. More is always better, but sometimes it’s not cost effective. In addition, the cheaper models of MacBook may or may not include a DVD burning SuperDrive. With the latest models of MacBook, there is no FireWire – if you need FireWire, you will have to look at the MacBook Pro.

Memory (RAM) and Hard Drive space are also very important. Skimping on RAM results in your computer becoming slower in a few years as applications become larger and larger. As of right now, you want at least 2GB.

Don’t believe what anyone at an Apple Store says – Apple RAM and Hard Drive upgrades are obscenely overpriced. You can find quality RAM from brand names like Crucial and Kingston for much less than Apple charges. RAM and Hard Drive space can always be upgraded very easily by you either right away or later on. The new MacBooks and MacBook Pros are amazingly simple to upgrade. So save about $100 by getting memory from somewhere else and installing it yourself.

Note: If you are buying an iMac, you can not upgrade RAM / Hard Drives without a very difficult and not recommended take apart. Get the extra RAM now. Hard Drive space can always be supplemented with an external drive.

The latest feature for MacBooks is the separate graphics chipsets by NVIDIA. A separate chipset for graphics is always better than on-board video. The deletion of FireWire is annoying for some but you can live without it.

My Recommendations:

So, which one should you choose? Well, did you need a laptop or an iMac? Are you heavily into doing audio / video / graphics work or just want to dabble here and there? Do you have many FireWire devices? Is extra the screen resolution (not size) important for you?

My recommendations are the following:

Laptops:
– For an average user – The mid-level MacBook.
– For an average professional (w/o FireWire needs) – The high-end MacBook.
– For a working professional – Unless you need the 17″ display, the Mid Level 15″ MacBook Pro.

iMacs:
– For an average user – The low end 20″ model with a 2GB upgrade.
– For an average professional – The high end 20″ model with a 4GB upgrade.
– For a working professional – The 24″ high end iMac with a 4GB RAM upgrade.

Note: I don’t recommend the MacBook Air. It’s a niche product with a hefty price tag. Yes I know the MacBook Air is thin, light, and cool but its really not cost effective at all.

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