How to buy a Mac
Ok. So you want a Mac.
There’s a few approaches to take, but I generally take budget, needs and the future into account.
- Budget - We all want the flashiest most awesomest Mac around, but let’s face it, they can be expensive. Apple’s consumer-level (MacBook, iMac) offerings are very competitively priced, but sometimes they’re not exactly what you’re going to need. Take a look, for instance, at the 15” MacBook Pro. There’s a big premium just to hop to a bigger screen.
If what you need is outside of your budget, consider a few things. Saving up or going refurb. Getting a refurbished Mac is a great way to safe a few bucks. You can also save a few bucks by buying a Mac that’s one revision old (if they’re still available). An ideal time to weigh your options is within a few weeks of a new model revision coming out. This is when you can find refurbished prior model Macs for a significant savings.
- Needs - This is often hard to determine and you’re going to want to spend a good chunk of time figuring out just what the heck you need in a Mac. Portable or desktop? That’s usually a great place to start. Also consider that dollar for dollar, a desktop is going to give you better value for performance. If you absolutely need the most crankingest Mac around, it’s not going to be a portable one, sorry.
Graphics cards. There are two different types of graphics cards: the kind that share their memory with the rest of the system or a card that has its own dedicated memory (often called a “discrete” graphics card). This is a careful consideration if you’re going to be running a lot of graphics heavy things like Photoshop, any sort of heavy 3D rendering (games, CAD etc) and the ilk. For your general (and even moderate) use, the shared-memory type graphics cards are just fine. For reference, the MacBook uses shared-memory graphics where as the MacBook Pro (15” and up) use discrete graphics cards. The MacPro has always used dedicated graphics where as the iMac has had a mix. For instance, the current entry-level iMac utilizes a shared-memory graphics card but if you move up the line the offerings turn to greater and greater power discrete graphics cards.
Hard Drive - Just what are you going to do with your Mac? Use it for school? You’re probably going to be writing a lot of papers and projects. Hard drive size is not as much of a consideration (though if you have a large music collection it may be). One place where you’re going to want to get the absolute largest drive you can is if you’re doing video, especially high definition. Especially 1080P. Go big or go home.
Memory a.k.a. RAM - The more the better :) Really though, start off at a good base level of RAM (I’d say no less than 2GB these days). Keep in mind that the RAM ceilings of the consumer Macs is usually about half that of the pro Macs. Some of them can’t be upgraded at all (MacBook Air). You may not need 8GB now, but if you get into 1080P video down the road, you might wish you had it.
Screen - Apple’s displays are generally gorgeous. You’re going to want to weigh screen size as well as glossiness (if you’re considering a portable). Some folks like the glossy screen. Others, like graphic designers and photographers, think it’s the worst thing Apple’s done ever… ever. Fortunately, on the MacBook Pro, there’s a custom order option for a matte screen. For portables, also consider that how portable the machine is directly relates to how large the screen is. I have a 17” MacBook Pro for work and it’s like carrying around a lunch tray. However, I don’t travel with it often as it’s my desktop replacement. I can take it with me when I need to and still have all my stuff. But it mostly stays on my desk.
Software - Software is what you’re going to be using all day every day. Don’t skimp! Think you’ll need Office? You probably will. As good as iWork is (and I really do like it) I work in a world with Office. I need it. You probably will too. Make sure if you’re a student you check out your academic discount!!! Software is greatly reduced for students and in most cases, staff and faculty as well. In some cases, academic software is 50% the price of full retail and there’s zero difference.
Accessories - Going to need to connect it to your TV? Bring it with you? Print? Scan? Thumb drive? Don’t forget your accessories and to budget for them!
AppleCare - You need it. Enough said.
- The future. Plan for it! Don’t skimp on Mac and have yourself out grow what you bought 18 months in. If you see yourself getting into heavy video production, consider the beefiest Mac. Consider a Mac Pro. If you see yourself getting into Photoshop, get more RAM.
Basically, don’t skimp and try and get away with going cheap. You’ll probably end up spending more in the long run if your mistake ends up costing you a pre-mature Mac re-buy.
Lastly, go to an AppleStore or hit up a friend or family member to try out a Mac before you buy. See if you actually like it if you’re not currently a Mac user. If you are, well then just go get buyin’. I actually can’t stress going to the AppleStore enough. As much as you may not want to deal with the crowds, the folks there are trained to get you into the right Mac. They’re not on commission so they’re not going to sell you something you don’t need. Yeah, they have sales goals to meet, but they’re not going to hard sell you that Mac Pro when all you really need is an iMac.
Happy Mac-ing! :)