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How to choose the right Mac

Hopefully you've already read our explanation of the different Mac models, if not then it might be a good idea to read it now so that you have an idea of what the options are and also an indication of current secondhand and new prices. The purpose of this page is to help you decide which option is right for you.

The first question - desktop or laptop?

Laptop computers of all sorts (not just Macs) are very popular. They offer the promise of being sufficiently powerful to use all the time as a main machine, they only take up a small amount of space on your desk and you can take them home or travel with them. For all these reasons they are very popular. So what's the downside - shouldn't everybody just buy a laptop and be done with it?

Well firstly you always pay a premium for portability. A laptop machine is always more expensive than a desktop machine of comparable specification because it costs more to make things smaller and lighter. Secondly: smaller, lighter and portable means that everything is smaller - smaller screen, smaller keyboard. This may be fine whilst working on the road but it may not be ideal if you're sat in front of it in the office for 8 hours a day. Some of the higher end laptops with 17-inch screens are pretty good in this respect and it wouldn't be too much of a hardship to use one all day, but of course these big screen laptops sacrifice some of the portability so you're losing some of the benefits anyway. Laptops because of their very nature are also always prone to getting knocked about and dropped. So there are definitely some downsides to laptops - should you buy one or not?

The question of desktop or laptop should really be decided on one criterion: how much do you need to carry it about? Unless you need to carry it with you on a regular basis, a desktop wins hands-down as it will be cheaper, faster, easier to work on and more durable than a comparable laptop. If you need to carry your computer around with you, get a laptop. It's as simple as that. However, one caveat: consider how much you actually will carry your laptop around rather tha how much you think you might. An awful lot of laptops spend all their time in one place! If you only work at home and at the office then you may be better off with a second desktop computer, perhaps of a lower specification.

How much power do you need?

All Macs do basically the same thing - they all run the same applications and work in the same way. The faster Macs do exactly the same thing as the slower Macs, they just do it much quicker and you pay extra for this performance.So the next question is how much power (speed) do you need? This is determined by the applications you will run. These days, internet (web browsing & email) is a given, as is word processing and probably spreadsheets (Excel) and PowerPoint and quite probably music and photos as well. The good news is that all of the current Macs will run these types of applications perfectly well - if that's all you need to do then you you can safely choose a low-end machine and save yourself a bunch of money.

The high-end machines (Mac Pro and MacBook Pro) are really aimed at people who run more demanding applications, often in a production type environment. For example, if you are a graphic designer retouching hi-res scans in Photoshop you will really notice the difference between a Mac Pro and an iMac. The iMac will still do everything the Mac Pro does but it will be noticeably slower. This will impact upon your productivity as you may be constantly waiting for the iMac to execute your tasks where the Mac Pro might do them instantly. In this case the increased productivity can justify the extra cost of the faster machine. This only really applied to computation-intensive tasks though - tasks that it takes the computer a significant time to execute. Something like Word Processing is not particularly intensive as most of the time is spent thinking what you want to write. Pretty much any computer can go as fast as most of us can compose and type!

So you only need an expensive high-end machine if you are going to be spending a lot of time working in intensive applications such as graphic design, 3D modelling, statistical analysis, sound recording, video editing etc. If you're just doing word processing and email you can happily use a low-end Mac - that's exactly what they were designed for and they do it extremely well. The other advantages of the high-end machines are expandability (e.g. the ability to install additional drives and PCI cards) and in the case of laptops, better quality screens and keyboards. So if you need expandability (most people don't!) or a feature that is not available on a low-end machine that might be a reason to choose a high-end one, otherwise your choice should be governed by the type of applications you will be running and how much time you will be spending in them.

It's a question of weighing up the costs relative to the benefits and sizing your machine appropriately for the work you will be doing. If the productivity savings or the additional facilities outweigh the additional cost then go for a high specification machine, otherwise save money and buy the next one down.

Don't forget about memory

Beware: most standard configurations come with just enough memory for the applications that machine is likely to be used for. The standard memory is usually a minimum rather than the optimum, they do this to keep the apparent cost of the machine down - fitting more memory as standard would make the machine more expensive. You should normally plan on installing some additional memory, perhaps as much as doubling it, to get the best from your Mac. Don't forget to take this into account in your calculations. Even an ultra fast Mac will be held back by insufficient memory. In some cases you're better off with a slower Mac with more memory than you would be with an apparently faster Mac that doesn't have enough. More memory can be added before or after you buy so it's not a problem, just something to take into account. If you're buying secondhand then the Mac may already have been upgraded which is a nice bonus.

New or used? An age old dilemma

Should I buy secondhand rather than new? Both have their advantages. If you like that fresh out of the showroom feeling and are happy to lose money as soon as you open the box in order to have the newest machine that is untouched by anybody else then buy new. It's the least risky way to buy a Mac and a brand new virgin machine is a delight. However, you are paying quite a lot extra for this. There are some superb deals available on the secondhand market where you can often get a six month old machine for half the price it was new. The warranty is with the machine rather than the owner so secondhand Macs will often still be in warranty which gives you the same peace of mind as buying new, but actually modern Macs rarely break anyway. Apart from the price saving, used Macs will often come with software and additional memory installed and may also come with additional peripherals (printers, scanners, hard drives) and accessories, often at a knock-down price.