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How to Choose a Mac

Last updated 2012-12-14 - Send Feedback
Related: CPU cores, how-to, iMac, laptop, Mac Pro, memory, video

Before you buy a Mac, consider how it will be used over the next 18 months, and don’t rush to buy a new model 12 months later unless there are compelling reasons that will actually make a differnce.

Be realistic about current and future usage

Web browsing, Mail and iTunes? Digital camera with which you shoot only JPEGs? For such tasks, just about any current Mac will do.

Needs can change over time; professionals in particular might find that serviceability and expandability might be key factors as a business or workload grows: this might mean a Mac Pro is a much better investment than an iMac or MacMini.

Dead-end Macs means any Mac limited in ways that offer no solution: e.g., a memory of 16GB. The memory limit is a “hard” limit, with no options.

Storage and PCIe slots used to be the province of the Mac Pro, and these areas offer solutions for many (but not all) configurations via USB3 and Thunderbolt, witih products like the OWC Helios.

Application performance and your Mac

Applications vary in speed based on a variety of factors. Influences on application performance include:

  1. Memory. Insist on 16GB unless used only for web/email and light duty.
  2. CPU clock speed, faster is better, but the very fastest is not necessary.
  3. CPU cores: insist on four cores except for light duty.
  4. Hard drive: SSD preferred for most every purpose.
  5. Graphics card: all graphics cards are fast enough for general use.
  6. Network speed: ethernet for high performance, wireless OK otherwise.

Specialty needs (very large files, serious video work, etc) demand lots of memory and at least six CPU cores.

CPU speed and cores

A good rule of thumb for CPU speed is to pay proportionally. For example, a 3.0GHz CPU is 7% faster than a 2.8GHz model. Paying 7% more, perhaps 10% more is reasonable; paying 30% more is not a good value; in such cases consider more memory and/or more or faster hard drives instead. Note however that sometimes the type of CPU and the clock speed both change; in this case the computation is not so simple, and remember also that the CPU generally cannot be upgraded.

Insist on four CPU cores for any semi-serious use, six or eight or 12 cores for serious photography or video, but two fast cores are fine for web and email and light duty.

See CPU cores explained and Application support for multiple CPU cores.

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Memory

8GB is enough for light duty, but prefer 16GB in all Macs, 32GB for iMac and Mac Pro (or more).

Hard drive

A solid state drive (SSD) is greatly preferred. Use hard drives for the big stuff (images, video, etc).

Graphics card

Generally of no concern for most users. Gamers, video processing and speciality uses can benefit however.

Buying

Refurbished is an excellent way to save ~15%. Just be sure to not buy into old models that might lack important features. see the Refurbished page.

See recommended Mac models as well as links for the best price on AppleCare.

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AppleCare

AppleCare (extended warranty) is a good value on high-end systems, especially when the system includes an Apple monitor. On less expensive systems it’s not as good a value on a relative basis.

Laptop vs desktop

Laptops come at premium prices for the performance they deliver. Don’t pay for a laptop if it’s just going to remain on your desk.

You can usually get the same or better performance at lower cost by going with a desktop machine instead of a laptop. That means a Mac Pro or iMac.

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