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Windows Users' Guide to Buying a Mac

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Choosing when to buy your Mac and which one to get can be a daunting prospect. Neale Monks cuts through the hype and the hoopla and shares some tips on making sensible and timely decisions.

Computers are essential to modern business, but they’re also expensive—so choosing the right one is essential. Shopping for computers that run the Macintosh operating system is very straightforward in some ways.

For a start, there’s just one manufacturer of Mac computers: Apple. Purely as a manufacturer of personal computers, Apple has a good reputation, and most of its products have turned out to be well designed and reliable.

One difference between buying a Mac and buying a PC is that whichever Mac you buy, it will come with the same version of OS X installed as all the others. Not for the Mac buyer the confusion over which "edition" of the operating system is best for them.

You’ll also find the iLife suite on the hard drive of every new Macintosh as well, so there’s no need to pick over different models hoping to find a software bundle that you like. The iLife suite is an outstanding set of tools of multimedia archiving, editing, and sharing. Although aimed primarily at home users, many professionals will appreciate its ease of use, versatility, and effectiveness.

So while all Macs are basically good machines that come with lots of useful software, every machine is not ideal for every user. Indeed, some machines would be especially bad choices for certain users, and Apple deliberately designs each model to be attractive to particular segments of the market. If you are cynical, you might interpret this as Apple making sure that the low-end models are cheap enough to attract the price-conscious home users, but not quite powerful enough to satisfy the demands of the more affluent business users.

Understanding the Mac Market

Apple produces just five different Macs: three desktops and two notebooks. Two of the desktops and one of the notebooks are targeted at the home and education markets, and can be thought of as being low-end or consumer-market models. The remaining two computer models, one desktop and one notebook, are designed for the top end of the market—specifically, business users as well as users in certain other niches (for example, science and engineering).

To maintain "clear blue water" between the high-end and low-end markets, Apple ensures that only the high-end machines sport features perceived as essential to professional users. Specifically, the consumer-market desktop Macs lack expansion slots for PCI cards or bays for additional hard and optical drives, have less-powerful graphics cards, and can accept only smaller amounts of memory.

Although not universally true, historically the high-end desktops often sport a motherboard design that makes upgrading the CPU at least potentially possible, even if the economic incentive to do so is usually weak.

The portable Macs can be split in a similar sort of way, but the case is somewhat less compelling. Compared with their high-end notebooks, Apple’s consumer-level notebooks have a smaller (and less bright) screen, weaker graphics cards, and lack the ExpressCard slot for plugging in goodies such as cell phone modems. At one time, Apple’s low-end portables tended to lack proper video-out options for supporting laptop projectors, but thankfully this isn’t the case with the current lineup.

This deliberate distinction between the consumer- and pro-level Macs shouldn’t imply that the low-end machines are of no use to business users. Quite the reverse; in fact, within certain limits the low-end machines can be excellent values for the money.

All the modern Macs are extremely fast machines that are more than capable of handling normal office tasks, web design, and lightweight image editing and page layout. The mid- to high-end iMac models in particular tend to offer very good overall performance in a neat, well-priced package. Similarly, while the low-end MacBook is somewhat slower than the high-end MacBook Pro, the differences aren’t all that significant for the tasks that mobile professionals tend to care about, such as delivering PowerPoint presentations and accessing online resources.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Apple divides its range into pro- and consumer-level machines, with "clear blue water" between them.

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