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Pro or Consumer Model?

While choosing between a portable and a desktop is relatively straightforward, selecting between the pro and consumer models is much more difficult. Even at the low end of the market, Apple’s computers come quite well appointed. Options such as high-speed Ethernet networking, wireless networking, and USB 2.0 ports come as standard, so these common upgrades to low-end PCs simply aren’t an issue.

On the other hand, you can’t make substantial upgrades to the hardware configuration of most Macs (except with high-end desktops, in which slots and bays are available for a variety of drives and devices). CPU and graphics card upgrades are similarly restricted to the high-end desktop machines (although that assumes that third-party manufacturers decide to make them—and that they are economically worth investing in).

So how do you choose between the pro and consumer models? Fundamentally it comes down to having a clear idea of the demand you’ll place on the machine. Starting with the desktops, all three—the Mac Mini, the iMac, and the Mac Pro—deliver more than enough speed for basic office work. Word processors, spreadsheets, presentation programs, web authoring software, image editors, and so on all work fine on these machines (although there might be speed differences between the high-end and the low-end models when working on unusually large documents). Under most circumstances, any of them make good office machines.

The differences become more apparent when your demands are more specific. Heavyweight graphics work benefits from speed, and this is where the high-end multiprocessor Mac Pro really comes into its own.

Video editing is another field in which speed is important, but so too is the graphics card. Apple has deliberately singled out the Mac Pro as the machine of choice for such markets. Indeed, the Mac Mini is somewhat limited in potential here thanks to its low-performance graphics card that shares memory with the rest of the system.

Applications that demand a high-performance graphics card, such as Motion (part of the Final Cut Studio 2 suite of video processing applications) simply won’t run on the Mac Mini.

Some of the other low-end Macs share similar graphics card architecture, notably the entire MacBook series and the entry-level iMac.

Choosing between the consumer and pro portables is very difficult indeed; the two machines both work amazingly well when dedicated to office and communications tasks on the road. Of course, only the MacBook Pro has an ExpressCard slot, but if you don’t need that slot, this difference couldn’t matter less. The MacBook Pro also has a much better graphics card than the anemic excuse for one fitted to the MacBook, but unless you’re editing video or playing games, this isn’t something you’re likely notice.

Both machines have full support for external video, too, which Apple hasn’t always provided with its consumer-market notebooks. To be sure, the MacBook Pro will support displays up to a whopping 2560 x 1600 pixels, whereas the MacBook is limited to a "measly" 1920 x 1200 pixels. But its hard to imagine anyone delivering a presentation for which such differences in capabilities would actually make a difference!

In all likelihood, your eventual decision will come down to balancing the bigger, brighter screen of the MacBook Pro with the lower cost of the MacBook. Oh, and maybe the color too—only the MacBook comes in shiny black!

Bottom line: Unless you need the maximum speed and a variety of expansion options, the consumer Macs will be more than adequate for most office environments. But certain applications do place demands on the hardware that these lower-end machines can’t meet, so check the specifications of your software carefully before spending the money (because upgrading low-end Macs just isn’t an option).

Figure 4

Figure 4 Choose and configure your Mac wisely because hardware upgrades for Macs tend to be limited.

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