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Which Mac Is Right for You?

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Which Mac Is Right for You?

By Christopher Breen, author of the Buying Macs section of The Macintosh Bible, Eighth Edition

With these three factors in mind--budget, requirements, and expandability--let's see if we can find the perfect new Mac for you. But before we do, allow us to issue this important caveat: The world doesn't stop just because words have been committed to print. We fully understand that new Mac models will be introduced after we've fluffed this little book's pillow and put it to bed. Although the following examples apply to the Macs available as of this writing, you can generally apply the same rules to later generations of Macs.

For the Budget-Conscious Desktop User

Currently the cheapest new Mac you can get is the base-model Indigo iMac. For your $799 you get a 500 MHz PowerPC G3 processor, 64 MB of RAM, a 20 GB hard drive, a 56K modem, an ATI Rage 128 Ultra graphics chipset with 16 megabytes of video RAM, a CD-ROM drive (for creating CDs), and a built-in 15-inch monitor. Like all iMac models, this iMac has two FireWire ports, two USB ports, a 10/100Base-T Ethernet port, and a VGA video-out port, and it can accept an AirPort wireless networking card. This is a perfectly fine Mac for general use--e-mail, Web browsing, word processing, home finances, and game playing. Your grandmother or your kids would probably be tickled to own this machine. For $999, you can move to 128 MB of RAM and a CD-RW drive and pick between Indigo and Snow.

For another $300 you can have one of the mid-line iMacs, which come in Snow and Graphite and move to a 600 MHz G3 processor and double the storage, with a 40 GB hard drive, and 256 MB of RAM. This is a great iMac that would be particularly attractive to someone interested in editing home movies taken with a digital camcorder.

All iMacs (all Macs, in fact) come with Mac OS X as well as the latest version of Mac OS 9. Mac OS X, however, is a RAM-hungry operating system, and the 128 MB of RAM included in the $999 model is the minimum you need to comfortably run both Mac OS X and the Classic environment.

For the Budget-Conscious Portable User

Apple's entry-level iBook model can hardly be termed dirt cheap at $1,299, but it's a very capable laptop with its 500 MHz PowerPC G3 processor, a 15 GB hard drive, two USB ports, and one FireWire port; and it has a sleek white finish. The least expensive PowerBook G4 (with a 550 MHz G4, 256 MB of RAM, and 20 GB hard drive) is $900 more than the iBook, so if you're on a budget and want a brand-new Mac portable, this is your only choice.

For the Middling-Budget Desktop User

At this point you hit the great divide. For $1,499 you can own the top-of-the-line iMac, which differs from the mid-line iMac in its inclusion of a 700 MHz PowerPC G3 processor and a 60 GB hard drive. Another $200 more than that (we're up to $1,699 now) gets you the low-end QuickSilver Power Mac G4 introduced in the summer of 2001, equipped with a 733 MHz PowerPC G4, 128 MB of RAM, a 40 GB hard drive, a CD-RW drive, nVidia GeForce 2 MX graphics card with 32 MB of video RAM, and four PCI slots. Unlike the iMac, this Mac doesn't come with a built-in monitor, stereo speakers, or software other than the usual System Software discs. However, if you already own a monitor and a shelf-full of software, and you like the expandability that comes with four open PCI slots and an upgradable processor, the Power Mac G4 may be the better choice.

For the Middling-Budget Portable User

Apple has included some flexibility in the iBook line as well. The $1,499 iBook model includes a faster system bus (100 MHz vs. 66 MHz) than the entry-level model, a 600 MHz PowerPC G3 processor, and a DVD-ROM drive--an attractive option for those who like to watch movies of their choosing on long plane trips. The $1,599 model includes a CD-RW drive, and the $1,699 iBook sports a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive and a 20 GB hard drive.

For the Performance-Is-Primary Desktop User

Those who require high performance from their Macs--meaning you who work with graphics, video, audio, or serious number-crunching applications or who are serious gamers--will leave the iMac behind and look to the Power Mac G4 line. Which flavor of Power Mac you buy will depend on your budget and your perception of just how relevant that "time is money" concept is to you. Currently, the Power Mac G4 line includes PowerPC G4 processors running at 733, 800, and 867 MHz. In general, the more megahertz you buy, the more RAM and hard-drive space you get as well. What is deceiving, however, is that the fastest-megahertz Mac may not run applications the quickest.

Although the 867 MHz Power Mac G4 carries the highest megahertz rate, the $2,499 machine actually runs a bit slower in certain applications than the $3,499 dual-processor 800 MHz Power Mac G4. Applications such as Adobe Photoshop that are designed to run faster with more than one processor are sprightlier on this dual-processor Mac than on the 867 MHz model. And because Mac OS X is written to take advantage of multiprocessor Macs, this difference may be even more pronounced in the future.

The 867 MHz Power Mac G4 steps up from the entry-level 733 MHz Power Mac by moving to a 60 GB hard drive and the SuperDrive CD-RW/DVD-R device. With the dual-processor 800 MHz Power Mac G4, you get 256 MB of RAM, an 80 GB hard drive, and 64 MB of video RAM. The high-end box also comes with the SuperDrive device and a video card that lets you use two monitors at once.

For the Performance-Is-Primary Portable User

The $2,199 550 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 and the $2,999 PowerBook G4 model--with its 667 MHz processor, 30 GB hard drive, and 512 MB of RAM--are great laptops, but if you want the most a laptop can offer, be prepared to pay $3,299 for the 667 MHz PowerBook G4. It includes 512 MB of RAM; a 48 GB hard drive; an ATI Rage Mobility 128 video card with 16 MB of video RAM; and ports for making 10/100Base-T Ethernet, FireWire, and USB connections. As we go to press, it's the fastest PowerBook in the land--and one of the most attractive, with its luxuriously wide screen and Titanium case.

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