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Apple Mac buying guide

Desktop Mac specifications explained

A Mac is just another personal computer but call it a “PC” and you’ll get a lot of heat from Apple fans.

If you’re thinking of buying a Mac it’s even simpler than choosing a Windows PC as only Apple makes them and there are just six types to choose from: three desktop, three laptop. (If you want a smartphone or tablet Apple also has a couple of pretty successful products in these categories!)

But once you do decide to buy a new Mac and you start perusing the Apple Store, you’re presented with a series of choices.

Mac mini

If you use your Mac for writing, web access, managing your music collection, and some basic photo editing the Mac mini is a Mac desktop that can handle your needs.

It has a very small footprint and is quiet so you’ll hardly notice it’s there. It’s not fast, but you don’t need blistering speed for the most common computing tasks.

It’s simple, compact, uses little power, doesn’t heat up your space, has an optical audio output, and can even handle two monitors.

The Mac mini is a bit short on USB connectors, but all you need is a hub. The Mac mini doesn’t have a lot of internal storage and what it has is a little slow, but you can connect external hard disks to it via speedy FireWire 800 or USB.

Pros: Small, quiet, cheapest desktop Mac

Cons: Not up to big video or professional photo editing, slowest desktop Mac, limited internal storage and connections, requires display

iMac

Today’s iMacs are, for most people, no longer compromises. They use powerful processors – indeed, today’s iMacs offer the best performance-per-pound of any Mac model – they can hold up to 16GB of RAM, and you can even equip them with a capacious 2TB hard drive and a speedy, solid-state drive (SSD).

They use high-quality, LED-backlit, IPS (in-plane switching) displays and include a discrete video card with up to 1GB of video memory.

They even sport a handy SD-card reader. Call these the semi-pro Macs – the high-performance Macs for the rest of us.

The Mac Pro offers more storage options, RAM and top-end performance but it has some major disadvantages: It’s big, it’s noisy, it uses lots of power, and it can heat up a room faster than a small heater.

The latest iMacs, on the other hand, are relatively quiet, run much cooler, and use a fraction of the electricity. They also come with a built-in display (up to 27 inches), and can hook up to another if you need the screen space.

And, of course, there’s the price: the lower-end iMac is about half the price of the low-end Mac Pro. And you could buy two and a half top-end iMacs for the price of the high-end Pro. (Obviously you can’t really buy half an iMac.)

The Mac Pro’s expandability means it may last a year or two longer, but in, say, two years, you could sell the iMac and upgrade to the latest and greatest at a reasonable cost – and that new iMac will likely be quite a bit faster than a two-year-old Mac Pro.

Pros: Great value, built-in display, fast enough for most professional work, space-saving design

Cons: The Mac Pro offers absolute top-end performance and more expandability, no non-glossy screen options

Apple iMac 21.5in review

Apple iMac 27in review

Mac Pro

The Mac Pro offers a set of features you can’t find on any other Mac. For example, you can fill all four of the Mac Pro’s internal drive bays – so no unsightly FireWire drives clutter up your desk to get mega storage.

The biggest advantage and disadvantage of the Mac Pro is its size. This is a beast of a machine, and there’s room in the case for those four hard drives, multiple video cards, and more RAM.

The Mac Pro is the only machine Apple sells that allows you to connect more than two displays – and you’re not stuck with the iMac’s glossy screen.

Pros: Big enough for ultimate internal expansion, can run more than two displays, most powerful Mac for the hardcore Mac professional

Cons: Big, noisy, hot, expensive

Additional reporting by Kirk McElhearn, Dan Frakes, and Rob Griffiths

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