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Mac buyers' guide: What you need to know before heading to the Apple Store

You've finally decided to purchase a new Mac -- whether it's your first, a replacement, or for school -- you'll need to consider a lot of things. Do you buy a notebook, emphasizing portability; or get an iMac, focusing on power in your home? Or maybe -- with an all-day battery in concert with instant-on reliability - all you need is an iPad? If you're not sure what to get, here's what you need to keep in mind before heading to the Apple store.

All Macs come with the basic software suite necessary to be productive out of the box. From word processing with TextEdit to photo archiving, sharing, and editing with iPhoto, to movie creation with iMovie, the built in software has you and your interests covered. For iPads, there's more than enough productivity software available on the App Store - both free and otherwise.

If you stick with a traditional computer, you should be aware that each Mac listed is capable of running a copy of Windows using Parallels or Fusion - perfect if you own a piece of software that requires Windows without purchasing a separate PC. With Apple's free iCloud service, documents can be synced and updated across all of your devices. The only remaining question is: how do you want your OS X packaged?

Notebooks:

MacBook Air:

This is the lightest, thinnest notebook in our roundup. The MacBook Air comes in two sizes weighing less than three pounds: the 2.38lbs, $999 11" model, and the 2.96lbs, $1,199 13" model. Both models are .68" at their thickest point, .11 at their thinnest; and with the instant wake-from-sleep capability of OS X, the Air lends itself very well to situations in which portability is key. The compromise? The Air does not have a built-in optical drive - though software tricks allow for borrowing neighboring PCs or Macs that do.

Both models feature a backlit keyboard, a large multitouch trackpad, a magnetically latching power connector called MagSafe 2 -- which automatically disconnects when the plug is pulled too hard - two USB 3 ports, and Thunderbolt connectivity. Both models are equipped with the Intel HD Graphics 4000 chipset -- which isn't close to the most powerful graphics card on paper, but should handle anything you'd use this machine for just fine.

The Air comes equipped with 4GB of memory by default, and the memory cannot be upgraded later; it's soldered onto the logic board. If you're having trouble deciding, here's the key to deciding how much memory you need: you're better off having too much than too little.

Where the Air models start to separate is in speed and storage. The entry-level 11" comes with 64GB, and the 13" comes with 128GB (both customizable to 512GB). The 13" model also comes with an SDXC card slot.

Both Air models use Intel's Core i5, but the 11" uses the 1.7GHz dual-core i5; the 1.8GHz i5 powers the entry model 13". Intel's Turbo Boost technology pushes the clock speed to higher frequencies when extra power is necessary.

Apple states the battery life on these machines at 5 hours and 7 hours, respectively; and it's possible to make the Air last for, say a school day, with some basic power management.

Like all Apple laptops, the Air has a large glass trackpad, which is designed to take advantage of OS X Mountain Lion's built-in gestures. Don't scoff at the gesture support; it's as convenient on the Mac as it is on the iPhone and iPad, but without the hassles of smudges and fingerprints on the screen.

Like all of the Macs on this list -- save for the mini -- the Air has a built-in camera. The camera's resolution is 720p, but it's enough for FaceTime video calls, or messing around in Photo Booth. A nice thing about FaceTime calls: you're not just limited to Mac-to-Mac communication; FaceTime calls can be made to iPhones and iPads, as well.

Pros: Thinnest, lightest laptop in the roundup; aluminum unibody adds durability despite the thinness; backlit keyboard; good battery life; large trackpad with multitouch gesture support

Cons: Storage on the entry model is rather limited; no optical drive built-in; memory cannot be upgraded

MacBook Pro:

The Macbook Pro is the more traditional notebook lineup from Apple. Carved from aluminum slabs, these notebooks come in two flavors: 13" and 15", starting at $1,199 and $1,799, respectively. Both models are .95", but the 15" model is wider and deeper. Weight is a different story, however, with the 13" model being four-and-a-half pounds compared to the 5.6lbs of the 15". Remember to factor that in before purchasing; every extra bit of weight in your backpack or briefcase counts.

Though heavier than the Air, these machines feature a full complement of ports and features, including an 8x SuperDrive (capable of reading/writing CDs and DVDs), an SDXC card slot, Thunderbolt, a couple of USB 3 ports, MagSafe power connection, FireWire 800, and gigabit Ethernet. Wireless-N and Bluetooth 4.0 round out the wireless connectivity. Also included: FaceTime camera, backlit keyboard, and 4GB of memory. The low end 13" MacBook Pro comes with 2.5GHz Core i5; the 15" model: 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7.

The hard drives included on the MacBook Pros start at 500GB, but they are that of the 5400-RPM variety. This hard drive actually affects the performance of the computer, and I recommend upgrading it. There are third party SSD drives available that will greatly speed things up if you're not willing to pay Apple's upgrade prices.

Considering the feature set and price range of the MacBook Pro models, I imagine this is where most people will settle; I'm actually using the 15" MBP to write this. When configured with the proper amount of memory (I recommend at least 8GB) and an SSD drive, these MacBook Pros are a portable powerhouse; just be mindful of your budget!

Pros: Wider variety of ports compared to Air and Retina MBP; optical drive support; solid feel; large trackpad with multitouch gesture support; backlit keyboard

Cons: Heaviest of Apple notebooks; display is prone to glare

MacBook Pro with Retina display:

The MacBook Pro with Retina display is more akin to the Air than the other Pro models. Of course, the requisite features are there: backlit keyboard, large glass trackpad, latch-less instant sleep/wake, MagSafe 2 power connector, Thunderbolt, and HD FaceTime camera. Like the Air, the Retina MacBook Pro has a thin design at the expense of the optical drive. Worth noting: wireless networking support is the only out-of-the-box networking supported; if you need wired connection, that will cost you extra.

The entry price for the two standard Retina display MacBook Pro models isn't cheap: the low end machine starts at $2,299, while the high end starts at $2799.

Like the Air, this machine features flash-based storage and memory; and, like the Air, the amount of RAM is not upgradable down the line. By default, the two models ship with 256GB and 512GB of storage, respectively, but customization options allows up to 768GB. This MacBook features a quad-core Intel Core i7, clocked at 2.3GHz on the low end, 2.6GHz on the high end. 8GB of memory (customizable to 16GB) round out the basic feature set and the results are spectacular: this machine is fast. This machine is speed wrapped in a .71", 4.7lbs aluminum chassis, and that's not even the best part:

The display on this machine is second to none; quite literally, there aren't any better displays at this size on the market. This MacBook Pro display sports a 2880-by-1800 resolution on a 15.4" screen. At 220 pixels per inch, that works out to be three million (!!) more pixels than a 1080p TV. I could describe the crisp images the display provides, but you're better off seeing for yourself.

Basically, if your focus involves graphics, video, design, or audio work, there's no better display to work on. Apple states you should expect seven hours of battery life which should be enough with minimal power management.

Ultimately, this machine comes as a compromise: it's expensive, but the display is pretty much future-proof - at least for the life of the machine.

Pros: Backlit keyboard; large trackpad with multitouch gesture support; best display I've ever worked on; thinner/lighter than Pro models; fast!

Cons: More expensive than other Apple notebooks; networking is wireless-only unless an adapter is purchased; this display literally makes other displays look bad; memory cannot be upgraded

A note about Apple's portables: every mobile computer sold by Apple comes with a sealed in battery that is not user-swappable; at least, not on the fly, and in some models, not at all. Don't forget to factor in battery life when shopping for the Mac that fits you best.

Desktop:

iMac:

The iMac follows along the spirit that debuted with the original space egg: after all this time, the all-in-one iMac continues to offer super-easy set up and configuration. Because it's not bound by mobile power constraints, this machine is able to offer more power compared to mobile machines. Like the Air and MacBook Pro, the iMac comes in two distinct models, the 21.5" iMac for $1,199, and the 27" iMac for $1,699. Both models offer LED-backlighting, quad-core performance, 4GB of memory (expandable to 16GB), built-in camera for FaceTime and Skype calls, Thunderbolt ports for fast I/O (1 on the 21.5" model; 2 on the larger one), Mini DisplayPort for external video, FireWire 800, four USB 2.0 ports, SDXC card slots, gigabit Ethernet, wireless N, Bluetooth 4, and a SuperDrive for CD/DVD burning.

All models come equipped with AMD-based graphics processors -- AMD Radeon HD 6750 with 512MB on the low-end entry model, the AMD Radeon HD 6770M graphics on the entry level 27" iMac -- which should be more than fine for powering through most games and graphics-intensive programs. The quad-core Intel Core i5 chipset offers good performance, and both models can be custom-configured to a quad-core i7 (recommended, if the budget allows).

This machine is great for all types of projects, from writing to managing and creating media, but there is a warning regarding storage. The hard drive on these iMacs cannot be upgraded using off-the-shelf parts. Apple included a thermal sensor in the iMac hard drives, and hard drives bought from store shelves lack that sensor. The result? The iMac revs up its fans, producing consistent fan noise at a volume that is just not acceptable. Be mindful of this when deciding how much storage you need.

Otherwise, the iMac is a great home machine. I only have two real complaints: this iMac lacks USB 3.0, which is unfortunate; and the display is prone to glare.

One last thing: the iMac can be used as a monitor for laptops or other computing devices using Target Display Mode. In this state, the iMac can continue to process events even as another machine uses the display. It's a nice touch.

Pros: All-in-one for easy set-up; desktop power; nice display; optical media support; iMac can be used as a monitor for laptops or other computing devices

Cons: No USB 3; hard drive cannot be upgraded using standard parts; screen is prone to glare

Mac mini:

At $599, the Mac mini is the least expensive Mac on this list, and is perfect if you're looking for a Mac and already have a display and keyboard/mouse. This machine's small footprint takes up very little room, and its size makes the mini the best choice if you're looking for a TV-connected Apple media server.

The Mac mini comes in a 7.7" x 7.7", 1.4" tall, 2.7lbs aluminum case, and is powered by 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 and 2GB of memory. If you want to customize later, memory can be upgraded by twisting open the bottom cover and installing your own; it's very easy to do so.

The mini isn't the most powerful machine, but it will certainly get the job done without fuss. The internal 500GB hard drive spins at 5400-rpms, but can be configured to a solid state drive on the online Apple Store. If you choose the SSD route, the mini's performance increases significantly for day-to-day tasks.

Standard on the mini are gigabit Ethernet, SDXC card slot, FireWire 800, HDMI, four USB 2.0 connections, and Thunderbolt. Like the other Macs, the mini has wireless N networking and Bluetooth 4.0.

Pros: Small footprint; multiple monitor support

Cons: Lacks expandability beyond ram/hard drive; no optical drive; no USB 3

Every computer mentioned in this article is capable of running all of the latest Mac software capably -- but some models just perform the tasks faster than others. Remember: you can't make a bad choice; just balance out the features that are most important within your budget.

iPad:

The iPad is an interesting item to consider for work and study. The starting price? $399 for the iPad 2, which comes in a .37" thick aluminum frame and weighs less than a pound and a half. The iPad also offers instant-on, has an all-day battery life without any clever power management, has a vibrant third party accessory and app ecosystem, and offers instant document syncing and backup with iCloud (as well as other online services). I've been using the iPad since day one, and I have to tell you: the iPad is the most convenient computer I have ever used, with unprecedented reliability; the machine is virtually maintenance-free.

Here's my advice: opt for the $499 Retina display model. The densely packed pixels forming the screen dissolve into an image rivaling high quality magazines: images appear as backlit photographs, high resolution movies look nearly like film, and text looks crisp and rich.

Granted, the iPad isn't as flexible as a machine running the full version of Mac OS X, but for many people, it doesn't need to be. Make sure to check that the applications required to get work done are ready for the iPad, or have equivalents available, before making this purchase. I'm sure you will be surprised at the wealth of high quality iPad apps that are currently available.

If the threat of virus and malware is a factor in wanting a Mac over a PC this year, the iPad (with the Apple-approved apps from the App Store) is an even better investment.

Before pulling a trigger on an iPad, carefully consider getting one with cellular connectivity. Much of the iPad's popularity has everything to do with the portability factor; having cellular makes your iPad that much more capable, especially if you use the machine to go. As a bonus: the cellular models offer GPS, as well.

Pros: Instant on; slim chance of installing malware due to App Store policies; thousands of apps available for free and purchase; least amount of troubleshooting compared to other devices

Cons: Single-tasking interface; storage is fixed

Final tips: If you're a student, Apple gives education discounts of up to a couple of hundred dollars off when you show your student ID. There's also a promotion running until September 21st that gives up to $100 gift certificate on new iPad/Mac purchases that can be used in the iBooks store, the App Store, and the iTunes store. Even if you're not a student, you can take advantage of the Apple Refurbished store where you can purchase products with the same one year warranty as Apple's new machines, but at a pretty good discount. Refurbished computers are machines that have been fixed prior to being sold, but I have never had any issues with any of Apple's refurbished models.

Lastly, don't forget to utilize the resource called iTunes U, which is a free online depository teachers use to share lesson plans, courses, lectures, videos, and other learning materials to supplement your classes.

Good luck!


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