Switching to Mac: The Complete Buyer’s Guide

There are many reasons you might want to switch to a Mac: design, software, sheer awesomeness. Whatever your reason, you might not yet have your heart set on a specific machine, but don’t worry, I am here to fix that very issue.

Apple have six main product lines for Mac OS X: MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, Mac Mini, iMac and Mac Pro. That’s a whole lotta Mac. But, whether you’re a student wanting a notebook to write essays at Starbucks, or a hardcore, photo/editing user who wants a desktop, there’s a Mac that’s perfect for you.

Today we’ll take you through each of the six product lines and also tell you whether it’s the right time to buy, who each model is best suited for, and where you should purchase from.

MacBook

The MacBook is Apple’s entry-level notebook and their most affordable Mac with a screen (this one starts and ends at 13″). It’s a bit of an outlier in terms of design, with it supporting a white, polycarbonate unibody design. It supports the slighty-outdated but still useful Intel Core 2 Duo clocked at 2.4GHz, with 2GB RAM.

It has the standard array of connectivity including WiFi built in (obviously) and a range of ports including two USBs. It runs NVIDIA 320M graphics, which, for most non-video-intensive or gaming use, is just about fine.

Who’s It For?

If you’re looking to browse the internet and primarily use the bundled software (Safari, iLife etc.) then this will be fine. If you’re going to be extensively utilizing the 2.4GHz processor for heavy processing, it might not be so productive. It’s for people on a budget and those who aren’t too attracted to Apple’s obsession with aluminium. This is certainly a very capable device that should fit 80% of most users needs.

When/Where Is Best to Buy?

Apple last introduced an update to this product in May 2010, meaning there could be an imminent update. It’s probably best to hold fire for a few months if you’re not in a rush. If you’re a student (and can afford to wait a few months), wait until the summer and grab yourself a free iPod touch with the usual “Back to School” offer. Even if you decide to sell the iPad, it’ll knock a few hundred dollars off the overall price.

For most of the products we discuss today, Apple is often the best place to buy from. It’s easy to customise your model, and their prices are often comparable to elsewhere (as they set the baseline standard). Occasionally you’ll see Amazon providing discounts or rebates on older models.

MacBook Pro

The MacBook Pro is essentially the same as the entry-level MacBook but is housed in an aluminium casing and has more room for upgrades. If you don’t feel like the MacBook is strong enough for you, this probably is. A range of build-to-order options are available including capacity for higher amounts of RAM and larger internal storage.

Who’s It For?

For the user who wants a high capacity portable, but where the white MacBook is not good enough. It’s main strength is the wide build-to-order options and the larger screen sizes. Most users will prefer the Pro and is my recommended portable for mainstream use. It is a great, reliable system and one that you can’t go wrong with. Gamers will appreciate the improved graphics card, and you can opt for Firewire on the higher-end models.

When/Where Is Best to Buy?

Like the MacBook, the Pro is due an upgrade and it’s generally accepted this is coming during March or April this year. I’d strongly suggest you wait at least 45 days before buying, if not just to judge the rumors at that time. However, once again, the MacBook Pro is still a great machine and whether you buy now or later, it’ll surely make you proud.

A lot of people buy MacBook Pros and they have a large push in Apple retail. There’s always a wide selection of refurbished MacBook Pros in the Apple Refurb store and the cash-conscious side of you would recommend you check it out first.

MacBook Air

The MacBook Air is Apple’s most recent release and (I think) their best designed product by far. While the MacBook Air starts at a lowly-clocked 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, it makes up for that with a fast solid state drives. The MacBook Air also starts at a smaller, 11″ screen size making it a perfect accessory for travelers or students.

Even though it is a very premium product, the 11″ product starts at the same price point as the white MacBook. If you are someone who won’t require a lot of processing power for editing (even though video production is fairly impressive) or a DVD drive, this could be a perfect companion to your computer life, especially if you’ve already got a desktop.

Who’s It For?

The MacBook Air can be a primary computer for the average user with the 13″ screen size. However, it’s most suited to being a secondary machine alongside a Mac or PC desktop. Don’t let the low clock speed or the outdated processor worry you – the SSD more than makes up for it. It’s small form factor also means it’s great for portable lifestyles.

When/Where Is Best to Buy?

The MacBook Air was released just last October so don’t expect an update anytime soon. Now is a perfect time to buy and you’ll get the same deal at Best Buy or Apple. Apple did, however, put a bunch of MacBook Airs on the refurbished store and you can grab a great deal there.

Mac Mini

The Mac Mini is Apple’s small, but powerful, desktop that lacks all peripherals. The minimalist computer houses a 2.4GHz+ Intel Core 2 Duo processor and a user-upgradeable 2GB of RAM. This is the product that was made for PC switcher, allowing them to keep their existing keyboard, mouse and display.

Even if you purchase Apple Bluetooth accessories and a standard monitor, it still comes in at under the entry-level iMac and is a great machine for most users (just like the MacBook).

The Mac Mini also features a removable base, making it easy for you to upgrade the internal RAM.

Who’s It For?

The switcher. The Mac Mini is a fairly-cheap product that will be useful for the majority of users and is great for switchers who already own their own peripherals. If you, however, are lacking a display and accessories, I’d highly suggest the more-powerful entry-level iMac.

When/Where Is Best to Buy?

The Mac Mini is coming up to a refresh (if history is any hint) and I’d suggest you wait off until the summer, at least. I’m sure Apple has some sort of CPU refresh planned, possibly to Intel’s latest processors (the same ones you see in the current generation iMacs).

iMac

The iMac is Apple’s main desktop line and probably their most popular. The machine is an all-in-one Mac that ships with keyboard and mouse, so it’s a great starting point for new Mac users. Most desktop switchers will appreciate the Arrendale processors that start at 3.06GHz, the dedicated graphics and the user-upgradeable RAM which starts at 4GB as standard.

The iMac is my choice as an upcoming switcher due to the high-powered entry level model. It’s also priced at a relatively average range, so it’s worth serious consideration.

Unlike the Mac Mini, the iMac opts for a dedicated ATI graphics card rather than the integrated/shared ones of it’s smaller brother. It also has many build-to-order specs, including the availability of a solid state drive.

Who’s It For?

Anyone. The iMac really suits everyone with it’s large screen and high-performance internals. Apple has packed high performance into style, with an affordable price for the serious user. Whether this is a machine for college, work, gaming or just normal home use, it’s the perfect all-rounder.

When/Where Is Best to Buy?

The iMac, in this form, was released just around the same time as the Mac Mini in it’s current form. Whilst i’d suggest waiting off getting a Mac Mini, I say go right ahead with the iMac. The Sandy Bridge processor delay means it’s unlikely the iMac will see a major update before late this year or into next.

However, there are some rumors of a more “affordable” price point so if you want to hold off, you can.

Mac Pro

The Mac Pro is the desktop that I doubt many of you will be suited to. It’s not a prosumer desktop, but rather a straight-out pro desktop. This is meant for the heavy duty user who needs the power of additional cores for intensive applications. If you’re coming from a custom built or highly-powered PC, consider the higher end iMacs over the Mac Pro.

However, the Mac Pro does allow for some serious upgrading in a beautiful case. If you change your specs around a lot, the Mac Pro allows for this with ease.

You may think you need a Mac Pro coming from a PC background, but I highly suggest you buy a higher end iMac first. If it doesn’t fit your needs, then opt to return it under Apple’s 14-day buyer’s remorse and then go for the Mac Pro. This will save you a lot of money without the need to buy a display or keyboard/mouse first.

Who’s It For?

(Probably) not you. The Mac Pro is for really heavy duty users who need that raw power, or at least the ones who need to upgrade a lot. Like I said, the higher-end quad-core i5 and i7s CPUs provide enough power for even the more CPU-intensive users. I suggest you at least try one out and then return it, if it’s not up to your needs. There’s nothing to lose and it may save you significant amounts of money.

When/Where Is Best to Buy?

It’s always a good time to buy a Mac Pro, especially now with the new 12-core monster. And I suggest the Apple Store once again, to try out the machine before you buy. This is super important if you’re willing to make such an investment.

The Types of Users

Most users (or at least the ones who read this site) will fall into one of three categories: the browser (someone whos life is mainly on the web and involves browsing the internet and light app use), the editor (a Photoshop/graphics editor and someone who deals with a lot of video) or the gamer.

Here’s a rough idea of where you might fit into Apple’s product lineup:

The Browser

MacBook
MacBook Air
21.5″ iMac
Mac Mini

The Editor

Mac Pro
i5/i7 iMac
15″+ MacBook Pro

The Gamer

i5/i7 iMac
i5/i7 Macbook Pro
Quad-core Mac Pro

Obviously, every user is different and every Mac (can) be different with the various build-to-order options. These are just my observations of each Mac. If you have different views, be sure to share them!