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Book Excerpt: MacMost.com--Guide to Switching to the Mac

Buying a Mac

The Mac Product Line
The Pro does share some things in common with the little mini, however. It comes without a monitor, so you have to supply your own. However, you do get a keyboard and mouse. It also comes with the most powerful of processors--quad-core Intel chips.This makes it ideal for heavy lifting like video editing and high-resolution image editing. There are two main configurations of Mac Pro: a single quad-core processor or two quad-core processors, for a total of eight cores. One area the Mac Pro excels in is expandability.The eight-core model can take up to 32GB of memory. The Mac Pro can fit four hard drives inside. It also has some expansion card slots for adding various pieces of hardware.

The MacBook



Figure 1.4 The lone MacBook model is made from white plastic, which brings down the price somewhat.

Apple wasn't the first to make a portable computer, but with its PowerBook series of laptops it really pushed the market forward in the early 90s. Laptops continue to be a major part of Apple's product line today with the MacBook and its variations.

The basic MacBook line underwent a thorough shakeup in mid-2009. Most Mac notebooks are now part of the MacBook Pro line, and there is only a single budget MacBook model to stand by itself. It retains the white plastic look used in MacBooks for the past several years (see Figure 1.4).  The MacBook is an all-in-one computer just like the iMac. Actually, it is even more so, as the keyboard and trackpad are built in as well. Also contained in the body is a battery.The only external part is the power cord and power supply. MacBooks strike a balance between portability and power.The expansion potential for a MacBook is minimal, with just some USB2 ports and a video port as your only options.

The MacBook Pro

Figure 1.5 The MacBook Pro sports a unibody aluminum case. Photo Courtesy of Apple, Inc.

The big brother to the MacBook is the MacBook Pro.Visually, the biggest difference is an aluminum case, as you can see in Figure 1.5. There are three sizes of MacBook Pro: 13-inch, 15-inch, and 17-inch.The smallest has a 1280×800 screen, the largest a 1920×1200 screen, and the middle child has a 1440×900 screen. The MacBook Pro adds power and expandability over the MacBook.You've got a FireWire port to match the USB2 ports.This can come in handy for accepting input from digital video cameras. You've also got an SD card slot in the 13- and 15-inch models, and an ExpressCard 34 expansion slot in the 17-inch model.Those SD card slots are great for photographers who use SD cards.

The MacBook Air

Figure 1.6 The MacBook Air is thin and light. Photo Courtesy of Apple, Inc.

The final variation of the Macintosh is the MacBook Air, shown in Figure 1.6. Like the basic MacBook, it is a consumer-level basic laptop, only less.Gone is the internal optical drive.The hard drive is smaller and the processor is slower.  What you get in return is simple: it weighs only three pounds. For frequent travelers and people who carry a laptop around all day, this was enough for them to switch to the Air the day it was released.

What Do the Options Mean?
Thanks to the video port and single USB2 port, you can still expand your Air to include a larger external monitor, keyboard, and mouse.You can even get a special USB2 Apple optical drive, or share the internal drive of another Mac. What Do the Options Mean? Each Mac model varies not only in appearance, but also in specific features. Let's examine the main features you should be looking at when deciding to buy a Mac.This guide will not only help you choose between the current six models, but also any future variations that Apple produces.

CPU
The CPU, or central processing unit, is the "brain" of your Mac.The faster your CPU, the more powerful your computer.

FYI--PROCESSOR SPEED
Gigahertz, or GHz, is used as a measurement of the speed of a microprocessor. It tells you how many cycles per second occur inside the chip. A single hertz means that one cycle occurs per second--so one instruction can be executed every second. One gigahertz means that one billion individual instructions can be executed every second. For a modern computer to do just about anything, it needs to run millions of tiny instructions. So the faster the processor, the quicker you'll see results when you use your computer.

But speed is not the only measure of a processor. Today we have chips that are multicore.This means that a single computer chip actually holds more than one processor.They can execute two or more instructions simultaneously. Most Macs come with dual-core processors.The Mac Pro comes with quad-core processors capable of running four instructions at the same time. In addition, one version of the Mac Pro come with two quad-core processors, meaning that they can run eight instructions simultaneously.

System Memory
How much memory your Mac has also affects its speed. Back in the early days of personal computing, memory affected what you could do. A more complex program required more memory. Simple ones required less. But that is no longer true, as memory is now shared between actual memory chips and the hard drive inside the computer--a technique called "virtual memory." So even a machine with very little memory will have plenty to run whatever program you want. However, the portions of memory stored on the hard disk take a lot longer to access than the memory stored in chips. So the more memory you have, the faster your applications run. New Macs come with at least 2GB of memory. A Mac Pro can currently hold up to 32GB. For most users, about 2GB is enough in 2009. If you've got the money and the need to run more intense applications like video editors, 4GB or more may be a good investment.

Graphics Processor
As powerful as modern CPUs are, they still don't do all of the computing inside a modern machine. A lot of work needs to be done to take the data inside the computer and display it in pretty windows on a pretty desktop on your screen. For this, a second microprocessor and supporting chips perform the graphics processing in your Mac. Just as with the CPU, these chips can be fast or slow.These chips are made by two different rival companies: ATI and Nvidia. To confuse things even further, graphics processors have their own memory. So you might see one Mac with 256MB of video memory and another with 512MB.

FYI--MEMORY MEASUREMENTS
In 2009, system memory is almost always measured in GB (gigabytes), or just "gigs," but many graphics cards are still measured in MB (megabytes). There are 1,024 megabytes in a gigabyte. So a graphics card with 512MB has half a gig.

Video memory is used to store pieces of the display--like windows, text, backgrounds, and so on. In 3D applications, textures are stored in video memory as well.The more video memory you have, the faster complex screens can be drawn.

If you are wondering what a "complex screen" is, look no further than your desktop.You've got a background, windows, the dock, the menu bar, icons, and so on. So even just displaying your computer's desktop after starting it up is a task that relies heavily on the graphics processor. The power of a graphics processor also determines the maximum screen size you can use with your Mac.

Most models are capable of handling a large 30-inch display with 2,560 pixels across, but even larger screens may be in our future.  

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