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Book Excerpt: to Switching to the Mac

Buying a Mac

Optical Drive
In 2009 almost all Macs come with what is called a Super Drive. It can read and write CDs and DVDs in almost any format. It can even read dual-layer DVDs, which contain twice as much data as a standard DVD. In addition, a Super Drive can write both kinds of discs as well, including dual-layer DVDs. With your optical drive, you will be able to import and play music CDs,watch video DVDs, create your own mix CDs, burn your home videos to DVD, and back up or archive your data. Only the MacBook Air is missing an optical drive, and it comes with the capability to use an external optical drive plugged into the USB port, which Apple sells for $99. 

What Do the Options Mean?
USB2 Ports
All Macs include USB2 ports. USB2 is a type of connection that allows you to hook up almost any peripheral, starting with the keyboard and mouse.You can also plug in external hard drives, printers, image scanners, digital cameras, and so on. It is nice to have as many USB2 ports as possible.However, all you really need is one, as you can plug a USB2 hub into that one port and turn one into many. The original USB ports used in the first iMacs were slow and only suitable for the keyboard, mouse, and perhaps a low-end digital camera. USB2 ports are an order of magnitude faster and can be used to connect even live video devices and fast hard drives. The MacBook Air comes with just one USB port. In contrast, the Mac Pro has five--two on the front and three in the back, as you can see in Figure 1.7.

Figure 1.7 A recent configuration of ports found on the back of the Mac Pro. Photo courtesy of Apple, Inc.

FireWire Ports
FireWire is an alternative to USB2, used mostly for external hard drives and video cameras. It is also known as an IEEE 1394 interface and it is called that on some devices. FireWire comes in two speeds: 400Mbit/sec and 800Mbit/sec. A port that supports the higher speed also supports devices running at the lower speed--which is what we find on the MacBook Pros. The two speeds have ports that look a little different as well. Adapters can be bought to hook a 400Mbit/sec device into the square 800Mbit/sec port. All Macs except the MacBook Air and MacBook have a FireWire 800 port.The Mac Pro has two of them.The MacBook Air has none, and the current MacBook is the only model with a FireWire 400 port. Many cameras use a smaller connection port but usually provide a cable that goes from one size to the other.However, video cameras with IEEE 1394 ports are notorious for not including any FireWire cable at all, requiring excited new video camera owners to rush to the nearest Apple Store to buy one.

Video Ports
Two primary types of video display ports are found on computers and displays:VGA and DVI. The first is the old standard, usually used to drive old CRT monitors.The second is the digital standard, used in most new LCD screens today. Until October 2008, Apple appeared to be supporting DVI throughout its product line. Some machines included DVI-to-VGA adapters so you could plug into older monitors and presentation projectors.The iMac and MacBook began to use a mini-DVI plug but came with an adapter to make it easy to plug into a standard-sized DVI screen. However, this all changed in October 2008 when Apple put Mini DisplayPort ports on their MacBooks,MacBook Pros, and MacBook Airs. They promised to put DisplayPort on all of their other machines as well. This little port requires an adapter to hook up to almost any type of screen. Apple sells one for VGA and one for DVI. A more expensive adapter is required to power a large monitor, if it requires a Dual-Link DVI connection.

Hard Drive
Today's Mac is more than just a computer--it is a media storage device.You store music, photos, and video on it.Well, actually, to be more accurate, you store those things on the hard drive. This is why having a large hard drive may be important to you. If you plan on collecting a lot of media, you'll need one. For example, if you plan on taking a lot of photos or home video and editing it on your Mac, you'll need a larger hard drive. However, if you are not concerned about media storage, even the smallest hard drive offered by Apple is probably enough. On the lower end, some Macs, such as the MacBook and Mac mini, come with 120GB or 160GB hard drives at the low end, but you can get larger drives for both if you think you'll need it. On the other end of the spectrum, the Mac Pro and iMac can come with 1 terabyte (TB) drives; the Pro also comes with multiple drives.

What Type of Mac User Are You?
There is no such thing as a typical Mac user. Everyone is unique in what they want from a computer, what they use it for, and how they use it.That's why Apple has so many choices. To determine which Mac is right for you, you'll need to examine a number of factors.No one factor will tell you which Mac is right for you, but when combined, they may offer a clue.

Where Will You Use Your Mac?
Will this machine sit on a desk at home or at work? That's the primary question. But there are other places you can use your Mac as well. For instance, if you are a notebook user, you may find yourself on the sofa with the notebook in your lap more often than at a desk. If you are a stu- 14 What Type of Mac User Are You? dent, you may find that the classroom or the school library is the most common place to use your Mac. A salesman or marketing professional may need her Mac more on the road more than in the office. Here are some typical location situations and which Mac models may fit best:

  • Desk at home--One of the three desktop models
  • Desk at work--One of the three desktop models
  • Living room at home--One of the three MacBooks, or possibly a Mac mini hooked into your TV
  • School dorm or around campus--One of the three MacBooks
  • Traveling for work--One of the three MacBooks
  • Home office and work--One of the three MacBooks
  • Seasonal commute--An iMac, or one of the three MacBooks

In general, you'd want one of the MacBooks if you are going to be changing your location. If you never plan to move your Mac, save the extra money and go for an iMac. A seasonal commute is an interesting situation. Say you are in school in one location most of the year, but home for the summer. Or, perhaps you travel to a different location for the winter. In this case, you may not need to get a MacBook model, but instead pack up an iMac, take it along, and set it up at the new location. The Mac mini has a unique application as the best Mac for hooking up to your TV.You could use it for general web surfing and email, as well as viewing video and listening to music.

What's Your Primary Use for Your Mac?
A Mac is a multipurpose tool. But everyone has something in mind that they will be using their Mac for most often. Is it going to be for using a particular business application? For writing? For keeping in touch with friends over the Internet? For web surfing?

Here are some typical uses for a Mac, and what model would work best for that use:

  • Email and social networking--MacBook,MacBook Air, or iMac
  • Web surfing--MacBook,MacBook Air, or iMac
  • Writing--MacBook,MacBook Air, or iMac
  • Composing music--MacBook Pro, iMac, or Mac Pro
  • Photography--iMac or MacBook Pro
  • Video editing--Mac Pro or MacBook Pro
  • Programming--iMac or MacBook Pro
  • Web or print design--Mac Pro or MacBook Pro
  • Games--iMac,Mac Pro, or MacBook Pro 

For most tasks that don't require handling heavy graphics or video, a MacBook or iMac is your best bet. If you need something very lightweight, a MacBook Air will do as well.

However, the Mac Pro and MacBook Pro are better at handling media like photos, video, and audio.They have faster processors, better video chipsets, and also come with larger hard drives needed for these applications. An iMac's screen may also be too small for some common photo and video editing tools.

The 17-inch MacBook Pro might be ideal for a media editor who needs to have as much screen real estate as possible to handle programs like Final Cut or Photoshop. A programmer who does not handle a lot of data can get away with almost any Mac, but a faster processor may be desirable.

If you are a gamer, you'll want to focus on the video chipset and hard drive space, which means staying away from the Mac mini or basic MacBooks.

Another way to approach finding the right Mac is to figure out what you really must have in a new machine.

Here are some typical must-have features and which Mac they would indicate:

  • A Media Center Mac--Mac mini or Mac Pro
  • Very large screen--Mac Pro
  • More than two screens--Mac Pro
  • Portability--Any MacBook
  • Lightweight--MacBook Air
  • Limited desk space--Anything except a Mac Pro
  • Additional hard drives--Mac Pro
  • Expansion cards and special hardware--Mac Pro
  • FireWire video--Anything other than a MacBook Air
  • All-Apple support--iMac, Any MacBook

The iMac and all MacBooks let you hook up a second monitor, in addition to the built-in screen. MacBooks will operate with the lid closed and a monitor and external keyboard and mouse plugged in. But in that case they will only support one monitor. So if you really need a custom dual-monitor (or more) setup, a Mac Pro is the way to go.Desktop publishing and video editing often require this.

Although all MacBooks are portable by nature, only the MacBook Air carries this to an extreme by weighing in at barely three pounds. So if carrying around the lightest laptop possible is your requirement, the Air was made for you. The Mac Pro is the only Mac that is truly expandable in every way.

All Macs include USB2 ports for the addition of external hard drives. But only the Mac Pro allows additional internal drive bays. It also has expansion slots and by far the most power, with up to eight CPU cores. 16 Making the Decision If you do go with a Mac Pro or Mac mini, you'll need to supply your own monitor. And in the case of the mini, you'll need to supply a keyboard and mouse. If the ones you choose aren't Apple products, you'll be relying on other stores for support as well as Apple.

Making the Decision
So now that you've learned all about the Mac line-up, you may already know which Mac is right for you. But if you are still undecided,we can work on narrowing it down, step by step.

Desktop or Laptop
Your first decision is perhaps the easiest.Do you want a MacBook or a desktop machine? In general, there's nothing that a desktop can do that a MacBook cannot. However, many people feel that a desktop machine offers a better experience--with a keyboard that can be easily positioned and a screen that is higher on the desk and with larger pixels that are easier to read.

MacBooks can feel cramped, with the keyboard just an inch from the screen and the trackpad right under that. A setup with an advanced, or perhaps even an ergonomic, keyboard can be more comfortable if you plan to do a lot of typing. An iMac screen or separate display is much easier to view from a distance like sitting back in your chair or looking over someone's shoulder.

A MacBook offers portability, naturally. For instance, a student who wants to use his computer in the dorm, library, classroom, and at home during breaks should really consider a MacBook. A business traveler who likes to work on airplanes and make presentations using her own computer will likewise favor a MacBook. In fact, it is thought that MacBooks make up roughly half of Mac sales, although Apple doesn't release official numbers. Certainly if you visit an Apple Store you will see as many, if not more, MacBooks than desktops.

Weight or Power
Assuming you do want a laptop, you need to choose between the MacBook Pro, the MacBook, or the MacBook Air.This pretty much is a choice between portability and power. The MacBook Pro is the heaviest, although at five pounds it makes older laptops seem very heavy. But you do get more processor power, a larger hard drive, and more expandability. If you need the FireWire port or ExpressCard slot, your decision is simple, as the MacBook Pro is the only one with these features.

But if you plan on editing video or large images, especially at the professional level, you should also consider a MacBook Pro. The MacBook Air is on the other side of the spectrum. It is lightest, at three pounds, and very thin. It is so thin that the idea of a laptop case seems silly--it can just be carried in whatever backpack, briefcase, or satchel you already use. But the Air lacks power and expandability. Its processor is the slowest in the Mac line, and it doesn't even come with a built-in optical drive. So it is ideal for tasks like writing, surfing the net, and email.

Students may find this machine to be the best if they have the budget to go above the standard MacBook. As for the MacBook, there's a lot to be said for compromise.You get a slightly heavier machine than the Air, but have a better processor, larger hard drive, and an optical drive as compensation. You also get a much lower price tag.The MacBook comes in less than $1,000 in price, which might really make it the ideal student machine. The small price also makes it a good second machine for many people. If you have a Mac Pro for video editing, for instance, you may find a simple MacBook to be a good companion for Internet, email, and travel.

 All-In-One or Headless
The three MacBooks are very similar, with slightly different features, but the three desktop machines are very different from each other. The iMac is different from the other two in that it has an attached screen.The advantages are mostly in design and simplicity.The iMac is pretty. Chances are, if you are reading this book you probably think so too. One of the primary principles behind the design of the iMac is that,well, it has a design.That's what changed the industry in 1998 when it was introduced.

And since then Apple has continued to make sure each generation of iMacs looks better than any other computer on the market. There's nothing wrong with bringing design into your decision process.The comparison I like to use is why people think so much about color when buying a new car. After all, color is the most superficial decision when buying a new car.

But, on the other hand, if you are spending $25,000 on a car, shouldn't you get the color you want? That's one way to look at it: If you are spending good cash on a Mac, why shouldn't it look good? The iMac, by combining the computer and the screen, has an impressive design. It looks nice sitting in your den, home office, bedroom desk, or cubicle. And it also simplifies things.You buy an iMac and you're done. It comes with a keyboard and mouse, so everything you need is in the box.

One purchase, one price, no hidden costs.There is a lot to be said for that. On the other hand, a mini or a Pro comes without a screen.You can buy one of Apple's displays, a third-party display, or use one you already have.This gives you ultimate control over the size, quality, and cost of the display. A video editor or photographer might want to get a screen that meets certain high quality standards--although the iMac display is relatively good.

Mighty or Mini
The Mac mini and Mac Pro are an odd couple.They are both headless Macs that can be hidden away under a desk and drive virtually any screen or keyboard. But this is an easy decision, usually, because of price.The Mac Pro is about four times the cost of the mini. So if you are a professional who needs power and expandability at any cost, the Pro is for you. If you want a budget machine, the mini is for you.

Making the Purchase
But the mini can be mighty as well. For typical home use, like surfing the Internet or watching video, the mini works just as well as any Mac.

Take a Test Drive
Before you make your decision, try to visit an Apple Store if one is near you.You'll get to test drive the Macs you are interested in. Because design is such an important part of every Mac, it is important to see the machines physically, instead of relying on the pictures on the websites. You may be surprised at how small the Mac mini is. It really is "mini"! You might also be surprised at how light the MacBooks are. It is hard to believe that they cram an entire computer into the space the MacBook Air occupies. You may also find yourself seduced by the design of the iMac. It is so thin and the aluminum and glass make it look so different than what we traditionally have thought of as a computer. Making the Purchase Now that you know which Mac is for you, it is time to buy.You've got several choices yet to make, like who to buy your Mac from and whether you should go for an extended warranty, like AppleCare.

Buying in the Store
There are more than 250 Apple Stores in the United States and many more throughout the world.This is probably your best bet for buying a Mac if you live near one. Macs don't vary much in price, so you typically won't find bargains on new Macs by looking at non-Apple-owned stores. But sometimes other stores will throw in bonuses like more memory, printers, or extended AppleCare. You can also find Macs in some major U.S. electronics stores like Best Buy. Some Mac sections are larger than others, and they may vary in how much they support Macs after the purchase.You can always go into an Apple Store with questions no matter where you buy your Mac. There are also some great third-party Mac stores out there as well, some providing both new and used machines and repair services. Buying Online You can buy a Mac online from many places, including the online version of the Apple Store.The website lets you customize your Mac with different memory, CPU, and hard drive options.

However, a custom configuration will always take longer to ship than one of the preconfigured models. At other online stores, you are usually stuck with the preconfigured Macs. But some offer their own custom upgrades.

Buying a Used Mac
You can also find used and refurbished Macs online and in some stores.There are some online stores that specialize in non-new Macs, but you can also go to the online Apple Store to see if they have any refurbished machines. A refurbished machine is one that was either used in a store as a display model, or was returned for some reason. Apple will then fix anything that is wrong and offer the machine at a reduced price. It is usually pretty safe to buy a refurbished Mac from Apple.You get a warranty and support, so if anything isn't quite right you have some recourse. But buying a used or refurbished machine from somewhere else can be risky.You want to access that risk by planning for the worst--the machine is unusable when it arrives or just after. If you bought over eBay, good luck getting your money back or a new Mac. But if you buy from a local store that has a physical location and a written guarantee, you are somewhat safer.

Should You Buy AppleCare?
A big question for first-time Mac buyers is whether they should get the extra AppleCare.Usually at the time of purchase you are offered two additional years of AppleCare. AppleCare is basically an extended warranty. It extends the coverage you already get for one year after purchasing your Mac from Apple and extends the 90 days of telephone support.You can read more about AppleCare in Chapter 25 in the section "AppleCare and the Genius Bar." One thing that many buyers don't understand is that you already get a full year warranty on a new Mac from the Apple Store.The AppleCare package simply extends that warranty for another two years. Another misconception about AppleCare is that it will cover you if you have an accident--like dropping your MacBook. But AppleCare is a warranty, not an insurance policy. It will cover your Mac if a part is defective or breaks over time when it shouldn't, for instance, if the hard drive fails after 18 months or if the screen stops working.

AppleCare also gets you extended phone support beyond the initial 90 days that comes with your Mac purchase. But you don't need to decide now.You actually can buy the two years of additional AppleCare any time during the first year of owning your Mac. Knowing which Mac to buy and whether to get AppleCare is not an easy decision for some people. You also have to look at your budget and how important the computer is compared to other things in your life. But hopefully this guide has helped with that decision. If you still feel that you need to know more, check out the next chapter, where we'll go into detail about the hardware options that come with each Mac. Guide to Switching to the Mac
By Gary Rosenzweig
Published Sep 25, 2009 by Que.


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Gary Rosenzweig is the producer of and the host of the MacMost Now video podcast. MacMost focuses on teaching people how to get the most from their Macs with tutorials, reviews, and tips. His previous 12 books include ActionScript 3.0 Game Programming University and The MacAddict Guide to GarageBand. He also runs several Web-based game websites, including
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