The question of which Mac to buy is an age-old question that has a wide variety of answers. This variety increases with every new generation of Macs, but the division between what you want and what you need is what ultimately decides which Mac is best for you. Apple has essentially divided their products into two different categories: professional and consumer. While I may not be able to help you decide on a specific computer, hopefully by the time you finish reading this article, you will feel fully prepared to make the decision of which line of Mac is the right one for you.
Step 1: Decide how much you can spend.
Buying a Mac is no small investment. While the computers are solid and well-supported, they are expensive, and sometimes what you want may be out of your price range. With computers ranging in price from $699 to over $17,000, it is easy to be hit with sticker shock. At this point, it is best to know how much you are willing to spend before you shop so that you can eliminate unnecessary deliberations. Apple has 5 different computer lines. The Mac Mini is the cheapest at $699, followed by the 11.6" MacBook Air and 13" MacBook at $999. Next up is the iMac and MacBook Pro lines which start at $1,199 followed by the Mac Pro which starts at $2,499. If you can't spend over $1,000, you won't be able to buy the latest model of the iMac, MacBook Pro, or Mac Pro lines.
The most important question in any purchase is what you are going to use it for and if you really need it. If all you do is check Facebook, send e-mails, store photos, and shop online, you probably do not need one of the higher-end models. On the other side of the issue, if you plan on gaming, editing video, storing huge libraries of music, or a number of other professional or prosumer functions, you might need to spend a little more to get the most satisfaction out of your investment.
There are other ways you can also save money on the purchase of your Mac. Discounts are also available to college students and teachers, as well as military personnel. You may be eligible for over $100 off the purchase of your new Mac. You can also save money by buying a refurbished unit, or an older model.
Step 2: Decide if you need to be mobile.
If you need to be able to take your work with you to different locations, you will obviously need to purchase a mobile machine. While it used to be the case that if you needed power, a desktop machine was the only way to go, this has become much less of an issue as computer parts have shrunk and gained power. Even if you think you might want to be mobile once in a while, a notebook with external peripherals such as a display, keyboard, and mouse can easily give you the same feel you would get from a desktop with the freedom of being able to move if needed. Still, desktop computers do have more power, and generally more storage since they are able to house larger and more components. They also frequently offer more interoperability ports for plugging in cameras, flash drives, MP3 players, phones, printers, and a variety of other devices.
If you decide on a notebook, you must also decide which notebook to purchase based on how mobile you need to be. Apple currently has 6 different sizes of notebooks that range from ultra-portable to mobile powerhouse. If you are on the move a considerable amount of the time, a MacBook Air which comes in both 11.6" and 13" form factors might be well-suited for you due to its long battery life and light weight. If you need more power, but still want to be mobile, a normal 13" MacBook might also be a very good choice due to its fair price and well-rounded features. If you need even more power, or a more professional look, a MacBook Pro might be an even better choice still as it is available in 13", 15", and behemoth 17" form factors and has superior hardware to both of the other MacBook lines.
Step 3: Determine which features you need and which ones you do not need.
While most of the Macs offered all have similar function, they do vary between lines and even sizes within lines. The number of different features can be very confusing when you are deciding which Mac to buy, so it may be best to go to an Apple Store near you and test drive the computer you think is for you. You may determine that it is more than you need, or you may discover there is more that you want. Due to overlap, I will only mention the features that are not common to all devices.
One major difference that was recently introduced is the Thunderbolt port, which is a new, very high-speed interface that is only available on the iMac and MacBook Pro at this point in time. While this isn't yet a mainstream interface, it very well could be in coming years, so you may want to consider purchasing a line that features it.
Another prime factor is whether or not you need an internal optical drive for your CDs and DVDs. The MacBook Air and the server model of the Mac Mini do not have internal drives, and you will need to purchase an external drive if you need to read or write CDs or DVDs.
A new type of storage that has become popular in the mobile and speed-hungry world is the solid-state drive. These drives rely on non-volatile flash memory rather than traditional hard drives which use rotating platters. They are much faster, but much more expensive and are usually only available in smaller sizes.
Another big issue is the number of USB ports on a device. The MacBook Air only has 1 port in its 11.6" form factor, and even though a hub can be purchased to give you more ports, hubs can cause instability and devices function much slower when they are sharing the bandwidth of the interface. The desktop lines all feature at least 4 USB ports, and the MacBooks larger than the 11.6" MacBook Air all feature at least 2, which is usually more than enough for most people.
Other port differences include the line in for external microphones (not present on MacBook or MacBook Air), FireWire 800 (only on desktop lines and MacBook Pro), Ethernet (absent on MacBook Air), and SD-XC memory card slot (present only on Mac Mini, iMac, and MacBook Pro).
Step 4: Make your decision.
By now, you will have decided your budget, defined your mobility, and marked your features. Using this criteria, you are now ready to decide on which Mac line is best for you. I hope this article has been useful in educating you on the distinctions between the models and helping you know which Mac to buy.