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Which Mac should you get? An old switcher’s guide for new switchers

I first tried a Mac in, oh, about 1986. I hated it. Tiny little box with a screen in it, and the salesman sat me in front of it and tried to persuade me of its (expensive) merits by opening practically the only software they had for it – a Paint program. I wasn’t impressed. I wanted something to run a spreadsheet, not draw dumb pictures. From that moment on I thought all Macs were pretentious pieces of garbage for rich idiots who wanted to draw pictures all day long. How times change.

Almost two decades later, and I hadn’t looked at a Mac but I had slagged them off a few times on computer forums and so on. That was when my PC worked of course, didn’t have the anti-virus scanner working, wasn’t updating its virus definition files, or showing me the Blue Screen Of Death.

Now, one of the guys I hung out with worked for IBM. We used to go for a beer a couple of Fridays a month with some other computer guys to chew the fat. My friend’s girlfriend was very much into Macs, but she was studying a graphics course so I just thought, “Of course she’s got a Mac. She wants to make pretty pictures!”

But it wasn’t quite like that – her course was half graphics, half accounting. Huh? Accounting? On a Mac? That was a new idea I couldn’t get my head around to begin with.

After a while, my friend admitted he played around on his girlfriend’s Mac – because he could just get on and do his home stuff without worrying about things not working or needing new drivers or having conflicts or crashing. He said that both he and his girlfriend had completely different user accounts, with everything completely separate. He had his files and programs, she had hers. He ran Unix applications in the Terminal, she ran graphics files on the old Mac OS, called OS9.

Now remember, this guy worked on PCs all day long to keep them in working order. And yet he kept on going on about how reliable and user friendly the Mac was. Sure, he had a PC too, it was provided for him by his work. But when he went out and ordered a Mac mini – with his own money – I started to rethink things very carefully.

If everything was like he said, maybe I should buy one of these little wonders too. He assured me they were completely different now, and even Microsoft Office worked on it. They even had IBM chips inside, and connected to all the same things PCs could.

So I bought a Mac mini. It was the best decision I ever made buying a computer. Since then I’ve gone on to buy nine Macs in total for myself, my family, and my office. What I’m trying to say is, I’ve got a lot of experience from a PC user’s point of view about choosing a Mac – but I’m not you, so this is a guide, not a recommendation.

Mac mini
The first Mac for many people, and certainly the one with the lowest ticket price, is the Mac mini. Like all Macs, they look great but in addition it’s just so small. It fits anywhere, and runs very quietly. Compared to my previous PC, it’s silent. Perfect for the lounge. And it has been trouble free.

Mac minis do not come with a separate graphics card so share some of the standard system RAM. This means the largest screen they can power would be a 23″ Apple Display, although I have heard they could power a Dell or other model 24″ screen. The latest Mac minis are pretty nice right now, particularly the Core 2 Duo 2.0 GHz model.

The new aluminium iMacs have a glossy screen which many people cannot bear, others seem not to worry about it. Personally I hate reflections on the screen and had a look at the new iMac in a variety of lighting situations at a number of locations (three Apple resellers and the Bluewater Apple Retail store) before excluding it for being too glossy. Not for nothing do the TV ads show the new glossy screened iMac from side on only! Any other view would put many people right off.

Talking of TV though, getting rid of screen reflections has been like hunting for the Holy Grail for most manufacturers for decades – there have even been products developed to counteract the reflections, so why the fashion has returned as an “advantage” is quite beyond me.

If you find the shiny screen doesn’t irritate the hell out of you, which iMac should you get? I bought a Refurbished 24″ white iMac (last model) from the Apple Online store and got a sizable discount, but these seem to be in short supply right now. It does have a large screen, but the size is very useful and not too big for a normal desk, especially since the computer is in the screen and there’s no beige box to have to work out how to hide.

The screen on the older iMac is non-reflective, and the size allows me to work on a full page on one side of the screen, and have my reference pages open on the right and just drag and drop pictures, charts, and even lumps of text straight from one to the other, not even needing to use cut and paste. Just seeing the two pages next to each other is a huge advantage.

When it comes to the new aluminium iMacs, there is a significant difference in quality between the 20″ and the 24″ models. Mainly, the 24″ model uses better components than the 20″ model, whose screen is actually of lower spec than its white plastic predecessor! Of course, with the glossy screen the reflections are larger the bigger the area they can reflect from…

Power Mac / Mac Pro
Unfortunately there isn’t a mid range Mac without an in-built screen, so if you don’t like the new iMac and can’t get an old iMac you have to go for either the Mac mini or a Mac Pro which is, err, B I G !!!

We use the current Mac Pro’s almost identical predecessor, a G5 PPC 2.0 GHz double processor powered Power Mac, in the office as a file and database server and it is very under-utilised, seldom using more than 30% of processor capacity.

It’s massive though. Not for on top of a desk. Solid sculpture, beautiful design. The metal case is thick, solid, sculpted anodised metal that weighs a ton. From an engineering point of view, it’s art. It feels nice to touch. Inside it’s as beautiful as outside, and very well designed and put together. Putting in new RAM is dead easy. In the new ones, even changing a Hard Disk drive is easy. We have two Hard Disks in ours, set up in a RAID configuration so that if one disk fails, the other is a mirror image with no data is lost.

When the new Mac Operating System, OS X 10.5 Leopard has had all the bugs ironed out, we’ll probably use its new Time Machine backup system for data security and change the RAID configuration to allow for faster read/write speeds to boost performance even more.

Not everyone wants a desktop Mac though, and Mac laptops have become more and more popular this year, taking 17% of the laptop market and making Apple into the third biggest computer manufacturer after Dell and HP.

Power Book/MacBook Pro
Before Macs went from PPC chips to Intel, I bought a Power Book as I needed some portability for international travel. It is another piece of scuplted Aluminium beauty that is wonderfully rewarding in so many ways, not least of which being the tactile satisfaction of just using it. When light levels fall, the screen dims and the aluminium keys automatically light up so you can still see which keys to press, a big help for my aging eyes.

Closing the lid automatically sleeps the computer, opening it gives you an almost instant restart. Amazing. My girlfriend’s HP notebook would crash if you did this. To be fair, it was running Windows 98 though.

My old model Power Book is completely at home doing everything I have asked of it though – basically it is a portable version of a G4 iMac with equivalent specification. I run mine with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, plus a 19″ standalone monitor, so have a portable desktop. The two fingered scroll pad is fantastic. So intuitive. So unlike a PC. And the new MacBook Pro is much, much better.

When the HP finally gave up the ghost (not only had all the key labels vanished from the keyboard so hitting the correct letter was often guesswork, eventually the keys stopped working too, it would never run without crashing and a host of other minor irritants) I got my girlfriend a MacBook. Bad mistake. Not because of the computer – but because I didn’t consult with her, I deprived her of the fun of choosing.

But the MacBook itself is pretty fast, it’s the Black 2.16 GHz Core 2 Duo version with the 13.3 inch screen. This is a bit small for most eyes, but unfortunately the MacBook is not available with a larger screen. You have to go up to the MacBook Pro for that which has either a 15″ or a 17″ display.

For most purposes, the MacBook is fantastic and fun, but it doesn’t have a separate graphics card, so for big movie making work it probably struggles a bit. For general office work though, it is fine and connecting to an external monitor is definitely a good idea.

Making your Mac faster.
In all cases, max out your RAM wherever you can – but don’t buy it from Apple unless you are getting a Mac mini which is remarkably compact and difficult to access. One supplier that has a great website for helping you identify which RAM you need and its cost is Crucial. 2 Gb will have your Mac flying, although 1 Gb is really sufficient if you aren’t running Windows and OS X simultaneously on the same computer. Yes, both Parallels and VMWare alow this, not to mention Apple’s own Boot Camp – now replaced as part of the Leopard OS.

Whichever Mac you get, you won’t be disappointed. Do make sure the one you get is sufficient for your needs though, just like choosing any computer.

Have fun! But remember all those folks still on PC who have to fight their PC constantly, rather than have it work with them to get things out rather than just put effort in.

On a Mac, things just work.


One comment on “Which Mac should you get? An old switcher’s guide for new switchers

  1. Good comprehensive guide, well done.
    My first Mac was an Apple II (it was second hand) which dates me beautifully. I’m not one for all that Mac vs PC (vs Linux) thing as it’s what works for you. The Intel Macs are good for switchers as they can run almost anything (if needed) so that those Windows app you can’t do without can still be used (coherence mode via parallels can run just the app and not the whole desktop). I always wish that Apple would show off their OS more in adverts rather than just the ‘style chic’ of their hardware.

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