Buying your first Mac? Read this.
Thinking about a Mac for a loved one this holiday season? He or she (or you) is very lucky. But if this is the first time you’ve looked at buying a Macintosh computer, there are few things you might want to consider before you decide what to get. While the Apple shopping experience is supposed to be a simple and streamlined process, understanding the Mac as a product and knowing a little about Apple’s marketing will make you a more knowledgeable -- and in the end happier -- Mac customer.
This is an in-depth guide to buying your first Mac. You’ll learn about Apple philosophy, product cycles, price points, the different product lines offered today and how to pick the right Mac for you.
Joining the “cult” of Mac
Welcome to your first experience as a fanboy -- or fangirl. It’s time to join the cult. Okay, so those labels – rhetoric from PC-only users – may be outdated. However, it might be a good idea to know what it means to own a Mac, from then – to now.
Owning a Mac is essential to some people (audio and video professionals like record producers, film editors or graphic designers) where the reliability of Macintosh is irreplaceable. But to everyone else, the Mac is really a luxury item. There are machines that will do almost everything you need for much cheaper, but when it comes down to it, many are inferior and more frustrating to use. It’s like this: some people will use a car – any car – to get from point A to point B, while others like to ride in style and be comfortable each time he or she hops in the driver seat. The same goes for your choice of computer. The Macintosh is like the Cadillac of the computer world, and it’s definitely a fancy ride.
However, just as any minority group is usually ridiculed for being different (fill in whatever stereotype you wish), so too were Mac users, especially in the late 90s to early 2000s. While Apple struggled with business models and flirted with bankruptcy, a closely-knit group of evangelists helped keep Apple afloat. Being the underdog, those who had adopted the Mac in a Windows world were perceived as being cult-like for their die-hard fascination with the product and what it represented. The marketing slogan then, “Think Different,” really drove the idea of belonging to a creative elite -- of belonging to a family.
The Mac today, however, isn’t as much a statement as it is just a really good computer. It works in our complicated, incompatible tech world now more than it ever has. For the most part, people that try a Mac stick with it, fulfilling the prophecy “once you go Mac, you never go back.” Sure, Mac or iPhone users might get the occasional “fanboy” slander every now and then from a disgruntled PC user (which is ridiculous, because most Mac users also use PCs), but those allegations are just about dead. The Macintosh base is extremely large, and Apple as a company is not the underdog anymore. In fact, as of this writing, Apple’s stock market valuation sets them as the most valuable technology company in the world – even above Microsoft.
There’s a reason for this, a reason that Apple has overcome incredible odds and pretty much taken over the tech world in terms of both mind share and the stock market. It has everything to do with the philosophy that drives the products they make.
Apple philosophy 101
Simplicity, ease of use, design, aesthetics, quality… These are terms usually associated with Apple products. While other manufacturers sell based on miscellaneous features and spec sheets, what sets Apple apart is emphasis on great design and aesthetics, build quality, exceptional core functionality and the user experience. Initially, they leave out arguably essential features. This was no more apparent than with the release of the iPhone, which at launch had no 3G networking, a horrible camera, no multitasking, no Flash, no MMS, and others. It still is missing a few wanted features (at least from those in the industry whose job it is to report and complain about Apple).
Steve Jobs has said that his company is product-driven; they want to make the best products in the world – not the best selling or best value, but the best. They are as much a lifestyle company as they are a technology company. They preach originality and design, all the while sometimes outright refuting what is popular or accepted as standard practice in the industry altogether. If it doesn’t align with Apple’s (or Steve Job’s) vision of the future, nobody can tell it (or him) otherwise.
Apple does not follow trends. They set trends. They don’t look to monetize what’s popular, but would rather tear down and rethink what’s already popular. Look at the iPod. Look at the iPhone. Look at the iPad. Hell, look at the Mac when it was introduced. Apple has been intentionally altering the way we look at tech by essentially creating new markets and categories of devices, and advancing the state of the art.
I think it’s a case study for any business student.
However, part of big A’s philosophy takes buying into a relatively closed system. Apple wants you to live in Apple land. While doing what they will to be compatible with the outside world, Apple wants you to live, work and play in their sandbox. They make the hardware. They make the software, the operating system, and they want you to come buy it at one of their retail stores. And they want you to buy your music and media from iTunes, which is joined at the hip with the iPod or iPhone, which is then joined at the other hip with the AppStore and MobileMe… Each product is its own realm of exclusivity.
From this mindset of control comes the idea of user experience. They oversee these aspects of the experience, because they want it to be a good one. The notion of control might seem ominous, but it isn’t inherently bad. There’s a reason why over and over again, Apple ranks the highest among all PC manufacturers in customer satisfaction (link). For the average consumer, every step of buying and using a Mac has been considered and designed.
To contrast, Microsoft creates and markets the Windows software but relies on PC manufacturers and retail outlets to oversee everything else. This is good for wide selection and competitive prices, but it also creates much more room for the consumer to receive an inferior product or service. And it also provides for a much larger disconnect between the company and the user. For some, this strict philosophy means little hardware customization and choice, which makes the Mac less attractive for business and IT markets, or for those who continually upgrade their systems, such as PC gamers.
If you’re interested, I would suggest learning a little Apple history. A few good documentaries on the subject (yes, there are many; it’s an interesting story) are MacHeads, Welcome to Macintosh, Pirates of Silicon Valley, or even Objectified, a documentary on design and aesthetics in everyday life.
What is a Mac?
“Mac” is short for a model of Macintosh computer. It’s a name that has stuck with the product line since the original Macintosh 128k was introduced in 1984. Every product from then on, if it ran the Macintosh OS, was considered a Mac, though the different products in the Mac family had other sub-names like PowerBook or PowerMac.
A Mac, at its core, has little to do with the changing hardware designs from year to year. What makes a Mac a Mac is the operating system it runs: OS X. For the average consumer, there is nothing better. It has an intuitive interface, great overall design, is aesthetically pleasing, and is built to be easy to use, secure and reliable. Snow Leopard is the name given to the current iteration of OS X, and it’s an amazing product. It comes with the iLife suite of applications, such as iPhoto, a photo managing application, iMovie for creating and editing movies, GarageBand and others, all of which make the Mac incredibly capable right out of the box.
The Mac is big in the home, education and creative professional markets. Whichever you hail from, know that there is at least a place for a Mac at your home. And depending on where you work, the Mac is quickly finding a place among the corporate world dominated by Windows PCs.
The right one for you
You’ve probably already got an idea of what you want. Say you need something mobile. Of course, then you’d choose a laptop. Say, then you need something light and capable of handling lots of open windows and word processing programs for productivity. Then you could choose the MacBook or the MacBook Air. Say, but then you also have some graphics-heavy applications you like to run like 3D games. Then you’d probably be better off getting the regular MacBook, because the GPU (graphics processing unit) in that device is a bit speedier.
Here’s a break down of the 2010 holiday season lineup:
MacBook – Apple’s mainstream consumer notebook. It fits most use cases and can even handle a few intense 3D games like Half-Life 2. The 13.3-inch screen may be perfect for most people, however, for the video editor or music producer might need a little more screen real estate and possibly even more power.
MacBook Pro – the professional line of notebooks from Apple. While the “Pro” declaration used to apply only to the notebooks with screen sizes 15 inches and over, Apple now has made their previous 13-inch aluminum MacBook a MacBook Pro by adding more RAM, a larger hard drive, and putting FireWire back on the product. This line of computer is capable of much more than any of its mobile offerings. The 15 and 17-inch models contain either one of Intel’s i5 or i7 dual-core processors, both of which are extremely powerful. They all currently use NVidia’s GeForce 320M or 330M GPUs, and are quite capable of the most demanding video editing tasks. The laptops won’t blaze through HD gaming quite like a desktop can, but all can play just about anything, given you adjust game’s graphic settings accordingly. Perfect for the college student, mobile photographer, traveling musician or DJ.
MacBook Air – this was made for two main reasons: 1) to give traveling businessmen and women and super-light, easily portable yet powerful machine, and 2) to show off how thin Apple can make stuff. They’re considerably more expensive for than that of their larger and more powerful brethren, but as said before, with Apple you pay for unique design. And the MacBook Air is definitely unique. It fell under the “Who the hell would use this?” category by critics who didn’t quite understand what Apple was trying to accomplish here. It wasn’t made to be incredibly practical. Instead, Apple figured out how to make super, super thin laptops, and they had to bring it to market first before anybody else. That simple.
Mac mini – There are lot of folks that still ponder the fate of Apple’s least-expensive Mac offering. Over the past few years, there was some talk that Apple might discontinue the mini, but with relatively consistent updates, those rumors have been settled. Especially with it’s most recently design change. The most drastic evolution of the product since its inception, the Mac mini is super tiny and flat and silver and pretty. Though larger in diameter than the previous model, the precision with which Apple can cram so much in such a tiny space is mind-boggling. It’s a wonderful product and a great addition to the Mac lineup. With the Mac mini, the lineup feels complete. Add the fact that no other PC manufacturer really has anything compelling in this form factor, then you might say Apple has the market on this one, but I haven’t seen any market studies directed at this category. There are a few nettop (netbook-desktop) boxes on the market, most notably Dell’s Inspiron Zino HD, but nothing out there shines like the inconceivably tiny yet powerful (enough) box that Apple makes. Many use the mini as a home theater media repository and DVD player, or for internet-based media services like Netflix. They come equipped with an HDMI port, so it’ll hook right up to your flat panel display.
iMac – this is the consumer desktop Mac. It takes on the all-in-one design. That means that the computer is built into the display, or maybe the display is built into the computer. Either way, it’s good. The iMac is a gorgeous device, and it takes the lead in the industry for all-in-ones. That’s mostly because it has a much more competitive edge as far as prices go compared to others. Most PC manufactures thrive on cheaper boxes that ship with separate displays. If you’re thinking about an iMac, just remember that it’s not easily upgradable. You can add extra RAM, and that’s about it. It doesn’t take much to dig into the system and upgrade the hard drive, but I’d leave that to a professional.
Mac Pro – I saved the best for last. This computer is the Mac-daddy (pun intended) of the Mac line. It’s the superbeast among desktop workstations. Starting at $2500 for the box alone, it’s quite an investment, but if you’re able to pony-up that amount of money, you’ll be glad you did. Of course, this assumes you don’t need to be mobile with your computing goals. And I’d say it assumes you are going to be doing a lot of CPU and GPU-intensive tasks like video editing or serious gaming. It also assumes you just need a lot of expansion and a bunch of I/O options to get done what you need done. If not, then I’d probably recommend an iMac, but then again there are those who want the biggest and the baddest. One thing that the Mac Pro has going for it compared to other PC workstations is, again, extraordinary design. If you were to take a good look inside that big beautiful metal box, you’ll witness a perfect balance of seemingly crammed components yet perfect accessibility. Everything just kind of pops out if you need to replace or add something to the system. And when you close it back up, the whole thing screams power and confidence. Overall, the design of the Mac Pro is nearly unchanged the past five to six years, but it also hasn’t lost any of it’s initial luster. That’s saying a lot.
How and when to buy
So, how do you buy a Mac? Well, there’s no easy way to plop a thousand bucks or two on a checkout counter, but there is an informed way, and that’ll make sense real soon.
The first Mac I purchased was a black MacBook, fall of 2007. Having no idea about how Apple marketed and released new products, just a week out of its new packaging, my new laptop was obsolete; Apple had released an updated version that also included the brand-new operating system OS X Leopard. The one I had purchased still had OS X Tiger on it. Flustered and appalled, I ran back to the store, explained my situation and pleaded for an exchange. Luckily, the reseller was empathetic, and I was able to get the newer one a few weeks later. The moral of the story? Know Apple product cycles as well as you can. It’s not an exact science, but based on the patterns of past releases, accompanied with the never-ending rumor mill on the Internet, you can gauge fairly well when it’s about time for Apple to refresh the old stuff and bring in the hot new, spicy Apple pies (sorry for the blatantly horrible pun).
Want to know if it’s a good time to buy a new MacBook? Check some of the dedicated Apple news websites. MacWorld, MacRumors, Cult of Mac, AppleInsider, or even Engadget, Gizmodo, and All Things D (from The Wall Street Journal) always have their ear to Cupertino. In fact, every technology oriented website and media group reports on everything Apple, because even if Apple announced something ridiculous like a battery charger it would be news (wait, they already did that, and it was).
Here’s a great reference from MacRumors; it’s their buyer’s guide, listing all the current main Apple product lines and past releases. From there you can get a sense as to when the best time might be to purchase.
Most often, MacBooks and MacBook Pros and iMacs get refreshed twice a year, but the MacBook Air and the Mac Pro is somewhat harder to pinpoint. Recently the Mac Pro was updated in July, before that was March of 2009. But those looking to buy a Mac Pro would probably not have time to wait for release dates; they’ve got stuff to accomplish, so it’s less an issue. Chances are the MacBook and MacBook Pros will be updated soon. They too have seen a slow-down in update cycles, having only been refreshed once earlier this year. But, I wouldn’t let that keep you from getting one if you’ve been eyeing one for this holiday season. Those laptops are still high-class and won’t be obsolete for quite a while.
The iPhone is really predictable, by this point. Every summer since the original iPhone, Apple has release another one. So, if you want an iPhone 4, get one. Don’t let anyone hold you back.
The iPad, however, is a different story, and the most interesting debate of all. No one knows the iPad’s product cycle yet. They’ve only release one, so we have nothing yet to judge as reference. It was announced January of this year, but released finally in April. Of course, the struggle is whether or not to spend money on the iPad that will quickly be replaced soon or not. Apple sure knows how to play their cards, because they know the demand is still strong for these things. There’s no need thus far to make a new one. Though I’d say this: if you’ve got kids screaming for an iPad this Christmas, by all means shut ‘em up with one of these things, and if it turns out that new iPads come out in January, never let them know it. You can wait for yours, if you have the patience, that is.
Now, I’d rather not blindly speculate on when Apple might release a new iPad, but there are a few things that you might consider: For one, it’s quite certain among tech-gurus that a new version will come out sometime early next year. That means January, April or somewhere in between.