What Computer to Buy

Briefly:

MacBook Pro, iMac, or Mini 
Get AppleCare
Don't be Cheap

People keep asking me what kind of computer to buy for home. I tell them that it depends on what they plan to do with the computer. Often they're not sure, but they really want a new computer. So here are some general thoughts.

Suppose somebody said:

"I hate shoes. I bought some once, and they cost a lot of money, and pretty soon they got all scuffed and ugly, and the high heels kept sinking into the beach."

That's silly, right? The kind of shoes you should buy depend on where you walk. Maybe you don't need any. Same with your computer.

Expectations

Stop right here if you think you can use the computer without learning and maintaining it, or if you think it's going to be cheap or easy. If you're easily frustrated and give up when things get complicated, save yourself a lot of trouble and don't even start. Buy an iPad, or buy a big TV instead and pay to have the store hook it up.

Let's Start With Money

There's no sense in having a long discussion about what computer you might want, if you aren't going to spend enough money to get it.

How much you want to spendWhat to do
Less than $600
  • Buy a $399 iPad or a $299 iPad Mini (AppleCare adds $99).
  • Or buy a $300 Windows computer from Tiger Direct or Wal-Mart. (And buy antivirus.)
  • Or buy a used computer, and install a free version of Linux.
  • Or buy a bunch of parts and build your own computer, and run Linux.
But don't ask me for help. I don't know enough about Windows to help you, and I haven't got the time to learn it. You can't use Linux without becoming your own expert. The iPad should "just work."
Less than $900 You can afford a Mac Mini, a monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
I can advise you about setting it up. Keep reading.
Less than $1400 .. and some time Good for you! Keep reading, I have suggestions. A MacBook Pro or an iMac is about $1350.
I'm rich and want the best Good for you! Read what follows, then hire a guy to set you up.

Other Costs

After you buy the computer, you've just begun to pay. You may spend more on attachments and software than on the basic system.

Your time. A computer is like a new puppy. You have to spend time taking care of it. Once you get the computer, you'll spend time learning to use it, and taking reasonable care of it. This means backing up your data and updating the software with security patches. You'll also have to spend time dealing with security, viruses, malware, and privacy (or hire help).

Mail and web connectivity. Most people buy a DSL connection from their landline phone company, or a cable modem connection from their cable company. A cable modem connection is faster and more expensive. Some city dwellers can get fiber connections from either the phone or cable companies: these are very fast and cost more. "Free" wireless is still a pipe dream in most places.

Software. You get some with the computer; you can get a lot for free; but you'll buy some software, and then have to buy upgrades. Microsoft Office is about $132, or you can subscribe for $7/mo per computer. Some widely used software, like Adobe Photoshop, is no longer sold: instead you have to buy a yearly subscription, about $20/mo/product. (Look into Affinity Photo as an alternative to Photoshop, and Affinity Designer as an alternative to Illustrator, or the free Gnu Image Manipulation Program: GIMP.)

Accessories. These can add up.

Extended Warranty. If you buy a Mac, get AppleCare, which extends the warranty from one year to three.

Recommendation

Get a Mac. Choosing a Mac will save you your time. Your computer is more likely to work, and less likely to have security problems. For example, in the first half of 2004, there were over 4000 new Windows viruses found, and none for the Mac. I find MacOS more reliable than Windows: I haven't had to reboot a Mac to solve a software problem in months. I use Mac, Windows, Linux, Solaris, and FreeBSD computers every day; I reach for the Mac when I want to get something done.

(Linux and FreeBSD are great. People who are willing to spend substantial time learning about systems, and maintaining and enhancing their software, can save a lot of money using free software, and they'll learn a lot, whether they want to or not. But this note isn't for those folks. It is for people who don't want to become more of a computer expert than they have to.)

Mac Mini

The Mac Mini brings the price of a Mac way down. It's a great little computer. You can use your old monitor and keyboard if you have them. We have one connected to our living room TV; it shows photo slide shows and plays music.


MacBook

MacOS has all the advantages of a consumer oriented operating system, plus the power of a Unix inside. This note was started on a very nice computer, a black MacBook bought in 2006. It ran all the standard commercial applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Word, as well as powerful programmers' tools. MacOS is the Unix system I was waiting for.

Considerations

Laptop or desktop? You have to decide how to fit the computer into your lifestyle. Is it going to sit on your desk, permanently connected to the Internet? Do you want to take it traveling, or to the café to write and surf the web? You pay extra for a laptop, and have fewer display options: decide if this matters to you. My wife uses a MacBook Pro and attaches a big monitor to it when she is home.

Cost. PC hardware is cheaper and there's more of it. But if you get a Windows computer, you'll spend more time dealing with management of the computer, solving problems with the software, and preventing and recovering from viruses, and that's a cost too. What I tell my friends and relatives is, "If you get a Windows PC, I can't help you. You'll have to get help from somebody else, and you'll need a fair amount."

Marginalization. Because more users run Microsoft Windows, some web sites, hardware, and software assume that everybody does, and won't work for Macs. If there is something specific that you want to do with your computer, you should talk to someone who already does that, and find out what their setup is. (As of 2008, Macs have about 20% of the market.)

Reasons. Think about why you want a new computer.

Here's the kind of comparison you want:

ApplicationMacPCLinux
e-mailsafeless safeok
Web browsingsafeless safeok
Writing==(no MS Word)
Photobestokmore work
Illustrationbestok?
Music playingbestokok
Movie making???
Gamessomemorefewest
Run unusual device???

What you intend to do with the computer determines what kind of computer to get. For example, I don't use the computer for games; your main use of a computer might be playing games that are Windows-only, so that would determine your choice. Similarly, you may have some particular hobby that uses a program that only runs on one OS: if so, then your choice is made. Or your employer may have stupid rules against Macs: too bad.

Which Mac?

(Apple prices as of 11/10/16) All prices show AppleCare (3-year extended warranty): you should get this.

Of course you can spend more, and get more features, and bigger displays. Keep reading. Some MacBook Pros and iMacs have "retina" graphics with over 200dpi, at an increased price. Apple is also moving toward Solid State Disk (i.e. Flash memory) instead of hard drives. SSDs are faster and more reliable, but they cost more.

(It is worth reading Ric Ford's MacInTouch web site to see what experience other Mac users are having.)

From my own experience I have concluded never to buy version 1.0 of anything from Apple. Often the first version of a product is rapidly obsoleted by a much better version. This happened with PowerBooks, with the iPhone, with MacOS... the list goes on and on.

Where to Buy

Online: Apple Online Store. I often buy Macs at the online Apple store because then you can have them "built to order" with extra memory, bigger disk, etc. You can also buy Macs from Amazon, if they sell exactly the configuration you want. Other World Computing is a very helpful online store for accessories and upgrades.

Apple storefront: worth a visit if one is near you. The storefront is where you will take your Mac if it needs service, or where you go for "One To One" training.

Not recommended: mass retailers, big box stores. Their salespeople and service are often poorly trained on Mac products, and they may make stuff up to get their commission.

There aren't any big bargains on Macs, even if you know an Apple employee. A few hundred dollars at most.

Apple sometimes sells refurbished computers for a modest savings. Check out their online page. Remember to buy AppleCare.

Add-ons

What do you have to buy besides the computer? This is where your personal computer becomes "Personal." It depends on your use. See the Essentials page for my suggestions.

Dongles, Adapters, and Docks. New MacBooks, Airs, and MacBook Pros have USB-C ports instead of USB, Firewire, and charging ports. To connect existing devices to these ports, you need adapters or dongles, $20-30 each. Some computers, like the MacBook Air, have fewer ports: you should consider a USB-C dock that then provides multiple different kinds of ports. A nice TidBITS article by Glenn Fleishman explains USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, and other protocols.

External Optical drives. These cost about $79. They are useful for loading software and music from CDs, and for burning backup data onto a CD. Apple does not sell an external Blu-Ray drive, which would allow you to read high-definition movies and burn backups of up to 50GB per disc. You can find such devices at sites that specialize in Mac support, such as Other World Computing.

USB drives. These are very inexpensive. Apple no longer sells optical drives on any current computer: USB Flash memory sticks are faster and higher capacity, (and most people download their music and software from the Web rather than buying it on CD, and back up their data to the Web or to hard drives). USB drives are a good way to transfer files between computers and back data up.

Buy enough memory. The more memory you put on your computer, the less trouble you'll have. With recent versions of MacOS, 4GB may not be enough. Most models of Apple computers cannot have their memory increased after you buy them; get enough when you order. If you are buying a configure-to-order computer from the online Apple store, consider upping the memory.

Internet Connection. You want high speed; where I live, cable modem is a much better deal than DSL. You should also get a firewall box or router, about $40, like a Linksys BEFSR41, so you can connect more than one computer. I use an Apple Time Capsule, which provides multiple wired connections, wireless connections, and a backup disk drive. Use wireless with caution; there are security traps for the non-expert.

Using a firewall box, you can connect all the computers in your house in a little network. They can share files and back each other up.

Buy a backup disk drive. Any file you don't want to lose should be stored in two places (at least). MacOS comes with a nice software feature called Time Machine. Connect an external drive to your computer and Time Machine makes a backup copy of everything that you change. If you want to retrieve a lost file, you can find it easily. Huge external drives are cheap these days: get one and use it for your backups. Backup to CD or DVD is also possible, but requires you to do more work, and you might get lazy at the worst possible time.

Get a CD or DVD Burner. The "cloud" makes this less necessary, but still, I use mine once a month or so. No current Mac comes with a CD drive. You can buy one from Apple if you need one, and it works well.

Inexpensive USB Flash sticks are an alternative to CD/DVD, with better reliability and more capacity. This is how you get data off your computer to send to someone else, to take to Kinko's, and so on. Even if you are backing up your files to a disk drive, you should also back up precious data occasionally to USB stick, CD, or DVD.

Choose a Printer. You will need some kind of printer. A basic color printer is usually free after rebate with purchase of a new computer (they will make money from you on the ink cartridges). Printers are one area where you have to decide why you want a new computer. If you plan to print a lot of documents, you want a laser printer. If you print photos, you'll want a high-quality inkjet. An important issue is to find out the cost of the ink cartridges: some printer manufacturers lock you into their cartridges, give you a nearly empty one with the new printer, and charge a lot for a replacement. I have a color laser and a B+W laser. You can now get all-in-one printer/scanner/fax devices with a color laser printer.

Other Devices. There's a huge variety of other devices you could connect to your computer, depending on your interests. Music composition and performance. Photo scanners. Video. Home security. Label printers. Depends on what you want to do. Your best bet is to talk to someone who uses a similar device already.

Don't be cheap. An unreliable computer will drive you crazy. If you read the stories online of people who have been having trouble with their computers, a lot of them are trying to use an old piece of equipment, like an old scanner or monitor. Many times, the cost of time and trouble dealing with a problem device far outweighs the cost of just getting a new one.

Migrating from an old Mac to a newer Mac

There are many ways to move your applications and data from an old Mac to a newer one. Joe Kissell wrote a very comprehensive TidBITS article about how to do this.

Required Software Upgrades

If you buy a new computer, or upgrade the OS on your current computer, your current software may have to be upgraded to a new version. This can be costly. If you depend on some old Mac software, written for the "PowerPC" CPU, it won't work on new models.

Take Care of Your New Computer

I mentioned doing a backup: once you are moved into your new computer, it's a good idea to make a full clone backup of everything. Keep your software up to date. Learn how to use your computer. If you live near an Apple Store, you can pay $99 for "One To One" for a year's worth of personalized help.

Plan for your next computer.

Eventually you will want to replace your computer with a newer one. How long will a computer be useful? It's hard to get help and parts for old computers: this is not a sinister plot, it's just that computer technology keeps advancing. A five-year-old computer is venerable, ten is ancient. 26 years ago, I carried a 16-pound MacPortable: it cost over $7,000, and had 7MHz/2MB/40MB. Now these computers are antiques. The 2006 MacBook I began this page on weighed 6 pounds, cost about $1500, was about 30 times as fast with 2 CPUs, 500 times the memory, 4500 times the disk storage, and included Ethernet, two kinds of wireless, FireWire and USB connectivity. And it had a color screen.

Apple defines a product as "vintage" if it is more than five years since it was discontinued, and "obsolete" if more than seven years. There is no hardware support for obsolete products, and service for California-bought vintage products only in California. Software support is separate issue: there is no blanket promise that future new products will run on hardware that predates it. There is an Apple web page listing obsolete products. (The Mac Portable is listed as a desktop computer, not a portable computer.)

If you are thinking of buying a used Mac, check out this nice article form MacFixit titled "Check a used Mac's condition before purchasing."

Further reading

I have written down some suggestions on home computer security, including some pointers to security advice for Windows users. You may also be interested in how I filter spam.

Home | FAQ © 2010-2017, Tom Van Vleck updated 2017-03-09 16:41