Whether it's Christmastime or your spouse's birthday, there are several times a year when you may find yourself browsing Apple's store and considering buying a new Mac for a loved one (or even yourself, because treat yo self).
Apple tries to simplify everything by only offering a select number of Macs, and it even describes several features in layman's terms and with narrated videos and full-bleed imagery. Still, it's a lot of information to consume, and it's easy to get turned off, especially when you play around with the configuration tool and see that grand total quickly rising into the thousands during checkout.
Well, to help make the Mac-buying process a little simpler to digest, we've developed this buying guide, where we discuss everything from which model is best for you to which specs matter most when configuring your Mac.
All the essential information is here - laid out in black and white.
Buying a Mac: Which model is best for you?
Apple offers six different Mac models: MacBook Air, MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac, Mac Pro, and Mac Mini.
You'll want to decide which model is best suited to you and your needs, and then you can comb through the spec options available for that particular model in order to end up with the perfect Mac. For instance, if you travel a lot and need a truly mobile Mac, it wouldn't make sense for you to buy an all-in-one iMac or the Mac Pro tower or even the display-less Mac Mini.
Apple offers a detailed comparison of all its models here. But if you want a quick, no-nonsense summary of which model is best for a specific type of person, here's what we recommend in a nutshell:
- MacBook Air: The MacBook Air - comes in 11-inch or 13-inch sizes - use to be the lightest Mac ever, but ever since the new MacBook debuted, which weighs 136g less, it's been lessened to the most affordable model. It is therefore ideal for the budget conscious as well as anyone who is always on the go and doesn’t want to be bogged down by a regular-sized laptop but still needs a computer more versatile than an iPad. It starts at $899 and is capable of handling casual, everyday tasks. The 13-inch MacBook Air is also one of the longest-running laptops (lasts 14 hours with regular use), but that's because it lacks a battery-sucking Retina display.
READ: Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (2013) review
- MacBook: The new 12-inch MacBook delivers a full-size experience in the lightest and most compact Mac ever. And, not surprisingly, it is a design and engineering marvel. It's a lot lighter than the top-tier MacBook Pro, has a much higher-resolution screen than the entry-level MacBook Air, and it's certainly more capable than the portable iPad Pro, though isn't powerful enough for more than casual tasks and web surfing. It also starts at $1,299, whereas the MacBook Air is just $899.
READ: Apple MacBook review: Is port-free the future?
- MacBook Pro: Creative professionals and power users who are able to invest a significant chunk of change in a laptop need look no further than the 15-inch MacBook Pro, which starts at $1,999 and offers a very sharp Retina display and beefier processors. There's also a 13-inch. It starts at $1,299, and although it is priced similary to the new MacBook, the MacBook Pro range is really the only choice for those looking for workstation-class performance as well as portability.
READ: MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina (early 2015) review
- iMac: The iMac can be as powerful as a MacBook Pro, but it’s an all-in-one, so it's best for someone who doesn’t mind being tied to their desk. There are two different sizes available: 21.5-inch iMac and 27-inch iMac. Apple recently updated the range to include an additional 21.5-inch iMac with a 4K Retina display as well as a 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina. The Retina iMac is one Apple's fastest Macs, and it's ideal for those who work with video and images and gaming. In fact, the 21-inch iMacs are great for general-purpose use, while professionals who need a powerful Mac should look at the 27-inch models. But the starting price is $1,099 for the standard 21.5-inch iMac, while the 5K 27-inch iMac starts at $1,799, so they aren't cheap.
READ: Apple 21.5-inch iMac with Retina 4K display review
- Mac Pro: As you would expect from Apple’s top-of-the-line Mac, the Mac Pro is fast. It comes with various build-to-order options, of which there are many. It can also get super expensive, with a starting price of $2,999 (but configuring the ultimate Mac Pro will cost you a cool $20,550). You would also need cash to spare for a monitor (and why not go whole hog with a 4K display). Also, we recommend you opt for the six-core over the quad-core if you are a professional who needs maximum processing capability. Make no mistake: this can be a video-editing powerhouse.
READ: Apple Mac Pro eyes-on
- Mac Mini: The Mac Mini is Apple's most compact desktop and cheapest Mac, with a starting price of $499. It's an excellent option for a home media centre, because it can plug directly into your TV. But the Mac Mini was last updated in 2014 and requires you to get a monitor and input devices for it. There are three Mac Minis available, and in general, we think it a great second Mac. It's ideal for general tasks and livingroom entertainment and is powerful enough to do some light video editing. If you are looking for a Mac that'll just sit on your desk as a spare workhorse or blend into your living room as a media hub, this is the machine for you. It packs the entire Mac experience into a 7.7-inch-square frame.
READ: Apple Mac Mini (late 2014) review
Buying a Mac: Which tech specs matter?
Now that you've selected the best Mac model for you, it's time to get granular. Apple lets you pick a configuration for each model, so that you eventually checkout with the exact features (and price) you want. You should be happy with your purchase, but you need to do your research first.
That's the point of this piece. We do the hard work for you. Although Apple offers a Tech Specs page for every Mac it sells, the numbers and hardware and acronymous listed can get all too confusing. If you need some help, check out the guide below, where we breakdown the most important Mac specs and provide you with crystal-clear explanations.
Yeah. Go ahead and thank us in the comments.
- Display: Most Macs come with built-in screens (aka displays). The first thing you want to consider is display size. There's the 11.6-inch (MacBook Airs), 12-inch (MacBook), 13.3-inch (MacBook Airs and Pros), 15.4-inch (MacBook Pros), and 21.5-inch or 27-inch (iMacs). Next, you'll want to look at display resolution, which refers to the clarity of the text and images shown on your screen. Higher resolutions, such as 1920 (height) by 1080 (width), appear sharper. In the Mac lineup, the resolution ranges from 1366x768 (11.6-inch MacBook Air) to 5120x2880 (27-inch 5K iMac).
Retina is an Apple-branded spec that determines how detailed the display will look given its size. If a display has over 215 pixels per inch (ppi), which is considered too small to be seen by the human eye at normal distances, Apple dubs it a “Retina display”. The 15-inch MacBook Pro sports 220ppi, for instance, while the 12-inch MacBook is 226ppi and the 13-inch MacBook Pro is 227ppi, and so forth. Apple also sometimes notes the aspect ratio (width-to-height dimensions), but this isn't too important.
You'll probably care more about what LED-backlit and IPS technology means, since they are often listed. LED backlighting means the screen is illuminated with power-efficient LED lights, while IPS (in-plane switching) suggests widescreen-viewing angles.
- Processor: Apple currently uses four different processors (aka CPUs): the low-end Intel Core M (MacBook), the mid-range Intel Core i5 and Intel Core i7 (almost all Macs), and the high-end Intel Xeon E5 (Mac Pro). The Core M is low-powered and offers the least in terms of performance, while the Core i5 offers ample performance and power consumption. The Core I7 sits between the Core I5 and Xeon E5, the latter of which is designed for professionals who need maximum performance.
Each processor comes with a certain numer of cores (processing units assigned to specific actions and can work together as needed). So, if you use your Mac for only a few apps at a time, a dual core processor is fine. However, if you’re a poweruser who runs many app at once, a four-core processor would be a better solution. Apple offers mostly dual-core or quad-core, meaning they have two or four identical processing units, respectively. The Mac Pro also comes in with 6/8/12-core versions.
Each core processes tasks at a certain speed (aka clock speed). The Mac lineup ranges from 1.1GHz (12-inch MacBook) to 4.0GHz (27-inch Retina iMac). Casual web browsing and video-playing requires at least a dual-core with a medium-level clock speed, but if you're using your Mac for hard-core gaming, you'll want a faster Mac with at least a quad-core with a high clock speed. Intel's chips also reach "Turbo Boost", a peak-speed higher than normal speeds. The 12-inch MacBook, for instance, can double its speed from 1.1GHz to 2.4GHz as needed.
And finally, Apple offers something called L3 Cache. It's working memory just for the processor cores and can bolster the speed of your Mac. It ranges from 3MB (entry-level Macs) to 30MB (Mac Pro).
- Memory: The amount of memory (aka RAM) is most important. It also affects how well your Mac performs when several apps are running at the same time. In the Mac lineup, it ranges from 4GB (entry-level Macs) to 16GB (15-inch MacBook Pro and Mac Pro). We recommend 8GB for power users. Video-editing professionals need to look at 16GB.
Now, RAM speed deals with how much data can be transferred between RAM sticks at one time, and latency, which is how quickly it responds to requests. In general, higher frequencies means less latency, but honestly, none of this matters a tonne. Apple offers 1600MHz in entry-level Macs to 1866MHz in the MacBook Pro and Mac Pro.
Another thing you don't need to worry about is the type of RAM, such as “DDR3” (double data rate type three), LPDDR3 (“low power” DDR3), DDR3L (“low voltage" DDR3L), or DDR3 ECC (error-correcting code DDR3). Just know that entry-level Macs use LPDDR3, while the 15-inch MacBook Pro uses DDR3L. Most Macs use DDR3. Oh, and the Mac Pro uses DDR3 ECC.
- Storage: Despite everything going to the cloud, storage is still important. Classic hard drives aren't really adequate anymore, as solid state drives (SSDs) increase the performance of Macs (more so than tiny processor differences). Apple offers three different types of storage: Classic (Serial ATA or SATA drives), SSDs (fastest but usually more expensive), and Fusion Drives (mix of classic and SSD). We recommend SSD or Fusion Drives. After picking the type, you have to consider the capacity you need.
Storage capacities start at 500GB for classic hard drives and 128GB for SSDs. Apple’s Fusion Drives tap out at 3TB (terabytes). We think you shouldn't go below 256GB for an SSD or 1TB for a classic or Fusion Drive. Apple sells classic hard drives with 5400RPM speeds, while its SSDs don't have speed specifications (but “PCIe-based flash” ones are considered faster than SATA-3 SSDs). Apple also doesn't specify Fusion Drive speeds, but they’re typically faster than classic drives and slower than SSDs.
- Graphics: Gamers and video editors will care more about video rendering than anyone else. Apple offers three types of graphics: Intel, AMD, and Nvidia. Intel's are the most common ones and are considered decent enough for most users. Going from low to high-end, the Mac lineup consists of the Intel HD Graphics 4000 (old Macbook Pro), 5000 (Mac Mini and iMac), 5300 (MacBook), 6000 (MacBook Air), Intel Iris Graphics 6100 (new MacBook Pro), and Iris Pro (iMacs and MacBook Pro).
As for AMD, you'll find the Radeon R9 M290X in the Retina iMac and dual FirePro D300/D500 in the Mac Pro. The 27-inch iMac has the Nvidia GeForce GT 755M or GTX 775M. The top-tier 15-inch MacBook Pro comes with a second card, allowing it to switch as needed between the Iris Pro and the brawnier NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M. Keep in mind Apple includes 1GB to 4GB of dedicated graphics RAM on all Macs, and the cards all have fast GDDR5 RAM speed.
Buying a Mac: What else should you know?
The five specs listed above are the main things that matter most when configuring your Mac. They directly affect not only the cost of your Mac in the end but also what it features and how well it will perform. The following specs, such as the cameras and video output, are additional perks; they're the things you'll want to know about but probably won't affect your buying decisions.
- Camera: All iMacs include a FaceTime HD camera, with the exception of Mac Mini and Mac Pros, which don’t have built-in screens or cameras.
- Wireless: Almost all Macs come with two wireless standards: 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
- Battery: Apple lists the battery life of all Macs by noting how long they last (“up to" or “could be less than).
- Video: All Macs support at least one external display, though the MacBook Pro supports two, and the Mac Pro powers three. Also, all Macs support full-resolutiion output to HDTVs using standard HDMI cables. Some even support Thunderbolt digital output, meaning they can connect external computer monitor using a Mini DisplayPort-style connector.
- Audio: Audio Line-Out/Headphone Minijack, which is the standard 3.5mm-diameter audio port that you plug headphones or speakers into, is found on every Mac. Some Macs also have a second 3.5mm port for input from wired microphones and other audio devices.
Speaking of speakers and mics, most Macs have stereo speakers built in, though the Mac Mini and Mac Pro each have only one speaker, and almost every Mac and iMac comes with two mics for noise-cancelling use of dictation. Again, however, the Mac Pro and Mac Mini don’t have built-in mics. And finally, Macs with an HDMI port can send both multi-channel audio and video through the same port to any HDTV set.
- Connections: If you want to connect Thunderbolt hard drives and monitors to Macs using a single type of cable, you'll want Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 ports, which promise up to 10Gbps and 20Gbps speeds, respectively. That’s faster than USB 3 (for connecting accessories to Macs and transferring data). Most Macs have one or two Thunderbolt ports as well as two USB 3 ports. Some Macs also have a SDXC card slot (better known as “SD Card" slot).
Other ports to know are the Gigabit Ethernet Port (provides access to wired internet but is not found in most laptops), USB-C Port (combines bi-directional charging with data transfer but is limited to the new MacBook for now), and MagSafe or MagSafe 2 Power (for charging the computer and is found on all of Apple laptops, with the exception of the new MacBook).
- Input: Apple offers various inputs, some of which are found only on the laptops, while others can be purchased separately. The Multi-Touch Trackpad (detects multiple fingers at onces and supports simple gestures) is found on almost all current-generation Mac laptops. The new Force Touch Trackpad, which includes pressure-sensing and feedback sensors, is found on the new MacBook and Retina MacBook Pros.
Most of Apple's laptops also come with backlit keyboards that glow in the dark. If you want additional inputs, you can buy Apple's Bluetooth-enabled Apple Wireless Keyboard, Magic Mouse with a multi-touch surface, and Magic Trackpad (has a multi-touch surface but also two physical buttons and acts similarly to the Multi-Touch Trackpad).
READ: Apple Magic Trackpad 2 review: Feel the Force Touch
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