Picking the perfect Mac
Buying a new Mac isn't as easy as picking out a new iPhone. With a phone you only have to worry about cost, color, and capacity, but when upgrading your computer you need to consider portability, power, speed, storage, screen size, pixels, expansion needs, and more.
So while Apple's Mac lineup is fairly streamlined and straightforward, there's still a lot to consider. If you decide you want a desktop, there's the Mac mini, iMac, and Mac Pro to choose from. If portability is your primary concern, you have the MacBook Air, MacBook, and MacBook Pro. Even if you pass on the build-to-order options, there are dozens of possibilities ranging from $499 all the way up to $3,999.
A new Mac is a long-term investment. You don't want to be stuck with the wrong one for years and years, so we sorted through every option for every model to help pair you with your perfect match.
While the all-in-one iMac is Apple's most popular entry-level desktop, the screenless Mac mini is a more cost-effective option. Its small, square enclosure can easily fit on any desk, no matter how cluttered it may be. The mini isn't exactly a powerhouse, but it performs well for a computer that's cheaper than an unlocked iPhone 5s.
The Mac mini doesn't come with a keyboard, monitor, or mouse, but it's packed with ports: one for HDMI, a pair for Thunderbolt 2, four for USB 3, an SDXC card slot, and an IR receiver sensor. The entry-level model skates by with a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, but for an extra $200 you can double most of the specs. That's a 40 percent price increase over the base model, but it's worth considering since Apple has made it almost impossible to upgrade your mini after you get it home.
The top-of-the-line Mac mini bumps the processor up to 2.8GHz and adds a Fusion Drive in place of the 5400-rpm spinner, but at $999, we wouldn't recommend it. If you're willing to spend over a thousand dollars on a desktop computer, you'll be better served by moving up to an iMac.
The iMac has always been a trendsetter, going all the way back to its Bondi Blue CRT days, and the current razor-thin model is as stunning as ever. Even the cheapest iMac has a lot going for it, most notably the 21.5-inch screen — you'd have a hard time finding another monitor that looks this good, let alone a whole computer. And the starting MSRP of $1,099 puts those luxury looks in an affordable price range.
The base model is a little limited by its processor, but it's not a bad entry-level machine. Its specs are comparable to the base Mac mini, but the iMac gets a bit of a performance boost thanks to a healthy 8GB portion of RAM. The machine doesn't include an HDMI port, but either of the two Thunderbolt ports can double as a Mini DisplayPort connector for dual-monitor setups.
As with the mini, spending an extra couple hundred bucks gets you a whole lot more. The middle iMac configuration has double the hard drive capacity (1TB), plus it gets you better graphics with an upgrade to Intel's integrated Iris Pro technology over the lower-performing HD Graphics 5000 card. The processor jumps to the quad-core 2.7GHz CPU, with a Turbo Boost that pushes it all the way to 3.2GHz. And don't sweat the 8GB of RAM — its easy to upgrade through a memory compartment door in the back. Unless you're on an extremely tight budget, this is the model we recommend.
If you want a larger screen, there's also a 27-inch iMac. The sole configuration consists of a 3.2GHz quad-core processor, 8GB of memory, a 1TB hard drive, and a hefty NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M graphics card for $1,799. It isn't a bad deal, but we can't recommend it when, for $1,999, you can get your hands on the mother of all iMacs.
Packing an eye-popping 14.7-million pixel screen, a 3.3GHz chip, and the AMD Radeon R9 graphics card, the iMac with Retina 5K Display isn't just one of the most powerful Macs in Apple's lineup, it might actually be the most practical purchase you can make. A decent stand-alone 5K display will set you back at least $2,000, and when you factor in the cost of a machine that can handle it, the retina iMac starts to look like a bargain. The lower-end model packs more than enough punch for most people, but you might want to consider upgrading the platter drive, either via a $200 BTO option or by stepping up to the 3.5GHz model for an extra $300.
The Mac Pro was cutting-edge when it launched in late 2013, and it's still one of the most advanced PCs money can buy. The machine has power and performance to spare, with quad-core Intel Xeon E5 processors, dual AMD FirePro graphics cards, and super-fast PCIe-based flash storage. And its distinctive 9-inch-high cylindrical form fits great on any desk.
Of course, the Pro's price tag matches its performance — ranging from $2,999 to around $10,000 depending on your storage, memory, and processing needs — but it's as future-proofed as any Mac you'll find. Even if OS X were to transform into some kind of a Multitouch hybrid in five years, today's Mac Pros will surely be able to handle it.
Apple's newest MacBook isn't for everyone. While it supplanted the MacBook Air as the lightest and smallest laptop, the extra portability came with compromises. Most notably, Apple replaced the standard USB 3 and Thunderbolt 2 ports with the brand-new USB-C protocol. While it's cool that a single cable can now be used to handle both power and data as with an iPhone, Mac users who are used to plugging in a variety of devices may find themselves frustrated until the market for USB-C hubs, docks, and drives starts to flourish.
There's also the keyboard. When the PowerBook debuted in 1991, Apple caused a stir by pushing the keys closer to the screen to create a natural palm rest and room for a trackball. Apple is attempting to change the game again with the new MacBook, this time by re-engineering every key to be thinner and far less springy to the touch. It feels quite a bit different than any other laptop we've ever used, so we recommend trying one at an Apple Store before making a decision.
If those two concerns (and the loss of the glowing Apple logo) aren't an issue for you, the MacBook is pretty great. Even though its 1.1GHz or 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core M processor has nowhere near the power of the Pro or even the Air, the laptop is more than capable of running iMovie, Photos, and even Photoshop with ease. It's also easy on the eyes with a stunning design that's available in silver, space gray, and gold, and it comes packed with the latest in portable technology, from the 2304x1440 retina display to the Force Touch trackpad. An affordable $1,299 gets you 8GB of RAM, a 256GB flash drive, and a 9-hour battery.
The MacBook Air is in an interesting spot. While it's still one of the most popular and well-known notebooks around, the launch of the slimmer, lighter new MacBook has stolen some of its thunder, and we have to assume one of two things: either a major update is in the works, or it will soon be made obsolete by an expanding MacBook line.
But until then, we wouldn't discourage anyone from buying it. The MacBook Air will still give you all-day battery life, USB 3 and Thunderbolt ports, and an SDXC card slot. Even without a Retina display or Force Touch trackpad, it's a very capable machine, with a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB flash drive. Either model can be had for less than a grand, and with identical specs, choosing between the two sizes comes down to preference, with just $100 separating the $899 11-inch version and the $999 13-inch one.
The name may suggest a high-priced machine, but the MacBook Pro is far more affordable than the desktop tower that shares its surname. If you're looking for more of a desktop replacement than a road companion, it's definitely the way to go.
We don't recommend the cheapest model, however. While it does have a zippy 2.5GHz i5 processor, we aren't wowed by the laptop's 13-inch non-Retina screen, 5400-rpm hard drive, and 7-hour battery life. At $1,099, we'd either get the upper-end Air for the same price or chip in another $200 to go Retina. The extra money also buys double the RAM, three additional hours of battery life, a Force Touch trackpad, and Iris graphics. You'll give up quite a few gigs of storage (125GB vs 500GB), but the upgrade to a flash drive makes the tradeoff much more palatable. You can spend even more for extra storage and a few megahertz, but most users will get what they need for $1,299.
At the very top of Apple's laptop lineup is the 15-inch model, and it earns its premier spot. Packed with a 2.2GHz or a 2.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, a Force Touch trackpad, and 16GB of RAM, it's a screamer whether you're editing videos in Final Cut Pro or making music with Garageband. Starting at $1,999, this model is significantly more expensive than its smaller sibling but worth every penny. And the $2,499 step-up brings more than the usual storage and chip bump; Apple has also crammed in AMD's Radeon R9 M370X graphics card, which makes this the only laptop advanced enough to power a 5K display.