Comparisons with the PC world are always tricky for the Mac user. Of course, you can pick up a cheap PC for far less than a Mac, but when it comes to looking at PCs that have the same build quality and technology as Macs, the price disparity becomes less obvious. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that Apple computers, be they laptop or desktop, are expensive. It’s worth remembering, though, that you do get a lot of bang for your buck with a Mac. 

Apple has revamped its entire desktop range recently and also upgraded all of the laptop range, with the exception of the MacBook Air. The super-thin Air was last graced with a refresh in June 2009, which in computer terms is aeons ago. 

The rest of the Mac range is much more sprightly. The iPad, while not actually a Mac, is a whole new category for Apple and though it’s yet to carve out a specific niche, it is certainly taking the company in a new direction. 

The Mac mini has recently undergone a complete transformation. A new case design gains extra features such as an SD memory card reader and HDMI port. The mini also has better graphics capabilities, with the Nvidia GeForce 320M as well as increased RAM as standard. The Mac mini has a slightly faster processor than its predecessor, with 2.4GHz and 2.66GHz speeds available, however, both are still Core 2 Duo whereas other Macs in Apple’s range offer newer Intel Core i3 and i5 chips. 

The price has risen quite dramatically for the standard mini,  jumping from £500 to £649 (back in 2006 it cost just £359). Consider the fact that you still have to add your own monitor, keyboard and mouse, and the Mac mini certainly isn’t the budget device it once was. 

The iMac retains its aluminium styling, but in reality has gone through quite a dramatic change under the hood. The 21.5in and 27in screen options remain, but the Intel Core 2 Duo processor has been replaced with a Core i3 on the three lower-end models. The top-of-the-range iMac retains the quad-core Core i5 processor, albeit at the slightly faster 2.8GHz clock speed. (The previous range- topping iMac had just 2.66GHz of grunt.) As a build-to order option, you can push the top-of-the-range iMac to an Intel Core i7 processor running at 2.93GHz and the mid-range models can be upgraded to Core i5 processors running at 3.6GHz, all priced at  an extra £160. Graphics options have been improved across the range with an ATI Radeon HD 5750 in the top-of-the-line model, HD 5670 in the mid-range and a HD 4670 in the budget iMac. 

All but the cheapest iMacs get more graphics memory. Hard disk sizes and RAM all stay as they were on the previous models. In terms of pricing, not much has changed. The basic iMac has jumped the most, going up by £30 to £999, and the increase is probably more reflective of changes in the value of the pound. The rest of the models have all gone up too, but not by much: £15, £21 and £24 from the top iMac model down. Considering the upgraded processors and improved graphics performance this actually represents a decent increase in value for the iMac range. 

Although the Mac Pro design hasn’t changed radically since 2003, the internals were recently upgraded with new processors and graphics cards. The cheapest Mac Pro is £1,999 and comes with a 2.8GHz quad-core Intel Xeon Nehalem processor, 1TB hard disk and ATI Radeon HD 5770 graphics card with 1GB of RAM, all an improvement over the previous generation and for only £59 more. 

The 8-core model has seen significant specification increases compared to its predecessor, but has jumped in price quite significantly, too. The 8-core Mac Pro now comes with two 2.4GHz Xeon processors based on the Westmere architecture, the same ATI Radeon HD 5750 graphics card as found in lower-end Mac Pros, and a 1TB hard disk. Whereas the previous 8-core Mac Pro was £2,550, this new one is £249 more. 

The new range-topping Mac Pro has an eye- watering base price, too. The 12-core 2.66GHz machine is also based on the Xeon Westmere architecture. It has the same graphics card, hard disk and RAM configuration (6GB) as the 8-core, but comes in at a bank-account emptying £3,999. Obviously, you can expect performance to be out of this world and it’s a truly stunning workstation, but it’s not your everyday Mac. There are also plenty of build-to-order options for the Mac Pro – in fact, Apple boasts that there are millions of possible configurations. It is possible to add up to four 512GB SSDs, for example, taking the price of the 12-core Mac Pro up to £8,478.99. 

Choosing a laptop 
Of course, over the past few years it’s not been the desktop market where Apple’s computer sales have truly exploded. The laptops Apple released recently have resonated well with buyers and sales of portables have eclipsed all other Macs. 

As we’ve already mentioned, the MacBook Air is long, long overdue a revamp. There are two versions available, with 13in screens, 1.86GHz and 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processors, and Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics cards. The 2.13GHz model ships with a 128GB solid state hard disk and the lower-end model a traditional 120GB hard disk. Each has 2GB of RAM installed. Pricing hasn’t budged either, at £1,378 for the high-end model and £1,174 for the other. The MacBook Air is old and expensive so be wary of getting one now unless you really have to. 

If it’s a light laptop you’re after, consider the iPad with its A4 processor based on ARM technology. The touch screen and lack of expandability isn’t for everyone. As it stands, however, the iPad is proving to be a creative
tool as much as a consumption tool. It is an entirely viable alternative to a laptop, and the entry-level iPad costs £429, which is £420 less than the MacBook.  

The rest of the laptop range offers better value for money than the MacBook Air, and far superior performance. The white MacBook is still available at the entry level, though its design and performance are both still good. A Core 2 Duo powers the MacBook with a 2.4GHz processor, and it has a 250GB hard disk with 2GB of RAM as standard. The MacBook has a unibody enclosure, which is polycarbonate rather than aluminium, but it still makes
the laptop strong and flexible. As with all MacBooks, the battery is internal and non-user replicable. At £849 it’s still quite expensive for what is supposed to be an entry-level device, but it’s a good buy. 

The MacBook Pro offers the most complex product choice, with six base models to choose from, ranging between £999 and £1,899. Each has an aluminium unibody enclosure and an internal battery that, like on the MacBook, is not user replaceable. All MacBook Pros come with 4GB of RAM as standard. There are three screen options: 13in, 15in and 17in. The 13in models still carry the Intel Core 2 Duo processor, two of the 15in and the 17in models have the Core i5, and a solitary 15in MacBook Pro benefits from the super-fast Core i7 processor. 

The 13in models, despite their older and slower processors, still come with quite an impressive range of features, including SD card slots and an LED backlit screen. They cost £999 and £1,249 respectively. The more expensive 13in model has a larger hard disk at 320GB and a marginally faster processor at 2.66GHz over the 2.4GHz on the cheaper model.

The 15in machines cost £1,499 and £1,649 with Intel Core i5 processors and £1,799 for the 2.66GHz Core i7 version. Differences are slight on the two lower-specification 15in MacBook Pros. The cheaper 15in model comes with a 320GB hard disk and a 2.4GHz processor whereas the £1,649 model has a 2.53GHz processor and a 500GB hard disk. The Core i7 model has a 2.66GHz processor and an extra 256MB of video RAM for its £1,799 price tag. The enormous 17in MacBook Pro tops off the range at £1,899. 

All the MacBook Pros are great value for money when you factor in the added benefits. The unibody enclosure, Mac OS X and iLife as standard, and the LED backlit screens all add value. The Core 2 Duo processor in the 13in MacBooks is a little old hat for a Pro machine, but the Core i5 and i7 that are available in the 15in and 17in models are very fast. 

One complaint often levelled at Apple is that when you compare like for like, the price difference between products sold in the US and the UK seems unfair. So does Apple overcharge UK customers? Not really. When you’re looking at US prices you have to factor in the sales tax, which isn’t shown because it differs from state to state, and even city to city. Subtract the 17.5 per cent VAT (which will rise to 20 per cent in January) off the cost of a MacBook Pro before you convert the price and the difference isn’t all that stark. However, there is still a mark-up on the UK Macs that Apple puts down to the cost of doing business in the UK. 

Predicting the future
When is the best time to buy a Mac? Obviously the answer to that question depends entirely on your circumstances. If you need a Mac then there’s not much point waiting around – unless Apple has announced a press conference and it looks likely an upgrade will follow on the back of it. The cycles of updates for Apple’s hardware have become easier to predict over the years, but, still, there are no hard and fast rules. If you turn to the back to the magazine and study the Buyers’ Guide on page 102, you’ll see when the various models were last updated. Most recently, we’ve seen updates to the Mac Pro and iMac (July 2010), Mac mini (June 2010), Mac Book (May 2010), and MacBook Pro (April 2010). As we mentioned earlier, the MacBook Air was last updated in June 2009 so a new version seems likely soon, although we wouldn’t expect one now until the new year.  

The Mac range hasn’t had major cosmetic surgery for quite some time now. The iMac took on its aluminium enclosure in 2007; the Mac Pro case is even older. So major changes are much more rare than you might imagine for a company that thrives on innovation. The major refreshes tend to take place internally, with Macs being slowly improved with the addition of better processors, hard disks, RAM and the like, while the price stays roughly the same. 

With the whole of the Apple desktop range recently updated and laptops not that much older, there’s little chance of a faster and cheaper Mac in the near future. However, prices can and do fluctuate and any material change in supply costs could affect the retail cost. 

Unless your Mac is broken or falling to pieces, you should always try to time your upgrade or purchase to coincide with a new range. There’s never really a better time to buy. Another reason to wait for a new generation to launch is that you could save some money by buying a Mac from the previous generation. Contact your local Apple reseller, or check Apple’s Refurb Store (http://store.apple.com/uk-refurb) to see if there are any older Macs available for a bit less. With that approach you’ll always be one step behind with power and features, but you may get a good price. 

The only machine in the Apple line-up that’s crying out for an upgrade is the MacBook Air. The MacBook Air was introduced as the ultimate in portability, but since its launch other MacBooks have gained many of the features of the MacBook Air that made it portable (such as the unibody design). Added to that, the iPad is now the ultimate in portability, so there’s potential for the ultra-portable laptop to be dropped altogether. 

Whenever you decide to invest in a new Mac it’s important to make a budget and stick to it. If you only have limited funds, buy a less expensive Mac and add more RAM and a bigger hard disk if you need it. If your needs are more specific you may just have to bite the bullet and stump up the cash, but try to balance processor performance with additional RAM and hard disk space. 

In an ideal world, you’d get the fastest processor with the maximum RAM and hard disk space, but remember that in most cases the RAM and hard disk can be replaced and upgraded at a later date if necessary. 

Processing power
The most significant changes in the recent Mac updates have been around processor technology. Some of the Macs still use the older Core 2 Duo chips but now Apple has moved many of its machines across to Intel’s Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, with the Mac Pro getting a whole new architecture of Xeon chip. 

Years ago it was much simpler to tell which Macs were fastest. In most cases, you simply looked at the clock speed of the processor: a 1.2GHz chip was slower than a 1.5GHz chip. Today, however, things are a little bit more complicated. With multiple cores and differing architectures, the choice can be very confusing. Even across the same range, some of the processors aren’t comparable. 

The 2.4GHz 13in MacBook Pro and the 2.4GHz 15in MacBook Pro share the same clock speed, but use different processors. The 13in model uses an Intel Core 2 Duo chip, which isn’t as fast or capable as the 15in model’s Core i5 processor. The cheapest Mac Pro has a 2.8GHz quad-core processor but the next Mac Pro up has two 2.4GHz quad-core processors – obviously two processors are better than one, even if the clock speed is slower. The 27in iMac is available with a 3.2GHz Core i3 processor or a 2.8GHz Core i5 processor and you’ll find the 2.8GHz iMac to be faster. 

Just to complicate things further, in the case of the iMac the 3.06GHz processor in the £999 iMac and the 3.2GHz Core i3 processors in the £1,249 and £1,399 models support Hyper Threading, so the processor can use virtual cores to handle heavy workloads, but they don’t support Turbo Boost, where the processor shuts down unused cores and boosts the speed of the active core. The quad-core 2.8GHz Core i5 in the £1,649 iMac doesn’t support Hyper Threading, but it does support Turbo Boost. 

The bottom line with processor speeds nowadays is to look closely at the specifications and make sure you get the right one for you. Higher numbers don’t necessarily signify a better performing chip – there is a whole range of new variables that you now have to take
into account. 

Luckily, we can clear up any questions over which processor is fastest. At Macworld we stringently test each and every Mac that Apple makes and you can see from the table on page 61 exactly how each one performs. The Speedmark scores show you exactly how fast each processor is in comparison with the other Macs in the range. Keep an eye on the speed table in the Buyers’ Guide in every issue, to see which Macs are fastest.

Expandability
Of course, as soon as you buy any computer its days of being at the cutting edge of technology are numbered. However, you can always give your machine a new lease of life by upgrading it – unless it’s an iPad or MacBook Air, of course, in which case you’re stuck with what you originally ordered from Apple. 

The newly redesigned Mac mini clearly proves that Apple does listen to its customers because you no longer have to take special tools to crack open the case and access the machine’s innards. The new Mac mini base simply unlocks and slides off, revealing the RAM slots. Sadly, that’s all you’re able to upgrade with ease. 

The iMac can also have its RAM upgraded and there’s a new build-to-order option of having an additional solid-state hard disk installed as well as the traditional type. Of course, adding one at a later date means you’ll have to be comfortable taking the machine apart, but at least there’s the potential to do it. 

Far and away the most upgradable machine that Apple manufactures is the Mac Pro. There are four drive bays for the SATA hard disk of your choice, it supports up to 16GB of RAM and has three PCI Express slots for extra graphics cards or USB ports and so on. 

The Mac Pro is also incredibly easy to upgrade. All you have to do to get inside it is flip a lever on the back and take the side off. With the panel removed, all of Apple’s top-of-the-line machines can be accessed easily. Even though the Mac mini and iMac are certainly more upgradable than previous generations, with those you are still restricted to just the RAM, whereas the Mac Pro gives you incredible upgrade potential. 

Obviously, the possibilities of laptop upgrades are somewhat limited. As with the Mac mini and iMac, RAM is easy enough to replace in MacBooks and it’s not that much more difficult to swap hard drives now, either. Naturally, you are stuck with the same monitor, though you can run an external screen from all MacBooks. 

The MacBook Pro doesn’t allow much in the way of upgrades, either. The 17in model does have an ExpressCard slot, however, so it has the potential for further upgrades. In short, the easiest upgrade options for the consumer Macs are RAM and, in some cases, the hard disk. 

Desktop vs laptop vs iPad
Choosing between a desktop and laptop or tablet is decided mainly by where and how you intend to use your Mac. If you never leave your desk then a laptop is probably unnecessary – especially since a desktop will likely offer you more power for less money. On the other hand, if you’re always on the go, carrying around a Mac Pro or iMac just isn’t an option. The ability to add an external monitor and plug a keyboard into your laptop makes it a brilliant hybrid device, giving you the flexibility to take it with you, but not limiting you to a small screen and bad ergonomics when at your desk. Hard disk speeds and RAM are slower in a laptop than in an iMac or Mac Pro, but other than that laptops can be a great compromise. 

That said, the slower speeds of a laptop will become a problem if you’re doing data intensive video or graphics work. The Mac Pro offers you the ultimate in power with support for 64-bit applications, though it’s probably overkill for all but the most high-end needs, especially since it’s such an expensive device. 

The iMac is a great alternative as it’s now an incredibly powerful tool with an excellent monitor built in (as long as you don’t mind a glossy screen). The Mac mini is also a decent desktop machine now, but unless you already have a monitor, keyboard and mouse, you have to take in to account that this adds to what is already an expensive device. 

The iPad really throws the cat among the pigeons, sitting somewhere between a laptop and a whole new type of device. As touch-screen devices go it’s incredibly powerful, but it’s restricted when compared to other laptops. 

Whichever choice you make, there will be situations where the alternative would have been a better solution. Unless you can afford to buy and run both a laptop and desktop solution, you’re going to have to choose between one or the other. 

Buying advice 
Knowing which Mac product to buy isn’t an exact science and it’s certainly not a perfect one. No matter which one you buy, every Mac can handle the basics of web browsing, email, word processing, spreadsheets and so on. Obviously, you’ll have more specific needs and these will mostly depend on where you want to use your Mac and what kinds of programs you want to run most often. 

A student, for example, probably won’t need the processing power of a Mac Pro or indeed, an iMac. So, the MacBook or the 13in MacBook Pro will suffice and have the added advantage of being portable enough to take to lectures and lessons. They also won’t make too much of a dent in the student loan funds. 

The myth that Macs can’t be used in business still pervades despite the huge changes in Apple’s fortunes. Those business users who do go Mac will find perfectly capable machines that are compatible with their Windows-using colleagues. It depends on what kind of work you do, but a MacBook Pro or an iMac – perhaps even a Mac mini if you don’t have a lot of desk space – will generally perform very well. All Macs are more than fast enough for spreadsheets and presentations and with a decent specification they will stay useful. 

For more demanding users, the standby purchase has nearly always been the Mac Pro, but nowadays the top-of-the-line iMac is becoming a viable option for processor-heavy work (especially now that the Mac Pro has increased in price – now starting at £1,999 in comparison to the beginning of 2009, when the entry-level model was £1,399). If you’re a video editor or work with audio, then perhaps a Mac Pro is still the only sensible option. Processing power and the ability to put extra upgrade cards in your machine will probably be essential. 

There are many other professions that could benefit from selecting one machine over another. A photographer, for example, could well profit from the added screen estate of the 17in MacBook Pro, which you can also take on shoots for the ultimate mobile digital photo processing setup. (Although a photographer may be happy plugging into a separate monitor once back at the lab.) 

The Mac mini is seen as a consumer device, especially since it now has an HDMI port that allows it to be connected to a television. If you’re looking for the Mac that’s best for home entertainment, the mini could be the one for you. 

The most important thing to remember is not to let the specifications of each machine get in the way of making the right buying decision. The MacBook Pro is now really worth considering, especially those with the Core i3, i5, and i7 processors and improved graphics cards. The iMac is certainly no slouch at the top end and provides a realistic choice as a professional machine. The issue tends to come down to whether you can get along with the glossy screen. 

Even so, the top-of-the-line Mac Pro is a beast when it come to performance and for those who just need raw processing capabilities, it’s a very powerful machine. 

Where the iPad sits in this equation is a bit tough. It’s unlikely that the iPad can act as your only device. That’s not to say that it can’t if you’re just doing web browsing and emails, but more demanding tasks are a little limited.