So, you’re in the mood for a new Mac, and have been paying some serious attention to Apple’s MacBook line of notebook computers?
Congratulations, you’re already halfway towards a superb new purchase. The good news is that all of Apple’s notebook computers are excellent machines, and there are no rotten eggs you should avoid in Apple’s basket of laptop goodness. Having said that, each model has significant differences and picking the right one for you can be a challenge.
A bigger challenge for many people, though, especially long-term Mac fans, is overcoming ingrained preconceptions. Apple’s notebook range has changed massively over the last few years, and lots of entrenched ideas need to be rooted out.
Here we’re going to expel some of those myths that surround buying a MacBook. We’ll cast down the misconceptions, throw out the fallacies and arm you with some solid facts.
So read on as we dispel your preconceptions and discover which MacBook is right for you…
I'm a power user, so I need a desktop system, not a laptop
In the old days, desktop machines had many advantages over laptops: more power; a better performance-to-price ratio; more expansion options; and the ability to have a large display, a full-size keyboard and a mouse.
Today, Apple’s Mac mini and iMac lines use the same ‘portable’ versions of Intel processors and RAM as Apple’s MacBook lines, so processor speed is no longer a deciding factor. The entry level iMac configuration offers 2.4GHz – the same as the higher-end MacBooks and the entry-level MacBook Pro. And both Mac mini models run slower than any MacBook or MacBook Pro (although they are faster than the MacBook Air).
It’s still true that you pay more for a laptop than for a similar desktop (the 2.4GHz MacBook Pro costs £1,299, compared with £799 for an iMac that has the same processor speed). Although the iMacs pack a lot of complicated components into a small space, the MacBooks are even smaller, and they have to be built to conserve power because they run on a battery.
Cost aside, the only reason to choose a desktop Mac over a laptop is if you’re never going to want to use your Mac anywhere but where you’ve parked it. If you’ve ever wished you could take your Mac with you, whether it’s to your couch or across the globe, a laptop can give you flexibility that no desktop system can.
When you do want to work at a desk, Apple’s laptops can do that, too. The MacBook and MacBook Air can drive external displays as large as 1,920 x 1,200 pixels – so they can run one of Apple’s 23in Cinema Displays.
The MacBook Pro is even more impressive, with the ability to power displays as large as 2,560 x 1,600 pixels – including Apple’s massive 30in Cinema Display.
And the 17in MacBook Pro’s screen is big enough that you might not need to invest in an external display. The same goes for input devices and expansion options. It’s easy to connect an external keyboard and mouse via USB, or even wirelessly via Bluetooth (now standard on every portable Mac), so you can have a full desktop experience with your Mac laptop.
And the MacBook line’s external ports (USB, FireWire 400 on all but the MacBook Air, and FireWire 800 and ExpressCard on the MacBook Pro) can address most add-on needs, including storage and wireless data transfer.
The new rule Unless you’re on a strict budget or you’re sure you’ll only ever use your Mac at your desk, you should seriously consider buying a Mac laptop.
I need a desktop Mac for serious work and a laptop for travel
If you share your home Mac with family members, they probably don’t want you to take off with that Mac every time you go on a business trip. But if you’re a Mac’s only user, it generally makes sense for that Mac to be a laptop. With a single system, there’s no hassle with synchronising data back and forth between a desktop and a laptop. At your desk, you can plug in to an external monitor, keyboard and mouse, but you’re still only a few cords away from complete portability.
So is a laptop that you can take on the road powerful enough to be your one and only Mac? If you take your Mac with you everywhere, especially on aeroplanes with small tray tables and little personal space, a scale-tipping 6.8-pound 17in MacBook Pro won’t be ideal. A MacBook or MacBook Air makes for much easier transport – but it might not provide the power you need in a single system. A 15in MacBook Pro, which is 1.2 pounds lighter and less deep and wide than its bigger sibling, can be a good compromise between power and portability.
The new rule Mac laptops are fast and flexible. If you need more power though, or if your desktop Mac serves more than one person, a two-Mac solution might be a better bet.
Macs are just as expensive as they’ve always been if you want good performance
If you’re like some of us, each of your Mac purchases has caused a financial dent of about £2,000. That’s because a mid-range professional tower was, for a long time, the sweet spot when it came to a powerful Mac you could count on. Thankfully, those days are gone. A 2.4GHz MacBook costs £829 and it’s as fast as or faster than most Power Macs you might be upgrading from. People considering leaving the Windows world, who often assume that the tower-shaped Mac is the only choice for them, no longer need to fear that high prices will be an insurmountable barrier to buying a Mac.
The new rule Although prices for Apple’s various models have stayed roughly the same over time, the performance of lower-priced systems has improved dramatically. But it’s not just that you get more Mac for your money than ever before – it’s also that the differences between the various Mac lines have diminished. If you still need all the power Apple has to offer, however, you probably won’t see any savings. A quad-core Mac Pro – the least robust of the bunch – will run to £1,429, whereas the slowest eight-core system starts at £1,749.
I need a large, non-glossy display for video and photo work
True, a 13in MacBook screen may be a bit small when it comes to Photoshop’s and Final Cut Pro’s glut of palettes and windows. And sure, some users don’t like the glossy screens that are mandatory on the MacBook and MacBook Air. But all Mac laptops can connect to the large external display of your choice. So unless you’re always working on-the-go, even a MacBook will serve your display needs (and as a bonus, you can toss it in your bag when you need to).
The new rule If you’re doing high-end work with a laptop, you’ve probably got a nice desktop display to connect it to when you’re at home or in the office. If you’re bothered by a small, glossy screen and you’ll be doing most or all of your computing away from home, you may want to opt for a 17in MacBook Pro.
I need a really fast Mac so I can run Windows
Back in the PowerPC days, you needed a superfast Mac just to run Windows at painfully slow speeds via emulation software. One major benefit of Apple’s switch to Intel processors is that you can now run Windows at full speed on any Mac, via Apple’s free Boot Camp software.
However, if you want all the goodness of OS X right alongside your favourite Windows programs, you’ll need to use virtualisation software, such as Parallels Desktop (www.parallels.com) or VMware Fusion (www.vmware.com).
When you run OS X and Windows simultaneously, your Mac will need more power – as well as more RAM. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that your Mac’s total RAM is a more important factor than processor power in running Windows virtualisation software. (But the processor does help.)
That said, all current Mac models can run Windows fast enough for light to medium usage. Even the MacBook Air can run Windows decently, thanks to its 2GB of RAM.
The new rule If you spend a lot of time running Windows via virtualisation software, you’ll probably want a more powerful Mac, and you’ll definitely want lots of RAM. To play complicated 3D Windows games, you’ll also need Boot Camp and a decent graphics processor – integrated graphics won’t do the trick. But if you just want to run a few standard Windows programs on your Mac, you can choose any machine, as long as it’s got sufficient RAM.
Making your mind up
We strongly feel that potential Mac buyers should give Apple’s MacBook range some serious consideration. With the Mac’s transition to Intel processors, Apple’s laptops have gained power they never had before – they work well on your desk and give you the benefit of portability.
Not everyone will opt for a laptop, but a MacBook is all the Mac that many users will ever need.
So, which MacBook should you buy? That’s an awfully personal question, and it depends entirely on who you are. If you’re using powerful programs to do professional-level work in the graphics, video or scientific world, the MacBook Pro was designed for you. And it will deliver the functions you need in abundance.
Apple’s more recent MacBook Air is a more complicated shopping decision. At £1,199 it is undoubtedly an expensive model, and just £100 more will get you a more powerful MacBook Pro notebook.
Or, if your budget is tight, you can save £500 and opt for an entry-level MacBook, which also offers more power than the Air and an optical drive to boot.
But, true to its name, the MacBook Air offers a serious weight advantage that could be an over-riding factor for some people. And although it’s the slowest Mac on the market, it’s still fast enough for surfing the web, doing office work and basic image editing.
If you’re planning to do a lot of travelling with your laptop then the MacBook Air might be a good option.
But for most people, even those who consider themselves power users, we strongly suggest a MacBook rather than a MacBook Pro, or MacBook Air. In terms of feature set, value for money and size it hits a lot of sweet spots.