Advice on buying Macs

A friend of mine recently asked:

I want to buy a new computer — probably a Mac. Do you have any recommendations about where/what I should buy? I’m just looking for something at home to run basic applications (Word, Quicken, internet surfing, etc”) I don’t need anything hugely powerful, and after my expenses in the last month I definitely want to keep the costs reasonable.

Here’s what I had to say

First off, as to where to buy, you want to buy from either a big place (like Mac Warehouse) or a small place (like Small Dog Electronics).

I find to be helpful when deciding. They not only tell you what people are charging (which is essentially the same) but whether they charge for shipping and what promotional deals they offer.

You see, Apple controls the minimum price that can be charged. So if the iMac you want is $1499 at CompUSA, it will probably be $1497 at Office Max, etc. The biggest difference between the big retailers is what other enticements they offer. When you get a laptop you might get a free backpack or a free wireless card, etc.

So, if you’re going to buy brand new gear (which is the ideal), look at and compare the specials offered at the major retailers.

If you want to save money, an easy way to do that is to buy prior generation hardware. That is, you can find things like 867MHz laptops (the previous generation) reasonably cheap now because the 1.25GHz is the current model. When Apple rev’s the hardware, though, it’s not just CPU speed that changes. Things like CDRW speed will be faster on newer models, they’ll have higher maximums for RAM, etc.

Keep in mind that Apple’s product cycle is mostly secretive, but tends to be around 18-20 months. So, if you see things like a 15” iMac and you see that that product was released in 903, you know its in the middle of its lifecycle. Unless you’re willing to wait until March 05 to buy a 15” iMac, you may as well get this one. However, if you notice that you’re looking at the 1002 generation of a 12” iBook, then you are probably unwise to buy it at full price. It either already has been replaced in the market, or it’s about to be.

So, if saving a bit of money is really important, consider I’ve been to their Vermont store, and they’re

really great people. They let me plop my powerbook down, chill out in the store for like an hour and a half, and surf the internet and stuff. They also have a really good line on prior gen hardware. That’s what I bought from them. I got a dual 1.2GHz G4 when the top-of-the-line was a dual 1.5GHz G5. I saved close to $1000 and the performance is (as you might expect) awesome.

You didn’t say whether you wanted a laptop or a desktop. If you want a desktop, the iMac is the way to go. You can save some money, though, by getting a G4 or G5 desktop. The difference is that the iMacs have integrated flat-panel displays. If you have existing monitors that you LIKE, then get a desktop system. If you don’t like you existing monitors, get an iMac with a gorgeous integrated flat-panel. Get the 17” one. The 20” is gorgeous, but I think the price premium on the monitor is too high. You’re an academic, you’ll get a price break of maybe $100 to $200. Make sure you enquire about that!

If you want a laptop, the PowerBook is the only choice. If this were for your wife, I’d say go with the iBook, but you need some oomph. If you get a Powerbook, be sure to max out the RAM. You need it. I love my PowerBook. I get 4 hours of battery life on this little guy, and I have a spare battery. I can go cross country easily and never have to put it away. I also have the 12”. I envy people with the 15”, but the 12 is marevelously compact. If the oaf in the seat in front of me leans his seat all the way back, I don’t care. It’s not like one of those Dell laptops where his seat will crush your screen. When I’m at the office, though, I plug into a full-size monitor and a full-size keyboard and stuff. It’s just like working on a workstation. PowerBooks can drive big monitors at impressive resolutions. (I’m currently using a 21” monitor at 1344×1008)

Well, that’s my treatise on buying Macs.