UPDATE: There were some major updates to the MacBook line on June 11th, and this post reflects this changes.
Hey there, faithful readers!
As you know, I’ve graduated. Apparently, so have a number of my peers. And a lot of them have come to me asking what kind of Mac to get for college. Given that many you all are getting ready for college and are going to need to get a new computer, I wrote this article to help you decide on the best Mac for you. A forthcoming piece will detail Mac software. This piece will be on hardware; I’ll list the 4 Macs that matter to you and give you some tips on when to buy.
First: Great choice on deciding to get a Mac! You won’t regret it. Macintosh computers have great resell value, look beautiful, have great software options, and allow for a lot of flexibility (like running Windows, if need be). For the record, this is about the hardware. I’ll tell you about software in a later post.
The Macintosh Line
There are five Macintoshes: the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro, the Mac Mini, the iMac, and the Mac Pro. Some general tips:
- You don’t need the Mac Pro.
- Here’s my rule for determining between two processor speeds: If you can’t explain what the processor does, choose the cheaper option.
- PC Manufacturers usually lie when they tell you battery claims. e.g. “This HP Pavilion gets up to 8 hours of battery life!” — When the brightness is at 10%, Wi-Fi is off, and the user is not using the disc drive. Apple’s battery claims are very accurate, and can even be exceeded depending on if you’re trying to save energy. Using the disc drive always uses more battery than practically anything else but the display itself.
- All Macs are made out of one sheet of aluminum. They can take a beating. You’ll be ok. Just don’t blow it up.
- All modern Macs have a Thunderbolt port. Thunderbolt is used for very fast data transfers and video-out. Thunderbolt, for your use-case scenario, used for video-out (for use with a projector, TV, etc.)
- You’ll need an adapter if you ever want to do video-out with your Mac, and you can grab an adapter for about $25. I recommend this or this (I make no promises on how well the latter one works). For the techies among you [who don’t really need this article], you can also use it for external hard drives that work with files at lightning speeds, like this. I highly recommend that you pick an external hard drive up.
- MacBooks use what’s called MagSafe for charging, and they’re wonderful. Instead of plugging in your cord to your computer where you can trip over it and destroy your computer (or a bone), the cord magnetically pops out so you don’t get injured.
- All Macs but the MacBook Air line have at least 1 FireWire 800 port. These are used for data transfer like USB, but are seldom used by consumers. Don’t worry about the port unless you want an external hard drive to utilize it, thereby freeing up a USB port.
- Get an external hard drive. Do you want to lose all of your work? No? Exactly. You can get a decent one for like $60. I don’t even care if you have a PC. You need to back up your work. OS X comes with Time Machine, which automatically backs up your computer for you. Very handy.
- All Macs but the MacBook Air and Mac mini come with a SuperDrive, which is Apple’s name for a disc drive that supports CD/DVD plus burning.
- All Macs but the 11-inch Air come with an SDXC-card port for your SD cards.
- All Macs have Wireless Internet capabilities.
- All Macs but the Pro are rated EPEAT Gold, which means they’re super environmentally friendly.
- RAM stands for Random Access Memory and determines how many tasks your computer can handle at once. The more RAM, which is now measured in Gigabytes, the better.
- All MacBooks have USB 3.0 ports. The desktops don’t—yet.
The MacBook Air:
This is the Mac that I recommend first. It’s extremely fast, and it is light. Since most of you will be carrying around your MacBook for in-class use, the weight in your bag can add up quickly when you add in textbooks, chargers (though Macs have great battery life), and more. There are two sizes of the MacBook Air: the 11-inch and the 13-inch. The 11-inch version (it’s so cute!) has a battery life of five hours, and the 13-inch has a battery life of 7 hours. Both feature a full backlit keyboard, so you don’t have to worry about a compromise on typing. Both have two USB 3.0 Ports, a Thunderbolt Port, Audio In/Out, MagSafe for charging. The 13-inch also comes with an SDXC card slot. Handy.
While the Air lacks a disc drive, we’re also in 2012 people. It’s not like any of you go to Wal-Mart to buy your music, and with flash drives, you don’t need them to store files. Go look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself “When was the last time I used a CD or a DVD?” and try to answer with a straight face. Yeah, there you go.
The best thing about the MacBook Air is that it uses Flash memory in a Solid State Drive for data storage—like smartphones, iPod touches, and memory cards. There are no moving parts in the machine, including the hard drive—which means that they are far less likely to break. Solid State Drives (SSD) are also many times faster than traditional Hard Disk Drives (HDD). HDDs are used by virtually all computers right now. The trade off with the added speed (and it is significant) of the SSD is less storage space. In terms of RAM, the 11-inch comes with 2 standard (unacceptable, configurable up to 4), and the 13-inch comes with 4 GB standard (perfect for all but the Photoshop frequenter).
The MacBook Pro [standard]:
This is easily the most popular computer that Apple sells. It hits the sweet spot between beauty, power, weight (second to none but its little brother the Air), and versatility. It comes in two sizes: 13-inch & 15-inch. Only the few of you who will be doing extensive photo or video would should get the 15-inch. That leaves the 13-inch for the lot of you.
The standard Pro has a battery life of a solid 7 hours, and comes with a multitude of ports: MagSafe power, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, Thunderbolt, 2 USB 3.0 , SDXC slot, a SuperDrive, and Audio In/Out. It is fairly heavy at 4.5 lbs. for the 13-inch and 5.6 lbs. for the 15-inch. It also has some ports that none of you will ever use: Ethernet (hello, wireless internet!), and FireWire 800. Again, this machine is for pros, not consumers. The Pro uses a HDD. You’ll have plenty of disk space at 500 GB+, but HDD do serve as a bottleneck for the speed. All Pros come with 4 GB of RAM standard, and can take plenty more.
MacBook Pro with Retina Display:
Non-engineering students: move on.
Oh man. This is a beauty. It’s the most futuristic laptop ever released—seriously. First, that gorgeous display: 2880 by 1800. That’s crazy. That’s like 5 million pixels in only 15″ of space. Crazy. And the ports: 2(!) Thunderbolt ports, 2 USB 3.0, 1 HDMI-out port, Audio In/Out, SDXC card slot. That’s delectable. Oh and 256GB of flash memory standard. That’s just pretty. All of that, and it STILL gets 7 hours of battery life! Amazing. None of you reading this need this machine, but man is it glorious. And it starts with a 2.3 GHz quad-core i7. The thing is a beast. I wish I did more pro-level work just so that I could justify buying it. Plus, it only starts at $2199! That’s a great deal for what you’re getting.
This comes in two sizes: 21.5 inch and 27 inch. The 27 will basically serve as the TV for your room. It’s huge, and beautiful. Fun Fact: You can actually mount an iMac on the wall, for the daring among you. I don’t know if your dorm advisors will take too kindly to that, however. All iMacs come with a Bluetooth Keyboard and Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad (which I definitely recommend).The iMac has more ports than you’ve had iPods: Audio In/Out, 4(!) USB ports, FirWire 800, SuperDrive, SDXC Port, Gigabit Ethernet, and Thunderbolt (2 on the 27-inch).
Now, most of you probably don’t want a desktop computer, but it is very handy. They can’t be stolen at coffee pubs when you get a refill, they tend to last longer because they’re not being jostled around, and they’re relatively cheap compared to laptops. Both the 13-inch Pro and 21.5-inch iMac start at $1199. iMacs also more customizable (in terms of internal options) than MacBooks. It comes with 4 GB of RAM standard, configurable up to a whopping 16 GB on certain models for the daring.
The Mac mini:
This adorable little thing. It’s the smallest desktop you’ve ever seen. It’s 1.4 inches high and 7.7 inches square. It’s smaller than an 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper, so making room for it isn’t an issue (and space is in limited supply in dorm rooms!). It’s got a butt-ton of ports though: Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, HDMI, Thunderbolt, 4 USB ports, and SDXC, and Audio In/Out. Comes with a 500 GB Hard Drive, and 4 GB RAM standard. It IS important to note, however, that the Mac mini doesn’t come with a keyboard. Or a mouse. Or a display. If you’re like me and you have plenty of keyboards, mice and a nice 19-inch display lying around, then that’s not an issue. For the rest of the 18-year-old population, that means you’ll have to get those necessary peripherals separately—probably not your best bet if you’re going to college and you’re trying to save money to spend on college paraphernalia.
MacBook Air 13″ vs. MacBook Pro 13″
The most common question I get is “Should I get the 13-inch MacBook Pro or the 13-inch MacBook Air?” This is the choice many of you will have to make. Here’s a quick overview on the differences that matter to you:
Display: MacBook Air 13-inch has a higher resolution than the 13-inch Pro (1440 by 900 vs. 1280 by 800, respectively). The 11-inch Air has a display equal to that of the 13-inch Air. Higher resolution means things on-screen look better. The Air wins this one.
Processor (for those who care): The Pro wins, handily. It starts at 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 with 3MB of L3 cache for the 13-inch, whereas the Air starts at 1.8 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 with 3MB shared L3 cache as defaults for the machines. Faster processor means… faster processing (e.g. transcoding/converting files).
Hard Drive: Both use different types of hardware to store data, so that makes a comparison difficult. The Air wins on speed, but the Pro wins on space. (The space advantage can be mitigated with the use of an external hard drive.) The Air uses a nifty Solid State Drive that moves like a jackrabbit on speed compared to the stately armadillo-style speeds of the Pro’s Hard Disk Drive. The Air’s faster hard drive definitely compensates for its slower processor, mating them about equal in most tasks. The Air’s hard drive starts at 128 GB, which is acceptable for a light user with a meager iTunes library and will only be storing a bunch of word documents and pictures. The Pro starts at 500 GB (can someone say “movie night”?). I give the win to the Air for light/standard users, and to the Pro for those of you who like to download a ton of stuff.
Chassis: This easily goes to the Air. It’s lighter. If you’ll be traveling with it a lot, then this will definitely be a boon.
Ports: This goes to the Pro, but only barely. Most of you don’t use wired Internet, so the Ethernet port is fairly useless to you (but if you really want one, use this Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet adapter). Most of you don’t even know what FireWire is, so that’s useless to you as well (but again, if you really want one for the Air, one is coming out in July). So, the only remaining difference between the two is that pesky disk drive. Again, you probably don’t need one very much, but if your only reason for wanting the Pro is for the disc drive, then just get this. Remember, a MacBook Air can share a disc drive with another Mac or PC if need be.
Real-World Use: The Air will feel faster for general tasks, unless you’ll be doing processor-intensive tasks often; in this case, the Pro’s processor will be a great help. And if you’re really pulling your hair out over the disk drive, you can get a MacBook Air External SuperDrive for emergencies.
So, which one should I get?
You made it this far! Give yourself a pat on the back. Now, which Macintosh should you get? As I mentioned earlier, most of you will be well-served by the MacBook Air 13-inch. The majority of you will only be checking your college email, Facebook, downloading media from iTunes and typing up essays, and the Air will be great at these tasks. Though the Air is $100 more than the 13-inch Pro ($1299 vs. $1199, respectively), the Flash Memory and the light weight are more than worth it.
I only recommend the MacBook Pro for Engineering, Audio/Video buffs, and Architecture students, who will probably need that processing power for the software that they’ll be using for the next four years, like Photoshop or AutoCAD. Audio/Video/Photo and Architecture students, I’ll even recommend the 15-inch for you! Screen space is a beautiful thing.
In terms of the desktop machines, I only recommend getting a desktop only if you already have an iPad. You can take notes and such on the iPad, and just go to your desktop machine for the Big Assignments. With iCloud and Dropbox, it’s fairly simple keeping all of your documents in sync. That’s my plan, and I’ll be sure to report back to you this fall to tell you how it’s working for me. The internal specs for any of the desktops that you get will be far more than what you need in virtually any case, so even a baseline 21.5-inch will be perfectly fine for your needs. I only recommend the Mac mini for people who already have the keyboard, mouse, or display; or for those who simply want a more versatile set-up. With a desktop, you do lose flexibility.
Bonus Round: Printers
I personally hate printers. They’re terrible and I hate wasting paper. But, they’re needed—for now. Most of your schools will have printers readily available for you at the school, but there’s nothing like having your own hardware. You get more options, you don’t have to pay for the privilege, and if you have Costco membership, they’ll refill your ink cartridges on the cheap ($6-$9). I recommend getting an AirPrint-compatible printer so that you can print from your iPad (or iPhone) if need be. I’ve had bad luck with HP printers, so I recommend this Epson Stylus printer. It’s only $99, and it’s compact. It prints and scans. That’s all you need. For more AirPrint-compatible printers, look here.
When should I buy my Macintosh?
RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE. Why? Because they were just updated—at least the MacBook line was. Now is not the time to buy a desktop machine. Plus, OS X* Mountain Lion will be releasing in later this summer (probably late July), and anyone who buys a Mac now will get a free upgrade to Mountain Lion. You’ll want to get the new Macs, and OS X Mountain Lion on ’em for free. Plus, Apple’s Back-To-School sale is going on right now, which means that you can get $100 towards the Mac App/iTunes/App store. Fo’ free. I recommend you all get your Macintoshes from apple.com. You can customize your configuration if you want, and get a $100 Gift Card for the (Mac) App Store.
For those of you who just scanned this entire piece, I’ll sum it up for you:
- Get a MacBook Air unless you’ll be doing computer-intensive work like Architecture, Engineering, or Audio/Video Work.
- It’s OK to get a desktop Mac if you have an iPad.
- Get an external hard drive so that you can back up your work. I recommend you get one that supports FireWire 800 if you choose to get a machine that has that port.
- If you want to be cool, get the TwelveSouth PlugBug to keep your iOS devices (iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches, for the uninformed) and your MacBook charged. TwelveSouth makes great Apple accessories. (Yes, valiant reader, I just plugged** this in out of nowhere.)
I hope I helped! Ask me if you have any specific questions, and I’ll do my best to answer. Good luck, fellow Mac users. The software article is coming soon!
*That would be the roman numeral for 10, not the letter X. Please remember that.
**See what I did there?