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Holiday Gift Guide: Buying a Mac


The holiday season is fast approaching which means it's time to start thinking about your loved ones and the gifts they may want to receive. High on the list for some may be a new shiny Mac to replace their old, worn-out computer. It's an expensive gift and one that you'll want to research before you take the plunge. Here are some tips to help you get started with your Mac shopping.

Think about usage first

Before you even begin looking, you need to decide which Mac model you're going to buy. Apple only makes five products in the Mac line including the Mac mini, the iMac, the MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air and the Mac Pro. The underlying specs on many of these models may be similar, but they are very, very different machines and designed for very different purposes. When buying a Mac, the first thing you need to ask yourself is how is the person going to use their computer. Do they travel or stay at home? Do you they need a media server or a machine for browsing the web? Everybody is different and their needs for a computer will vary, so you should take the time to match the computer to the person who will receive it.

Below you will find a description of each Mac product line and how each model is typically used. It should help you narrow down the model best suited for the recipient. If you are knowledgeable about Mac products already, you can skip ahead to our shopping tips which will help you save money on your Mac.

Mac mini

The Mac mini is a desktop Mac perfect for the person who doesn't need portability. The square, flat mini is slim and stylish which is great for those with a small workspace. It can connect to any monitor via Thunderbolt or HDMI, which makes it ideal for someone like a programmer or photo editor who needs a special display (there is an HDMI to DVI adapter included). The base model ships with a dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and OS X Lion, but there is a quad-core version of the mini with Lion server which is lets you use it as a media, web or file server. This latest version also includes support for Bluetooth 4.0 which will let it connect to a new line of low-power Bluetooth devices for fitness and remote control. The Mac mini still has a Firewire port, in case someone still uses it for storage or video cameras. Starting at $600, the mini is the cheapest Mac available.

The Mac mini is a complicated purchase because it ships as a stand-alone unit and does not include an external monitor, external mouse or keyboard. If you are buying the Mac mini as a gift, you should make sure the recipient has these accessories already or buy them yourself in advance. Though the mini will work with any USB keyboard or mouse, Apple makes a wireless keyboard, a wireless Magic Mouse and a wireless Magic Trackpad that work perfectly with the mini.

Once you've taken care of the smaller peripherals, you need to think about your choice of a monitor. The mini has a Thunderbolt port that allows it to connect to any Thunderbolt-enabled display. Apple sells a line of Thunderbolt displays which are gorgeous, but pricey. The mini can also connect to a TV via HDMI or a standard monitor using DVI or VGA. You'll need to purchase a cable to connect the Thunderbolt port to the display. The nice part about Thunderbolt is that it's compatible with Apple's older mini-display standard, so any old mini-display cable will work. If you can avoid it, don't buy your mini-display/Thunderbolt cables from a place like Best Buy as you will spend too much money. Monoprice is an excellent place to purchase cables. The online retailer carries a wide variety of cables and their prices can't be beat. Amazon also carries inexpensive cables and shipping is free for Prime members.


The iMac is another desktop model, but this Mac is an all-in-one that includes an integrated high-resolution monitor, a keyboard and your choice of a Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad. With its 21.5-inch or larger edge-to-edge monitor, quad-core processor and FaceTime HD camera, the iMac is a great all-around machine that's perfect for a home setting. This latest iMac also includes several USB 2.0 ports, Firewire and support for Bluetooth 4.0 (like the mini). It has Thunderbolt to connect to high-speed peripherals and a mini-display port to connect to a second external monitor as well. Since everything is included in one package, it's an easy buy for someone who doesn't need portability. You basically open the box and have everything you need to get up and running in just a few minutes. It's available in a 21.5-inch size that starts at $1199 and a 27-inch that starts at $1699.

MacBook Pro

The MacBook Pro is the premier Mac notebook. It's portable, has excellent battery life and ships with a variety of high-end options including a quad-core processor, an integrated DVD-ROM and a high-resolution, anti-glare display. The larger 15-inch and 17-inch models are excellent desktop replacements, while the 13-inch model is a powerful travel companion. The 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros also include a dedicated graphics card which is useful for photo and video professionals and gamers.

The latest version also includes Thunderbolt and Firewire. Unlike the MacBook Air which includes support for Bluetooth 4.0, the MacBook Pro only includes Bluetooth 3.0. That's not a big deal right now as Bluetooth 4.0 is a new standard, but it could be important next year when these fitness and health monitors start hitting the market. The MacBook Pro is my computer choice as I don't travel very often, but want the flexibility of being able to use my computer at my desk, in front or the TV and sometimes on the porch. It provides the perfect mix of power and portability for the person who isn't always traveling with their notebook. It's available in 13-inch, 15-inch and 17-inch models. Pricing starts at $1199 for the 13-inch, $1799 for the 15-inch and $2499 for the 17-inch.

MacBook Air

The MacBook Air shares similar specs as the MacBook Pro, but is lighter and significantly smaller. It has a razor-thin design that's simply gorgeous. It lacks a an optical drive of any kind (although Apple sells an external one separately) and has an SSD drive which makes the Air as small as possible, but also yields fast response times and better battery life.

The latest version also includes Thunderbolt, Firewire and support for Bluetooth 4.0. It's highly portable and still powerful, two factors that make it one of the best selling Mac models. It's great for students, business people and anyone else who has to carry their Mac around with them on a regular basis. The MacBook Air is available in an 11-inch model that starts at $999 and a 13-inch model that starts at $1299.

(Update: The MacBook Air can work with Firewire peripherals, but only through an intermediate device hooked up via the Thunderbolt port, such as Apple's Thunderbolt Display or Sonnet's forthcoming Echo ExpressCard/34 Thunderbolt adapter. --Ed)

Mac Pro

The Mac Pro is a desktop powerhouse designed for heavy duty computing. It's used by video and photo-editing professionals who run applications that can take advantage of the 6-, 8- and 12-core processor options. It hasn't received an update this year and, as a result, is getting a bit long in the tooth. The Mac Pro is the only Mac model in Apple's lineup without Thunderbolt. It's also the most expensive Mac around and has a price tag that starts at $2499.

Places to shop

Once you decide what Mac model to buy, you should do some comparison shopping. Unlike PCs which are often steeply discounted, Mac models rarely go on sale. They are a premium product and fetch a premium price, but with some savvy shopping you can save yourself a few hundred dollars.

The first place you need to look is Apple's retail store which will give you an idea of the base price and configuration for each model. You can look at both brick and mortar Apple stores and the online store as their prices are comparable. Shopping in Apple's official stores may be the most expensive option, but you will get buying assistance from the store employees and you have the ability to add advanced options like a 7200 RPM hard drive or a high-resolution display. Sometimes, Apple also offers free printers and other bonuses not available at third-party retailers. In addition, Apple's online store has an outlet where you can purchase refurbished models at a discount. These refurbished machines are usually a few hundred dollars cheaper and come with Apple's standard one-year warranty.

If you want to look outside of Apple's retail chain, there are several retailers that carry Apple products. Amazon, Best Buy, MacMall and MacConnection are four that come to mind. Best Buy even carries select models in their brick and mortar stores, so you can compare the quality of the Mac with their less expensive PC counterparts. If you have never used a Mac, you'll be amazed at their solid build quality and beautiful design.

Most of these third-party retailers will offer Mac products with a slight discount. You'll lose out on any offers Apple has, but you can save yourself $50 to $150 by shopping at a these retailers. If you want to keep track of any discounts or special offers on Mac products, you should check out DealMac, an Apple-Oriented version of the popular DealNews website. Each day, Deal Mac lists new sales that include Mac models and all their accessories.

What about used Macs?

if you find the prices of regular retail Macs too expensive, you can turn to the resale market for your shopping needs. You can search for a reasonable deal on a used or older Mac at places like eBay and Craigslist. But I must warn you, Macs are well-made machines and they hold their value very well. Don't expect to find a recent MacBook Pro for $200. Nonetheless, you still can save yourself several hundred dollars by buying a used or older Mac. Sometimes, you can find an excellent deal. I recently picked up a fully-functional 2009 Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro for $350 on Craigslist.

Shopping used does come with some risks. Most used machines don't include a warranty and you usually can't fully test them before you purchase. eBay does offer warranties through Square Trade and has a buyer protection policy, but Craigslist is like the wild west with little to no protection. You can still get a great deal on Craigslist, you just have to be a bit more selective and find a seller that'll let you fire up the machine before you hand over your money. If you want a safe bet, you can check out Apple's online outlet. As mention above, you can grab a refurbished Mac at a discount and it includes a one-year warranty, too.

You'll also want to make sure the Mac you are buying is up-to-date. Back in 2006, Apple made the switch to the Intel platform and its latest OS X versions require this Intel hardware. Older Macs have PowerPC components that are no longer compatible with OS X Snow Leopard 10.6 and Lion 10.7. These PowerPC Macs may be super cheap, but they are obsolete. Thankfully, these models are old enough that you don't see too many of them listed for sale, but they are still out there and you need to be aware of them.

Good luck finding the right Mac for whomever you're shopping for, even yourself. Stay tuned to TUAW for more gift guides in the weeks leading up to the holidays.

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