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Article: Picking the Right New Mac

by on June 6, 2013

If you listen to Patent Pending, you know that I was looking to replace my aging MacBook Pro. It was an “Early 2008” model as Apple referred to it, the final model to feature a non-unibody design. Unfortunately, the decision is much more difficult than it was in 2008, which is great for Apple, and arguably both good and bad for me.

In 2008, Apple offered a somewhat similar product lineup when it came to computers as it does today: 13″ MacBook Air, 13″ MacBook, 15″ MacBook Pro, 17″ MacBook Pro, Mac mini, iMac, Mac Pro. Around that time, the iPhone was still something new, as was the iPod touch, and the iPad was something that was only known by a select few in Cupertino. When it came time to replace my G4 Mac mini, the decision was made after a few simple questions:

  • Notebook or desktop? Notebook.
  • MacBook with aging, terrible integrated graphics or a MacBook Pro with discrete graphics? Discrete graphics.
  • Lemme rephrase that—aluminum or plastic? Aluminum.
  • I’ll try again—matte display or glossy? Matte.
  • What about the MacBook Air? I like my computers to have some power (the original MacBook Air was also arguably overpriced and underpowered for its day).

As you can see, it was a simple process once you kind of knew what you wanted (apart from figuring out the perfect configuration).

The Road to Unibody

A few months after I got my MacBook Pro, Apple reconfigured their lineup to feature more machines: the 13″ plastic MacBook was kept around at the low end, while a new aluminum unibody 13″ MacBook was offered alongside a new unibody 15″ MacBook Pro and eventually a unibody 17″ MacBook Pro. The larger models could be ordered with a matte display if one desired, although the glass cover on all the glossy unibody machines is much easier to keep clean and seems a bit more durable. Still, the new unibody MacBook was a great option for anyone who wanted a better machine than the plastic MacBook, could live without a FireWire port, and didn’t have 15″ MacBook Pro money (my brother is actually still using one of these some 4 years later with only a new hard drive).

In June 2009, Apple changed things by adding the FireWire port back on the side, along with “Pro” badging on the 13″ aluminum Mac. A few months after that, Apple replaced the plastic 13″ MacBook with a brand new plastic “unibody” model that looked like it had come from a parallel universe where Apple was still caring about making plastic computers.

iPad Arrives

In early 2010, Apple released the iPad, which, like the MacBook Air, was somewhat underpowered in its first incarnation, but became a force to be reckoned with after its first major redesign. In some ways, it has become its own productivity machine in its own right, and is especially handy when you throw Dropbox and iCloud in the mix for syncing documents. Still, it doesn’t try to be your whole computer (it could), but rather allowing you to only take the things you need with you. In this regard, it’s better than trying to keep two Macs synchronized.

Back to the MacBooks

A few revisions later, and Apple eventually discontinued the plastic MacBook, and the MacBook Air got better and better, eventually spawning an 11″ model in October 2010. By this point, the MacBook Air was more than a novelty, and actually offering as much computer as one could want in a simple, sealed package. Sure, you could replace the SSD module if you had the know-how, but most people could buy it, use it, and be happy with it for a couple of years.

Last summer, Apple updated all of the remaining MacBooks: the 11″ MacBook Air, 13″ MacBook Air, 13″ MacBook Pro, and 15″ MacBook Pro (the 17″ model had been discontinued). Additionally, a 15″ MacBook Pro was introduced that felt more like a MacBook Air on steroids, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. It featured flash memory, a sealed design, and a thinner profile sans optical drive. Other than the drives, the processor and other components were comparable to to the “classic” MacBook Pros. In October 2012, Apple released a 13″ model to compliment the 15″ model, and many expected that these would eventually replace the aging classic models, with designs dating back to 2008.

Eric’s Decision

All of this leads me to what was difficult—Apple had a number of solutions that would’ve worked well for me. Keep in mind that I have a 21″ display with keyboard and trackpad, a third-generation iPad, and somewhat of a budget:

13″ MacBook Air

While the 11″ model is a fine machine in its own right, I wanted a slightly bigger screen, so I was considering the 13″ MacBook Air. It has matured into a very power, compact, and affordable machine. However, in order to get everything that I wanted, I would’ve had to spend quite a bit (I wanted at least a 256GB drive and 8GB RAM—for hoarding my files and future-proofing, respectively).

Mac mini

I’ve always been a fan of the Mac mini—my old G4 one still acts as a media and print server, and has been running nearly uninterrupted for over eight years. I figured that I could save some money and get a desktop Mac, pairing it nicely with my iPad, and my old MacBook Pro in a pinch.

If I got a Mac mini, I would’ve ended up ordering it with some additional items and getting a few other extras, easily pushing the >$1000 mark. Furthermore, while my old MacBook Pro was very reliable, the idea of having an old computer that may be left behind software-wise as a production machine was a bit questionable.

13″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display

I only briefly considered this model, but wrote it off, due to some performance issues that made it still feel like a first revision product and the relatively high price for “nice, but not necessary” features like the display and a big SSD.

13″ MacBook Pro

The main reason why I liked the Mac mini was that it featured two things that Apple’s machines are increasingly losing—expandability and upgradability. While the average user may buy a MacBook Air or iMac and be happy with it for years, my needs often change, and I may want to add more RAM or storage in the future. I had often considered the 13″ MacBook Pro (the non-Retina Display model), as it was a nice mix of power, serviceability, and portability. Some really hate the display, but there’s a reason why Apple sells a ton of these—it offers a lot of bang for the buck.

About a week ago, Apple cut the price of the 13″ MacBook Pro by an additional $100 for education- and government-affiliated customers (on top of the existing discount). For me, this made the machine more attractive, especially in the loaded model. For just a bit more than the Mac mini I was pricing, I could get something that was still a couple of hundred megahertz faster, and have a screen, keyboard, trackpad, and battery tacked on. I did lose some storage space (750GB vs. 1TB), but that’s plenty for me. Additionally, once SSD prices drop a bit, I may consider throwing one in, still putting my purchase price lower than that of a 13″ MacBook Air.

Should’ve Waited?

There’s probably only a few people who follow Apple that would buy a computer the week before WWDC—most are crazy. This year, the MacBook Airs and MacBook Pro with Retina Display are expected to be revised and offer more power, utilizing Intel’s latest processors. Many (myself included) are expecting Apple will leave the classic MacBook Pros alone or discontinue them outright, simplifying the lineup once again, to something almost like what we saw in 2008: a really really little portable, a lower-priced consumer model, a smaller professional model, and a larger professional model.

Since I bought my computer from Apple, I do have fourteen days to return it if there’s something I’m not happy about. This is nice, as this means little risk for me to pick up a machine that I will really enjoy and meets my needs, but also have an option if there is some sort of amazing development on Monday. Since it may just stop being sold outright, I’m also hedging my bets (I could play the closeout game from various resellers then, but they often don’t honor education or government pricing). I want to stress that I didn’t buy it to simply tide me over until I can return it—I’d say I’m about 90% sure that I made the right decision the first time around.

While the computer I bought is looking backwards compared to other Macs in many ways (optical drive, hard drive, lower-resolution display), I see it as a machine that I’ll be able to get even more value out of in the future. There may be some who cover or follow Apple that wouldn’t be caught dead using one of these, but I enjoy the fact that Apple offers quite a few options for everyone’s needs, even if it may be maddening to decide until you pull the trigger and whip out the credit card. Then again, if you’re like me, you’ll probably spend the following week rethinking your decision.

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