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  • The Mac Hardware Report: The Best Mac?

    June 11th, 2005

    Let's say for the moment that your budget is unlimited, that you need a new Mac and you're prepared to pay the going price for any model. What would you buy? What should you buy? No I could easily avoid the question, simply by saying it depends on your needs, whether for home or work, but that would be a cop out. I'm considering the best model for the widest variety of uses here, so let's look at the possibilities.

    Now I bet some of you will say Power Mac G5. But consider this: Do you really require all that expandability, and does cutting edge performance really do it for you? If you are a hard-core gamer, or you must use software that will tax the processor of any personal computer, such as 3D animation software, the answer is a resounding yes. On the other hand, when it comes to games, wouldn't a dedicated gaming console be a more effective solution? No, I'm not going to enter the argument that there aren't enough games on the Mac platform; that's a discussion for another day.

    Expandability? Yes, in theory it's a nice idea, but how many of those PCI expansion slots go unused? Well, maybe you want a faster graphics card, but that returns us to the previous question. Otherwise, you'll probably just add memory and that's it. But you can do that with any Mac.

    Now our journey moves into the other direction. After all, I didn't say I'd take these in order. So what about the ultimate PC switcher's delight, the Mac mini? Isn't that the perfect Mac? Cheap, decent performance. What more could you want? Well, if you have an old display and the keyboard and mouse from a previous Mac or Windows box, you might just have the perfect combination, but don't you need more memory? All right, and then you decide that wireless networking and Bluetooth support for wireless input devices is essential. Perhaps that old monitor has seen better days, the picture is dimming, and you lust after an Apple LCD display. Suddenly the price isn't so cheap. In fact, a fully optioned Mac mini may not necessarily be the way to go, even if performance is perfectly satisfactory. Take a Mac mini, update it to 1GB of memory, AirPort, Bluetooth, and a 20-inch Apple display, and let's not forget the faster 1.42GHz processor and a SuperDrive. Even if you opt for a RAM upgrade that didn't originate from Apple, it'll still set you back over $1,800. That's a lot for a product that starts at $499.

    So what about the eMac? In the tradition of the famous pear-shaped iMac, it's quick, affordable, and has a decent 17-inch CRT display. Max it out with 1GB of RAM, wireless components and keyboards, and you'll be hard pressed to bump the price above $1,300. For most users, performance is just ideal, although the hard drive, while faster than the one on the Mac mini, still isn't terribly speedy. Graphics are bare bones, and networking? Now I see a clue emerging.

    The PowerBook? Ah, the ideal desktop replacement. It has all the right ingredients, with a beautiful widescreen display, pretty reasonable performance, gigabit networking, SuperDrive on all but the cheapest 12-inch and 15-inch models, wireless capability. All right, the keyboard of a laptop isn't necessarily ideal for many of you (it's not for me), and the hard drive is still poky, although adequate for most purposes. The combination of a PowerBook and Final Cut Pro is a great way to edit motion pictures and videos in the field, right? You have the same computer serving you at home, at the office or on the road. But the 17-inch model gets mighty expensive when you max it out with 2GB of RAM. Even if you ditch the Apple solution, and buy a pair of 1GB modules from the aftermarket, expect to pay roughly $3,000, plus the cost of a keyboard and mouse if you don't like the built-in versions.

    Now maybe you just want to stop here and be done with it. After all, how can you beat a PowerBook for convenience and performance, but there's another solution, and it's starting price is $900 less.

    Yes, the iMac G5. Look at the high-end version, with the 20-inch display. The $1,799 you spend will get you a 2.0GHz G5, clearly faster than anything in Apple's lineup except for the dual processor Power Mac. Max it out with 2GB of RAM and wireless input devices, and it's over $2,300, but you can save about $250 if you just buy third party RAM. So even if it's a tad above $2,000, compare that to the $1,800 you'd spend on a fully optioned Mac mini. In addition to the G5, there's an ATI Radeon 9600 graphics chip with 128MB of RAM, a 250MB Serial ATA drive, and the gigabit Ethernet that's essential for business use, or for copying big files from computer to computer at home. It's a slim, trim fighting machine and, at 25 pounds, won't break your back if you must move it around occasionally. But what about taking it from home to office? Well, it's possible, but not so convenient, and that may weigh against its use in some situations, unless you just buy another one to use at work. Otherwise, the price/performance ratio is outstanding.

    The iMac G5 has more bang for the buck than any other Mac and may be the true ideal solution for the Mac switcher who wants to ditch a loaded PC box and start anew with a superior product. It may seem a little costly in a world of $299 PCs, but even those entry-level models are far more expensive than you'd think. Just to check things out, I tried to configure a basic Dell Dimension 2400 to match a a 20-inch iMac and ran into a brick wall. Dell only has a handful of options listed for its entry level box, so I moved up one level to the Dimension 3000, which begins at $399. I got to $1,518 but still couldn't find an option for gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, a decent graphics card, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or software to match iLife '05. And, oh yes, the display was a 19-inch digital LCD model. It will cost another $220 to upgrade to 20.1 inches. You can see, here, where the illusion of the cheap PC remains an illusion. Too bad the product testers at Consumer Reports magazine still haven't grasped this essential fact.

    So what's your ideal Mac?



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