Tech:mac buying advice

This wiki is here to help you decide whether a Mac is the right option for you. It will present the pros and cons but in the end, it's your personal preference that matters. It's impossible to say "Mac is better than all other PCs" or "Apple make the worst PCs ever".

A Mac is basically just another PC, but it has some features that are hard or impossible to find if you're looking at other PC brands, especially when it comes to the operating system (see below).

What's in the box ?

When you open the box of a Mac you'll find everything you need:

  • Your Mac
  • Some documentation
  • A power cord or brick (on portables)
  • Two DVDs, one with Mac OS X and one with applications. These are there in case you need to reset your computer, you do not need them straight away.

Your Mac is ready to go out of the box all you have to do is press the power button

Mac OS X

User experience

Mac OS X is designed to be as user friendly as possible. When you turn the computer on for the first time it will guide you through everything that needs to be done, after that you're free. It comes with a lot of pre-installed applications but unlike the software you get with most other brands, they won't launch upon start-up and won't hog your resources.

To a slightly more advanced user Mac OS X might seem restrictive, this is mostly because it has a different set-up to Windows and it takes a bit of getting used to before you know where you can tweak everything.

For a very advanced user it's never a problem to jump between platforms and Mac OS X is no exception. The by-default shells in Mac OS X are bash so anyone who is used to Linux and other UNIX/UNIX-like operating systems will already know how to use the terminal.

Viruses and Malware

"Macs don't get viruses" is an old adage that must be put to rest. Macs can and do get viruses, however Mac OS X is not as big a target for people who design viruses and malware as Windows simply because less people use it. The OS has integrated malware protection so it is usually unnecessary to get a dedicated programme for this. There is however no included virus protection, most people choose not to install any either but if you want to feel safer there is software that does just that. Just as in Windows, if you are careful about what you download and open chances are you won't need to worry about viruses.

Software and Gaming

There isn't as much software available for Mac OS X as there are for Windows, but there aren't that many things you won't find an equivalent for, except certain software like Final Cut Studio and Logic Studio. And even if you have a favourite program that you just can't let go of there are several ways of running this software on a Mac.

Most games are not available on Mac OS X and that's because most games use DirectX, which is only available on Windows, whilst Mac OS X uses OpenGL. Recently, Valve's Steam has started launching games for the Mac platform, and hopefully this will become an incentive for others to start developing for that platform, even resulting in simultaneous releases, like for instance, Portal 2. But then again if you want to run a game that is only for Windows there are many ways of doing so.

For information about performance for gaming please see the performance sections in Hardware.

Boot Camp, Virtual machines and Emulation

These are the three most common ways to run an application which is not native to OS X on a Mac.

Boot Camp

This tool allows you to install any other OS on your Mac and to then choose which one you want to boot into upon start-up. Boot Camp only allows you to install one other OS. If that isn't enough for your there are ways of installing more with utilities suck as ReFIt

This is recommended if you want to use a piece of software that's going to strain your computer. e.g. games

Virtual machines

A virtual machine is a machine that runs within a window of OS X. This can be achieved using several applications, paying or free. The advantages of this method are that, it's up and running quickly and you don't have to restart your computer, you can also very easily drag and drop files from the VM to your desktop and vice versa. It's main disadvantage is that you're running two OS's and that it has to convert the native code of whatever OS you're running into OS X readable code. This means that everything is going to run slowly if you use to heavy applications. VMware is one of these virtual machines.


This is similar to a Virtual machine but it doesn't launch a whole OS it only converts the code from a certain platform into OS X code. This is great because it means better performance, when it works. This method rarely works with graphics intensive software and even if it can perform better than some virtual machines it's still not as effective as running your application on it's native OS. A typical example of these emulators is Wine.


Macs use mostly the same hardware as any other PC. They have the same processors, graphics cards, RAM, and hard drives. One point Apple always does differently is the battery.

Mac screens are very high quality and this explains some of the price difference compared to other brands for the laptops.

What happens if they break ?

First it is important to say that Macs are, in general, better built than other PCs and it is not very common for a Mac to have a hardware failure. However it does happen, and if it happens there are two scenarios.

If it's under warranty

In this case it's very simple you go to your closest apple store drop off your computer and it will be returned to you fixed within the next few days as new. You might lose files in the process as with any broken computer.

If it's not

If the warranty has expired then it's a little more complicated. You have two options, either, if you know what you're doing, you try and fix it yourself with parts found on ebay/somewhere else and hope for the best or you drop it off at an Apple Store and let them fix, unfortunately there is a catch: it will cost you. Getting a Mac repaired out of warranty is most of the time more expensive than getting an other PC repaired out of warranty, this is especially true for the Mac Pro.

However, if there any known faults that are common for a given family of Macs that have to be addressed by Apple, then these would be repaired out-of-waranty for free by an extended service program in Apple Stores; an example of this occurred when the 2006-8 MacBooks suffered quality issues regarding body wear and failing hard drives.


Apple make three different types of laptops:

  • MacBook, it comes in 13" only and is the low-end portable Mac (discontinued)
  • MacBook Pro, in 13", 15" or 17" it ranges from mid to high-end
  • MacBook Air, this is a ultra portable version of the 13" MacBook Pro


The MacBook comes in a white plastic casing which has nothing special compared to other PCs.

The MacBook Pro and Air series come in a sleek unibody aluminium casing. It's light, stylish and very robust. This is one of the main selling points of Macs, they are incredibly easy to slip into a bag compared to similarly sized laptops, they feel very compact and light.

The Trackpad

People always complain about the lack of right click when they are discussing Macs, well that's no longer a problem. Since multi-touch has arrived Apple have by far the best trackpads on the market. they allow you to:

  • tap to click (one finger)
  • tap to right click (two fingers)
  • scroll (two fingers)
  • pinch (two fingers)
  • screen zoom (two fingers)
  • rotate (two fingers)
  • jump to top/bottom of page (three fingers)
  • switch application (four fingers)
  • switch desktop (four fingers)

You can also assign one of the bottom corners to right click if you can't change your old habits, it is however recommended to get used to double finger clicking as it makes accidentally right clicking a lot less frequent.

Performance and Price

Apart from the MacBook Air and the 17" Ma Book Pro, these all come with 2 usb ports, the MacBook Air has one and the MacBook Pro 17" has three. These ports are very close together so if you're planning on connecting two moderately large USB devices, that won't be possible (typically two USB pen drives can be a problem), unless you invest in a USB hub.

Prices of the most commonly wanted upgrades are as follows:

  • HDD 250 GB -> 320 GB £40
  • HDD 320 GB -> 500 GB £80
  • RAM 2 GB -> 4 GB £80

For the hard drive those upgrade prices are cumulative.

When it says equivalent non-Mac, that does not include battery life. Apple are much better at giving you battery lifetime than anyone else and you should take that into account if you are going to be on the move with your laptop a lot.

It's important to note that none of these have the ability to run recent games on high settings. if you are going to game a lot you will have to invest in a laptop that gets at least 10,000 points on 3DMark06. Laptops like that are mostly 15" or more and are available from around 1000£ at the moment.


The MacBook comes in a single variety here are it tech specs:

  • 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 2 GB RAM (upgradable to 4)
  • 250 GB Hard Drive (upgradable to 320 or 500)
  • Nvidia Geforce 320 M with 256 MB
  • 1280x800 native screen resolution
  • 10 hour battery life
  • 2.1 Kg

Price ≈ £850 Price of a non Mac equivalent ≈ £800 (based on a £820 Sony Vaio which overall performs slightly better)

It's more expensive than an other PC but it comes close and no other brand will give you 10 hours of battery lifetime for such a good PC.

It gets around 4500 points in 3DMark06 that's equivalent to having a nicely playable Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on low settings

MacBook Pro

The MacBook Pro comes in a variety of flavours, here is a breakdown by sizes.

13 inch

It comes in two varieties, tech specs:

  • 2.4 / 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 4 GB RAM (upgradable to 8 GB)
  • 250 / 320 GB Hard Drive (upgradable to 500 GB)
  • Nvidia Geforce 320 M with 256 MB
  • 1280x800 native screen resolution
  • 10 hour battery life
  • 2 Kg

It gets around 4500 points in 3DMark06 that's equivalent to having a nicely playable Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on low settings

price ≈ £1,000/£1,250

price of a non-Mac equivalent of the better one ≈ £950 (based on a Sony Vaio)

If you upgrade the MacBook so that it has similar parts to the lower end MacBook Pro you will see a price difference of around £70 which means you are paying that amount for the aluminium unibody.

15 inch

This one comes in three varieties, tech specs:

  • 2.4 / 2.53 GHz Intel Core i5 / 2.66 GHz Core i7 (all are dual core)
  • 4 GB RAM (upgradable to 8 GB)
  • 320 / 500 / 500 GB Hard Drive (upgradable to 500 GB)
  • Intel HD Graphics
  • Nvidia Geforce GT330M with 256 / 256 / 512 MB
  • 1440x900 native screen resolution
  • 8-9 hour battery life
  • 2.5 Kg

The Intel HD Graphics are integrated to the processor, this will allow you to save a lot of battery when not running graphics intensive applications.

It gets around 6500 points in 3DMark06 that's equivalent to having a playable Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on medium settings

price ≈ £1,500/1,650/1,800

price of a non-Mac equivalent of the bottom of the range one ≈ £800 (based on a Sony Vaio)

price of a non-Mac equivalent to the top of the range one ≈ £1,400 (based on an Alienware; this computer is much more powerful and is also overpriced. It is probably possible to find one for around £1,250)

the 15" range is far over the price of equivalent systems provided by other companies.

17 inch

This one only comes in one model, tech specs:

  • 2.53GHz Intel Core i7
  • 4GB RAM (upgradable to 8GB)
  • 500 GB Hard Drive
  • Intel Graphics
  • Nvidia Geforce GT330 M with 512MB
  • 1920x1200 native screen resolution
  • 8-9 hour battery life
  • 3 Kg

The Intel Graphics are integrated to the processor, this will allow you to save a lot of battery when not running graphics intensive applications.

It gets around 6500 points in 3DMark06, that's equivalent to having a playable Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on medium settings

price ≈ £1,900 price of non mac equivalent ≈ £1,100 (based on Sony Vaio)

In the case of the 17" inch model you are mostly paying for the incredible resolution

MacBook Air

The MacBook Air is an ultra portable laptop it is supposed to be as thin and as light as possible (it also does away with any optical drives, which are sold separately) and that's why it comes at a price premium

It comes in two varieties, tech specs:

  • 1.83 / 2.13 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 120 GB Hard Drive / 128 GB Solid Sate Drive
  • Nvidia Geforce 9400m with 256 MB shared
  • 1280x800 native screen resolution
  • 5 hour battery life
  • 1.4 Kg

price ≈ £1,175/1,378

it is hard to find a direct equivalent to the MacBook Air but maybe the Dell Adamo (from ≈ £1,100 for the lower end version and from ≈ £1,600 for the higher end version) is a good starting point. All laptops that try and perform at the same time as they are as portable as the MacBook Air cost a lot.

It will probably get around 1800 points in 3DMark06 which means it will just about handle Call of Duty 4 on low settings.


Apple produces 3 forms of desktop.


The iMac is an all-in-one solution provided by Apple. The monitor casing houses the internal components of the conventional tower. The advantage of this form factor is space saving, however the tradeoff is upgradability. Any upgrades that are to take place have to be done by Apple technicians. The iMac comes in 2 sizes; 21.5" and 27" and comes with an Apple Magic Mouse and an Apple Wireless Keyboard as standard.

Mac mini

The Mac Mini is Apple's cheapest offering in the Desktop sector, indeed it is also Apple's cheapest offering in both the Laptop and Desktop sector. However as such it is also crippled hardware wise. It is built upon a small form factor case and is primarily targeted as a Home Theatre PC (HTPC), it is the only Mac to offer a HDMI output built-in without the need for an adapter.

Mac pro

The Mac Pro is Apple's flagship desktop. It is a computing powerhouse, which for most, if not all, students is unnecessarily powerful and expensive, unless some courses calls for extreme horsepower. The main attraction of the Mac Pro is the sheer computational power, which makes it ideal for resource-intensive tasks such as encoding HD videos en-masse. It offers 8 physical cores (soon to be 12 on the next model), and up to an ATi Radeon HD 4870 (soon to be upgraded to a HD 5870).



Performance and Price


AppleCare is a Warranty and software support extension, it upgrades all of this to 3 years. It costs £199 for MacBook/MacBook Pro/MacBook Air laptops and the Mac Pro, £129 for the Mac Mini and £139 for the iMac, which is more than the equivalent upgrade if you look at Sony (~£130) but less if you look at Dell (~£350). You have to take this in to account when you are buying your computer.

However, if you purchase a Mac under the Apple Student Discount programme you get 3 year hardware cover for free. You can then buy applecare uplift for £47 which will extend your phone support from 1 year to 3 years and international repairs.

Student Deals

As a student you can get a discount which is variable on what kind of student you are. To view the discounted prices go to the Educational Apple Store. You'll need to be connected to your institutions network to gain access the either the FE or HE store. Alternatively you could call up on 0880 072 1154 or go in to an Apple store with a valid NUS card/Student ID.

  • Those at school get a 6% discount.
  • Those in Further Education get a 10% discount (to be verified).
  • Those at University get a ~15-20% discount depending on the institution.

You can also get AppleCare for around £50 when you purchase your Mac. Also, during the summer Apple have a back to school deal where you get an 8 GB iPod touch (value: £152) for free with the purchase of a Mac, this is obtained by rebate

When to Buy

This Buyer's guide should help you decide if it's the right time to buy anything Apple related. It shows if a product is due an update soon.