I wrote the following to assist a friend of mine who was thinking about buying a Mac notebook for the first time.  I am publishing it here in the hopes that someone else might find it useful. Enjoy!

Hi XXXX,

Since you mentioned you were considering a switch to the Mac, I wanted to write this to assist you in understanding the Mac notebook line and the pro’s and con’s of various models.

First, there are two basic notebook lines, i.e., the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air.  The MacBook Pro comes in 13, 15, and 17 inch formats and the MacBook Air comes in 11.6 and 13 inch formats.  In general, the MacBook Pro line has faster processors, more available RAM (usually 8 GB), and either large capacity (up to 750 GB) hard drives or solid state drives (SSD) up to 256GB.  The MacBook Air line distinguishes itself with more portability that is paid for by a lack of an optical drive and fewer external ports.  The maximum RAM in the Air series is 4GB.  2GB is standard.  They all use SSD for storage in 64, 128, or 256 GB capacities.  These drives are significantly faster than hard drives and make up (to a degree) for the slower CPU by significantly decreased boot and application launch times.

All Apple notebooks have the ability to operate in “clamshell” mode, which means turned on with the tops closed so they can be operated as desktops when hooked into monitors, keyboards, and mice.  (This is how we operate at our house.). They also come with Bluetooth (the Pro’s with Bluetooth 2.1 and the Air’s with Bluetooth 4) and Wireless N, which in the Apple world is known as “Airport” or “Airport Extreme”.  The Pro line has one Gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 2 ports, one Firewire 800 port, an audio port, and one Thunderbolt or mini-Display port, depending on whether the model is one from 2010 (mini-display port) or 2011 (Thunderbolt), a Facetime HD camera (on the bezel), and a SD card slot.  (the 17 inch Pro model also has an Express Card 34 slot.) The Air line has two USB ports, one mini-display or Thunderbolt port, one audio port, a SD card slot on the 13 inch models only, and a lower resolution Facetime camera on its bezel.

The first thing to decide is whether you want an Air for its easier portability or a Pro for its greater horsepower, ports, or optical drive capability.  (NOTE: Apple makes a Superdrive….DVD burner…that can plug into a USB port in the Air if you need it.  The Air can also access an optical drive on Mac or Windows PC (after installing a software plug-in free from Apple) over a network.  The next thing is to decide whether you want a machine in an 11.6, 13, 15, or 17 inch format.  To see the various price ranges, go to http://www.apple.com and click on the “Store” tab and then select the various models you are interested in.  Once done with that, look down the left sidebar and find the “Refurbished” section near the bottom of the page and check out the “refurbished Macs”.  You can generally save $50-$250 off new by buying refurbished and they have the standard one year warranty that new Apple computers carry.

The most recent Apple computers use the Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 CPU line.  These CPU’s are twice as fast as the previous Core 2 Duo CPU’s used in Apple systems from about 2006-2010.  That said, the Core 2 Duo is a dual core and very capable CPU. All these CPU’s have the ability to run 64 bit operating systems.  All Mac operating systems have been 64 bit since 10.5 (Leopard), though all before Lion have defaulted to 32 bit mode during installation.  Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 have both 32 bit and 64 bit versions that are bought and sold separately.  Sixty-four bit operation gives you faster results and allows your system to use more than 3GB of RAM but also requires drivers written for 64 bit operation.  This will be largely invisible to you in the Mac world as drivers tend to be written for operating system versions.

If you want to see performance differences for various CPU’s and graphics chips, go to: http://www.barefeats.com.

As for virus protection, it’s up to you whether you want to run it or not.  Most Mac users do not because of the very limited number of viruses in the wild.  Apple has supplied its own malware hunter as part of the operating system.  You are more likely to pass a virus through to a Windows user than suffer one yourself, though “smart computing” is always in vogue no matter what OS you run.

If you need a copy of Microsoft Office for the Mac, buy Microsoft Office 2011 Home and Student.  Three installation versions run $150.  Single installation versions can be had for $90-$119, if you can find them.

If you still need to be able to run Windows, you can run it natively using Boot Camp (part of OS X) or inside a virtual machine by using VM Ware’s Fusion or Parallel’s Desktop.  You can also run Windows virtually by using Virtual Box which is free, open-source software that will take more configuring than the two commercial packages.

Locally, the best place to look for deals on Apple computers is at MicroCenter.  Apple doesn’t vary its prices much, so one Apple Store is as good as another.  Fry’s has some good deals occasionally, but I’d be careful of any demo models. Microcenter not only has good deals on new Macs (some are one generation back) but also sells some “pre-owned” models, as does PowerMax.  Older model Macs are a good way to get into OS X computing without spending as much money, though these machines will usually have only a 90 day warranty and you will need to understand the CPU type, GPU type, and RAM limitations to understand what you are giving up.  (Apple Care is extended warranty service and one of the few I recommend, especially on laptops which are very expensive to repair.  However, Apple Care can only be applied to new machines while they are in the year of warranty coverage.  Secondly, there are two things not to buy from Apple.  One of them is RAM, and the other is Apple Care.  There are much better prices out there in the market for both.)

Online, Amazon, PowerMax, and MacMall are good places to look for deals.  One advantage of the Mac is how it holds its value over time and you can usually trade in one at PowerMax and get a good deal (plus they do not charge tax).  If you are looking at used, be careful how much you decide to spend; PowerMax prices especially can be as much as for new machines.

Technical Stuff

The current generation of CPU’s being used in Apple’s notebook (and desktop) line are Intel Core i5 and i7 CPU’s.  There are two classes of CPU, i.e. dual core and quad core.  The dual core CPU’s are in the 11.6 and 13 inch models and the quad core are in the 15 and 17 inch models. Each of these CPU’s has two features that increase performance.  One is hyperthreading; this is where each core can run two “threads” (or lines of processing) which essentially allows the CPU to perform as a multiple CPU device.  This means that the dual core chips actually perform like a quad-core CPU (without hyperthreading) and the quad core like an 8 core machine.  These CPU’s also feature Turbo Boost 2.0, a feature that throttles up the clock speed of the CPU’s if only single core functions are being processed.  (Software has to be written to be multi-core.)  Both of these features account for the 2x performance increase over similarly clocked Core 2 Duo CPU’s that have been the mainstay for the last few years.

All models use an integrated Intel 3000 HD graphics processor unit, though the 15 and 17 inch models also have much more powerful and discrete ATI GPU’s that the computer will switch to automatically.  The Intel 3000 GPU is not particularly strong; it is slightly weaker than the Nvidia 320 GPUs used in last year (2010) models.  Most applications (Including Photoshop) still pull mostly on the CPU, so this isn’t much of an impact.  It does show up running games, flight simulators, or 3d applications.  For instance, running X-Plane, my 2010 Air with its Nvidia GPU will run it about 4 frames a second faster than the newer models will.  Whether you can actually see 4fps difference is arguable.  Generally, the advice runs that if you are a graphics professional or a gamer, you are better off buying a 15 or 17 inch MacBook Pro with its discrete ATI GPU.  That said, Photoshop performance is faster on all the newer machines (which simply translates into how long you have to wait before an action is completed).

You can find various performance comparisons at http://www.barefeats.com and at http://www.geekgench.com and http://www.cinebench.com.

The 2011 models also incorporate Thunderbolt, which is a high-speed data transfer conduit capable of 10GB/sec transfer.  It is incorporated in what was the mini-display port last year; indeed, these models work with Apple displays using the mini-display port or the 27 incher that has Thunderbolt incorporated.  One of the beauties of Thunderbolt (eventually) is that adapters should allow the Thunderbolt port to allow multiple types of functionality (i.e., Giagbit Ethernet, high-speed storage data transfer, etc.).  However, Thunderbolt peripherals are just really hitting the market this year.

Macs are stuck with USB 2 until the new “Ivy Bridge” Intel processors and chips are released in the April-May timeframe.  It is expected that Apple will adopt USB 3 at that time, though it is not a sure thing.

Buying Back

You can often save money by buying Macs one or two generations old, but it is essential you understand the technology they have and what your needs are to avoid paying too much.  I’m going to talk about buying systems running the Core 2 DUO CPU versus the newer “Sandy Bridge” i5 and i7 models.  You can go even further back (I would not hesitate to buy a system with a G4 or G5 CPU since I have run them and know their limitations) but I would stay with at least Core 2 Duo CPu’s to give you the option of running Snow Lepoard or Lion, the latest Mac operating systems.  Most of the “whiz bang” features in Lion mean something to you only if you are using a notebook or Apple trackpad or Apple’s Magic Mouse.  Come see me if you want to try either of those out.

MicroCenter has some Core 2 Duo MacBooks in the $500 range.  I would recommend these only if you are intent on saving some bucks and are comfortable risking repairs on the machines.  While my Air is also a Core 2 Duo notebook, its graphic processor and solid state drive give it definitive advantages over these machines a as well as its Apple care coverage.  Another option for you is Microcenter’s 13 inch 1.86 Core 2 Duo 2GB RAM 256GB SSD MacBook Air for $899 or one with 128 GB SSD for $849.  These are new machines and besides the processor being slightly slower (1.86 vs 2.13) than mine they only have 2 GB RAM vs 4GB in my machine.  For most processes and everyday work, either machine will work fine for you.  Either will run all the iLife applications and even Photoshop Elements, though I would opt for a 4GB RAM machine if you want to do moderate Photoshop work.  You can buy Apple Care from L.A. Computer for $180 anytime during your first year of ownership that will extend coverage out two years to give you three total.  (Mine has already gone through its first year, so it has two years left on it.)  In any case, be sure to look at all of MicroCenter’s offerings as you decide what you’re going to do.

UltraBooks

While I hope you’ll come over to the Mac platform, Intel is pushing “Ultrabooks” from several manufactures.  There are essentially MacBook Air competitors running Windows.  They’ll be hitting the market later this year.  From what I’ve seen, the prices for them are very close to those of Apple’s MacBook Airs; but you can judge that as they come out.  A “Google” will get you info on them.

Hope this helps.

Andy