Tagged: Mac

PC to Mac: MacBook Air Buyer’s Guide

MacBookAir_11_and_13_next_to_eachotherHaving written about the Mac mini recently it’s time to look into a mobile entry into the world of Macs. Like in case of the Mac mini, we are looking at a cheap way into mobile Macs and with the Macbook long gone, that would be the MacBook Air a.k.a. MBA.

It is a magnificent little machine, light, durable and very fast to work with. As a matter of fact, I started my Mac adventure with a 11” MacBook Air (i5) and I’m writing this post on the very same machine. It has been for the past 10 months or so my main working computer that endured all sorts of office activities, presentations, email, web consumption and creation, image editing and even movie editing recently.

Make no mistake: despite the relatively low clocked i5 CPU this is among the fastest computers for “normal stuff” I have ever worked on. For working with Office, browsing the web, mails, editing some graphics and just having tons of open documents, spreadsheets and browser tabs it feels a lot faster and more responsive than my i7 gaming PC running Windows 7. Obviously the Air isn’t really faster, but it feels that way due to the combination of its prompt response, SDD and to a huge part thanks to Mac OS X GUI’s fluidity.

I recently compared the 11” Air for my normal work with a mid 2012 MacBook Pro 13” with 128GB SDD that has a significantly faster CPU and GPU. I wouldn’t even think twice before choosing the Air. I can’t notice any difference when working on it, but the lower display resolution of the MacBook Pro (1280×800) is quite annoying. Let’s face it, most people, including myself, just don’t do many things most of the day that would actually tax a modern CPU or GPU.

MacBookAir_2012_sizeMacBook Air comes in two sizes: 11” (11.6 inch 1366 x 768) and 13” (13.3 inch 1440 x 900). If you look at width, depth and height we are talking really small here. Perfect for the road warrior, but not a bad notebook to be used for home either.

The MacBook Air comes with Intel’s i5 CPU clocked at 1.7 GHz (or 1.8GHz for the 13” model) and both can be ordered with an i7 CPU clocked at 2.0 GHz. This is however a dual-core i7, not a quad-core i7. There are and never have been any MBAs with quad-core i7.

Both models come with 4GB of RAM and you have the option to order them with 8GB. You cannot upgrade RAM on your own as it’s soldered to the logic board.

Both model also come with Intel’s HD 4000 graphics. Casual and old games run quite nicely on it, but proper, modern games will struggle at best.

The 11” model is available with 64GB or 128GB flash storage (SSD) up to 512GB, same as 13” model, except the 13” doesn’t have an option to be ordered with a 64GB SSD.

Both also come with a FaceTime camera (720p), 2x USB 3.0 ports, 1x Thunderbolt port, a headphone jack, dual band (2.4 and 5 GHz) 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. Both use the new MagSafe 2 power connector and come with built in stereo speakers and a very good microphone. Considering the size the speakers are surprisingly good. The keyboard is the same Apple keyboard layout and size you get in all Apple notebooks and on the Wireless Keyboards and it is indeed one of the best keyboards for writing I have experienced in a notebook over the years. Of cause both come with the excellent glass multi-touch trackpad that, contrary to the vast majority of PC notebooks is just a joy to use when running Mac OS X with all the gestures. This is something that actually astounded me first time I used my MacBook Air: the touchpad’s quality and function and for the first time in so many years its ability to actually replace a mouse when travelling. I found myself to go for the touchpad rather than the mouse very quickly, something that was just possible on the many PC notebooks I had. Don’t get me wrong though, for certain tasks nothing beats a mouse, but this touchpad offers a real alternative to it.

Where they do differ is:

  • 13” comes with a SD card reader
  • 13” offers a larger battery thus increasing battery life by ca. 2h compared to the 11”.
  • And obviously display size, resolution and overall size and weight.

MacBook Air prices start with the magical $999 for the 11” model with 64GB SDD and $1199 for the 13” model with 128GB. Be very careful though, 64GB won’t be enough storage space for most users. It is meant to keep the price low and is nice for people who need their Air on the road while doing most of their work on another computer. Invest 100 bucks more and get 128 GB, you won’t regret it. Contrary to common belief, it is possible to replace the SDD on all MacBook Air models using OWC’s Aura Pro SDDs of various sizes from 120GB to 480GB. It is actually a very simple procedure, but paying Apple $100 to get from 64GB to 128GB is actually cheaper as the 120GB Aura costs around $180.

11” or 13”? This choice really depends on personal preferences and how you want to use your MacBook Air. If you plan on using it as your potential main computer, go for the 13” model. If you want to have a Mac for as little money as possible, get the 11” one. If you want something highly portable, go for the 11” model, too. While the size difference on paper doesn’t appear that significant with only an inch here and an inch there, in reality the 11” just feels significantly smaller. The weight difference isn’t really that noticeable, but the size is.

Should you plan on using your Air with an external display a lot, then the 11” might not be a bad choice either and it is a bit cheaper than the 13” model. The 2012 models are also able to use two external displays when daisy-chained via Thunderbolt. All earlier models can only use one external display.

MacBook Air (mid 2011)

Similar to the Mac mini buyer’s guide, let’s travel back in time from model to model for those interested in buying a second hand MacBook Air.

The previous MacBook Air models are still a very good choice today. They differ from the current mid 2012 models only in a few areas:

  • Sandy Bridge CPUs instead of Ivy Bridge CPU
  • CPUs are slightly lower clocked at 1.6 GHz vs 1.7 GHz or 1.7 GHz vs 1.8 GHz on the 13” model (i7 CPUs are clocked at 1.8 GHz vs 2.0 on the mid 2012 models)
  • Intel HD 3000 graphics instead of HD 4000.
  • USB 2.0 ports instead of USB 3.0
  • Can only drive one external display as opposed to two displays on the 2012 models.
  • Thunderbolt controller with 2 TB channels rather than 4 TB channels
  • FaceTime camera instead of FaceTime HD
  • No 8GB RAM option
  • No 512GB SDD option

On the surface 0.1 GHz doesn’t look like anything worth mentioning, but that is only part of the story. The bigger difference is Ivy Bridge in the mid 2012 models compared to Sandy Bridge in mid 2011 models. Being based on the older generation of Intel’s chips, the mid 2011 model have around 20% less CPU performance. With Ivy Bridge also came HD 4000 while mid 2011 models have the HD 3000. The performance difference in games between those is about 60%. What this means in the real world is that while the mid-2012 MBA can run some modern games on very low settings with playable frame rates, the mid-2011 model won’t be able to approach anything that could in some way be considered playable.

In normal, non-game and non-graphics intensive usage however the difference is negligible, except when running multiple displays.

Which in case of the mid-2011 model doesn’t matter much as its Thunderbolt chip only supports 2 Thunderbolt channels (all other Macs, including the mid-2012 MacBook Air support 4 Thunderbolt channels) and thus cannot drive more than 1 external display.

Despite those difference, as mentioned before, I still consider the 2011 models to be very good choices. Unless you need 2 external displays or want an Air that is a bit more capable in the gaming department, you might as well go with the mid-2011 models. I know I did. I got the mid-2012 11” for a weekend to play around with. I installed it on Friday and spent Saturday working most of the day using the mid-2012 model. I just couldn’t tell a difference, at least not until Sunday when I looked at some games. Games that were just unplayable on my 2011 become playable on the mid-2012 one. However, please keep in mind that we are talking lowest settings in those games, so don’t get your hopes up for anything even resembling serious gaming.

While I do find the HD 4000 and dual display support tempting, I decided to stick to my 2011 model and not buy the new one. I found the difference for most of the things I do not significant enough to warrant changing hardware. I am pretty sure I will buy the MacBook Air that will follow the mid-2012 model though as combined the difference should quite noticeable.

MacBook Air (late 2010)

Going another year back, we arrive at late-2010 models. Visually not much has changed. They still look exactly the same and the only thing you might spot right away is that the late-2010 models don’t have a backlit keyboard.

There aren’t many differences under the hood either, but those that are there might, depending on your needs and usage scenario, have a serious impact on your decision to buy a used 2010 model:

  • Intel’s Core2Duo CPUs instead of i5
  • CPU clocked lower at 1.4 GHz (1.6 GHz option) in the 11” model
  • Nvidia’s GeForce 320M instead of Intel’s HD 3000
  • No Thunderbolt port, just a mini DisplayPort
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR instead of Bluetooth 4.0
  • SATA II instead of SATA III (300 MB/s vs 600 MB/s)
  • No AirPlay Mirroring support

MacBookAir_Geekscore_2012 vs 2011 vs 2010 modelsThe first thing one does notice, apart from the CPU being Core2Duo rather then i5 are the differences in CPU speeds. Until now, the 11” and 13” models had a tiny, rather negligible 0.1 GHz difference in their CPU speeds, but in the late-2010 models the CPU clocks are far apart and so is their performance. While the 11” model has its CPU clocked at 1.4 GHz or optional 1.6 GHz, the 13” model had 1.86 GHz or optional 2.13 GHz. While the difference in CPU performance between the 11” and 13” models in 2012 and 2011 was in the area of 10% and thus not a really a deciding factor between those two, in the late-2010 models the difference is over 30%! So choosing 11” or 13” is not a matter of display size and resolution and the preference in overall size, but performance as well.

Unless you really, really want small size, I can only recommend going with the 13” display mid-2010 model.

If you are looking into light gaming, you might think that similar to the Mac mini from that year, the late-2010 MacBook Air models might be better than the newer mid-2011 models. It packs Nvidia’s GeForce 320M instead of Intel’s HD 3000 and when it comes to games, the 320M is on average around 35% faster than the HD 3000. While this is true, there is a problem with that when it comes the MacBook Air. Unlike the 2010 Mac mini or the 2010 MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air not only has a slower CPU type, but also runs its CPU quite low at just 1.4 GHz in the 11” MBA. While on the two other Macs the GPU is the bottleneck when it comes to most games, on the 2010 MBA the CPU can be a bottleneck as well, especially on the 11” MBA. I have tested a 11” MBA for a while and compared to the mid-2011 model it is hit and miss when it comes to games. Some run slightly faster, some pretty much the same, some games run noticeably slower. In my opinion, when it comes to games at least the 11” MBA looses on the CPU what it gains on the GPU and should for all intends and purposes be considered at best equal. There was a 1.6 GHz option for the 11”, but I doubt that would make a difference, I do however suspect the 13” with significantly faster CPU speed would perform better, but I had no opportunity to test it.

There is also another difference between the Core2Duo and i5 CPUs beyond pure, upfront performance. In a notebook, you might want to protect your data in case you loose it or it gets stolen. A good way is to encrypt your drive with Mac OS X’s FileVault 2. However, the Core2Duo lacks hardware support for AES encryption and while encrypting your drive won’t really be noticeable with an i5 on board, with a Core2Duo you do actually notice the strain on the CPU occasionally, especially when opening lots of files or big files. Not a deal breaker in most cases, but something to keep in mind if your decision between the models is stuck.

The only other topic worth consideration when comparing it to its successor is Thunderbolt – or rather lack of it. Instead of the Thunderbolt port the late-2010 models come with mini DisplayPort. While it looks the same, you cannot connect any Thunderbolt devices to it. It is purely a connection intended for connecting an external display and is capable of carrying sound as well. Unless you plan on getting a Thunderbolt Display, this difference between the late-2010 models and their successors is negligible and I suspect if you’d go for a Thunderbolt Display, you wouldn’t be looking at buying an old MacBook Air. For the purpose of this buying guide and the goal of getting a Mac notebook cheap there is currently not a single Thunderbolt device worth mentioning. Sure, there are plenty of external HDDs, RAIDS and SSDs, but considering their prices, this would be a case similar to the Thunderbolt Display.

AirPlay Mirroring is not supported on Late-2010 MacBook Air models. AirPlay Mirroring is a very nice feature that allows you to mirror anything on your Mac’s screen to an Apple TV. I personally value this functionality a lot and thankfully there is Beamer – a little, inexpensive app that allows you to just do that on any MacBook Air.

Now, how do the late-2010 models perform in daily usage in 2013? Quite good actually. You’ll notice tiny stutters on the 11” 1.4 GHz when working with lots of open documents and apps or many tabs in your browser, but no major biggie. I briefly tested the 1.86 GHz 13” one with office apps, web browsing and graphical applications and it performed very well. Considering the prices these usually go for it is still a good choice. However, as always, try to get one with 4GB instead of 2GB.

MacBook Air (mid 2009)

First off, there was 11” variant back then. 11” MacBook Air started with the late-2010 models, before that all MBAs were 13”. The mid-2009 model is also different in many other regards, even visually. Let’s run down the differences compared to its successor, the late-2010 13” MBA:

  • SSD was an option, base model came with 120GB 4200 RPM HDD
  • Lower screen resolution (1280 x 800 instead of 1440 x 900 of later models)
  • Limited to 2GB RAM
  • Nvidia GeForce 9400M instead of GeForce 320M
  • Only 1 USB 2.0 port (all newer MBAs have 2 USB ports)
  • Slightly higher
  • Smaller battery
  • No SD card reader
  • Processor cache not on chip
  • Infrared or Apple IR remote
  • Backlit keyboard
  • SATA instead of SATA II (150 MB/s vs 300 MB/s)
  • 1.8” drives with SATA connector
  • Older trackpad
  • No AirDrop support

Quite a list of changes. Let’s start with the “package” itself. It looks pretty much the same, except it is slightly thicker. Not something you’ll notice right away though. 0.16 at the front and 0.76 at the back compared to the late-2010’s 0.11 and 0.68. Or 0.4cm at the front and 1.94cm at the back compared to 0.3cm and 1.7cm if you like. All other dimensions remain unchanged, so you really have to look close to notice the increased height.

What you will however notice right away is the screen resolution. 1440 x 900 in the newer 13” models down to 1280 x 800 in this one is quite a difference. That is by the way the same resolution that all 13” MacBook Pros have (except the new retina one obviously).

There are other things you will notice right away as well. The first is the backlit keyboard on the mid-2009 model, something that has been missing on the late-2010 model. The mid-2009 model also has IR for the Apple Remote, something that has been absent from all newer MBAs. While that’s really nice, only 1 USB port isn’t. While all the newer 13” MBAs have a card reader, the 2009 one does not.

Yet another thing that looks slightly different is the touchpad. While all MacBook Airs from the late-2010 on use the sweet, button-less, glass multi-touch trackpad the mid-2009 model comes with the old one with a button (solid-state trackpad). The button is just an easy way to tell them apart, the real, quite significant difference is what they can do. The old one only supports two-finger scrolling, tap, double-tap, and dragging, while the new, glass multi-touch trackpad also supports inertial scrolling, pinch, rotate, swipe, three-finger swipe, four-finger swipe, tap, double-tap etc. all those gestures that make Mac OS X so nice to use.

On a side note, you might notice that the 2009 model has an iSight camera rather than a FaceTime camera. It’s the same camera, Apple just started to name them FaceTime in 2010 and until the mid-2012 model nothing really changes (mid-2012 has FaceTime HD with higher resolution).

Performance wise the 2009 MacBook Airs are slower than their 2010 counterparts. While it is the same CPU with the same speed (Core2Duo L9400 @ 1.86 GHz and L9600 @ 2.13 GHz as option) and same 6MB cache size, the cache is not on the chip resulting in slightly lower CPU performance. The difference in CPU performance is only 7% between CPUs at 1.86 GHz and 8% at 2.13 GHz, so definitely not a deal breaker, but something to keep in mind in addition to all the other differences.

On the graphics side of things the difference is significant though. The GeForce 9400M just doesn’t compare to the GeForce 320M in the late-2010 model so anything beyond casual gaming is a pipedream. On other fronts the 9400M still does a decent job.

The mid-2009 model also comes with a smaller battery resulting roughly 2h less life when unplugged. That still leaves around 3h WiFi surfing time, but 3h is not 5h+.

Where it gets worse is RAM and storage space. The mid-2009 could not be ordered with 4GB so 2GB is all it has. You can make due with 2GB, no question about it, but 4GB these days is just recommended. The other problem is, that the mid-2009 MBA in its base configuration came with slow 4200 RPM hard drive instead of SSDs an all its successors. The difference in overall performance and how fast it feels is huge! With the HDD the MBA feels like any old computer and those 2GB RAM do not help. RAM and SSD are two main “cures” for slow computers and this one lacks both. Dependent on your location, all you might see on eBay or your local sources are MBAs with HDD rather than SSD. Don’t buy them unless they are extremely cheap, because MBAs with HDD are really no fun.

This doesn’t however mean one with HDD is a no-go area. Unlike its successors the mid-2009 model comes with a 1.8” drive, be it HDD or SSD rather than a custom format SSD. This means you can actually replace the HDD with an SSD. Keep in mind thought you’ll need a 1.8” SSD while most SSDs sold are 2.5”. Still, it’s nice to be able to replace a drive in a MBA for once…

Just be aware that you going to replace the drive in a very small, tightly packed notebook with basically no room inside and that makes it quite a bit more difficult than swapping the drive in a unibody MacBook Pro.

Mid-2009 MBA also don’t support AirDrop. To put it simply, AirDrop is a quick and simple way to exchange files over WiFi without having a WiFi network. You open Finder on both Macs and select AirDrop. Mac OS X will then create an ad-hoc WiFi connection between those two Macs and transfer your files. Very nice feature.

To bring it to a point: if you can get a mid-2009 MacBook Air with SSD very cheap, consider going for it. Don’t buy one with a HDD unless you plan on putting a SSD inside. Other than that, you should consider spending a bit more and get a late-2010 model – they are overall a lot better.

MacBook Air (late 2008)

The late 2008 model is very similar to the mid-2009 one thus the list of differences is pretty short:

  • 1.6 GHz or 1.86 GHz vs 1.85 GHz or 2.13 GHz
  • Slightly less powerful battery

The slightly less powerful battery means 37 watt-hour vs 40 watt-hour. In Apple claimed battery life its 4.5h vs 5h. In real life it’s more like 2:45h vs 3:10h, but as always with battery life, it depends on what you and YMMV. Anyway, the difference isn’t anything that should influence your decision at this level.

The performance difference again isn’t that significant either. At 1.86 GHz this one performs the same as the mid-2009 and the slower 1.6 GHz performs on a similar level than the one in the late-2010 11” MBA (Geekbench score of 2261 there vs 2245 here).

All in all the MacBook Air has seen only minimal improvements with its 2009 model making the late 2008 model a similar choice: if you can get a late-2008 MacBook Air with SSD very cheap, consider going for it. Don’t buy one with a HDD unless you plan on putting a SSD inside. And again, you should consider spending a bit more and get a late-2010 model – they are overall a lot better. I love copy & paste.

MacBook Air (original aka early 2008)

The original MacBook Air, the one that got the heads spinning when pulled out of a normal office envelope.

  • Slower CPU and speeds
  • 800 MHz system bus rather than 1066 MHz
  • No Mountain Lion support
  • Intel GMA X3100 rather than Nvidia GeForce 9400M
  • Micro-DVI port rather than Mini DisplayPort
  • External displays resolution of 1920 x 1200 rather than 2560 x 1600
  • PATA rather SATA drive interface
  • Same battery, but slightly longer battery life due to lower performance components.

Right away I would not recommend the original MacBook Air. The simply terrible graphics combined with not being able to install the latest Mac OS X 10.8 aka Mountain Lion are reasons enough to look for a newer model as your first Mac. Additionally, unlike the late-2008 model, the HDD upgrade is far from easy as Apple used a 40-pin ZIF connector and PATA SSDs in 1.8” are on their own hard to come by.

The limited external display resolution is not something that weighted on this decision. Considering the purpose and goal of this buyer’s guide, I doubt anyone will want to hook it up to a 27” display.

In terms of performance, the graphics side is simple: terrible. Playing YouTube videos and movies is the high-end capability of the X3100 in this little machine.

CPU wise, the one at 1.6 GHz is 11% slower than the one in the late-2008 model while the 1.8 GHz is 22% slower than the late-2008 model’s 1.86 GHz. The original MacBook Air used older Merom Core2Duo CPUs while the late-2008 used Penryn Core2Duo ones.

MacBookAir_all_models_CPU_performanceOver the course of the past models and years we have been looking at 10% of performance here and there. Going from year to year it doesn’t feel like much, but it adds up quickly. If you look at the chart with Geekbench CPU performance scores you will see how far down the performance road we have traveled. We have basically arrived at a third of the CPU performance of the currently sold MacBook Air.

When you decide on a MacBook Air model, look up its performance and compare it to the current mid-2012 model. In case of the MacBook Air it is often better to put some more bills onto the table and get a newer, faster model or just spend some more time looking at eBay or your other sources for one that’s cheaper than the rest.

The SSD does a lot for the overall performance of a MacBook Air, like for any computer for that matter. The MBA isn’t that old yet with its first model released in 2008, but the differences that Intel’s new architecture brought along with pure CPU performance is far from negligible. Please keep that in mind when deciding which model you choose. While cost is likely to be a determining factor for many, the purpose should be considered as well. If you intend to switch to a Mac and the MacBook Air will be your only computer, than I would suggest to go for at least a late-2010 model with 4GB RAM. If you want a cheap mobile Mac to see what the Mac and Apple fuss is all about, you’ll be fine with any of them as long as there’s an SSD inside. The only exception here would be the original MacBook Air. I did include it in this guide just to cover all models and on the off-chance someone might want some info about it when considering it for a future vintage Mac. It was after all quite a revolutionary notebook when presented for the first time and it is THE notebook that started a whole new market segment: ultrabooks.

The last bit of advice might sound odd, but I do really mean it. The touchpad. The reason I personally would not go for anything older than mid-2010 MBA is the trackpad. Using OS X with gestures on the multi-touch trackpad is just a whole different experience and the purpose of this guide is to get a Mac to get to know the Mac experience.

PC to Mac: Mac mini buyer’s guide

Mac mini: old and new I am getting more and more people around me curious about Macs and I have noticed how the first thoughts of trying a Mac creep into their minds. I see them asking questions that ultimately will sooner or later lead to the inevitable: asking me which Mac they should buy?

Most will seek a cheap way to get their feet wet in the world of Macs, either via a second hand Mac or a cheap one. That would be either Mac mini for the desktop or MacBook Air for a notebook. Not much to think about, really. Thinking about the Mac mini led me another interesting question though: how much computer does one really need these days?

Obviously the requirements towards a computer depend heavily on the user and many users have certain expectations or areas they want to use their computer for. Meanwhile, the majority of users do little more than browse the web, use social portals, email, type the occasional letter or do their finances. Converting music/video, simple photo retouching and the occasional casual game is pretty much the heaviest load their computer has to handle. You don’t really need much computer for that. And that would actually make a good entry Mac.

Mac mini

I like those little fellows, I really do. I was skeptical at first when I needed a Mac for home and looked at the Mac mini. I had some experience with nettops over the prior years and they were always a disappointment. Shortly before switching to Macs I was actually looking for a mini PC and discovered that the ones I liked were actually pretty expensive, often surprisingly quite a bit more expensive than the Mac mini. This for sure added to my skepticism, because I was suddenly looking at a Mac that was cheaper, yet supposed to be better?

The Mac mini is basically a notebook packed into a small desktop enclosure: 7.7” by 7.7” and 1.4” tall (ca. 20cm x 20cm x 3.5cm). To simplify things, you could say the Mac mini is a 13” MacBook Pro for you desk as their specs are very similar within various model years.

And they really are nice computers. My Mac mini has very quickly become my main home desktop. Gaming aside (more on that later) I haven’t found any discipline where it doesn’t do a really good job. So good in fact, I have only one PC left and I only turn it on for proper gaming. This actually is surprising, because the mini’s specs aren’t really something you would look at twice and the moment you notice there is 5400rpm HDD inside, serious doubts creep in.

I figured I will replace is pretty quick, but 9 or so months have passed and I still haven’t done so. The Mac mini would greatly benefit from a SSD, but the 5400rpm HDD does better than I have expected. If you do a lot of things that require frequent and significant access to files, you should consider it, but for normal use it is surprisingly fine.

Mac mini & games

The only thing the Mac mini can’t satisfy my needs on is gaming. All sorts of casual games, be it ones that you download or play on websites run just fine. You know, the Farmville type stuff. Proper games on the other hand is where the Mac mini begins to struggle. I like MMORPGs (i.e. WoW or LOTRO), action games such as Borderlands 2 and strategy games such as Civilization V. An occasional hour or two in Diablo 3 doesn’t hurt either.

I play them all on my Mac mini and it does pretty well, but not every Mac mini is the same. Over the past years Apple has used different GPUs in their Mac minis and while some do well, some just won’t run such games on a level that could be described as playable. If you go for the Crysis or Metro 2033 area of gaming, you will have to “enjoy” them on low settings at best. Macs and gaming are not really best friends, regardless what Mac you own and the Mac mini being the entry Mac should give you a clue.

That being said, a top of the line 27” iMac with Fusion Drive, i7 processor and GTX 680MX graphics will do just fine in all games. It won’t break any FPS records, but you will be able to play all games on good quality settings and will have a very satisfying gaming experience. However, you will have to put $2.599 onto the table for that and for that kind of money you can get a well built gaming PC with a nice 27” Dell display that will run circles around your iMac.

Not to mention you will have to boot your Mac with Windows a lot as most games just aren’t available for Mac OS X. Like I mentioned before, gaming isn’t the Mac’s strong suit, but games on the Mac aren’t a no-go territory either. You just have to be aware of the limitation. Think of gaming on Mac as gaming on a PC notebook, similar limitations apply.

Mac mini choices

Mac_mini_2011Let’s get back to suggesting the first Mac. The basic Mac mini (late 2012) costs $599 and is a great choice right away. When it comes to Mac mini, there are always 2 models and a server to choose from. Forget the server as your entry Mac. It is the same as the more expensive model, just with 2 hard drives and we are talking entry Mac on the cheap here. Quite frankly, forget the more expensive model, too. It comes with a quad-core i7 @ 2.3 GHz instead of the dual-core i5 @ 2.5 GHz of the base model, twice the storage (1TB vs 500GB) and costs $799. Unless you know you will indeed need the added power and need more storage than 500GB, it doesn’t make much sense. But then again if you would know your way around, you wouldn’t read this post, either.

Apple has been offering two models of the Mac mini for a while. The more expensive one comes with better specs and allows more configuration options when ordering it. For example, the more expensive model allows you to get a fusion drive or faster CPU, options that are not available on the basic model.

So for the Mac mini currently on sale the choice is quite simple. Basic model, $599.

Too much to spend on something you might, for whatever reason, not like after all? Well, here is where things get more interesting, but also more complicated: a second hand Mac mini.

Mac mini (mid 2011)

Mac_mini_2011That is the previous Mac mini model sold until late 2012. It looks the same. And again you had the basic model (i5 @ 2.3 GHz) and the more expensive one (i5 @ 2.5 GHz). 2011 models were using Sandy Bridge CPUs while the current Mac mini models use Ivy Bridge CPU. A negligible difference for our purposes, except for two things: USB 2.0 vs 3.0 and graphics.

The 2011 models come with USB 2.0 ports while the 2012 models have USB 3.0 ports. That is something you have to decide for yourself – if you need USB 3.0 or not.

While the 2012 models have Intel HD 4000 graphics, the basic 2011 Mac mini comes with Intel HD 3000 graphics. The difference in the real world is simple: the HD 4000 will allow you to play games on low settings, the HD 3000 more often than not won’t. Intel’s HD 3000 integrated graphics will cope well with casual games, but any real game will be just unplayable and even going all the way down on settings what change that. For normal apps it is just fine, so if you don’t care for games much and don’t use any graphics intensive software either, buy the 2011 i5 2.3 GHz basic model to get your first Mac even cheaper. The HD 3000 is not bad for powering your desktop and all the nice visual bells and whistles of Mac OS X. It is actually the first decent integrated GPU Intel made and compared to those GMA 950 and X3100 that came before it, it is a giant leap forward.

If you care for games or graphically more intensive apps, the more expensive 2011 model is what you want. You want it over the 2012 model, too!

The more expensive 2011 Mac mini not only comes with a i5 CPU running at 2.5 GHz as opposed to 2.3 GHz of the base model, but also with a discrete GPU: AMD’s Radeon HD 6630M. Now granted, it’s not a screamer compared to proper graphics cards, but the 6630M is still around 40% faster in games than the HD 4000 in the current 2012 model!

The more expensive 2011 model also had an i7 as option, but don’t make it your determining factor when looking for the used Mac mini. Unlike 2012 models, the i7 option in the 2011 model was a dual-core i7 rather than a quad-core i7. Let’s put this into perspective using Geekbench results: i5 @ 2.5 GHz scores 6342 while the i7 @ 2.7 GHz scores 6765. The basic i5 @ 2.3 GHz scores 5823. Not much gain in performance there and a 2011 Mac mini with i7 is hard to find.

Beware though, there was a quad-core i7 @ 2GHz Mac mini in 2011, the Mac mini Server, but it came with Intel’s HD 3000 rather than the Radeon 6630M.

Mac mini (mid 2010)

Mac_mini_2010Let’s go back one more year to the 2010 Mac mini. Being even older, they are a bit cheaper, but not by much since Macs do hold their value very well. The choice of the 2010 model isn’t a straightforward one either. The main factor here is the CPU, but at least the graphics is simple. Unlike the 2011 models, both 2010 models have the same GPU. Back then Apple went for Nvidia’s GeForce 320m. When introducing the 2011 model, Apple claimed the HD 3000 in the basic model was slightly faster than the GeForce 320m. There are benchmarks to back it up. In reality though, it just isn’t, not even close! Games that played well on a 2010 Mac mini did not on the basic 2011 Mac mini with its HD 3000. And you have to take into account that the CPU on the 2011 Mac mini is significantly faster, too. In real life, especially when it comes to games, the 320m in the 2010 Mac minis is closer to the HD4000 than anything else, leaving the HD 3000 far behind.

If you were reading carefully, at about this moment you should have a marvelous thought: “Wait a second! You did recommend the current Mac mini with an Intel HD 4000 and the 2010 Mac mini is on par, I just get a used 2010 Mac mini and save some cash!” That would indeed be the case except one factor: the CPU.

Mac mini 2011 vs 2010 geekbench scores 1Mac mini 2010 models use Intel’s Core2Duo CPUs rather than i5 CPUs. They only have 2 cores as opposed to 2 cores + 2 virtual cores (HT) of the i5 and are significantly slower. 2010 Mac mini came in two CPU speeds: 2.4 GHz and 2.66 GHz. To illustrate the difference in performance, let’s again look at some Geekbench CPU performance scores:

On the CPU side, we could just simplify things and say you get half the CPU speed compared to 2011 models.

I have a 2010 2.4GHz Mac mini I bought second hand a few months ago and you can tell right away that the 2010 model is slower than the 2011 one. Doing normal things like browsing the web, mails, watching movies etc. is fine, you don’t notice much difference there and when you do it doesn’t feel anything like half the speed. You notice a speed difference in games, although oddly enough not as much as Geekbench scores would suggest. You have to take a setting here or there down a notch in some games. When you however start with CPU intensive things like converting movies, batch jobs with graphics software or filters on photos, the full scope of the speed difference becomes very clear.

Still, the Mac mini 2010 models are quite capable computers and in my opinion can be very well recommended for your first Mac on a budget.

You even get a SuperDrive that reads and writes CDs and DVDs as the 2010 models were the last Mac minis that came with an optical drive. It was also the first time Mac minis came with HDMI allowing you to easily connect your flatscreen TV directly. Earlier models often had to use an HDMI adapter for video and connect audio separately.

On a side note, I bought my Mac mini 2010 to use it a HTPC and it made an outstanding choice for that purpose. However, my girlfriend wanted a Mac too so for the past 2 months my 2010 mini serves a her main computer, powering two 23” displays and being used for Photoshop, modeling in Blender and playing Second Life. Real life proof that it indeed still is a good entry Mac. It replaced a 2nd generation i5 PC with 8GB of RAM and there is just no way to get her off the Mac mini so I will have to look for another one, soon.

Mac mini (early and late 2009)

Mac_mini_2009Going back another year or so and we arrive at even older and cheaper Mac minis. Unlike our journey from 2012 over 2011 to 2010 with 2009 we look at a different breed of Mac minis. You’ll notice it right away. They don’t come in flat all-aluminum cases anymore, but a combination of aluminum and polycarbonate with a smaller footprint of 6.5” by 6.5” (16.5cm x 16.5cm), but are taller at 2” (5cm).

They still have IR, built-in speakers, analog/optical audio input and output, 10/100/1000 LAN, dual band WiFi, FireWire 800 etc. like all the models we looked at so far, but they differ in the following areas:

  • 5 USB 2.0 ports instead of 4 on newer models
  • no card reader
  • external power supply
  • Mini-DVI instead of HDMI

Other than that, this case is really unpleasant to get into in order to upgrade RAM. With RAM prices being so low, the previous Mac mini models could be cheaply and easily maxed out on RAM or at least brought to 4GB memory. On this type of case though, there is no easy access to the RAM banks. There is no removable panel on the bottom – you have to pry open the case as shown in this video.

To make matters worse, most of these 2009 models came with 1GB or 2GB of RAM and while me might argue about 2GB being sufficient or not, 1GB is definitely not. You want your Mac mini at 4GB RAM as you want the latest version of OS X rather some old one.

Another reason you don’t want to run your Mac mini with 1GB RAM is the graphics. Like the 2010 models, all 2009 models come with the same GPU – this time Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M. It shares its video memory with the main memory and in case of 1GB that means only 128MB video memory. With 2GB RAM you get 256MB video memory. And the 9400M is actually the weak point of this Mac mini. When it comes to graphics performance, the 9400M is a bit shy of Intel HD 3000’s performance so that should give you a picture. And that’s in real life with games. Synthetic benchmarks put the HD 3000 clearly ahead of the 9400M in terms of performance. Don’t expect to play any proper, modern games on this Mac. Old games will still do, casual games in most cases, too.

Mac mini 2009 Geekbench scoresLast but not least the CPU. In 2009 models we find a wide range of Intel Core2Duo (Penryn) similar to the 2010 models. They range from 2.0 GHz to 2.66 GHz.

2009 Mac minis are still a valid choice to get to know Mac OS X and the world of Apple, especially since you can get a good one for around $300 on eBay and if you look hard enough, even as little as $200.

Another thing to consider is the size of the hard drive. 2009 models came with anything from 120 GB to 500GB with 120 and 160 GB being the most popular ones. 120 GB or 160 GB can be a little troublesome if you want to store lots of pictures and/or music. However, even 120GB are sufficient for Mac OS X and lots of apps as they do not require as much space as you might be used from Windows.

Mac mini (mid 2007)

This is where I would draw the line of going back in time to look for a cheap Mac to get into Macs. It just gets too old and even though you can easily score one for $200 or less on eBay, there are 3 good reasons not to do it:

1) Intel’s GMA 950 for graphics, which is – let’s be perfectly honest here – a disgrace to the word ‘graphics’. It really is that bad. This thing along with its successor X3100 is what gave Intel’s integrated GPUs the bad reputation it is suffering from until today and likely for a couple more years to come. On top of that, it is only capable of driving one display while all the Mac minis we looked at so far can drive two displays. You can forget even light gaming of any kind. GMA 950 also lacks h.264 acceleration and there is also no DisplayPort, you only get a DVI port instead.

2) No Mountain Lion. 2007 Mac minis are not supported by Mac OS X 10.8 aka Mountain Lion being the current version of Mac OS X. The highest you can go is 10.7 Lion, its predecessor. Lion isn’t bad at all, but if you want to get to know a new platform, starting with the most recent version usually is a good idea.

3) A couple of “minor” ones here, but it adds up. WiFi with no 802.11n, only b/g, FireWire 400 instead of 800, 667 MHz system bus as opposed to 1066 MHz on later models and SATA I instead of SATA II.

It is not a useless piece of hardware, there is still good uses for 2007 or older Mac mini, but for the purpose of a first Mac I just can’t recommend it. Except if you get one dirt cheap, like for 50 bucks or so. Then go for it.

Mac mini (2006 and older)

Don’t even think about it, not even at $50 bucks. The End.

Mac mini 2009 and older vs 2012 base modelWell, not really the end, let’s do a quick run-down why not, at any price.

Early and late 2006 Mac minis come with the same useless GMA 950 the 2007 models do, but that is not the worst part. They don’t come with Intel Core2Duo CPUs, but with Intel’s Core Duo. While similar in name, the performance is quite different. On top of that, the early 2006 Mac minis also come with Intel’s Core Solo CPUs that are, as the name suggest, single core CPUs. We haven’t seen those for quite some time and with good reason. Just look at the chart with Geekbench scores for 2007 and 2006 models with 2009 models and the current 2012 base model put in there for reference.

If you go even further back, you’ll arrive at the 2005 Mac minis, be it the original Mac mini or its late 2005 speed bumped versions. This is a whole different thing altogether as the 2005 Mac mini is based on PowerPC G4 rather than Intel processors and is something I might write about for the vintage section of my blog should I find an excuse to buy one 😛

The End…

PC vs Mac: Macs are overpriced

PC vs MacI already wrote recently about the PC vs Mac when it comes to upgrades I figured I might as well follow-up on the topic and write some thoughts about the most common argument in the PC vs Mac discussion: price. My view on this topic is a mixed bag of pros and cons. I also don’t agree with some of the supposedly valid arguments like Mac’s longevity. I am however getting sick of the “Macs are so overpriced” arguments I am having so often. I will just write my thoughts on the subject and redirect friends and co-workers to this post instead of further wasting time on that discussion.

 Apple customer ordering in a fancy restaurant: “I’d like exactly the same as last time, just a bit more expensive.”
 

Are Macs overpriced?

I remember not so long ago I wouldn’t even think for a second before replying with a ‘yes’. But since I actually bought some Macs, I am far away from a simple answer. Yes, Macs cost a lot. There is no such thing as a cheap Mac, but does a high price tag by definition mean that something is overpriced. I think some people either confuse these two terms or are just too shortsighted or narrow-minded to really grasp the big picture.

I often hear how overpriced the iMac is. It isn’t cheap, that’s for sure, but why is it overpriced? I remember having a very heated discussion on that topic with a co-worker in November last year and we sat down and looked up the specs and price of an all-in-one 27” Dell. I had no clue what they cost, but I figured they would be like $300 cheaper and I could make the argument of better build quality on the iMac’s side to compensate for the difference. Imagine our both surprise when we discovered that a similar spec (the Dell had a slightly worse GPU) was $200 more than the iMac. Needless to say we checked twice and went on to compare the local prices. That actually turned out to be further in favor for the iMac as local dealers offered them even cheaper.

Since I am already on the topic of the iMac: the argument that a tower PC with way better specs cost like half the price never gets old. This one really cracks me up on multiple levels. First and foremost is the fact that people try to compare a tower PC with an all-in-one. This is a comparison that is deeply flawed. Components and production processes with these form factors are just too different to allow for a 1:1 comparison.  It’s a bit like comparing prices on 4 door sedans, picking one and going to the dealer and telling him you want it as a 2-seater convertible and you’d like it rear wheel drive rather than front wheel drive.

Then there is the matter of displays. I can’t count the times when friends slap $120 on top of the PC’s price for the display. I’m sorry, but this where I am losing it. 24” vs 27” is just not fair on any level. What’s next? Comparing the Mac Pro to a netbook because, you know, they are both computers?  Size aside, I spend at least 12+ hours in front of screens every single day and the quality of the monitor does make a hell of a difference. Comparing a bottom of the stock cheap display with the displays Apple builds into its products renders the entire comparison useless. Go for a HP or Dell 27” with similar quality as the Apple display and suddenly things start to look quite different when you discover that the display alone accounts for 30-40% of the price tag of said PC.

However, as so often, there is also a different side of the argument to be made. It isn’t really the buyer’s fault that Apple does not offer a consumer oriented tower Mac. So while the all-in-one vs tower comparison is flawed, it is not entirely unreasonable when comparing PC and Macs on the surface. However PCs are not equal and people seem to often forget that as well.

Build quality

This brings us to quality. PCs are not cheap. They can be cheap, very cheap actually, but when you buy a PC with quality in mind you will quickly notice how expensive it gets. I believe a lot of people seem to forget that and orient their opinion based on bargain deals in their local mall they see advertised on billboards while driving to work.

I used to build some of my PCs myself and the difference between those and the ones I have bought already build from respectable shops is significant. And you do notice the difference a couple of months down the road very quickly when your PC suddenly starts to act up because of a cheap power supply or fans start to make very unpleasant noises. You can’t put all PCs into the same basket, they differ in quality a lot.

Just look at things as basic and simple as the case your PC goes into. You can buy a case for $20. But you shouldn’t. I’m not saying you should go for the high-end crazy stuff, but you should settle on a good quality level. I personally like the Fractal Design cases a lot. Those will already cost you around $120. And it is the same thing with most of the parts that a PC is made of. Stupid things like fans can range from $5 to $150. Graphics cards? You can buy a graphics card with the same GPU and amount of RAM for let’s say $200, but you can also buy it for $400. Same cards on the surface, but the quality and the small details make the difference. You get the idea.

Want to see build quality independent of your PC/Mac preferences? Replace or add another hard drive to a Mac Pro. The craftsmanship and quality are astonishing. Makes the Fractal Design cases I like feel like the $20 stuff 😦

What it boils down to at the end of the day is: if your PC is built using cheap parts, all you get are specs. But the quality of the PC will render these specs meaningless very quickly and you won’t be able to use the PC for very long without pouring more money into it or you just buy another one in the hope the new “brand” will be better.

Macs last longer

And so we made it to another topic worth mentioning. Because of the build quality of Macs it is often argued that Macs last so much longer than PCs. It’s hard to argue with that one for me, because I look as used Macs a lot more now. Although I do have some very old PCs and notebooks (my Toshiba Portégé notebooks spring to mind with the 7020CT still working just fine) I do have to admit that Macs of the same age just hold up better and are clearly in a better shape. When it comes to longevity Macs just win, even compared to PCs that were initially as expensive or even more expensive than the Macs.

However, I personally find this argument deeply flawed, too. Take a PowerBook G4 for example. Since being on the lookout for one I have seen quite some and they were in pretty good shape. They clearly outlasted their PC counterparts, but what for? The hardware made it, but it got rendered obsolete by the software.

Support for PowerPC based systems has been widely dropped. Apple itself cut many of these Macs off in 2007 with Leopard and all of them in 2009 with Snow Leopard. Flash? Nope. iCloud? Nope. Updates? Nope. Recent software in general? Nope.

Yes, the hardware lasts, no question about it. But it just doesn’t count for much. And it would be prudent to keep the past in mind – your top of the line Mac may end up in the same spot a couple of years down the road as well. Recent case in point: AirPlay Mirroring. A great feature introduced in Mac OS X Mountain Lion (mid 2012) it does not support Macs older than early 2011 models, in some cases mid 2011 models. Let this sink in: your barely 2 years old iMac or MacBook Pro/Air already shows first signs of being outdated. Quite frankly, if I would have bought my Mac a couple of months earlier and would now not have Airplay Mirroring I would be, let’s put it mildly, disappointed.

Macs hold their value

The PowerBook G4 might have been rendered obsolete, but it doesn’t mean you can buy one for peanuts. Macs do hold their value. This becomes immediately clear when you look up the prices of 5 years old PCs and Macs. The PCs tend to go for peanuts while looking at the prices for Macs you often end up with a large sign saying “WTF?!?” filling your mind. Yes, even old they are expensive. That means they do hold their value. While the PC you just bought for $1500 will be worth $300 on eBay 2 years down the road (if you are lucky to actually manage to sell it), your $2000 Mac will still find ample buyers for $800. Travel that road further to 5 years and you will be looking at $50 vs $500. It might look like madness, but that’s how it is.

Towards the end of 2012 I figured I should sell all my PCs and just buy a shinny new one with all the bells and whistles. Since I moved to Macs I don’t need more than 1 PC anyway. Long story short: if I would sell all 5 of my PCs (the newest being 2 years old and the oldest 4 years old) I would not be able to buy a new one that is significantly better than my 2 year old gaming PC.

On the Mac side though, things look different. Just for the “fun” of it I looked up the prices for my Macs and if I would just sell both my Mac minis and my Air I could easily buy a new iMac or Macbook Pro.

So if you look at the financial aspects and look beyond the price tag on day one, Macs look a lot better than PCs. I still can’t explain it, because quite frankly the value of used Macs is just not reasonable in my opinion, but that does not change the facts. Last year, when I was all wet behind my Mac pricing ears, I figured – just for the fun of it – I get myself an old Mac Pro to play around with. The first Mac Pro dating back to 2006. I looked up the prices on eBay and the cheapest Mac Pro in an only somewhat reasonable condition in basic configuration was $450. That’s a 7 years old computer! I was quite shocked to be honest. A new one costs $2500.

What is overpriced, really?

One of the most common overpriced Apple products I hear about is the Apple Thunderbolt Display. “$999 for a monitor? Are they [Apple] insane?!?” is the most common one. I am using the display as example also for another reason: I am currently in the market for a 27” display and am looking what the market has to offer. I have various displays from Dell, NEC, Samsung and HP here ranging from 20” to 24”. These are the 4 brands that convinced me over the years (except Samsung recently) so I started to look into what these companies have to offer.

Now, a Dell U2711 is $750 and a Dell U2713HM even $650. Apple’s Thunderbolt Display is $999. All three really are great monitors. While there is an argument about build quality on Dell PCs, from my experience their monitors are superb in that area. All have the same size, same resolution and “same” display quality – although for professional photography the U2711 is supposed to be even better than both other choices.

I personally would be very satisfied with the cheaper Dell U2713HM. I have seen it last week next to a Thunderbolt Display and I couldn’t spot a difference in panel quality even if my life would depend on it. And the Dell is $350 less than the Apple display. Actually, I prefer the Dell for two major reasons: 1) better connectivity with HDMI, VGA, DVI and DisplayPort and 2) a lot better adjustability and pivot. Granted, the Thunderbolt display looks really beautiful on a desk, but it is not like the Dell is a sore sight either.

On top of that the Dell comes with USB 3.0 ports as opposed to USB 2.0 ports on the Thunderbolt Display (although it is safe to assume Apple will bring out one with USB 3.0 soon) and a 3 year guarantee. While I am a sucker for nice looks, $350 difference for the looks and taking into account all the advantages of the Dell are just not reasonable on any level. The verdict here would be clear: overpriced! Or wouldn’t it? We only covered a part of the story. Let’s look at the whole picture.

The Thunderbolt Display comes with built in speakers that really aren’t bad and FaceTime HD camera. Those two are not useful to everyone, but they are there. If you want to hook it up to a MacBook Pro or Air (like I do), you don’t need the camera. If you have proper speakers on your desk already, you don’t gain anything from the built-in ones either. On a side note, Dell offers a sound bar for their monitors at around $45.

The Dell shines when it comes to connectivity. But there is one thing it is missing among its connections: Thunderbolt. That is all the Thunderbolt Display has. As a pure display, the Dell in my opinion is clearly the winner and the Thunderbolt Display can be seen as overpriced. But the Thunderbolt Display is more than just a display. When you are looking at a display for your MacBook, things start to change in favor for the Apple display. In this scenario the Thunderbolt Display also offers a docking solution. You get power supply, FireWire 800 and gigabit ethernet. Suddenly we come to realize that in this scenario it isn’t $350 more just for nice looks.

Just for the sake of a 1:1 comparison let’s add an camera and speakers to the Dell and throw a Thunderbolt docking station into the mix, i.e. matrox DS1 at $249. That sums it up to around $980 vs $999 for the Thunderbolt Display. The Dell still wins with connectivity, adjustability (unless you VESA mount your monitors anyway) and guarantee. On the other hand, the Thunderbolt Display is a neater solution, looks better and there is the matter of Thunderbolt connectivity itself. Since this is the usage scenario I am actually looking for right now, the Apple Thunderbolt Display is actually pretty good value. So much that I haven’t decide yet which route to go.

Here is an interesting bit of information to add to the ‘overpriced’ argument: one of HP’s ZR2740 models (XW476A4) uses the same panel that is being used in the Thunderbolt Display. The cheapest I could find was $899 + shipping and it comes with DVI and DisplayPort only. Add just the matrox DS1 to that and suddenly Apple is cheaper than HP. What did the world come to?

Apple router for $179 when you can get a good one for $40? LOL” would be the next one on my list of stupid overpriced discussions, but I will safe that one for another day since my opinion on networking gear for soho usage and cheap vs good value would be even longer than this post already is.

It would be a similar case to the display or the iMac or any other Apple product for that matter. When you look at the whole value picture when it comes to Macs, you will very often realize how deceiving the overpriced argument is. I believe people who make that argument just look at the price tag and don’t look at what they get in return for that price.

I intentionally left out Mac OS X vs Windows vs Linux, because while an important factor for sure, it wanted to focus on the value of hardware.

PC vs Mac: PCs are so easy to upgrade

PCvsMac_1Having many friends and co-workers being quite perplexed with my sudden switch from PC to Mac makes for a solid basis for stupid PC vs Mac arguments.

Beside a Mac’s price the PC’s upgradeability seems to be the most common topic. I really can’t count the times I have heard that one…in the last month alone.

It usually goes along the lines of “When my game runs slow, I just buy a new graphics card. When my software struggles, I buy more RAM or faster RAM or replace the CPU. If I need more connectivity, I just pop in a new card and have the ports I want. I don’t need to buy a new computer for that.

It’s hard to argue with a PC’s potential for upgrades, at least on the surface. Just look up any video tutorial about upgrading RAM on a 2009 Mac Mini or swapping a HDD on an iMac on YouTube. Upgrading anything, even something as simple as a graphics card on a Mac? World piece is child play in comparison.

However, there is another side to the story. The whole PC upgrade thing only works within a certain time frame and a lot of people seem to forget that. Want to swap your graphics card and upgrade memory on a 6 years old PC? Go ahead and let’s have the same talk afterwards. I strongly believe most people providing the “easy upgrade” argument for the PC have actually never upgraded an older PC before.  When they mention they can swap their old Core2Duo or first generation i3 for a speedy new i7 you just know they are full of it.

What people seem to forget is that not only CPUs and GPUs change as time passes by, but also sockets and chipsets change quite often. Remember getting a new PC with socket 1156 only to see socket 1155 being introduced shortly after and rendering all your upgrade plans useless?

While on the surface the PC upgrade argument is true, reality isn’t all that shinny as people would like it to be. There is no question that a tower PC is easier to upgrade than any Mac except the Mac Pro, but when your PC gets older and actually needs an upgrade, you often find yourself with basically buying a new PC…or wishing you bought a new one.

When I bought my gaming PC I didn’t look what is coming onto the market next. I didn’t have the time as I needed the PC immediately and quite frankly I couldn’t be bothered. I had more interesting things to do at that time than spending hours and hours on the net researching the topic. I went for the good stuff that was available back then and that was a bit over 2 years ago. If I wanted to upgrade that PC today all that would be left are its case, power supply and some of its drives. And if I am perfectly honest with myself, the case should be replaced, too.

Then there is the matter of threating all Macs the same and not making a difference between desktop and notebook. I often hear the upgrade argument from people who talk about a desktop PC, but all the PCs they use are notebooks.

A couple of months ago I wanted to max out the RAM on my MacBook Pro 13”, replace the HDD with a SSD and replace the DVD with a larger HDD. This was the first time I opened up any Mac and it was a simple and painless procedure. Ordering the drive bay and an USB enclosure to use the DVD as external drive took a lot longer than actually upgrading the notebook. Shortly after a friend of mine liked that idea a lot and went on to do the same upgrades to his Samsung notebook. Getting to his RAM and HDD was an ordeal that took the better half of the day and until today he didn’t find a drive bay allowing him to replace his optical drive with a second HDD. Needless to say at least he won’t bring up the upgrade argument again…

Yes, ‘Macs’ and ‘upgrades’ are not the best words to be used in the same sentence, but the reality of upgrading PCs is often miles away from the shinny picture people try to paint. Something to keep in mind when deciding between a PC and Mac.