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Take Control of Buying a Mac

If there’s one question I’ve learned to dread over the years, it’s "What Mac should I buy?", followed closely by "When is Apple going to release new Macs?" It’s not that I mind helping people, but these simple queries are, if I’m to do the topic justice, the start of at least an hour of conversation and further questions. It’s even worse when they come in email, since then I can either cop out and give a short answer that could be entirely wrong, or I can start a time-consuming discussion that will likely span numerous messages to my already overflowing In box over several days.

Why should this subject be so tough? After all, millions of people buy Macs every year. But to judge from many discussions I’ve had over the years, a lot of people find the process of purchasing a Mac daunting: they worry that they’re spending more than necessary on an already expensive purchase, or they’re unhappy with the retailer from whom they purchased. In each case, as I’ve heard the specifics, I’ve found myself nodding my head and trying not to tell the person where they went wrong, while gently suggesting what they might do differently next time.

Back when we were first dividing up titles for Take Control ebooks, I pounced on "Take Control of Buying a Mac," mostly because I’ve been dying for an excuse to spend the time to research and explain exactly how someone should go about the process of buying a Mac. I’ve long believed that, with some effort, I could come up with a formula that anyone could put into practice. It’s taken me longer than I anticipated, given that I’ve been putting other authors’ books ahead of my own, but with the able editing help of Caroline Rose (who, appropriately enough, edited the first three volumes of Inside Macintosh at Apple in the early days of the Macintosh), "Take Control of Buying a Mac" is now available for anyone who plans to buy a Mac in the next year, or who would like a resource to recommend to others. It’s 72 pages and costs only $5; if you’re a reseller or consultant who would be interested either in buying multiple copies to give to clients, or in reselling the ebook, drop me a note.

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I’ve divided the book into five sections, each of which addresses a different step in the purchasing process. It is important, I’ve discovered, to follow the steps in order for the best results, because otherwise you end up wasting time on decisions that you have to make again to account for new information.

Decide When to Buy — There are two aspects to the decision of when to buy a Mac. First, do you really need a Mac now, or are you just lusting after the latest and greatest? A little techno-lust in your heart isn’t a bad thing, but it’s helpful to differentiate between need and want. Once you’ve determined that you really are going to plunk down some cash, you have to figure out when to buy. Obviously, if you really need a new Mac now, you’ll probably end up purchasing sooner rather than later. However, in many situations you can wait, and, as we all know, those who wait are always rewarded with better Macs for lower prices. So if you can wait, what are the best and worst times of year to buy?

I’m most proud of this section of the book, since I spent a bunch of time researching and recording the months in which Apple has released new Macs – both speed bumps and significantly new models – over the last five years. When you gather all that data in one place, some trends become apparent, as do the ways in which Apple has begun to deviate from the trends of previous years. Those of us who watch the industry closely have a gut feeling about what’s likely to happen (perhaps that’s why people keep asking me when to buy!) but now I can back up my feelings with hard data.

The yearly cycle is only half the story, though, since every Macintosh model also follows its own update cycle, and when you buy within that cycle determines how much you’ll pay for a particular performance level. People who watch closely have seen this before: the initial release of a new Macintosh model sells at a premium, and within some number of months, Apple puts out a faster version while simultaneously dropping the price. With the historical perspective I provide in the book, you can anticipate such moves.

I bundled all these up into four rules for when to purchase, based on whether you want to buy at initial release, during the later incremental releases, as a model is being replaced, and after it’s obsolete. If you have a reasonable understanding of your needs, desires, and budget, you can follow these rules to time your purchase perfectly for your situation.

Figure Out Which Mac to Buy — After you’ve determined when you’d like to buy, the time comes to figure out which Mac to get. That question comes down to whether you want a desktop or laptop Mac, and once you’ve made that decision, which particular model. I came up with a worksheet that helps you figure out whether you’re a desktop or laptop person. I am a little bummed that Tonya’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion that I cast it like one of those "How to tell if you’re compatible with your mate" quizzes in women’s magazines came too late in the production process for me to use it.

Most people probably have a decent sense of which type of Mac they want, but I think many more people will find valuable the charts I created for comparing the consumer and professional models within both the desktop and laptop lines. My goal there was to eliminate the confusion that many people have of the difference between iBooks and PowerBooks, for instance, since on the surface, they seem quite similar. And as those of us who have been around know, there have been times when the iBooks have compared extremely favorably to the PowerBooks, though currently the distinctions are a bit more clear-cut.

The last part of this section is designed to throw some light on the murkiness of all the build-to-order options and other add-ons that Apple and many other retailers offer while you’re buying a Mac. Should you buy a Mac with one or two CPUs? How much RAM do you need? (Lots!) Which optical drive makes the most sense? Do you need a larger hard disk? How about a fancier video card, and perhaps two monitors? (For many people, I’d argue for no on the video card, and yes on the multiple monitors.) AirPort Extreme? Bluetooth? (Did you know you can’t add Bluetooth after purchasing?) Extra batteries or AC adapters? And last, but certainly not least, should you spring for AppleCare, and if you do, should you buy it from Apple? (Yes, at least for laptops, and no, you can get it cheaper elsewhere.)

Choose Where to Buy — You can buy a Mac from six main places: local Mac dealers, Apple Stores, computer superstores, Internet-based Mac retailers, the Apple Online Store, and other individuals. There are no right answers about where you should purchase, of course, but there are pros and cons to each of these venues, and I go through each one so you can make an informed decision.

There are also three special ways of buying below retail price of which only some people can avail themselves; the most notable is, of course, the educational discount.

Determine What Else to Buy — I added this section primarily for people who are upgrading from an elderly Mac that couldn’t run Mac OS X and which likely had legacy ports like ADB, SCSI, and serial. When the iMac first eliminated the legacy ports in favor of USB and FireWire, there was a great deal written about how to keep older peripherals in use, but the topic died down as the power users stopped worrying about it. The necessary adapters for these older devices are generally still available, and since millions of Macs with those legacy ports and peripherals are still in use, I wanted to make sure people had a basic reference for what they should put some effort into keeping (LocalTalk laser printers) and what they should just toss (external modems, SCSI scanners).

I also included brief discussions of several things that I usually recommend people buy with a new Mac: a laptop case for those who don’t have something to protect a new iBook or PowerBook, and a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) to protect a new desktop Mac from the vagaries of electrical power. Obviously, they’re not essential, but a little protection goes a long way.

Deal with Your Old Mac — This last section is related to buying a new Mac only in the sense that many people upgrade and aren’t sure what to do with Mac being replaced. I’m a great believer in keeping old Macs in active use, since they can be used for plenty of things if you’re willing to put in a little effort.

For people who can’t imagine what an old Mac could be useful for, I provide a number of suggestions, and for those who would rather dispose of their older Macs, I run through the basic options of handing it down to someone without a computer, donating it to charity (and taking a tax break), or selling it. Lastly, if you are sending an old Mac on to a new home, I give instructions on how to restore it to a pristine state, which is not only polite, it’s a good way to ensure that the new owner can’t access any of your old files.

Free Updates — As with all our ebooks, everyone who buys "Take Control of Buying a Mac" is entitled to free updates to the book. Click the Check For Updates button on the cover to see if we’ve released one; you can also sign up to be notified via email on that page. The free updates to this ebook will be particularly helpful, since you can buy a copy now to start planning your next Macintosh purchase and be assured that the ebook won’t go obsolete before you need to make your decisions.

So check out the book, and once you’ve had a chance to read through it all, let me know what you think. I’m confident my advice will be helpful, in part because I gave pre-release copies to several acquaintances who asked me the dreaded "What Mac should I buy?" questions, and they reported back that it was extremely informative (and they immediately bought new Macs). Better yet, Tonya is using my process right now to decide which Mac she wants to replace her 733 MHz Power Mac G4… and this time I won’t be able to quibble if she decides on a fast dual-processor Power Mac G5.

If you’d like to order the 72-page ebook for $5 directly, click the URL below; otherwise, the book’s Web page at the beginning of this article has slightly different information and a link to a 20-page excerpt.

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