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Summary:

You may have some cash from the holidays, and buying a Mac is as good a way as any to spend that money. Think about what you want, but more importantly, think about what you need. Here’s some advice to help make your decision easier.

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You may have some cash on hand from the holidays, and buying a Mac is as good a way as any to spend that money. But when it comes to buying a new Mac, people seem to have an idea what they want, but aren’t sure exactly if that matches up with what they need. Here’s some advice to help you answer that second, more crucial question.

Only need access to information in order to make decisions?

One unfortunate hand-me-down that iOS devices have inherited from their iPod ancestors is that they are all tethered devices. You need either a Mac or a PC to take advantage of many of the iPad’s feature, by design, making the iPad incapable of replacing someone’s only computer.  It’s puzzling to see a Mac, a USB cord, iTunes and an Internet connection listed as system requirements for what is marketed as a standalone computing device. Still, if you already have a computer, and you’re looking for something that grab info for quick scanning and play media, then the iPad is perfect.

Need a travel buddy?

If you’re trying to decide between the Air and the iPad as a mobile solution, consider how far you’ll be traveling, and for how long.  While the iPad is a perfect companion around the office or even for intra-city adventures, if you plan on being gone longer than a day, then the 11-inch Air would be the better choice. When away for even a few days, having access to the software available on OS X as well as being able to utilize a keyboard will be a welcome benefit of the 11-inch Air over the iPad.

Creating content on the go?

If you’ll primarily be creating content and media, or regularly use multiple applications, then the MacBook Air 13-inch may be the better choice than the 11-inch Air. The screen size of the 11-inch will prove to be a little challenging when utilizing multiple applications. While Exposé and Spaces will certainly help, sometimes the extra bit of screen real estate is what’s needed to get the job done.

Creating advanced content on the go?

If you do more than just simple graphic design, preparing office presentations and charts, or writing, then consider stepping up to something a little more powerful: the MacBook Pro. If you’ll have regular access to larger secondary displays, then the 15-inch model is the one to get. If a secondary monitor isn’t often going to be an option, then consider the 17-inch, but go to the Apple Store first and decide if you want to carry one around first.  Both the 15-inch and the 17-inch MacBook Pros have the specs to handle most tasks, including video editing, photo manipulation, graphic design and more.

Will you be sharing with others at home?

Perhaps your family shares a household computer; which Mac is the right Mac to hold down the fort?  That all depends on whether or not you have and are satisfied with an existing keyboard, mouse and monitor.  If so, get a Mac mini, since it’ll save you a bunch of money, but if not, get an iMac.  As for which size iMac, get the 27-inch if your budget allows. No one has ever wished they got the smaller monitor after purchasing the big one.

Do you tend to do a lot of really demanding things all of the time?

If you work on massive video projects that require lots of rendering time, use multiple virtual machines simultaneously, or if your Mac is used as a serious gaming machine, you probably need the power and expandability of a Mac Pro.  Keep in mind that not every Mac Pro will outperform some iMac configurations, but you can customize them after the fact.  With its dual Super Drives and expansion capabilities, you can add plenty of memory and storage to a Mac Pro. Having more cores allows it to do more things at the same time.

Whichever you choose, it’s still a Mac

A new computer is a major purchase, so there will almost always be second-guessing that goes on after you’ve made your choice. At least with Apple, you can be confident that whichever Mac you choose, your decision was overall a good one.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

  1. For me, the choice was easy. I compared tech specs with prices when looking at new portable Macs to replace my five-year old, first-generation MacBook. The base model MacBookPro was barely $100 more than the base MacBook with my educator discount. That extra $100 got me more RAM and a better video card.

    In my mind, the extra money I’d have to pay to buy a comparable MacBook Air buys too many diminishing returns. Yes, I understand that the Air has a target audience – minimalists, light users, and people who hit the road often – but the Air is not for me.

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    1. I too like new MacBook Pro 15″ configured with the 1680-by-1050 Hi-Res display.

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  2. Claude Betancourt Saturday, January 1, 2011

    Why settle for one? Get both! A 27″ iMac and a 13″ MBP travel buddy.

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    1. Owning a 13″ MBP myself, I cannot help but feel that it is now the oddball in the Apple lineup. A little bigger than the MBA to be a great travel companion and secondary device, and a little under powered compared to the 15″ MBP to be a great all around stand alone device. As @rollen points out below, the MBA’s have stepped up with the latest release.

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  3. I have a 3yr old MBP 17″ that I use for everything – email, information, development, etc. Though I love this machine, it is a bit heavy to travel with and it is getting a bit slow. Recently I went to Best Buy and started playing with a base 11″ MBA — I was astonished at how lightening fast it was! I managed to download a beefy distro of Eclipse for Java dev and install it. Again, I was absolutely blown-away at the speed of this base 11″ MBA when it came to opening Eclipse and doing things within it, when compared to my older MBP. The screen was beautiful – crisp, clear and I thought very useable. My take-away … I want the new 13″ MBA! I’m sure it will be everything the 11″ inch is and more – with more screen real-estate, faster bus, more cache, etc. I’m excited to get one and “retire” the 17″ MBP.

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  4. In our household of two, we have an iMac, an 11″ MacBook Air and a wifi iPad.

    That’s one fewer CPU than we felt necessary a few years back.

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    1. That sounds to be a perfectly ideal setup. One shared main computer at home, and two satellite “computers” to take with you when you are out and about.

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  5. I agree with the multi-buyers. We got one of each! The advantage of the 13 inch air over the 11 is the SD card reader. Nice to have and I use it all the time. Including now as I download some holiday video at Starbucks while my companion watches the iPad. I love the 2010 updates!
    If you only want one machine for everything: 15″ Macbook Pro.

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  6. I’m hopefully going to be buying a mac mini in a few months. Given that the Mac now has Steam, and that the Mac App Store is imminent, now seems like a better time than ever to invest in a mac.

    It’ll be my first Mac, and I intend to keep it up to date, so I plan on getting Lion as well. An upcoming OS has never deterred me from buying a new gadget And it won’t this time either.

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