Buying guide: 2012 Macs

Its the holiday shopping season, and if youre reading this article, youre thinking about buying a new Mac and in need of a little guidance. Fortunately, weve tested (almost) every standard-configuration Mac model currently in Apples lineup. Were quite familiar with Apples Macs, and were happy to help you choose the right Mac for you.

This buying guide provides an overview of all the Mac models available, and what each model is best suited for. To get more details, you can read the full review for each Mac by clicking the Read our complete review links.

Keep in mind the purchase deadlines if you want your Mac to arrive in time for Christmas.

MacBook Air

What is it? The MacBook Air is Apples ultrathin, ultralight laptop. It comes in two sizes: 11 inches (2.4 pounds) and 13 inches (3.0 pounds).

Whos it for? The MacBook Air is ideal for anyone who is always on the go, doesnt want to be bogged down by a regular-size laptop, and also needs a computer thats more versatile than an iPad.

What are the specifications? The two 11-inch MacBook Airs have the same 1.7GHz dual-core Core i5 processor. The main difference is storage: The $999 model has 64GB, while the $1099 model has 128GB.

The two 13-inch MacBook Airs both use a 1.8GHz dual-core Core i5 processor. Again, the main difference between the two is storage, as the $1199 model has 128GB, while the $1499 model has 256GB.

All MacBook Air models come standard with 4GB of RAM and integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 technology. Apple claims 5 hours of battery life for the 11-inch models, and 7 hours for the 13-inch models.

How do I connect stuff? The MacBook Air has built-in Wi-Fi for connecting to a network. It also provides built-in Bluetooth for connecting a mouse or other peripheral. If you want to connect to an ethernet network, you need a USB Ethernet Adapter.

Thunderbolt is the MacBook Airs high-speed connector. The laptop also has a pair of USB 3.0 ports, which will work with devices that use USB 2.0. If you have a FireWire 800 drive, you need to buy a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire Adapter.

How fast is it? The MacBook Air is quite capable of handling everyday tasks, such as emailing, Web browsing, using office applications, and more. You can even use it for editing short videos, and for working with JPEGs from your iPhone or point-and-shoot camera.

The flash storage in the MacBook Air really helps the performance. For example, the MacBook Air actually outperforms several of the standard configurations of the non-Retina MacBook Pro, which uses a hard drive (solid-state drives for the MacBook Pro are available for an additional cost).

Macworlds buying advice: The MacBook Air is a great laptop for someone who does general-purpose work and moves around a lot, such as students or the self-employed. If youre planning to buy an 11-inch model, go for the one with 128GB of storagesince you cant upgrade the storage after purchase, you should buy the model with the most storage that you can afford.

Read our complete review of the MacBook Air (Mid-2012)

MacBook Pro

Apple sells two types of MacBook Pros. Ill cover the standard MacBook Pro first.

What is it? The MacBook Pro is Apples performance-oriented laptop. It's bigger and heavier than the MacBook Air, and it's designed for more-demanding tasks.

Whos it for? The standard MacBook Pro is for the user who wants a portable computer that doesnt sacrifice a lot. The MacBook Pro isnt as fast as an iMac desktop system, but it can be faster than the MacBook Air at certain tasks.

What are the specifications? The current models feature Core i5 and Core i7 processors. Two 13-inch standard MacBook Pro models are available. The $1199 model has a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, and a 500GB 5400-rpm hard drive. The $1499 model includes a 2.9GHz dual-core Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 750GB 5400-rpm hard drive. Both 13-inch models use the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics subsystem.

Apple also sells two 15-inch standard MacBook Pro models. The $1799 model has a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 4GB of memory, and a 500GB 5400-rpm hard drive. The $2199 model offers a 2.6GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 750GB 5400-rpm hard drive. Both 15-inch models have two graphics processors, the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 (used to help preserve power), and the Nvidia GeForce GT 650M (used when faster graphics performance is necessary). The $1799 models GeForce chip comes with 512MB of video memory, while the $2199 models GeForce chip has 1GB.

The standard MacBook Pro is also the only Mac laptop with a built-in SuperDrive. If you need to burn or read optical discs and youd rather not use an external drive, the standard MacBook Pro is the laptop for you.

Apple used to offer a 17-inch standard MacBook Pro, but phased it out in favor of the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro.

How do I connect stuff? Like all Mac computers, the standard MacBook Pro has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. What makes the standard MacBook Pro more attractive than the other Mac laptops is that it offers ports that Apple has phased out of the MacBook Air and the Retina MacBook Pro.

First, if you have FireWire 800 drives that you use on a regular basis, youll be happy to know that the standard MacBook Pro comes with a FireWire 800 port. None of Apples other laptops have FireWire. If you dont want to carry an adapter for your FireWire drive, the standard MacBook Pro is your only choice.

The standard MacBook Pro also has a gigabit ethernet port, which you cant find on the MacBook Air and the Retina MacBook Pro.

Like all Mac laptops, the standard MacBook Pro has two USB 3.0 ports.

How fast is it? Both 13-inch standard MacBook Pro models are slower overall than the 13-inch MacBook Airblame the performance hit on the MacBook Pros hard drive, which cant keep up with the MacBook Airs flash storage. However, the MacBook Pro has a huge performance advantage over the MacBook Air on tasks that are processor intensive and dont have to read or write to the storage device a lot, such as video editing.

The top-performing standard MacBook Pro is the $2199 15-inch model. To get even more speed from these laptops, you can customize your order and swap the hard drive for a solid-state drive, but youll have to pay between $100 and $1000 extra, depending on the size of the SSD. The SSD will boost the Pro's performance to the extent that it surpasses the performance of the MacBook Air.

Macworlds buying advice: The standard MacBook Pro is for the mobile user who doesnt want to sacrifice a lot of features. The hard drives create a performance bottleneck, so if you want to get the best performance, consider customizing the laptop with an extra-cost SSD that replaces the hard drive. The fastest standard MacBook Pro is the $2199 15-inch 2.6GHz Core i7 model. If you want a laptop for travel and cant decide between a standard MacBook Pro and a MacBook Air, go with the MacBook Air unless you really need built-in FireWire; you might also consider a Retina MacBook Pro.

Read our complete review of the standard MacBook Pro (Mid-2012)

Retina MacBook Pro

What is it? When Apple updated the MacBook Pro last June, the company bumped up the speed of the standard MacBook Pro, but all of the attention was focused on the Retina MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro with Retina display is the model that Apple will follow with its MacBook Pro line going forward.

The Retina MacBook Pro features a high-density display with so many pixels that images and text look especially smooth and cleanat normal viewing distances, you can't discern individual pixels.

Whos it for? The Retina MacBook Pro is for the demanding user who wants a portable computer that also performs well. The Retina MacBook Pro models sit at the top of the performance chart of Mac laptops.

What are the specifications? The Retina MacBook Pro is available in sizes of 13 inches and 15 inches. The two 13-inch models have the same processor (2.5GHz dual-core Core i5), amount of memory (8GB), and graphics processor (Intel HD Graphics 4000). The difference is the amount of flash storage; the $1699 model has 128GB, while the $1999 model has 256GB.

You'll find more differences between the two 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros. The $2199 model has a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, and 256GB of flash storage. The $2799 model offers a 2.6GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU, 8GB of memory, and 512GB flash storage. The 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros have two graphics processors: the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000, and the discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 650M with 1GB video memory.

The screen is the marquee feature of the Retina MacBook Pro. The 13-inch Retina display has a native resolution of 2560 by 1600 pixels, and OS X offers a scaled resolution up to 1680 by 1050, which surpasses the 1440 by 900 resolution of the standard 15-inch MacBook Pro. The 15-inch Retina display has a native resolution of 2880 by 1800 pixels, and on those laptops OS Xs highest scaled resolution is 1920 by 1200 pixels, which is equal to the native resolution of the discontinued 17-inch MacBook Pro. With these high-scaled resolutions, you can have the workspace of a larger-screen standard Mac laptop on a smaller Retina MacBook Pro, if you can tolerate the smaller icons, text, and other graphics on screen. If you use a third-party app such as QuickRes, you can set the Retina screen to use resolutions higher than the scaled settings OS X offers, including the native resolution.

The Retina MacBook Pro does not have a SuperDrive, so if you need one, you have to buy an external USB optical drive.

How do I connect stuff? No need to worry about wireless connectivity: The Retina MacBook Pro has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Its the wired connectivity you need to be concerned with. The Retina MacBook Pro has two Thunderbolt ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, and thats it. If you want to connect a FireWire device, you need to use a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire Adapter. Fortunately, you can use USB 2.0 devices with the USB 3.0 ports without a problem.

If you wish to connect to an ethernet network, you need a USB Ethernet Adapter.

How fast is it? The Retina MacBook Pros processors, flash storage, and 8GB of memory combine for impressive performance results. The 15-inch models are faster than the stock configuration of the quad-core Mac Pro, Apples desktop workstation. Both the 13- and 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros are faster than the stock configurations of the Mac mini, Apples affordable desktop computer. And the Retina MacBook Pros offer a significant boost over their non-Retina counterparts.

Interestingly, the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro was only about 11% faster than the 13-inch MacBook Air in our testing. But if your work requires a lot of heavy-duty processing, note that the MacBook Air may throttle itself down to keep the temperature at an optimal level, which will affect performance.

Macworlds buying advice: For the most demanding mobile Mac userthat is, someone whose work requires a lot of processing powerthe Retina MacBook Pro is the ticket. The two 13-inch models are identical except for the amount of storage; buy the model with 256GB of storage, if your wallet permits. The $600 that separates the two 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro models is a hefty chunk of change; you do get more machine for $2799, but youre not losing much if you go with the $2199 model. If your work mostly involves Internet access and other productivity tasks, go for a MacBook Air.

Read our complete review of the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (Late 2012)

Read our complete review of the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro (Mid-2012)

Next page: Mac mini, iMac, and Mac Pro

Mac mini

What is it? The Mac mini is Apples entry-level desktop Mac. It is slower than Apples other desktop computers, the iMac and Mac Pro, but it remains fast enough for general-purpose use.

Whos it for? Apple targets first-time Mac users with the Mac mini. If youre switching from a PC, you can use your PCs keyboard and mouse with the Mac mini. The Mac mini is also ideal as a secondary Mac in your home, and it can integrate into your home entertainment center.

What are the specifications? What makes the Mac mini stand out is its small size. It doesnt take up a lot of desk space.

Apple sells two Mac mini models. The $599 model has a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 CPU and a 5400-rpm 500GB hard drive. The $799 model includes a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 processor and a 5400-rpm 1TB hard drive. Both Mac minis come standard with 4GB of memory and an Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics processor.

The Mac mini does not include a display, keyboard, or mouse. Youll have to provide your own, or you can customize your order to include these devices, for an additional fee for each.

Since the Mac mini lacks an optical drive, you need to buy an external USB optical drive if you want to read or burn CDs and DVDs.

How do I connect stuff? Like Apples other Macs, the Mac mini has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It also has USB 3.0 (four ports), Thunderbolt (one port), and an SDXC card slot.

The Mac mini provides a FireWire 800 port for connecting external hard drives and other devices. It also has a gigabit ethernet port, in case you want to connect to a wired network.

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