Opinionated computer purchasing advice (updated)

People ask me about which Mac to buy often enough that I thought I might as well post here a recent reply I wrote to a friend who is looking at a career change from corporate programming to consulting, possibly, or another corporate gig, or who knows what.

Caveat emptor: I am a software professional. A way geek. My everyday work is computing intensive. I usually have at least six applications running at once, and not because I’m not paying attention but because my work requires it. Some of my applications require fast processors and huge amounts of RAM. I need a big-ass disk or several. My extracurricular activities as a professional musician who does some recording and composing are also computer-intensive at times, and I read the New York Times online daily with a Times Reader subscription–yet another computer-based activity. My work frequently requires travel, and even during leisure travel there is the possibility that I will need to work on some code or something else where my iPhone or a netbook wouldn’t cut it.

Normal people do not have such extreme needs! Normal people would get along just fine with the computer I was using five years ago.

Oh–and I’m a Mac bigot. I truly believe that Macs work better and let you get more done with less hassle. If you need to some particular software that’s only available on Windows or Linux or whatever, then buy Parallels or VMWare or try one of the open source virtualization programs to run those programs–and only those programs–in a window on your Mac. That’s what I do, and many of my clients are Windows-only shops, so it’s not like I can afford to be without access to Windows myself.

Still, people ask me, because they know I care and have researched these things to death, so here goes.

I love laptops, and I think that in consulting and/or uncertain job futures it’s best to emphasize flexibility. You never know when you’ll need to give a talk, or demo something at someone else’s office, or fix something while you’re on vacation, or work while you’re on the road. You can’t do much of that on an iPad or iPhone (except correspondence and basic iWork stuff). You can do it all on a laptop, and you also have a built-in uninterruptable power supply (battery!) in cases of lightning knocking out the power just as you accomplish something important that you haven’t saved yet. You also have, in a laptop, a built-in free primary display, and when you connect a big-ass LCD as your external display, you have tons of real estate when you’re at your desk.

And anything the iPad can do, your laptop can do, except for being light, sexy, etc. But you’ll have an iPhone for that. Get an iPad later when you can resist no longer. (I plan to usurp the one my wife bought this afternoon.)

My friends with iMacs love them, and one friend in particular who lives in a one-bedroom apartment uses his as his computer, TV, DVD, DVR, stereo, virtual aquarium, and digital picture frame as well as computer. He uses his iPhone on the go. He’s delighted with both. He does NOT make his living in software, though, and he doesn’t travel for same. He’s a musician who does Mac stuff at his day job, sometimes works from home, does a variety of things at home, and just needs basic iPhone apps when away from home. That said, I doubt he’d say no if somebody offered him their two-year-old MacBook–and I also doubt he’d get rid of the iMac.

I like a big screen and as much power and as many kinds of ports as possible, especially when a fair amount of work-away-from-office is expected, but even just when reading Times Reader. So, for me the top of the line MacBook Pro 17″ will always be the no-brainer choice. Next best for me is last year’s version of same, from craigslist or a bargain Apple refurb unit. That said, 17″ weighs a lot more than 15″ weighs a lot more than 13″, and unless you use a backpack, you want to avoid unnecessary weight. (And don’t forget it’s not just the laptop–it’s the cables, the camera, the books, the banana, the carrying bag itself, and everything else you schlepp around in your purse^H^H^H^H^Hbriefcase or backpack.

If you’re bent on an iMac and an iPad, maybe a good compromise would be an iMac for your desk and a refurb Air for travel, and a Dropbox account to be sure that the most important things are always on both. See the Apple store, lower right corner for refurbs etc.

Craigslist rocks. For retail, see if you have any friends/family with access to academic discounts, then check refurb, then check:



Did I mention craigslist?

Nobody pays me anything for blogging about this stuff. Or rather, companies don’t. My friends and family repay me amply in ways too numerous to count. Thank you, all of you–you probably don’t realize who you are, but I do, and I’m grateful to be blessed with such an embarrassment of riches.

Update: iPads rock!

So I finally got an iPad a few months ago, and yes, I love it. For me it’s not a computer replacement, but it’s a wonderful new thing altogether. I haven’t gotten as far into it as I know I will eventually, but I already love it for:

  • reading ebooks
  • reading the New York Times
  • the NPR app
  • Epicurious for recipes
  • replacing bags and bags of dance music with a lovely, self-lit electronic screen, with tons of PDFs and the unRealbook app for putting tunes together into set lists on the fly
  • email, Twitter, and Facebook
  • online video (e.g. Google Videos for movies that aren’t available on Netflix or any other way)
  • Netflix streaming!
  • iPod

I’ve since encouraged a dear friend who doesn’t have a personal computer (only a work computer on which she isn’t allowed to do anything except work) to buy an iPad. She didn’t want to deal with paying for and learning how to use another computer, and she gets enough of staring at computer screens in her job as a high-powered attorney. In about an hour, I had her set up with wifi and a personal email address and showed her how to get around. It has changed her life. She says she absolutely loves it and has no idea how she ever got along without one. She’s playing with digital photos, email, videos, music, ebooks, and all kinds of other things. She carries it around with her all the time.