In the long run, is it more cost-effective to buy a brand new, current generation Mac, or a less expensive Mac that’s a generation behind? I’m currently grappling with this issue, as it’s time for me to upgrade my home Final Cut Studio workstation (an older 24-inch aluminum iMac maxed out at 4GB of RAM). I’d love to invest in one of the speedy new 27-inch iMacs, but right now Small Dog has quantity of previous generation 24-inch iMacs with comparable, impressive specs—for hundreds of dollars less than the 27-inch models.

The debate—to buy the latest and greatest current generation Mac, or save money and get an older, but still nicely equipped model—is one many of us deal with when it’s time to upgrade our personal, business, or family computers. It can be perplexing, especially now that Apple has moved to the Intel platform. The difference in speed between different generations of Intel processors is often (but not always) incremental, rather than exponential.

Most of us also realize that we don’t really need the ultimate, fastest computer on the market. The bleeding edge of technology can be a painful place to exist. Most users don’t begin to truly maximize our computer’s ability. On the other hand, no one wants to buy a machine that’s soon to be obsolete.

I recommend thinking three years ahead. For Macs, this is an ideal timeframe. Unless someone is truly only reading email and surfing simple websites, or writing with simple word-processing software, I don’t recommend buying a G3, G4, or G5, or even a first-generation Intel Duo Mac. For most people who want to run modern software, or use modern peripherals (including iPods, iPhones, etc.), those are fast becoming dead-end systems. It’s fine if you own one now—but I wouldn’t buy a used model. You can buy a newer, used Intel Core Duo Mac for almost the same price.

While a particular Mac might technically rate faster in a benchmarking contest compared to another Mac, in practice the difference might be imperceptible. Computer speed is the result of several different factors, and often differs from application to application.

If you’re comparing Macs—old to new, or simply old to older, here are parts of the machine to pay attention to.

Processor – Processor speed seems easy enough to understand—the higher the GHz, the faster the processor, right? Usually, but clock speed (GHz) does not tell the whole story of a processor’s abilities and limits. For example, which do you think is faster: a 27-inch iMac with the 2.8 GHz i7 processor, or a 27-inch iMac with 3.06 Core 2 Duo processor? It’s actually the i7 processor with the lower GHz rating—depending on the application, it’s 2x – 3x faster than the 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo.

That’s because when Intel names a processor (Core 2, Xeon, Core i7, Core i5) the name is actually referring to a whole family of different processors. The different families have different capabilities. Some are dual core, some quad core, some support hyper-threading, some support Turbo Boost, and some support both (i7).

To get a great overview of how Intel names and rates its processors, read this helpful article from Gizmodo.

In the Mac universe at present, it’s enough to say that Xeon/Nehalem processors are the fastest (found in the Mac Pro), followed by the i7, i5 and Core 2 Duo processors.

RAM (also called memory, but not to be confused with the hard drive. The hard drive is where all files are stored.) It used to be rather pointless for most people to install more than 4GB of RAM, as processors and software couldn’t recognize or use it. That is rapidly changing with the introduction of 64-bit operating systems (such as Snow Leopard) and new 64-bit software that can see up to 16GB and even 32GB of RAM.

Adobe says users can experience 50% to 200% faster high-definition (HD) workflows in CS4 Production Premium by moving from a 32-bit system with 4GB of RAM to a 64-bit system with 16GB of RAM. However, most home users, including those who use Final Cut Express or Final Cut Pro, iMovie, iPhoto, Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, and most games are will be content with 4GB of RAM. At Small Dog, we recommend that every Mac have at least 4GB or RAM; Apple now includes 4GB of RAM as standard equipment in most Macs.

It’s a good idea to plan for future RAM upgrades, as applications are always growing greedier for RAM. In the long run, the price of RAM goes down, but can actually go up in the short term. It’s fairly easy to upgrade RAM in most iMacs. Try to get a Mac that can take 4GB of RAM, rather than the standard 2GB of RAM
Macrumors.com has a chart detailing these machines (note that the latest iMacs are not listed here.) You can also use the Mactracker app for this purpose.

Click here to read a very long and detailed article on this subject on AppleInsider.com

Graphics Cards: If you play video games, are a serious or dedicated photo/image editor, motion graphics expert, or video editor, or you need to crunch intense visual data in medicine or science, then you probably already know how important it is to get a powerful graphics card (also often called video card or GPU). OS X has always relied on the power of modern graphics cards to provide a responsive, good-looking user experience. Snow Leopard taps your Mac’s graphics card more than ever. Snow Leopard supports the OpenCL language, making it easier for programmers to use power of your Mac’s graphics card for tasks that have little or nothing to do with graphics.

There is a difference between integrated graphics cards and dedicated graphics cards. Simply put, while integrated graphics are great for everyday computer tasks including some games, editing photos, and watching movies, graphics pros or gamers are going to prefer the more powerful dedicated graphics cards. Examples of integrated graphics cards on a Mac include the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M, Intel X3100, Intel GMA X3100, and Intel GMA 950.

If you have a newer Mac with an Nvidia GeForce 9400M chipset, Snow Leopard will uses your graphics card for HD video encoding and playback.

Bottom line, the more RAM on a graphics card, the better, and dedicated graphics are generally more powerful than integrated graphics cards.

Bus speed – Bus speed has traditionally been very important to a Mac’s overall speed. The bus is a subsystem that transfers data between computer components, such as from processor to the memory. The faster your Mac’s frontside bus, the more potential for speed your machine ultimately has. Common bus speeds in recent Macs are 667 MHz, 800 MHz and 1066 MHz. Faster is better. Apple has begun introducing a new “Direct Media Interface” (DMI) that connects between the processor and chipset in lieu of a traditional system bus. This is potentially much faster than a traditional frontside bus. DMI is only in the Mac Pro and some of the most recent Macs.

Hard Drive (sometimes called “storage”). Depending on your use, bigger is often better in this case. However, speed is important too. Most desktop Macs have 7200 RPM drives, while notebooks have 5400 RPM drives. The faster your drive, the faster your Mac’s processor can access and save data to it. The cost of hard drives is quite low, and installing a new drive is a popular post-purchase upgrade. However, it’s not as easy to install a new drive in newer Macs. Most people prefer to pay a tech do this upgrade. It’s best to get the biggest drive in place the first time around.

Other considerations:

OS and Applications Snow Leopard is the fastest version of Mac OS X. It’s a 64-bit system that can take advantage of the 64-bit Intel processors released in the past few years. If you’re using a 64-bit software on a 64-bit system powered by a 64-bit operating system, the potential for taking advantage of RAM and full processor power would be incredible. Unfortunately, there aren’t yet many full 64-bit apps. By this time next year, this will be completely different. 64-bit support and the ability to run Snow Leopard is another reason not to buy a G3, G4 or G5.

Monitor size, Coating, and Technology – If you’re buying an iMac or Apple notebook, you also have to compare monitors. The current iMacs have brilliant backlit LED monitors, which are brighter, crisper, and more energy efficient than previous models. On the other hand, some people find the HD displays to be too crisp, and prefer the softer LCD’s we’re all accustomed to. Finally, there are people who prefer to buy an older iMac or notebook with a matte display, rather than the glossy display.

Keyboard, mouse, or trackpad. – If you’re comparing a new iMac to a previous generation model, don’t forget that the newest iMacs come with the Magic Mouse, which people seem to prefer to the Mighty Mouse. On the other hand, all iMacs now come with the short, non-numeric Apple keyboard, which many people do prefer. Likewise, all new Apple notebooks have the large, buttonless multitouch trackpad. Previous machines had a trackpad with one button, which might be preferable to some people. Of course you can always use an external mouse with a notebook, and you can always buy a different brand keyboard and mouse to accompany your iMac.

Ports, such as FireWire and Mini DisplayPort, etc. – Don’t forget, the first generation of aluminum MacBooks lacked FireWire ports, as does the current white unibody MacBook.

Useful websites for researching Mac benchmarks:

BareFeats is the king of all Mac benchmarking sites. Not only are they often the first to post detailed benchmarking results, they’re not afraid of making recommendations on which model offers the best-bang-for-the-buck.

Mactracker is a great little app that will show you the maximum RAM for every Mac.

Macrumors.com Mac Guides

Macworld.com also offers fast, easy to understand benchmarking results. I often check reviews there before I buy.

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