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July 30, 2013 9:38 AM   Subscribe

I want to buy a new Mac to replace my 2008 Macbook, but I'm overwhelmed by the options. What will best fit my needs?

My 2008 Macbook has served me well, but it's getting slower by the day and takes forever to boot up. It's also unable to handle the demands of my new job, which involves analyzing and editing large tables of Excel data. I'm also about to enter my final year of grad school, and even Word causes my laptop to lag like crazy. I think it's time for a replacement.

At work, I have a year-old Toshiba laptop with this Dell 21.5" monitor. It works really well, and I definitely want a second monitor at home. But I want to stick with a Mac.

My priorities are:
- Able to run Excel extraordinarily well.
- Plays nice with a second monitor (if a laptop).
- Won't slow down with a bunch of programs open (lots of Chrome tabs, Excel, Word, Evernote, GoTo Meeting, Trillian).

I don't really care about:
- Portability. I love the look of the Macbook Air, but I use my iPad in class and don't really leave the house with my laptop.

I'm considering:
- 13.3" Macbook Air with a second monitor
- iMac
- Mac Mini with a monitor

So what's the most cost-effective option for me to get what I want? And any recommendations for a monitor, if I go an non-iMac route?
posted by anotheraccount to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Have you upgraded the internal drive to an SSD yet?

You could get another year or two out of it if it's otherwise in good shape.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:39 AM on July 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you really never leave the house with a laptop (and you should consider that you might if you had one as portable as the Air), and never use it on the couch, etc, the Mini + monitor is the best deal. The guts of the Mini are about on par with the iMac, and I think you can still easily upgrade the RAM on them.

That said, having the all-in-one package of the iMac is pretty excellent if aesthetics/simplicity are important to you. The new model is sharp (literally and figuratively).

If it were me, I'd do the MBA just for the flexibility, knowing that it's not quite as speedy as the desktop options.
posted by supercres at 9:42 AM on July 30, 2013

If you don't care about portability, you want an iMac. Mac Minis are woefully underpowered. Macbook Airs are awesome if you want a portable machine, but if you don't, get the iMac.
posted by Nelson at 9:43 AM on July 30, 2013

supercres: "If it were me, I'd do the MBA just for the flexibility, knowing that it's not quite as speedy as the desktop options."

Just wanted to point out that while the raw processing power of the MBA is less than the iMac, the SSD in the new MBA has switched over to the PCIe interface from the SATA interface and it's insanely fast. Here are some speeds for the new interface:

2013 MacBook Air SSD (Samsung) Peak Sequential Read Performance = 793.831 MB/s
2013 MacBook Air SSD (Samsung) Peak Sequential Write Performance = 767.488 MB/s

Whereas the 2012 SSD was:
2012 MacBook Air SSD (Samsung) Peak Sequential Read Performance = 407.5 MB/s
2012 MacBook Air SSD (Samsung) Peak Sequential Write Performance = 372.6 MB/s

The iMac, AFAIK, still uses the SATA interface since there hasn't been an update in the iMac for a while. There's a rumor of new iMacs coming (end of August? September?) that use the updated Haswell chipset that the MBA got in its last update (although the MBA's is supposedly underclocked to reduce heat/power drain) and perhaps they'll move to the PCIe interface for SSDs too, although one reason it was easy to move to the PCIe in the MBA is that all MBAs have SSDs but some iMac users want the option of larger capacity SATA spinning hard drives. Also, the current 21.5" iMac uses 5400rpm hard drives if you don't pay to upgrade to SSD or the 27" iMac, making the speed gap even greater.
posted by bluecore at 9:55 AM on July 30, 2013

What's your budget? Cost-effective means different things to different people - for example, a 2008 Macbook Pro looks like it still fetches $400+ on eBay. So my recommendation is to follow the usual Mac advice: get a machine with a reasonable CPU, max out the RAM, and treat it as an investment that will last 5 years (as your last machine has done, and mine too).

You'll have to decide between a portable and a desktop - too many personal issues go into that big decision. Then look at the buyer's guide.

If you go desktop, definitely iMac - but it looks like they are due for an update.

If you go with a portable, resist the siren call of the Retina Macbook Pro and get a Macbook Air (just updated) with as much SSD stuffed in as you can afford.

(I have a Macbook Air myself, and I'm very happy with it.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:00 AM on July 30, 2013

The latest MacBook Air with the educational discount!
posted by kenchie at 10:02 AM on July 30, 2013

iMacs are pretty nice until one breaks and you have to lug this giant, fragile thing into a store to get it fixed. Something to keep in mind. I would do the Air, refurb if possible.
posted by curious nu at 10:18 AM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maxing out the RAM, putting in an SSD, and reinstalling MacOS from scratch on your existing MacBook would probably fix all of your problems. Excel and Word shouldn't tax even a five-year-old MacBook, even with very large documents.
posted by zsazsa at 10:30 AM on July 30, 2013

Literally any current mac will meet your requirements just fine, and then some.

My 2008 Mac Pro died recently so I bought an almost-bottom-of-the-range Mac Mini -- I did spring for the fusion drive and extra RAM, but otherwise I pinched pennies all the way -- which was intended to be just a stopgap placeholder until the new Mac Pro was available. At this point I'm not sure I'll even bother to get a new Pro; the mini is perfectly sufficient.

If you already had a monitor I'd say get a mini for sure, but in your case the iMac would probably be the least expensive way to go.
posted by ook at 10:39 AM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd go with a souped up MacBook Pro over the Air if portability isn't a concern. It's far more cost-effective and powerful.
posted by General Malaise at 10:46 AM on July 30, 2013

As for the monitor issue, your Macbook will have either Displayport or Thunderbolt connectors. In terms of the physical connector, they are the same thing, so an adapter that supports Displayport is what you need (for the monitor alone). Displayport can be converted to HDMI or DVI with a small adapter, or the conversion can go on inside a cable. (I buy my cables at, and am not affiliated with, for this sort of thing-- you don't have to pay the Apple premium here.) Point being your monitor will need to be DVI or HDMI; a VGA monitor (which is analog, instead of digital) isn't really going to cut the mustard here. With HDMI, that means TVs are an option; Displayport->HDMI will send sound to a TV with speakers as well.

Thunderbolt can carry high-speed data and power in addition to all of the above, so a thunderbolt-specific monitor (which will be $$$) can also support extra things like USB and FireWire ports. It can be split into a total of 6 connected devices (just remember that those devices, if not bringing their own power to the game, will be taking some of Thunderbolt's power) using a thunderbolt hub.

But it's best to go with a DVI or HDMI monitor at this point; spend around $150 and get something at least 22"
posted by Sunburnt at 10:46 AM on July 30, 2013

I think the most cost-effective solution is to upgrade your current machine with maxed-out RAM and an SSD drive. My early-2008 MacBook Pro got a new lease on life as soon as the SSD was in. Seriously.

From there, I think you should wait a couple of months until the new Haswell-powered MacBooks and Mac Minis come out (most likely october-november) and reevaluate your needs. The MacBook Airs just got Haswell processors and are quite a bit more battery and energy efficient. If you end up going with a laptop, the Haswell processors will provide much much better battery life.

As far as monitors, check out the monitors that Monoprice has started selling. They use the same panels that Apple uses (IPS panels manufactured by LG), but don't have very slick cases, multiple inputs or extra USB ports. Basically, if you want a great screen but don't mind skimping on the rest, you'll save about $400-$600.
posted by homesickness at 10:51 AM on July 30, 2013

Get the air. I have an iMac and I'd trade it for one in a second(and just get a monitor). The new ones have gonzo CPU power for what the specs would imply like 3x the 2008 MacBook. Mini DisplayPort>DVI, HDMI, and VGA adapters are less than $5 brandless on amazon and will work great with any monitor or screen/HDTV you want to use.

The main thing I got tired of over time with having a new laptop as a main machine was the small screen when I was staring at it for hours. But also the keyboard/trackpad. If you're going to go that route, you'll be fine with all the tasks you want to do on an external monitor, but I'd also pick up a keyboard and mouse(or the Magic Trackpad! It rules!)

I came in here originally to make an impassioned plea for the iMac, as I have one and a MacBook Pro and specifically love using it for "sit down and work" tasks like you're describing. But honestly, the new basic 21in iMac sucks. They gimped it with a terrible 5400rpm laptop hard drive like your current MacBook. If you spring for the fusion drive upgrade its worth it, but at that point I'd rather have an Air, one of the 27in monoprice monitors, and a Mini DisplayPort>dual link DVI adapter(do not buy that new from apple though, good god what a ripoff).

Air + monitor + keyboard and mouse is a superior setup to the basic iMac. It shouldn't be in concept, but it is. The Air is "seat of your pants" one of the fastest computers you can possibly buy at this point. Pretty much nothing lags ever.

Get the basic 13in one, add 8gb of ram.(you have to do that on their site when you order it, it's not possible later) Don't bother with anything else. The basic CPU and 128gb SSD are fine. Buy an external hard drive for dirt cheap on Black Friday if you need more space.
posted by emptythought at 10:51 AM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

As others have said, there's likely nothing wrong with your MacBook that a new SSD hard drive and a fresh install of OS X won't fix. But if you feel ready for a new machine...

You're overwhelmed by the options? You have a shortlist of three. Your needs are basic and the stock configurations of all of those options will more than suffice. Forget the jargon, the specifications, and build-to-order options. It comes down entirely to what form factor you want, which no one here can tell you.

Do you want a laptop? You seem to say pretty unambiguously in the question that you never take your current laptop of out of the house, so really you have a shortlist of two. If that's not true, and you actually do want a laptop then you're done. Get a MacBook Air.

If you want a desktop then given your computing needs are undemanding office tasks and you already have a monitor, get a mini.
posted by caek at 10:53 AM on July 30, 2013

Oh, and I didn't address it directly but don't bother upgrading the current MacBook. It's just not worth t anymore.

The main issue is the awful onboard graphics. Just using excel and lots of browser tabs? Doesn't matter, Mac OS uses a lot of GPU acceleration for the interface, and leans on it for stuff like YouTube. Anything it can't do that with it renders in software... Slowly. Even upgraded/highly specced MacBooks of that generation just feel sluggish now.

In addition to that, lion runs like crap on those machines. You can keep using snow leopard, but then you're stuck two versions back on the OS. It's like continuing to use windows XP.

8gb of DDR2 ram for one of those MacBooks is like $160 now. I'm not kidding. This is when 8gb of ddr3 for a newer machine is like $36.

Similarly, SSDs are only available in sata III now. That MacBook has SATA II. It'll make an improvement, but you're paying for a lot of SSD speed you can't use. And 128gb SSDs start at around $100

For $250, $160 of which is on ram that will be useless in anything newer, you're pouring quite a bit of money in to a machine that's only worth about that much. Maybe $300-350 if you get lucky on eBay and its in amazing condition. Ive seen that generation of MacBook go for $200 at an office closing sale though. It's on par with pouring a bunch in to major repairs on an older car that already has lots of miles.

What would be a sound move though is throwing the old MacBook on eBay or Craigslist and putting that cash towards a sweet monitor like the monoprice 27. This is often how I upgrade my systems. Not by actually upgrading them, but just "trading up" like that.
posted by emptythought at 11:04 AM on July 30, 2013


I buy Apple stuff and support it for a living.

The pain in the ass about the MacBook Air is the need to buy additional adapters if you want to connect to anything other than a USB or Thunderbolt device.

A better buy for your purposes would be a 13" MacBook Pro current generation.

If you buy a refurb from Apple, you get the same warranty that you do on a new product... but, honestly, several retailers have current generation MacBook Pros available at $200 discounts.

get a 256GB SSD i7 model. I'd call this the fastest mid priced option

don't buy extra memory from Apple, buy it from get an 8GB kit or a 16GB kit

buy an AppleCare warranty but do not buy it from Apple... you can buy one cheaper on eBay or from these guys yes, it's legit.

The current OS is Mountain Lion but you will likely get Mavericks OS X 10.9 for free when it ships this fall.

If you go this route... you are set for 3 solid years, likely 4 or 5... which is how it should be.

Also, Excel on the Mac is still a 98lb weakling compared to Excel on a PC... that may change with the 2014 release of Mac Office, but I'm not holding my breath.
posted by bobdow at 11:30 AM on July 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Air is limited to 8GB of RAM which isn't terrible, especially with an SSD, but still may end up cramping your style if you want to hold on to this Mac 5 years like you did the last one.

On the other hand, you might be able to squeeze a little more useful life out of your current Macbook with an SSD and RAM upgrade. How much RAM does it have now?

Whether or not you buy a new Mac or do upgrades to your old one, it is worth figuring out why your old one is slow. Slowness when switching apps or changing windows within a single app or shutting down is generally a result of too little physical memory which results in lots of swapping to and from disk. More RAM helps because less swapping is necessary. An SSD also helps because swapping is much faster. Slowness in updating large spreadsheets might be the reault of too little physical memory, or it could be the result of a an overtaxed CPU.

The way to investigate what is really going on is to fire up Activity Monitor and keep an eye on the charts at the bottom while you do some taxing tasks. On the memory chart, how big is the green wedge? If the green wedge is tiny or non-existant, how big is the blue wedge? Next to the graph, how much Swap does it say is used? If there is a decent sized (say 1/8th of the circle) green wedge and the swap used is say, 1GB or less, then there is a good chance that RAM isn't an issue. If there is very little green, but a generous amount of blue (1/4 or the pie or more) then RAM could be an issue. If there is very little green and blue and lots of red and yellow then RAM is certain to be one of your problems.

Once you've figured out whether and when RAM is causing a problem, you can shift your attention to the CPU graph. What happens to the graph when you do a slow operation in Excel? Do the bars come close to filling any of the charts or does it stay well under 50%? If it goes high then you may be CPU constrained, if it doesn't, then you probably don't have enough RAM.

Spend a little time exploring this. There is an option in activity monitor that lets you assign either a CPU or a memory graph to its dock icon, which is useful for getting a feel for thing while you work. Once you have a handle on the bottlenecks, you will be in a better position to make a buying decision.

I personally favor laptops since they are portable but work nicely in desktop mode. The Air is a great machine for a lot of people, but the memory limitations could be an issue for you. A 13" MacBook Pro is heavier, but can be upgraded later, can take up to 16GB of RAM and has a faster processor. It is also due for a refresh soon, so you might want to hold off a month or so.

Whatever you do, get at least 8GB of RAM, preferably 16, and get an SSD. With those constant, I think pretty much any of your options are going to feel similar for your use. The iMacs have the fastest CPUs with the most cores, and the Air has the slowest with the fewest cores, but I don't think that is going to be very apparent in Excel or Word or Chrome.
posted by Good Brain at 11:39 AM on July 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you want to stick with a portable/couch-usable option, I would pick a Macbook Pro over a Macbook Air. The Macbook Pro will be easier to upgrade with additional RAM a couple years down the line. Also, as Good Brain says, you may want to wait a couple months until the new Macbooks come out. Not necessarily because you want a new one, but because once the new line comes out, you may be able to get the older models for a bit cheaper, especially if you keep an eye on Apple's refurbished models page.
posted by yasaman at 1:16 PM on July 30, 2013

I got my first Macbook Air shortly after the 2013 updates. It's the bare bones model with 4GB RAM and a 128 GB SSD. I gotta tell ya, I'm not seeing any problem with the RAM, and I expect the Compressed Memory feature in Mavericks will only improve on this. For your stated uses, 4 GB is PLENTY.

The SSD is beyond nice. Silent and fast. The thrashing HD on my XP box at work is like nails on a chalkboard now. The storage isn't an issue, because I keep my photos and videos on my home machine and my music in the cloud.

Best of all? The iPad-like battery life.

You might consider flipping the MBA on a more regular basis, Macs still hold their value ridiculously well, and for the price of upgrading the RAM in a few years, you'd probably nearly be able to buy a new machine if you sold your old one.
posted by entropicamericana at 1:30 PM on July 30, 2013

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