Mac recommendations for a Mac luddite
November 7, 2018 2:44 PM   Subscribe

I want to purchase a Mac for Christmas but have zero familiarity with the lineup beyond pure hardware specs. Advice please!

My partner's 2012 iMac 27 suffered catastrophic meltdown recently and cannot be resurrected. So I've been saving with a target of AU$3000 to buy her a new Mac at Christmas.

If I could convince her back to the Wintel ecosystem this would be easy and I would be able to build her a nice machine myself and easily support it for half the cost. But she enjoys the Mac ecosystem so that's what it will have to be.

There are new Macbooks and Mac Minis recently released. There is last year's iMac 27". I will be purchasing her one device or another the week before Christmas.

She used her Mac primarily as a computer for doing computer stuff, but also design work in Photoshop and Illustrator. I understand that no matter which Mac I get her, it will be better than the one she had. But when it comes to price vs performance I am kind of out of my depth.

Given a budget of AU$3000/US$2200/CA$2800/EU1900, what would you purchase? For a) internetting and b) light-to-moderate Photoshop (e.g. wallpaper and fabric pattern design and logos).

(I understand the Mac Mini will require an external monitor so it would be more like AU$2200 budget for the device and $800 for a decent 28" 4K screen.)

Thank you!
posted by turbid dahlia to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
(And if a Macbook, I would get her a larger external monitor later in the New Year, so the device itself can consume the full budget at this stage.)

(Also, sorry, the real reason I am asking is because I am not familiar enough with how Photoshop runs in a Mac ecosystem to be able to determine an optimal configuration. If it was just internetting I'd just purchase the best Macbook Air and be done with it.)
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:45 PM on November 7, 2018

I have both a 13-inch Macbook Pro (for work) and a Macbook Air, and sometimes connect them to an old monitor (a Thunderbolt display I bought used for $50). Both are excellent, and can definitely handle Photoshop/Illustrator easily. I can't comment on the other devices out there, but I do think it's nice to have a laptop for portability, personally.
posted by pinochiette at 3:29 PM on November 7, 2018

With my own money and Apple's education pricing through my wife's employer, I spent 2228 USD last June on a (still current) 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display with the following configuration:
• 3.8GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 4.2GHz
• 8GB 2400MHz DDR4
• 2TB Fusion Drive
• Radeon Pro 580 with 8GB video memory

I also spent $169 on AppleCare, and $240 on third party RAM. With my own money, it's what I'd buy again. That's the best video card (Radeon Pro 580) and the cheapest processor I could get with it. I'm guessing with the vagaries of exchange rates and Apple's international market segmentation you won't be able to get it for the same price I paid, but if she's been happy with an older 27" iMac she'd be happy with the current one, even if you have to step down to the Radeon Pro 560 to be able to afford it. I'm not 100% sure I really needed the 580, but it was my own insurance policy against future OS features that require more hardware acceleration.
posted by fedward at 3:54 PM on November 7, 2018

Was going to post something along the lines of what feward just said - it also wouldn't be too terrible to go down next cheaper tier with the Radeon Pro 570 for your application.

Get the 2TB Fusion drive, even if you don't need the storage; the SSD portion is bigger and faster and this will make a pretty big difference in performance.
posted by doomsey at 3:55 PM on November 7, 2018

... I am not familiar enough with how Photoshop runs in a Mac ecosystem to be able to determine an optimal configuration.

Photoshop should run just fine on any of the new Macs. Unless she needs portability, I think a good option would be a new Mac Mini. You could also get her a nice monitor and she’d be set.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:03 PM on November 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

A 27-inch 5K Retina iMac - good storage, good screen and more than one connector!
A laptop or mini with an external monitor might work out cheaper but is going to be a mess of boxes and cables which is exactly the thing mac users hate.
posted by Lanark at 4:36 PM on November 7, 2018

Just in case it helps folks price out options, this link should take you to the Australian-currency Apple Store.
posted by FallibleHuman at 5:30 PM on November 7, 2018

The MacRumors buyer's guide is pretty solid, if you really want to not have buyer's remorse because they came out with an upgrade. I don't think there will be any surprise releases between now and Christmas.

It looks like the 2012 iMac had a discrete GPU. Do you know if this mattered for anything she wanted to do with Photoshop/Illustrator? If so, then you probably want another iMac.

Otherwise, personally, I'd go for either the Mini or Air depending on how nice it is to be able to sit on the couch. Both are good deals (relative to other Apple products) and should be fine with Photoshop.
posted by vogon_poet at 5:43 PM on November 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

There is a significant chance I’m missing something, but the AU Apple store doesn’t seem to offer configurable video cards on iMacs. Maybe it’s a supply chain thing?

iMac with the 3.8 GHz processor comes with a 2TB fusion drive and a Radeon 580 w/8 GB video RAM, but is about $500 beyond budget after tax.

Base config 3.5 GHz is $2999, but with a 1TB Fusion & a Radeon 575 w 4GB video RAM.

If you go to a 3.4 GHz processor & 4GB Radeon 570, you can add the 2TB fusion drive for $3019.

(8GB of RAM & 27-inch screen in all cases.)
posted by FallibleHuman at 5:53 PM on November 7, 2018

There is a significant chance I’m missing something, but the AU Apple store doesn’t seem to offer configurable video cards on iMacs. Maybe it’s a supply chain thing?

Sorry. They’re sold in a few configurations that may or may not be customizable beyond that, and the segmentation starts with the GPU. The base model doesn’t let you customize the CPU (a 3.4 GHz i5), the step up includes a nicer GPU and a slightly faster CPU (3.5 GHz i5) that you can upgrade (to a 4.2 GHz i7) when ordering, and the top model has the nicest GPU and the fastest stock CPU (3.8 GHz i5) with the same upgrade option available when ordering. You don’t so much upgrade the GPU as use it to select the model you want.
posted by fedward at 6:43 PM on November 7, 2018

Thank you for all the excellent insight and advice so far folks.

I personally would probably go for the iMac simply because a) portability doesn't matter to me and b) it would be a like-for-like replacement. And in this case, my partner was the one who decided she wanted the old iMac 27 when she bought it.

But I'm wondering if a Macbook of some description might be a better bet. Because a) she would have the ability to kick back on the couch with it and b) we could get an external monitor pretty much whenever and c) iMacs run hot and her study doesn't have air conditioning and it is summer in Australia.

It would be good to be able to straight up ask her but that kind of ruins the Christmas surprise element. I guess the Christmas surprise element could be taking her to the Apple Store and then giving her the money? The problem is she would refuse to take it. I don't even know any more. Maybe I'll just buy myself six Xboxes.

I will keep monitoring this thread with interest, thanks again.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:01 PM on November 7, 2018

If heat is a concern, portability is less of one, and she doesn't mind having a monitor separate from the computer, I'd heavily lean toward the Mac mini. The GPU on it is not great, but for Photoshop, that doesn't really matter. The 2018 models will run rings around her 2012 iMac, and in fact will stack up against nearly anything released since 2012 except the iMac Pro and 2013 Mac Pro, the former of which is out of your price range, and the latter of which is a terrible choice for your use case and budget (not to mention five years old and looking to be [finally] replaced next year). And the minis don't run terribly hot, being designed to be enclosed in a tiny little case.

For Photoshop, CPU and RAM are going to be the limiting factors in performance.

I'd consider what her storage needs will be, and whether she has an existing external drive that can be used. Storage (SSD) cannot be upgraded later on the 2018 Mac mini. (RAM can, though it requires a trip to an Apple store or authorized service provider.)

Recommended: Start with the base model (A$1,249), which is a low-tier CPU with 128GB of storage. Upgrade the CPU to the 3.2GHz 6‑core, and RAM to 16GB. This puts you at A$2,019. I'd really recommend this route because external storage is relatively cheap, and it puts your money toward upgrading the CPU, which will help Photoshop out.

If she must have more internal storage: Start with the higher base model (A$1,699), which is a mid-tier CPU with 256GB of storage. Upgrade the RAM to 16GB. That also puts you at A$2,019. Again, the trade-off is lower performance from the CPU.

I would, in the alternative, vote for the six Xboxes. As long as you have six TVs to go along with it, so you can play six games at the same time. Because why not?
posted by tubedogg at 7:36 PM on November 7, 2018

Just wanted to note that the new mac minis have user-replacable RAM, so you can avoid a bit of mac tax there, if you want to crank it to 64Gb or whatever.

(I know I'm considering my christmas present to myself with that in mind....)

(I don't photoshop. Personally I'd go a mini, but that's not really in answer to your requirements).
posted by pompomtom at 8:16 PM on November 7, 2018

She decided on a 27" iMac previously, so why would she want a MacBook now?
Expensive surprises are overrated.
My iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, 2017, SSD) doesn't run hot.
posted by Joleta at 8:43 PM on November 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

the new mac minis have user-replacable RAM

As I understand it, they have replaceable RAM — i.e. not soldered onto the board, as with their laptops and so on — but it’s not designed to be replaced by users. You need special tools (and maybe it would void the warranty if you didn’t get an authorised dealer to do it?). No doubt those tools and a guide for how to do it yourself will soon be available, but just to note that it’s not as straightforward as many of their past computers which have little access hatches so you can easily do it at home.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 1:15 AM on November 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would consider going with a MacBook Pro with an external monitor for the flexibility. I originally just had an iMac but upgraded to a MacBook Pro with better specs a few years later and it's so much more convenient being able to choose where to work. To maximise your budget, check out the Refurbished section of the Australian Apple site. I bought both my iMac and MacBook Pro from there with no issues at all.
posted by thecitymiddle at 7:11 AM on November 8, 2018

I don't have a strong opinion myself, but I just read uber Mac guy John Gruber's take, and he says this:

A lot of people are looking at the lineup as it stands today thinking they must be missing something, because it seems obvious that most people looking for a MacBook in this price range should buy the new MacBook Air. They’re not missing anything. The new Air is exactly that: the MacBook most people should buy, and exactly the MacBook everyone has been asking Apple to make.

Obviously, that's only looking at MacBooks, not iMacs, but he's really clear that the new Air is the way to go for almost everyone in the MacBook market.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:45 AM on November 8, 2018

As I understand it, they have replaceable RAM — i.e. not soldered onto the board, as with their laptops and so on — but it’s not designed to be replaced by users.

That is correct. It's doable by enthusiasts (i.e. technology-minded folks who understand the dangers of mucking about in heavily-engineered, low-fault-tolerance miniaturized computers) but I would not recommend it to someone who is not comfortable opening a computer up. Even then, it's not as simple as removing the bottom panel and swapping the RAM chips, and it requires specialized, though inexpensive, tools.
posted by tubedogg at 10:41 AM on November 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

My iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, 2017, SSD) doesn't run hot.

Nor does mine and it's the high-end config with an i7 and the R580. The fans aren't even audible above background noise unless you're pushing the GPU.
posted by nathan_teske at 2:38 PM on November 8, 2018

I don't like having to sit at a table to use a computer at home, rather than being on the couch or in bed, so I'd get a MBP or the new Retina MB Air. You can easily plug them into a monitor should you need more screen space.
posted by w0mbat at 5:39 PM on November 8, 2018

Computer chips have only gotten a little faster in the past 6 years but they definitely have gotten much more power efficient. So I can't say with certainty, but it would not be surprising at all if today's 27 inch iMac doesn't get nearly as hot as the 2012 model.
posted by vogon_poet at 3:24 PM on November 9, 2018

Thanks again everybody. I have decided on the entry-level iMac 2017 (3.4Ghz and Radeon 570) with 8GB of extra RAM (aftermarket) and AppleCare, for just a smidge over AU$3200.
posted by turbid dahlia at 1:20 PM on November 12, 2018

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