Tips For MacBook Buyers?
July 29, 2008 12:47 PM   Subscribe

What is the current word on buying a new Macbook? We're getting one for our daughter, who teaches 12th grade history. Shopping the online Apple Store, it all looks pretty straightforward. But there may be some tricks that we don't know.

Questions: I'd buy the AppleCare protection plan. Except for the price, is there any reason not to do so? Shall we spring for the larger hard drive? She will use it for the standard things including music and photos; no video. How about the Time Capsule for backups? What are we overlooking? What should we skip?
posted by partner to Computers & Internet (34 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Since she is an educator, she probably qualifies for the educational discount. This will knock at least $100 off the total.
posted by fatllama at 12:51 PM on July 29, 2008

I'd goose the RAM to 2 GB. I'd be inclined to skip the bigger hard drive. Time Capsule would be a really nice add-on.
posted by adamrice at 1:00 PM on July 29, 2008

Mac pundits generally recommend the Apple Care -especially for laptops.
Is she going to be doing school related stuff (keeping grades) on it? She definitely needs some kind of back up. Time Capsule is probably the easiest way. Never used one though.
posted by low affect at 1:00 PM on July 29, 2008

Apple is notorious, even among computer makers, of gouging you on upgrades. RAM and hard drives, the most likely useful upgrades, are easy and quick to replace by yourself, and are waaaaay cheaper from third parties.

The AppleCare is supposed to be great, but it's worth looking into eBay or Craigslist, or even third-parties on the net, they're much cheaper.

Also, there are rumblings that there will be a new Macbook introduced in September.

And last, if she qualifies for the Education discount, she'll probably also qualify for a free iPod along with the computer.
posted by mhz at 1:02 PM on July 29, 2008

The Apple store also sells refurbished Macbooks for $200 less. Buy Apple Care froma 3rd party. It'll be a little bit cheaper.
posted by jaimev at 1:04 PM on July 29, 2008

Best advice: Wait wait wait.

If she has to have it now, here's my 2ยข: the educator deal is pretty much the best you can do (I know, I'm an educator!) Apple doesn't do much discounting. IMO, the Time Machine is an excuse to hose you on accessories. I'd rather buy server space and back up my files. Or just get a flash drive. Unless paying the extra $300 or so is worth it to her to back up a few hours of mp3s. As for AppleCare, think of it this way: since your computer is covered for a year, you're really only paying for years 2 & 3. Most issues, if any, will spring up in year 1. Besides, what's the worst that could possibly happen? A toasted hard drive? In that case, it's still gonna cost about the same amount. AppleCare is a scam, and this is coming from an Apple loyalist (I've got a MacBook and an iPhone).

That having been said, this is all informed by what I use my computer for. It's hard to get into specifics without knowing everything about what she's going to use hers for.
posted by rjacobs at 1:05 PM on July 29, 2008

The educational discount is the main thing. Go to this page to get that going on.

Regarding the bigger hard drive... I found that I quickly outgrew the 80GB hard drive that came with mine (within 1.5 years of ownership), using it just for music and photos. However, the basic HD is now 120GB, which should probably be ample. If your daughter is at all handy and comfortable with a little tinkering, upgrading the hard drive herself is surprisingly easy. This would save money and you can even get a bigger HD than what's offered.

Also, rumor has it that the Macbook line is due for a refresh -- and maybe even a price drop -- as early as September. It may be worth waiting a few months to see what happens. See the Macrumors Buyer's Guide for more info.
posted by dondiego87 at 1:06 PM on July 29, 2008

My own experience with buying a Macbook last year was also pretty straightforward. I didn't get the AppleCare protection plan and have had no issues. (And if I do, I can just take it to the Apple Store.)

I would spring for the $1300 MacBook, 2 GB memory, 160 GB hard drive, no other extras. Time Capsule would be useful. You don't need iWork, as it is easily replaced by OpenOffice and other programs.

The reason I say go for the $1300 is because of the larger memory and DVD drive. If she uses the laptop for teaching then she'll probably find it useful to be able to easily compile and burn videos as supplemental teaching aids for her classes. If she needs more hard drive space then she can purchase an external HD, but it probably won't come to that.
posted by greenland at 1:10 PM on July 29, 2008

You can skip the Apple Care right now, if cost is a factor for you. As long as you buy Apple Care within your first year of ownership, you won't lose out on the additional two years of warranty coverage Apple Care offers.

You may have already discovered this, but there is a section of the online Apple store devoted to Education sales.

For your daughter's needs, the stock RAM configuration on the Macbooks will probably be OK, although the recommendation to double the RAM to 2 GB is good advice. OS X loves extra RAM and the Mac's performance will improve with extra RAM in it (this is particularly true on the Macbook, which lacks a dedicated graphics card. Work that would normally be handled by a graphics card will be handled by the Macbook's processor.) If you do decide to purchase extra RAM for the Macbook, do not purchase it through Apple. Purchase it through a third party such as Crucial.

I have a Macbook Pro (purchased a refurbished one through the online Apple Store and have no complaints at all) and a 500 GB Time Capsule. The wireless router was a necessity, since I didn't already have one of those, and the addition of backup storage space in in the same small package made it a no-brainer purchase for me.
posted by emelenjr at 1:10 PM on July 29, 2008

Time Capsule works as both a wireless external hard drive and a wireless router/access point. If your daughter doesn't need a router/access point and is okay with connecting her laptop to an external HD via USB to run backups, you can get a 500 GB external HD for less than 1/2 the cost of the Time Capsule. (I am using a Western Digital external HD with my imac and Time Machine is running backups just fine.)
posted by weebil at 1:20 PM on July 29, 2008

It has been said before, but I'll say it again.

You can save a bundle if you buy a system with the least amount of RAM, then bump it up after market. Apple's mark-up on RAM is obscene.

And not in a good way obscene.
posted by kbanas at 1:24 PM on July 29, 2008

The MacBook Pro line is certainly due for a refresh, very soon. But the regular black and white MacBooks could soldier on a bit longer, so I wouldn't bank on waiting for those.

On the Store: Apple's RAM and HD prices in the Store aren't as bad as they used to be, but yes compare. Adding RAM in a MacBook is ridiculously easy and takes 60 seconds. Of course, if you buy it low-RAM and add more later, you're more likely to end up with some useless DIMM to throw away.

On memory: Macs run the latest OSX fine with 1GB, but you really want 2GB. RAM is cheap these days, and it makes everything zippier.

On backups: Weebil nails this: you're fine with either Time Capsule (if she wants wireless everything) or an external drive (if she doesn't care about wifi). Time Capsule isn't so special, but it's a nice deal if she wants a wireless hub at the same time.

On Education prices: Students and educators can use a special version of the Store. You validate your way in using your Student ID number or your institution's access code or whatnot. The whole store works the same then, but the prices are different (lower).
posted by rokusan at 1:25 PM on July 29, 2008

Thanks for all the info! She's visiting us for a week and will be glad for the input. By the way, is there any anti-theft feature available?
posted by partner at 1:25 PM on July 29, 2008

Well, I wouldn't call AppleCare a scam, exactly, but it's important to note that you get a free warranty for a year, so you don't need to buy AppleCare right off the bat.

Waiting might not be a bad idea. There are rumors of major notebook upgrades in September.

Whatever you do DO NOT pay for faster hard drives, extra memory, etc. The price Apple charges for those things is phenomenally high. You can get extra memory though a third party like newegg for literally one third as much. The only upgrade that MIGHT be worthwhile is a Super Drive over a Combo Drive. Frankly, it's obscene that one can buy a laptop for a grand or more that doesn't include a dvd burner, but there you go.

Also, nthing the educator's discount. Barring that, go w/ a refurb. You can get a perfectly good computer for lots cheaper.
posted by nushustu at 1:25 PM on July 29, 2008

Regarding theft prevention...

Physical cables using the Kensington lock slot are great; I use one in my dorm room. You can get a combination or key lock.

You can also get software programs that act as alarms. Here, Lifehacker describes using iAlertU and other programs to take pictures of your laptop thieves and put them on a server where you can access them.

And there's always Computrace's "Lojack for Laptops" (not actually Lojack -- they're just licensing the name -- but it's the same idea).
posted by dondiego87 at 1:32 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

AppleCare is definitely something to consider for a big-money purchase like a laptop (well, may not be big money to some people, but a $2000 device that can be carried around in my backpack is big money to me).

In the first year of ownership I had only one issue with my MacBook (power cord had a fault, easily replaced). Of course immediately after the 1 year warranty was up, one of the keys died, so I needed a replacement keyboard. If not for AppleCare I would have had to pay that out myself, or suffer the annoyance of not being able to type an apostrophe without an external keyboard.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:33 PM on July 29, 2008

I want to argue *for* AppleCare. I had no problems with my (gen 1) Macbook the first two years. Shortly after, I had a logic board, hard drive, and heatsink fan all fail within a month. The repairs cost more than the laptop originally did (they showed me a receipt for the parts/labor prior to the AppleCare discount). I know how hard I am on laptops -- I had a Dell for four years with a full warranty, and made excellent use of it -- so it was totally worth the extra money to me.

Seconding buying 3rd party RAM and installing it yourself. It's incredibly easy to do and it's a lot cheaper. The guy in the Apple Store is the one who showed me where to find it.
posted by olinerd at 1:34 PM on July 29, 2008

As for anti-theft -- on the software side, there's Orbicule, which I've never tried but heard good things about.

Does she need an iPod, or a printer? I didn't -- so the last time I bought a Macbook, I did so and bought an iPod and a printer with the educational back-to-school deal and sold them on ebay, which meant that my laptop became $400-$500 cheaper than the retail price.
posted by suedehead at 1:35 PM on July 29, 2008

In lieu of Appelcare, Some credit cards will double your warranty if you buy the computer with them for free.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 1:46 PM on July 29, 2008

The bottom-end MacBook (as the line stands right now) is, I think, a false economy -- picking up on what nushustu said, the combo drive becomes a real pain if you want to burn DVDs or make DVD-sized backups. That pushes you towards the $1300 model or a custom order.

(Does your state have a sales tax holiday for things like this?)

Refurbs are great (my recently-bought MB is a refurb of last year's top model, sold for cheaper than this year's entry-level) but the education discount does much the same, pricewise; buying new means you get slightly better integrated graphics and more room to expand RAM (4GB instead of 2GB). Personally, I don't mind buying slightly older hardware -- buying new just means you'll be behind the times in six months anyway, and that only really matters if you're the kind of person who upgrades every year or so and sells the old model with some warranty coverage intact.

I'd say AppleCare is slightly less of an issue these days as the hard drive remains the main point of failure, and it's much easier to swap out a MacBook drive than an iBook's. Still, the good thing about AppleCare is that it tacitly extends to other Apple hardware in that same general line, so if you do buy the Time Capsule and it goes kaput, having AppleCare bumps you up the support hierarchy.
posted by holgate at 1:52 PM on July 29, 2008

Seconding @suedehead on getting all the freebies you can, then selling them off. Also seconding @holgate on trying to buy during a sales tax holiday. Finally, Nth-ing looking at refurbished models.
posted by dondiego87 at 2:03 PM on July 29, 2008

I have a refurbished MacBook Pro and have had no problems with it. Compare the refurbs to the educator discount and see what is best.

One thing no one told me (this is my first laptop) is how hot they can get. Be sure to get a cooling mat of some sort, especially if she plans to use it for long periods at a time.
posted by cherie72 at 2:08 PM on July 29, 2008

I have a refurbished Macbook and have had zero problems with it.

I concur with commenters above: buy more RAM and buy it from someone other than Apple. You can find good deals on ram at DealRAM, which I use all the time. I would recommend you get 4GB of RAM, if the model of Macbook you are buying will accept it (that is, all new models of Macbook, I believe, will accept it). It's cheap and it makes a difference, even for a basic user.
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:24 PM on July 29, 2008

The rumors are that apple will be switching the macbook line from plastic to aluminum in the near future. Of course, that may never happen. For someone that doesn't really need a new computer right now it might make sense to wait. I'm not a fan of the current plastic cases. But for someone that needs a computer now, I wouldn't let rumors stop me.

As said, get memory somewhere else.

As far as applecare, it's a shot in the dark if it's worth it. I haven't gotten it for my last two mac laptops and nothing has gone wrong outside of the first year. So I've saved 500 bucks, or half the price of the lower macbook. If something had gone wrong after 1 year and a day I might have a different opinion.
posted by justgary at 3:07 PM on July 29, 2008

"I'd buy the AppleCare protection plan. Except for the price, is there any reason not to do so?"

Check with your credit card company. I know that every item I buy with my American Express Gold Card automatically gets warranted for double the manufacturer's policy, and often with a more liberal eye toward covered failures. In the case of an Apple notebook, that's two years -- most of the AppleCare support period -- of coverage for free (or $35 if you consider the card fee as providing no other service). AppleCare does provide some technical support assistance, but as a technical user I don't consider that as having a monetary value to me.
posted by majick at 3:18 PM on July 29, 2008

I have bought Macs via the educational discount route since 1984 and have never bought nor needed Applecare; in fact I got in an argument with the Apple rep at the local CompUSA over whether or not it was a good deal; we were just browsing and he started trying to sell us Applecare before we even said we would buy a computer. The fact that they are pushing it so hard tells me it is a high-profit item. High profits for the company=poor value for the consumer. Using aftermarket RAM is not a bad idea for saving money, but only if you are comfortable getting inside the computer. Another potential money saver is to see if your state has a sales tax holiday for back to school shoppers. My state's (GA) is next weekend and computers and software up to $1500 are exempt. Have you thought about what software she will need?

If it is going to be her primary computer I would definitely get the biggest drive you can; I take a lot of photos and between them and everything else I have about 600 GB on my mac with 1 TB of hard drive space.
posted by TedW at 3:24 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Concerning the software she will need: Word is not included and the text editor is the only thing on board. She'll use Powerpoint and maybe Exel. So, that package is an extra $150 unless you all have other solutions.
posted by partner at 3:32 PM on July 29, 2008

"So, that package is an extra $150 unless you all have other solutions."

iWork is $80 direct from Apple without discounts, and has a serviceable word processor, a new but usable spreadsheet tool, and a presentation tool that makes PowerPoint look worthless. I'm sure it could be had more cheaply through educational channels.
posted by majick at 3:36 PM on July 29, 2008

There's also NeoOffice, which costs not a damn thing -- it's based on the free OpenOffice -- but it's a very Windows-like piece of software that some folks find uncomfortable to use. Can't beat that price, though!
posted by majick at 3:40 PM on July 29, 2008

Whether or not to buy the extended warranty depends in large part on how you expect the computer to be used. I take pretty good care of my machines and therefore never bother with buying an extended warranty. However, if you expect that the computer is in for some rough treatment (and if it ends up in a classroom, that sounds like a distinct possibility), it might be worth springing for it.

As for software, if you don't want to spend the money on Word, don't bother with a middle-of-the-road suite like iWork. There's a veritable plethora of free productivity software out there that works pretty well, certainly for most basic and intermediate uses.
posted by sinfony at 4:13 PM on July 29, 2008

There is an academic version of Office which is a little cheaper and if you are eligible for an upgrade that may be cheaper as well. For 150 dollars, though, you may already be quoting the academic edition price. I personally use Office for maximum compatibility with my work machine, where MS is the institutional standard.
posted by TedW at 4:33 PM on July 29, 2008

I take pretty good care of my machines and therefore never bother with buying an extended warranty.

Just so the OP isn't confused, rough use doesn't include dropping your macbook. Abuse of this type isn't covered.

Also, most of the problems I've seen on macbooks have had nothing to do with rough use. The biggest reason not to get applecare is that most of these type problems show up in the first year, when you have coverage anyway.

It should also be noted that even though you have a year of coverage, you only get a month of phone support without applecare. So you're taking it to the apple store.
posted by justgary at 5:04 PM on July 29, 2008

The educational discount on Applecare can't be beat, even by third party providers (confirmed by somebody who's worked many years in an Apple store). Buy it direct through the education store.
posted by calistasm at 6:39 PM on July 29, 2008

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