So Many Macs!
When people think about switching to a Mac, the available options can seem overwhelming. Is a Mac Mini a laptop? Do you need a Macbook Air, or the extra power of the Pro? What's an iMac? Which Mac is best for VoiceOver users? Do they all have the same features? Will your new Mac have the ports you need? The choice is far more complex than choosing between an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Below, I will try to explain the different options, and what each one has. This article may, of course, become outdated as Apple updates and supplements its Mac lineup, so always rely on the official Apple website and documentation for the final word on exactly what hardware features each type of Mac includes. That said, after you read this, you should have a good idea of which Mac(s) you want to investigate further. I also highly recommend Apple's own Mac comparison page. For most of the information in this article, I relied on Apple's Apple Store app for iOS.
As I said, all the technical information comes from the Apple Store app (not to be confused with the App Store), and Apple itself is always the final authority on all Mac information, so check with them if you have any question that something might have changed. I make no guarantee that any of the details in this article will always be accurate, and neither I nor AppleVis accept any responsibility for any mistaken orders or information you may receive if you base your purchasing off this article.
I will use words like ram, GhZ, processor, and so on in this article. If you don't have a clue what any of this means, this should help:
- Ram is where your computer stores information it needs right away or very often. For instance, as you're reading this webpage, the whole page is in your computer's ram, along with the web browser that's showing you the text. The more ram you have, the more stuff your computer can access immediately, and the smoother things will feel as you switch applications or work with large amounts of data. If all you do is web browsing, email, and some wordprocessing, you probably need 4 or 8 GB of ram. If you plan to run Windows through virtualization software like VMWare Fusion, 8GB of ram will give you a far better experience than 4GB will. Having 16GB is overkill for many users, but, if you can afford it, you can never have too much.
- MhZ/GhZ: these are just ways to measure how fast some computer parts are. All you really need to know is that the bigger the number, the faster things go, and that MhZ (megahertz) are a tenth the speed of GhZ (gigahertz). In this article, you can ignore the speed of the ram, since all Apple's computers run on ram of the same speed, and just concentrate on the processor numbers, which are all in GhZ.
- Drives: there are two major points about hard drives. First, flash is a very great deal faster than mechanical, but it tends to be more expensive. You will therefore find that flash storage tends to offer lower capacities than mechanical. Second, Fusion Drives offer the best of both worlds, putting information you use a lot in flash storage and leaving things you don't need as much, like movies or music you rarely play, on the (slower) mechanical portion of the drive. Essentially, Fusion is the best of both worlds, but tends to cost a little more and isn't available in Apple laptops due to its physical size.
- Bluetooth and wifi are both wireless technologies. Bluetooth lets you connect devices together, like a wireless keyboard or mouse to your computer. The current standard is 4.0 (also called Bluetooth Low Energy), and since all Macs have it, there's no need to factor bluetooth capability into your decision. Wifi is used primarily to go online. Like bluetooth, all Macs use the latest wifi technology (whose fancy name is 102.11AC, but don't ask why). The one exception is the current Mac Mini, but don't let it's slightly outdated wifi chip stop you from buying it; it will still perform just fine.
- A processor is the brain of the computer, performing the billions of calculations each second that drive everything your machine does. The more of these calculations it can do per second, the better. Roughly speaking, the numbers before "GhZ" indicate this, so a 1.3GhZ processor will not be as speedy as a 2.5GhZ one. Processors also have multiple "cores", meaning that there is more than one chip doing all this calculating. A dual core processor has two chips, for instance, and a quad core has four. Due to how computers work, and as confusing as this might sound, four cores aren't necessarily twice as fast as two. Only consider a quad core processor if you know that the programs you'll be using can take advantage of it - for web browsing and iTunes, a quad core is overkill and wouldn't give you your money's worth.
All Macs are being upgraded all the time. As of right now, every Mac discussed here will come with:
- Bluetooth 4.0
- 802.11AC wifi, except for the Mac Mini, which currently includes 802.11N
- USB III ports (backward-compatible with USB II), except the 2015 Retina Macbook
- the latest operating system (OS X 10.10 Yosemite)
- either straight flash storage, what Apple calls a Fusion drive (the hybrid mentioned in the "Terms" section), or (in some cases) a fully mechanical drive
- All Apple laptops include full flash storage while desktops use Fusion drives, optionally upgradeable to complete flash, or sometimes the older mechanical drives.
- 1600MhZ ram and the newest generation of Intel Core I5 or Core I7 processors, which start at dual core and can be upgraded to quad core versions. The exception is the 2015 Retina Macbook, which relies instead on an Intel Core M processor.
- every Mac that includes an SD card slot can support SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards
- access to free copies of Apple's productivity apps: Pages for wordprocessing, Keynote for powerpoint presentations, Numbers for spreadsheets, Garageband for recording and music editing, iPhoto for photo management, and iMovie for movie or slideshow creation, all fully accessible with VoiceOver.
- All of the pre-installed apps that come with OS X, such as Reminders, Calendar, Notes, Mail, Safari (for web browsing), and plenty more
All Mac desktops include the computer itself, and an optional keyboard and mouse/external trackpad. They don't come with speakers (though some include an internal speaker) or screens, and again, not all include even a keyboard. A desktop is meant to stay in one place, connected to peripherals, not to be carried around. Needless to say, desktops don't include batteries either, so they are useless unless connected to a power source. If you are looking for a Mac to bring to work, classes, or even around the house, look at the Macbook lines instead. The main advantage to Apple's desktops is that they are cheaper (the Mini) or way more powerful (the Pro) than a laptop. Many people find them useful as media machines, connected to a TV in a family room. Paired with a wireless keyboard, this setup lets you have an entire computer for everyone to use, and the connected TV is great for watching movies or playing games. A laptop can do this as well, but you'd need to hook it up every time you wanted to use it.
The Mini is a small machine, and is the entry-level Mac, as it is the cheapest one out there. It offers a good range of ports and jacks. If you need a media machine for the living room, or want a Mac and don't need a laptop, the Mac Mini is a good choice. As mentioned, it is a desktop, so you'll need to provide the keyboard, mouse, monitor, and other accessories. Please note that, on some Mac Mini models, using the device with no monitor can cause VoiceOver to lag rather badly. This is not true of all Minis, but a comprehensive list of affected models does not exist. Monitors are relatively cheap nowadays, so this is not a deal-breaker, but it is something to keep in mind if you were planning on simply not bothering with a screen. You can also get a little HDMI dongle that tricks the Mini into thinking there is a screen connected, letting you run your Mini with no screen and no performance degradation.
The Mini is shaped like a square; it is 7.7 inches (19.7 cm) on each side, 1.7 inches (3.6 cm) thick, and weighs in at around 2.7 pounds (1.22 kg). All the ports and jacks are on one side with all the other surfaces blank except for the Apple logo on one of the large faces, and the access port on the other. The power button is on the corner adjacent to the port for the power cable. The button is flush with the casing, making it hard to feel at first, but once you know where to look it is easy enough to find. The Mini also includes:
- 2.5GhZ Core I5 dual core processor, which you can upgrade all the way to a 2.6GhZ quad core Core I7
- 4, 8, or 16GB of ram
- a 500GB mechanical hard drive, 256 or 512GB flash storage, or 1TB or 2TB Fusion drive
- four USB III ports
- HDMI port
- SD card slot
- Thunderbolt port
- FireWire 800 port
- line-in and line-out (A.K.A. headphone) audio ports
- Gigabit ethernet port
- IR receiver
The Mac Pro (not to be confused with the Macbook Pro, which is a laptop) is the ultimate workhorse. It has dual graphics cards, insane amounts of processing power and ram, tons of storage and expansion options, and more. Honestly, unless you are working on heavy-duty applications (science modeling, intense graphics designing and rendering, demanding video games, and so on) this Mac will be overkill for you.
The Mac Pro is shaped like a cylinder. It is 9.9 inches (25.1 cm)tall, 6.6 inches (16.7 cm) in diameter, and 11 pounds (5kg). It's internals are, as stated, insanely powerful:
- 2.5GhZ 6-core Intel Xeon processor, which you can upgrade all the way up to a 3.0GhZ 8-core processor, or 2.7GhZ 12-core processor
- 16, 32, or 64GB of ram
- 256, 512, or 1024GB (1TB) flash storage
For ports, it boasts the following:
- four USB III ports
- six Thunderbolt II ports
- two Gigabit ethernet ports
- HDMI 1.4 Ultra HD port
- Combined Optical Digital Audio Output/Analog Line-out Minijack
- Headphone Jack with Headset Support
The iMac is an all-in-one computer. That is, it is a screen, either 21.5 inches or 27 inches, with the guts of the computer built into the back. It still needs a keyboard and mouse/trackpad, but it has speakers, a microphone, a camera, and (of course) a screen all built in. Both sizes include:
- 4 USB III ports
- SD card slot
- 2 Thunderbolt ports
- Gigabit ethernet
- Kensington security lock slot
The iMac's front is mostly screen. Above the display is the camera, and below that are the speakers. All ports and slots are located on the back panel. The power button is also on the back, near the left corner, and can be hard to feel as it is flush with the rest of the computer's casing.
The smaller iMac is 17.7 inches (45 cm) by 20.8 inches (52.8 cm), and has a 6.9-inch (17.5 cm) stand (the Mac is thinner than that, but I could not find an exact thickness). It weighs 12.5 pounds (5.68 kg), and has the following internals:
- 1.4GhZ Core I5 dual core, up to 3.1GhZ quad core Core I7 processor
- 8 or 16GB of ram
- 500GB or 1TB mechanical hard drive, or 256 or 512 flash, or 1TB Fusion drive
The 27-inch model is, of course, larger. It comes in two screen types: a standard display, and a super-high resolution 5K display. It measures 20.3 inches (51.6 cm) by 25.6 inches (65 cm) with an 8-inch (20.3 cm) stand, and weighs 21 pounds (9.54 kg). It also offers the ability to accept more powerful internals:
- 3.2GhZ quad core Core I5 processor
- 8, 16, or 32GB of ram (the 5K model starts with 16GB)
- 1TB or 3TB mechanical hard drive, 1TB or 3TB Fusion drive, or 256, 512, or 1024GB (1TB) flash drive
The Macbook lines are Apple's laptops, and there are three of them. The Macbook Air is the entry-level laptop, and is cheaper, lighter, and thinner than its big brother, the Macbook Pro. It is a perfectly capable machine, but offers less in the way of power and connections than does the Pro. Nestled between these two is the Macbook, released in April 2015. It has no official name, but to keep things simple, I'll call it the Retina Macbook in this article. It includes an Intel Core M processor and is therefore not as speedy as the Air or Pro, but it comes with 8GB of ram and 256GB of flash storage by default (twice the default configuration of the Air). It's big selling point is that it's smaller and lighter than the smallest Air, yet boasts a larger screen and keyboard while offering the same battery life.
All three include such standard features as a backlit keyboard, multi-touch trackpad, built-in camera and microphone, and, of course, a screen. As of the time of this writing, the Air's screen is not Retina (Apple's high-quality display) while the Pro's is. The Retina Macbook, obviously, has a Retina display. For blind users this is not a concern, but low-vision users may find the Retina display easier to see, especially when using screen magnification. If Retina is a factor for you, keep in mind that the Retina Macbook comes in 12-inch only, while the Pro comes in 13- or 15-inch flavors.
The keyboard layout on all Macbooks is identical to Apple's wireless keyboard. Specifically, there is only one set of VoiceOver keys (control and option), and that is on the left side of the spacebar. The layout of the bottom row of keys on an American English keyboard, from left to right, is:
function, control, option, command, space, command, option, arrow keys
You can use a utility like KeyRemap4Macbook to alter this arrangement if you like; many users find the availability of VoiceOver keys on the left side only to be limiting and frustrating when trying to perform certain tasks. It is something you get used to, but it can be quite a rude surprise, especially for those used to having an insert key for Windows screen readers on the right side of the keyboard or using the caps lock key as their screen reader key. It is worth mentioning that the trackpad includes a great many gestures for navigating and activating things, somewhat lessening the need to use the keyboard for everything.
There are two sizes of Air: an eleven-inch and a thirteen-inch. Both have the same internal options (graphics, processor, ram, and hard disk space). They even have the same keyboard; the extra space in the larger Air is taken up with aluminum around the keyboard, but most of the keys themselves are the exact same size no matter which model of Air you choose. Both also include a Thunderbolt port, two USB III ports (one on each side), a charging port that takes MagSafe II chargers, and a combination headphone/microphone jack. The main differences between the two sizes are:
- the eleven-inch model has a smaller top row of keys (escape, F1 through F12, and power) and arrow keys than the larger Air. Again, though, all other keys are the exact same size on both models.
- The thirteen-inch Air has a battery that lasts a few hours longer (twelve hours, compared to nine hours for the smaller Air).
- The thirteen-inch Air includes an SD card slot absent on the smaller Air.
Physically, the Air is very thin (0.11 inches, or 0.3 cm) along its front edge, where the screen meets the body. It slowly thickens as you move along the sides, and is thickest in the back (0.68 inches, or 1.7 cm). The eleven-inch version is 11.8 inches (30 cm) wide, and 7.56 inches (19.2 cm) deep, and weighs 2.38 pounds (1.08 kg). The thirteen-inch model is a bit larger, at 12.8 inches (32.5 cm) wide by 8.94 inches (22.7 cm), and 2.96 pounds (1.35 kg).
The left edge holds, from front to back, the headphone/microphone jack, a USB port, then the charging port. The right edge, again from front to back, holds the SD card slot (thirteen-inch only), the other USB port, then the Thunderbolt port. The power button is on the keyboard itself; it is the Eject key, which is the key in the top right corner, above Delete.
Again, both units are identical in terms of internals, except the battery and SD card slot. These internals include:
- 1.4GhZ Core I5 dual core processor, or 1.7GhZ Core I7 dual core processor
- 4 or 8GB of ram
- 128, 256, or 512GB of flash storage
This is Apple's newest addition to its laptop lineup. As mentioned above, it is the least powerful in terms of its processor, but it is also far and away the smallest and lightest laptop Apple makes. It sports just one port for charging or data, and a headphone/microphone jack. The port it includes is a USB C port, which is an emerging technology that lets a single port take on the roles of several. It can charge the battery; it can be used to drive external monitors; it can connect to hard drives; it can hook to printers; and plenty more. The only drawbacks are that there is just one port on the whole machine, and the USB C standard is (as of the time of this writing) so new that you'll need adapters for nearly everything. Today's world is so wireless, though, that Apple feels you can often get along without needing to plug in. From internet, to printers, to Continuity, to iTunes wifi sync, you may find you actually need a physical connection far less often than you think you do.
The internals of the Retina Macbook are as follows:
- 1.1GhZ Intel Core M processor, which can hit 2.4GhZ in turbo mode. You can bump this up to a 1.2GhZ processor, with turbo speeds of 2.9GhZ, before you buy.
- 8GB of ram, which you can double before you buy.
- 256GB solid-state drive, which you can double to 512GB before you buy.
The Pro is the most expensive, but most powerful, Apple laptop. Like the Air, it includes a camera and microphone, backlit keyboard, flash storage, and multi-touch trackpad. Unlike the Air, though, it has even more connectivity options, and it comes in thirteen- or fifteen-inch variants, no eleven-inch option at all. Unlike the Air, both sizes of the Pro have the same ports and slots:
- two USB III ports
- two Thunderbolt II ports
- an HDMI port
- combination headphone/microphone jack
- MagSafe II port for charging
Physically, the Pro has a more traditional shape. Instead of tapering like the Air, the Pro is the same height all the way around - 0.71 inches (1.8 cm). The thirteen-inch Pro is 12.35 inches (31.4 cm) by 8.62 inches (21.9 cm) and weighs 3.46 pounds (1.57 kg); the fifteen-inch is 14.13 inches (35.89 cm) by 9.73 inches (24.71 cm) and weighs 4.46 pounds (2.02 kg). On both models, the power button is the top right key, just like on the Macbook Air. If you have an older Macbook Pro, the power button is located above the right side of the keyboard, near the top right corner of the top panel. Find the top right key on the keyboard and feel toward the hinge for the screen, and you should find it. Like most Macs, it is flush with the metal around it.
As mentioned, the Pro is the beefier of the two laptop options. Here are the internals:
- 2.0 Core I7 dual core, or up to 2.6 Core I7 quad core processor
- 8 or 16GB of ram
- 256, 512, or 1024GB (1TB) flash storage
Which One is Best?
That's up to you. Here are some things to consider, though:
- If you'll be taking the computer with you, even occasionally, a laptop is better. Plus, laptops have everything built in, so there's no need to buy a screen, keyboard, or mouse/trackpad. However, Apple's laptops don't offer a great deal in the way of connection ports; if you'll need to plug in a lot of drives, cameras, printers, and so on, consider a desktop or a laptop with some kind of dock or hub.
- Desktops are cheaper, and if you need a machine for home (a home office, a media center in the living room, etc) then this might be a good option. Remember that you'll need to supply all necessary peripherals, and, in the case of a Mac Mini, you may need to hook up a monitor even if you can't actually see it.
- My Macbook Air runs more smoothly than my Mac Mini (which has a mechanical hard drive), despite having half the ram and a slower processor. If at all possible, choose a Mac with all flash storage. Fusion drives are a good option here, as they try to provide the extensive storage of a mechanical drive with the speed of a flash drive.
- VoiceOver is going to work the same across all Macs. MacBooks have the advantage of a built-in trackpad, letting you take advantage of the Trackpad Commander, but lack a number pad. Of course, you can connect most any third-party keyboard to any Mac if you really want the numpad.
- The Macbook Air has a better battery life than the Pro, and is smaller to boot. However, if you plan to run more intense apps, the Pro might work out better in the long run.
- If you plan on running Windows in a virtual machine, I strongly suggest that whichever Mac you go with includes 8GB of ram or more. Again, flash storage will help everything to run much faster as well.
- If you want a Macbook but also sometimes need a larger screen, you can always plug one in. Simply obtain a Mini Display Port adapter for your monitor's connection type, and plug that into your Macbook's Thunderbolt port (Macbook Pros can also use HDMI). The 27-inch iMac is also good for those needing a large screen; unfortunately, there is no iMac sized between the 21.5-inch and 27-inch models.
- MacBooks offer little in the way of audio jacks, only the headphone/microphone jack. Mac desktops provide more (a headphone jack as well as a microphone-in jack). If you still want a Macbook but need extra audio options, consider a USB sound card. Remember, too, that the microphone jack on Mac desktops needs a powered microphone; a standard 3.5mm unpowered mic will not work.
- MacBooks and iMacs all include a camera. While this is of less use to the blind, in general, remember that it can come in handy when redeeming iTunes gift cards, or video chatting to other people (you can get help with visual tasks, such as identifying items, from others via the camera).
- The keyboards on all Macbook models, Pro or Air, are about the same size. As mentioned above, the only difference is the shrunken top row and arrow keys on the eleven-inch Air, and even then these few smaller keys are no problem once you get used to them.
Hopefully this has given you a better idea of the Mac landscape. If you have questions, corrections, concerns, or anything else, please sound off in the comments. I'll do my best to keep this updated as Apple continues to update their products, so if you spot an inaccuracy, let me know. I've also not had personal experience with a Mac Pro or Retina Macbook, and limited experience with the Macbook Pro and iMac, so I was not able to describe those models in quite as much detail. As to the Mac Mini, mine is from 2011, and I am not sure how the newest ones have their ports arranged, so I didn't want to go into detail on that either.