What the best Apple laptops and desktops have

  • Powerful performance: All Apple laptop and desktop computers use Intel third-generation Core processors (or better) and are faster than ever before. The MacBook Air has already seen a further upgrade to fourth-generation Core processors, and all other Apple computers -- including the high-end but long-neglected Mac Pro -- should see upgrades by the end of the year as well.
  • Plenty of memory: All Macs come with at least 4 GB of memory (and some come with as much as 8 GB), but getting more will improve performance.
  • A large hard drive: Photo, music and video files take up a lot of space, and adding a larger hard drive when you configure a system is a worthwhile upgrade if you work with multimedia files. Apple's new 1 TB Fusion Drive can also add to overall system speed. Some Apple laptops have smaller but much faster SSDs. With those, you'll need to rely on cloud storage or an external drive for your larger, less-often-used files.
  • Discrete graphics are recommended for intensive tasks: Discrete graphics, which have their own dedicated memory, have better performance for gaming, video editing and other graphics tasks.
  • A sharp display: Apple has long drawn compliments for its display technology, and the Retina display found on some MacBook Pro models takes that to a whole new level.
  • Solid reliability: Apple's warranty -- especially when it comes to free phone support -- is not particularly generous, but that's offset by high build quality and good customer satisfaction as reported in large surveys.
  • Attractive design: From the ultra-thin MacBook Air laptop to the ultra-thin iMac, Apple has set a bar in the looks department that few other computer makers have been able to reach.
  • Reasonable value: Apple has sometimes been derided for the cost of its desktop and laptop computers, but reviewers are increasingly finding that when compared to equivalent Windows machines (in terms of build quality and performance), the cost disparity can sometimes be small or nonexistent. One exception is that upgrades can be notably more costly than with Windows-based PCs.

Know before you go

Are you Mac or PC? Reviewers and pundits hotly debate the relative value of a Macintosh versus a PC. Keep in mind that all Macs can run Windows (because they use Intel chips), though you'll need to go out and buy a copy of the Windows OS, since it does not ship with any Mac. However, the Mac OS will only run on a Macintosh computer, which makes the product line unique.

Are Mac products really less prone to viruses and other attacks? When it comes to security, most experts agree that PCs are more vulnerable to viruses and malware -- although Macs are by no means immune to these attacks, as evidenced by the proliferation of the Mac Defender malware in 2011 and by the Flashback Trojan, which infected an estimated 600,000 Mac computers in 2012. In 2010, CNET interviewed 32 computer-security experts and asked them to weigh in on the Mac vs. PC security debate. Most experts agreed that hackers and cyber criminals focus on PCs because there are more PCs out there. As Cambridge University professor Ross Anderson tells CNET: "They would far rather attack Windows PCs as there are lots more of them. So you are much less likely to be bothered by malware if you use a Mac, or run Linux on your PC."

How do you run Windows on a Mac? If you are considering using a Mac as a Windows computer, it will be much more expensive. You'll need to buy a full edition of Windows software (Est. $100 and up, depending on version), in addition to the cost of the computer. Apple does not offer Windows as a pre-installed option, but dealers might. Of course, running Windows on an Apple computer is cheaper than buying two computers. With a laptop it can be more convenient, too. If you're torn between a Mac and its seamless hardware/software integration and the universality of Windows, you can have your cake and eat it too, albeit at a steep price. Review tests indicate that Windows can run just as fast on a Mac as on a comparable PC.

Two programs, Apple's free Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop for Mac (Est. $80), allow Mac users to run Mac OS X and Windows on the same Apple computer. Boot Camp comes with the Mac OS, but it requires users to reboot to use Windows. As the name implies, Parallels allows you to use both operating systems at the same time. Reviewers say it is faster, too.

How much Mac do you need? With many but not all Windows machines, you can make changes after purchase if your needs change. In many cases that includes memory, hard drives, graphics and more. With a Mac that's a lot more difficult, and in some cases impossible. For example, memory is soldered directly to the motherboard in the MacBook Air. With that in mind, make sure you configure your system realistically from the start.

Is an extended warranty a good idea? All Apple computers come with one-year limited warranties. Apple provides free tech support only for 90 days, which is less than the industry norm of one year. Given the price of Apple computers, multiple reviewers say the 90-day limit is pretty stingy on Apple's part. You can buy an upgraded warranty from Apple (or another retailer) that extends tech support.

The AppleCare Protection Plan extends global repair coverage and free phone support for three years from the date of purchase, but it is also considered one of the most expensive extended warranties in the business. Retailers are likely to have lower prices on protection plans, giving you the added benefit of having two companies that may resolve your problems.

On the positive side, Apple does enjoy a favorable reputation in terms of build quality and service. According to one large consumer survey, Apple desktops have the lowest rates of repairs and serious problems compared to five Windows PC manufacturers. The same survey shows slightly more repairs needed for laptops, though Apple still edges out other makers in that regard. Apple also continuously tops the Readers' Choice awards at PCMag.com for both laptops and desktops.

Apple's tech support is also extraordinarily good, according to all surveys that we've seen. You can also get tech support at the in-store Genius Bar; you'll have to make a reservation for the Genius Bar, however. You can find a complete list of stores at Apple.com.

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