Book Review: Take Control of Buying a Mac
by Adam C. Engst
There’s never a perfect time to buy a computer. If you wait a few more months, computers will be faster and cheaper than they are today. But the corollary to that piece of wisdom is that if you wait for the perfect time, you’ll never actually get around to buying a computer at all.
In the real world, all you can do is make the best choices from the options available. Budget is a factor of course, but you also need to appreciate what it is you want from a computer. The needs of graphic designers are not the same as those of journalists, students, or folks working out of a home office. This is where Adam Engst’s book ‘Take Control of Buying a Mac’ comes in; in a bit under a hundred pages he explains how to decide which of the various Mac models will best suit your needs.
Engst will be well known to Mac users as one of the authors of the popular TidBits mailing list. But he’s also an author of electronic books sold under the ‘Take Control’ banner. One of his most recent efforts is a book on buying a new Macintosh. As someone who’d written a similar book a few years back on buying a used Mac, this was a topic that immediately caught my attention.
The process of shopping for a new book is laid out in an impeccably clear manner, starting with the question of when to buy a new Mac, through choosing which model best suits your needs, then covering the best ways to buy a new Mac, and finally the ancillary topics such as accessories and migration of old files onto your new computer.
Starting with the ‘when to buy a Macintosh’ question, Engst makes it clear that this is often more about ‘wanting’ to buy a new Mac rather than about ‘needing’ a new Mac. Now we’re in the middle of an economic downturn, that’s particularly sage advice. Some of the advice Engst offers with regard to buying new computers is that same advice I offer about shopping for used Macs as well. In particular, while upgrades to an older Mac can be good value, you need to balance their cost with the price of a whole new machine. Adding memory for example is usually a very sound investment and frequently helps to remove bottlenecks, but the financial argument for adding a new processor or accelerator is often not that strong.
But where Engst’s experience of the Mac world really comes into play is with regard to timing. Apple have a somewhat predictable approach to releasing new models and updating existing ones. In part, they time product releases to match with annual events (such as major trade shows) where they can get the most free publicity. Other times in the year tend to be rather fallow, with few, if any, major product launches. By looking over the table presented in this chapter, and then reading the relevant notes, the potential Mac purchaser can try to time his or her purchases to best effect.
Engst also explains Apple’s fairly consistent pattern of updates within each model of computers. While not a rock solid pattern in terms of years, there’s usually a set number of incremental updates with each Macintosh line. Buy a Mac early on and you get the benefit of lots of new features and more performance, but you’ll pay a premium. Buy a Mac from the last update to its series and you’ll pick up a bargain, but expect the series to be dropped in a few months, and replaced by something dramatically better in terms of features and performance. Engst gives his arguments for shopping at each stage in the production cycle of a Macintosh, leaving it to the reader to decide what’s best for them.
The section of which Mac to buy is relatively straightforward given that Apple only produce a small handful of machines. It’s essentially a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of portable versus desktop Macs, and then a close examination of what sets the ‘pro’ models apart from the ‘consumer’ models. There’s also a commentary on those oddball models, the Mac Mini and the MacBook Air. Because they don’t fit into the standard Apple pro/consumer product matrix, they’re difficult machines to pigeonhole, and Engst makes clear that while they might be the right machines for some users, they aren’t for everyone.
The chapter on how to buy a Macintosh isn’t particularly exciting. It’s likely to be most useful to those who honestly have no idea about how to buy a computer. Anyone else will likely skim through this chapter. There are a few useful nuggets of information, and in particular I agree with Engst’s warnings about buying online from individuals, such as through eBay.
To some degree the 4-page chapter on accessories could be seen as filler. But it’s harmless filler. The same can be said about the next-but-one chapter on how to dispose of your old Macintosh. By contrast, the chapter on migrating to a new computer is distinctly useful, and will be appreciated by at least a subset of potential readers. The Migration Assistant normally takes a lot of the work out of moving between computers, but some combinations of hardware can’t be connected using the necessary FireWire cable, so alternative strategies will be required. Engst outlines these here, pointing out all the important folders and files you’ll need to copy from the old machine to the new.
The ‘Take Control’ series of electronic books makes much use of hyperlinks, both to connect to web pages as well as to quickly hop between sections within the book itself. On the other hand, there are no pictures (except, oddly, of the author) so while the format is very easy to read, it’s also a bit dry.
Overall, it’s a difficult book to fault for $10. There’s little that can’t be gleaned from web pages and Mac forums elsewhere, but having all the information edited, hyperlinked and put together in neatly presented chapters makes all the difference. Probably not an essential purchase for the serious Mac-head, but a useful book for anyone a rung or two down the enthusiasm ladder, working from home or managing a small, Mac-oriented office.
© Neale Monks