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Considering Speed and Size Options for Your New Mac

All the Macs that Apple sells are complete, usable systems, but some options are worth considering. Apple typically stocks three or four configurations for each model, and you can custom-order additional options. The following list walks you through the key decisions you’ll need to make when you order your new Mac.

  • Processor speed: Apple charges a little extra for the fastest versions of the Intel processors it uses. Computer reviews tend to dote on 10 percent differences in speed. Most users will hardly notice the difference. All Macs have more than one central processing unit (CPU) — the part of the chip that carries out program instructions. Most have two, but the highest-performance models have four or more. If you don’t know why you would need that much processing power, you probably don’t.

  • Random access memory: Random access memory (RAM) is where your computer temporarily stores information so that the CPU can quickly (in billionths of a second) access the data while it’s working on that data. Other terms used include DRAM and SDRAM. When your computer runs out of RAM, it writes data it hasn’t used in a while to the much slower hard drive.

    Adding memory reduces the need for these memory swaps and can typically improve performance more than getting a faster chip. The 1GB of RAM (one billion or so characters of information) that new Macs come with is adequate. Getting 2GB is better.

  • Hard drive size: Hard drives are where your computer retains information that you want to keep. If you plan to manage your photos, movies, and music on your Mac, or if you plan on running Windows, you’ll want lots of hard drive space. You can buy an external drive — and you’ll want one for Apple’s Time Machine backup feature — but it’s handy to have your main files in one place. On some models (the Xserve, the Mac Pro, and surprisingly, the low-end MacBook), adding a bigger drive is easy, but most models require a technician to install one. Bottom line: It’s worth spending a little more for a bigger hard drive, but save some money in your budget for an external unit, too.

  • SuperDrive, yes or no: The lowest-priced Macs in the mini and MacBook series come with combo drives. These drives can read CDs and DVDs, including playing movies, and can burn (write) recordable CDs, but they can’t burn DVDs. The next step up in price includes what Apple calls a SuperDrive, which does all the above and burns DVDs. If you plan to make movies on your Mac, you’ll want the SuperDrive. They’re also great for backups, because DVDs store much more data than CDs do.

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