What I hope to accomplish with this is to help and inform viewers on MACs and help them decide which MAC is best for them. PC users making the switch or considering a purchase should also find this useful as well as die-hard MAC enthusiasts.
WHAT WILL YOU USE IT FOR? By far the most important decision comes with the first question. Will you browse the web and do e-mail, chats? Or do you want to play 3D games and edit movies? Certain things to take into consideration with MAC's start with what you intend to use it for. As an example: My wife is BIG on cooking and has several cook books most of which have ear marks, highlighted areas and notes or additions pend in. She also cruises the web for recipes, prints them out and folds them up and into her books. Quite a mess really, especially when she's trying to cook 3 different items using 4 different books. So I purchased her an iMac G3. It's an All-in-one model and it fits perfectly on her countertop near the stove but tucked away in the corner. Now she has iTunes, DVD's and a custom piece of software that was written by me with all 8 genre's of her receipes in it. It's on-line so she doesn't have to run far to look something up and everything is right at hand, it's almost an essential piece of her kitchen puzzle now and completely unable to live without. I recearched the Mac's extensively when we switched formats from Developing for Windows PC's to Macs. And I'll share this with you and hope you not only see the light of a MAC in your future but save greif and frustration of trying to figure out which one is what you need.
First Things First: If you plan to use any particular software application ALWAYS check it's system requirements. Base your purchase on getting something a little bit better than what's required so your good for future updates. Any MAC without a PowerPC G series processor is worthless in today's high paced world... For most of us. They are still very good computers with TONS of use left.
Let's start with the Popular Formats: The All-In-One models consist of the iMac label in either G3, G4, G5 and the new Dual Core intel. Check the Bottom for Operating Systems and Devices.
iMac G3 : We can no longer recommend these machines for modern web work. They are still fantastic machines and can work today.
G3 Towers (Outdated): Good for surfing the web, e-mail, running NeoOffice (bit slow but it runs well), basic mac apps. They are more expandable than the iMac with more memory slots and PCI only expansion slots but lack any real power. Upgrades for these include a G4 proccesor up to 1.1ghz. Uses USB keyboard and mouse and regular SVGA monitor (same as a PC). Best buys on these models would be G3 350+ with 512mb ram and a 10gb drive. Pay no more than $60+shipping.
Recommend: Upgrade video card to GeForce 4 and Max ram with 7200rpm drive. PCI graphics cards only.
NOTE: G4 Macs were the fist and ONLY computers to be regulated by the U.S. Government on exports due to their micro processing power. They were the first "Supercomputers" at the time and are still considered by many "Super Computers".
eMac G4 (Good to Excellent): Once you get into G4 processor range your stepping up to some serious power. The E-mac gives you a 17" Flat Screen Studio Display monitor with TRUE FLAT Diamondtron tube (excellent) along with enough graphics power to edit home movies and run a number of applications. Built in Combo (CDRW/DVD) and SuperDrive (DVDRW+) drives expand there usefulness. Just a touch bigger than the iMac G3 model and with prices on Ebay only hitting lows of $100 we make this an Excellent Buy Rating. Watch the shipping charges as these units weigh in at 55lbs. Sellers as of 2009 have begun selling them with Free Shipping.
These models have a flaw in the 1.0,1.25 models. It's NOT Apple's flaw rather it's a manufacturing flaw that was encountered throughout the computer industry. Capacitors jut under the memory door with a "+" on them tend to go bad. They'll have a bulged appearance or you'll notice dried yellow gum around them (leaking issue). Once this happens the video on these models will not work internally and in most cases external monitors will be disabled as well. Apple had an extended recall on these models to fix the problem but by August of 2008 this warranty extension will be null and void for ALL models. Your best bet is to stay away from units that are bad, and get a serial # for the units prior to purchasing. Contact Apple and see if the repair has been performed or not. This would take you only 15mins but can save you HUNDREDS of dollars in the long run. The serial # is located on the optical drive door. Either pull it down or simply eject the CD tray and take a look.
G4 Towers (Ok to Excellent): The best bargains in the G4 towers (867mhz+) you'll find are the Mirror Finish models. These models can be upgraded to G4 1.8ghz processors for less than the price of similar equipped G4/G5's. Giving them Ferrari like performance. Cases are Clear/Silver and quite stylish. Pay no more than $125 for a basic equipped model, options like updated SuperDrives, More than 512mb Ram, HD's larger than 120gb mean this model was upgraded and is worth a bit more.
PCI graphics models are becoming a little long in the tooth for a tower based computer. We'll give them the go-ahead still but don't pay more than $45. Ram for these is getting pricey (1gb=$90) and they can only handle HD's smaller than 128gb total (Although 2 of them).
Gigabit models, so named because they have a 1000mb Ethernet port (still compatible with 10/100). These models are ADC compatible so you can use an ADC equipped Studio display with them. These models used the same case as the AGP but ran from G4 450 all the way up to 733mhz. They also came in Dual Processor configuration which when running OS X makes these machines SCREAM! Think double the power! Best bets in these models are to get Dual Processors with lots of ram. Expect to pay $150 on up for a Dual, $55-125 for a single. From here we move to Digital Audio versions. Think Gigabit models but with a new audio chip. Priced and performance the same of the Gigabit models. If your into Music production, go with this model or better.
From here up we end up with QuickSilver 2002, Mirror Doors, etc... Anything here on up could very well be deemed DESIRABLE! But again please note any software app you plan to run these MAC's meet the requirements. Our Developers in house used to run QuickSilver and Mirror Door models, some with Processor upgrades some without but none with less than 1gb of Ram, RECOMMEND. Expect to pay no less than $150 for a decent machine and don't buy without at least 512mb ram and a 40gb drive (Leopard will want 1gb and 80gb HD's). Also these models may have come standard with Super Drives (burn DVD's) and Combo Drives (read DVD's, Burn CD's only). Note the cases have silver or mirror fronts and the apple logo is grey not graphite.
G4 Cube: Far and above the most innovative and coolest design for a standalone computer. This design is just now getting copied by the PC market and even then there still twice the size. While bigger than the Mac Mini (MSRP $599) they tend to retain there value and hover around $150-250. So for economic sake we'll pass on the cube. There small, quite, cool, and fast but for twice the money you can get a Mac Mini that has A LOT more power, smaller, and just as quiet. Still there are those that think the Cube is COOL, and it is but from a $$$ standpoint there too pricey. Video card upgrades include PC based AGP slim card flashed to run on the Mac in nVidia 6200 with up to 256mb ram and G4 CPU upgrades up to 1.8ghz. If your into retro cool or want a real conversation piece this is it. Sold new for $1749 +. G4 CPU upgrades will add a cooling fan, otherwise the Cube's were convection cooled making them silent.
iMac G4: (Desirable-Good Buy) These models originally came in 700/800mhz models with 15" LCD displays. By far and even today are the most stylish and artistic Macs. Even at a glance you know it's a Mac and it looks great in any room/office! These machines used a different type of memory system for RAM. I would ask that you check apple's website for more information on these models as they changed quite a bit. Problem areas are in the 15" models. These were the first and had issues with the Drives, Drive doors (aesthetic only) and Screens. The biggest and expensive problem was the 15" screens. They develop brownouts or black spots and shadows. Once the screen is dead... You don't have much. Sure you can hook up an external monitor but then why did you buy it? Later models came with 17"/20" Wide screens and we'll give them an Excellent Buy rating. Find a good G4 iMac and expect to pay $120-400 depending on how it's equipped.
Mac Mini G4 edition: Released in 2004 these machines made a big impact on the computer world. So much power and capability in such a small and EXTREMELY efficient package. Apple released these as a two model lineup. 1.25/1.42 ghz models released first. 32mb of Video ram and standard 256mb of system ram. A 40gb 4200rpm drive was installed as default using an ATA133 interface. While OK for most it really tends to hamper the speed of these machines. 2nd revision of the Mini G4's came in at 1.33 and 1.5ghz (late 2005 non-announced release) (non-Intel 1.5 here). These upgraded the video to 64mb and the hard drives were upped a little (capacity only). Some of these later models shipped with 5400rpm hard drives for a slight speed increase. Combo's were standard and superdrives on the higher end models were optional if not standard. Superdrives were only 6x burn however and neither was Dual Layer compatible until late 2005. Downsides are the 1 ram slot and lack of Core Image capability. They consume about 5watts of power when idle, 25-32watts during normal operation, and max out at 85. DVI video output and they came with a DVI To VGA adapter to use any VGA monitor. Silent desktop with a SMALL form factor. Look for G4 Mini's with at least 512mb of ram and a superdrive. But also note Keyboards and mice were never shipped with any Mac Mini as they were designed for Mac owners who already have these parts. Starting at $200 for a decent upgradeable model to $350 for a maxed out Mini with 1gb and a Superdrive 1.5ghz model. Don't pay anymore because Intel mini's which are twice as fast and can handle twice the memory tend to start around $400. Upgrade the 2.5" IDE hard drive to a 5400.3 (seagate) or 7200rpm model for speed otherwise it will feel doggy with 1gb of ram.
G4 iMac/MacMini Interesting Side-Note: Motorla made the G4 CPU NOT like Intel/Amd/Via make theirs. They make ONE cpu then speed rate it and send these specifications to the manufactures. What this means is One CPU can be used for speeds 1.0ghz and 1.5ghz by merely changing the clock multiplier (PLL) and/or voltage. Apple used the 7447a (1.25/1.42) and 7447b (1.33 and 1.5ghz) CPU's from Motorola in the Mini, eMac and iMac G4 range. What's interesting to note is that these CPU's can actually run up to 1.83ghz without a problem and were rated by Motorola to run as fast as 2.0ghz. They also used a 5+2 pipeline which was extremely short. Intel's Pentium 4 was using 32-38 stage pipelines to achieve the 2.0-3.6ghz numbers. Shorter pipeline = faster performance. When run side by side in comparisons on Floating Point basic, multimedia encoding, digital transition times, etc... The PowerPC G4 cpu would beat the intels by nearly 2.4:1. Intel introduced Hyperthreading and this ratio was reduced only to 2.1:1 leaving the PowerPC with it's lower clock speed actually faster by more than 200%. The real interesting part here is overclocking these later G4 CPU's is not only safe but also supported by Motorola themselves. Mac Mini owners can safely overclock by 20-25% and iMac owners can overclock by as much as 30% without making changes to the cooling system. Those feeling really adventurous should know some people have overclocked their G4 mini's to 1.83ghz without problems but suffer from constant fan speeds (if your a PC users your already used to this) running to keep it cool. Artic Silver thermal paste and modified intel cpu coolers can be used for ultimate overclocking.
Overclocked G4 systems: These are rated as good-to-buy, see above. Watch out for WAY overclocking as the constant fan sound may get annoying after a while.
1.25ghz -> 1.42ghz : Ok
1.5ghz -> 1.73ghz : Ok
1.0ghz-> 1.25ghz : Ok
Out of this range (percentage wise) is not really a good thing.
G5's.... A REAL SUPERCOMPUTER! The G4 is technically the first Supercomputer but by today's standard this is POWER. Expect to pay a premium for these machines and better believe you'll get your money's worth. 64 Bit microprocessor, 8.6 gigabit bandwidth on the bus, multi channel pipelines that are short on the cpu's... It doesn't get any better than this! Single CPU models are bargains on Ebay ranging from $200-400. Duals still sell in the $350-700 range and Quads are well worth the $800+ they fetch.
Mhz and Speed and how PowerPC proccessors in a Mac compare to Intels: Think G3=Pentium 3, and up, except there's no Pentium 5? Well there we'll compare it to Itanium/Xeon... But even then any G5 is gonna feel twice as fast as an Itanium. Speedwise take a Mac speed and triple it, that's about what they compare to in the Intel world. (yes a G3 was available before a PIII and yes the G5 was available before Intels new 64bit multichannel processors... See the future? Get a Mac).
Mac Pro - Excellent Buy! Look for Quads below $1600.
CoreDuo or Core2Duo - What's the difference? Both have 2 CPU's on one chip (that's dual CORE NOT Dual Proccesors) however the "2" represents these cpu's run at 64bits, not 32. Double the channels the cpu can cycle through. Performance is about 20% faster with these chips compared to the CoreDuo models. CoreDuo's have a max 2gb Ram, Core2Duo's can handle 4gb.
Intel iMac's - Similar to their G5 counterparts HOWEVER 17" base models used On-Board graphics Intel GMA 950 chipset with 64mb of dedicated ram. Why is this important? Well some of the Quartz and Core image graphics systems Apple uses are NOT compatible with this chipset. So you may not have the wiz-bang graphics that other Mac's get. Still OS X compensates and understands this and turns parts of off as not to upset the system.
Operating Systems: Always go with the latest OS!
PowerPC G3 : 10.3.9 with 512mb ram will fly, 256mb is good.
10.4.11 : 500mhz+ with 16mb Video ram
PowerPC G4 : 10.4.11 with 512mb ram is good, 1gb makes it fly. It is useable with 256mb, however after 2-3 apps are open your gonna notice.
10.5.x requires a G4 867mhz or better however there are ways to get it on lower spec'd units so read on...
32mb Video is a minimum, 1gb ram is also considered good but 768mb will work well. 512mb of ram is required however once you open Web and Email your gonna notice a lag. The G4 was the last Mac that could run OS 9 (some not all).
Devices and RAM: ANY Usb Keyboard/Mouse will work on a Mac. All Mac's run USB keyboards and Mice. I would recommend shopping ebay for used mouse/keyboard combo if your unit does not come with one. However keep tabs on the cost as a USB keyboard and mouse can be purchased at most office stores together for less than $35. New Apple keyboards on their site run about $36 shipped and any USB mouse will do (go with at least a 2 button model or else you'll need to press "Control" and click to get a the equivalent of a right click).
Apple memory is NO DIFFERENT than PC memory: Apple's are not compatible with "cheap" versions of ram called High-Density. In fact high-density on a PC is a disaster waiting to happen. Stick to name brands and sellers willing to refund if it's not compatible. Sellers selling "Apple Ram" with high prices... Rip-offs. Dell, HP and IBM have the same tight controls on their Ram as Apple does, so if it's the same type your Mac uses and listed to be compatible with these PC's it should work in your Mac.
MAC's also respond faster and work faster with more ram. Double your Ram, triple your speed seems to be the case so always get more and watch the costs.
Intel Macs: We will have to create a whole NEW guide for this one... It can get long and intensive so please bear with us as we compile all our data together and write a nice, short informative buyers guide for these. But note, you can't go wrong with any. But always check Apple's store before purchasing on Ebay as you may find them not only cheaper but you'll get the updated model with free shipping.
Good luck and Happy Bidding!