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TUAW's Holiday Gift Guide: Which Mac should you buy?

Welcome to the TUAW Holiday Gift Guide! We've sorted the treasure from the junk and are serving up suggestions to make your holiday gift-giving a little easier.

When you're an alpha Mac geek, you can expect a common Christmas greeting from friends and relatives each and every year. It goes something like this: "My son/daughter/mom/dad/wife wants a new Mac for Christmas -- what should I get them?"

When I hear this question, if I'm lucky, the person asking the question has given me some other hints. For example, a client asked me last week about a new Mac for her kids, and she gave me several criteria -- it would be nice if it was fairly inexpensive, lasted about 4 years and worked for her son, who dabbles with Adobe Creative Suite and GarageBand. My solution, in that case, was to recommend a base 21.5" iMac, which at US$1199, comes with 4GB of RAM, a 3.06 GHz Intel Core i3 dual-core processor and a 500GB hard drive. That should last for more than 4 years of good service. It also has enough RAM to make Adobe CS at least slightly happy and a big enough hard drive to store a lot of songs.

But often I don't get that extra information from friends or clients who are asking about which Mac to buy. For those folks, I have a set of guidelines that I update annually based on the type of recipient. To see my 2010 edition of the "Which Mac should you buy?" guide, click the Read More link below and get ready to run to the Apple Store to buy your gift.

For each type of gift recipient, I've tried to provide the least-cost suggestion if at all possible. If you have a big budget, feel free to buy something that's much more expensive and capable. One final thing: remember to ask the recipient what they're going to use their computer for and how long they want to be able to use it. Answers to those questions should help you pinpoint what would be the best Mac to purchase. If they want a long-lasting gift, it may be worth your while to shell out some extra money for a Mac that will still be useful 4 or 5 years down the road. Also remember that in some cases, the "best Mac" may not be a Mac at all, but an iPad. If someone wants a "computer" for just doing Web surfing, minor game playing and email, then an iPad may do the trick.

Here we go:

Little Kids -- Here's one situation where I highly recommend buying a used Mac. You can get 'em at any number of outlets, both locally (in most major cities) and online. Why used? Let's talk about the client of mine whose children decided to write (with Sharpies) on the screen of her new office iMac when she let them use it ....

However, don't buy something that's too old, too complicated or too easy to drop. A good idea here would be any Intel iMac built after 2006. Why not a PowerPC G5 iMac? If you want to be able to run the latest game and educational software, forget about the PowerPC. When the Mac App Store appears next month, you'll want to be able to search for new software for the little ones, but it's not going to happen on a G5 or older iMac. Laptops are too easy for little hands to drop, so stay with a desktop machine.

Teens -- Once again, this is an area where you might want to consider getting a used or refurbished Mac. A parent will know best if the child is good about taking care of personal belongings and deserves a new machine. Teens seek privacy and will appreciate the portability of an Intel MacBook so that they can take it away from the prying eyes of siblings and their dreaded parents.

Why a MacBook and not a more expensive MacBook Pro or MacBook Air? That gets back to the idea of taking care of possessions. A client of mine had a daughter whose expensive MacBook Pro kept having issues. She figured out why when she saw her daughter toss the MBP onto her bed. A new MacBook can be had for $999, and refurbished or used MacBooks cost much less.

Kids Sharing A Mac -- No problems choosing here. The 21.5" Intel iMac is a perfect computer for sharing by a set of kids. The base model runs around $1199, and it comes with a 3.06 GHz Intel Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM. That'll last for a while and is perfect for a lot of different use cases: using iTunes or any of the iLife apps, doing homework and running games.

College Student -- It depends on what the student is studying in college, and whether or not they'll have a need to run Windows apps in a virtual machine on occasion. For most of the liberal arts students out there, a MacBook or MacBook Air should fit the bill. For engineering or scientific students, look at a loaded MacBook Pro to give them the power to run CPU-intensive virtual machines or number-crunching apps. Regardless of the type of studies the student will be engaged in, portability is a necessity.

Senior Citizen -- Age doesn't make a huge difference, unless your gift recipient has never used a computer before. In that case, ask them what they'll be using the computer for, as an iPad may be much more appropriate and less expensive. However, if your aged friend or relative is a frequent traveler, a rabid photographer or a recent convert from the Windows world, use some of the other recommendations that we list here. Just because they're old doesn't mean they're not going to be pushing the limits of the hardware.

Tentative Switcher -- Do you have a friend or relative who is a Windows user thinking about switching to the Mac platform? Make life easy on them. They can keep their old keyboard, mouse and monitor and attach them all to a new Mac mini. For $699, they're getting a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 320GB HD. If they regularly run applications that chew up a lot of RAM, they can easily double the 2GB for only $100. If at some other point they decide to go with another, more capable Mac, they can keep the mini as a media Mac or headless server.

Switcher -- If your gift recipient is moving over to the Mac without hesitation, but occasionally might need to run Windows, then I suggest that you get them a Mac that will work well with a virtual machine (VMware, Parallels, VirtualBox). What's good for virtual machines? Any Mac that has a) a fast processor, b) a lot of RAM and c) a good-sized hard drive. If their needs are driven by portability, then a MacBook Pro is probably best. For desktop use, consider an iMac.

Fashionista -- Have someone on your list for whom style is everything? All I have to say in that case is 11" MacBook Air. It's small, extremely capable and oozes style. Throw in a WaterField Designs Muzetto leather bag, and you'll have a very happy gift recipient on your hands.

Musician -- For the musician in your life, you'll want to get them a Mac that is portable for taking to gigs, yet powerful enough to drive even the most sophisticated music apps. A 13" or 15" MacBook Pro is a great pick for a budding or professional musician. The MBPs run anything from a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo on the base 13" model ($1199) up to a 2.8 GHz Intel Core i7 on the top end 15" model, and come with a minimum of 4GB of RAM. The MacBook Pro line features FireWire 800 and dual USB ports for plugging in peripherals, which could come in handy for items like the M-Audio ProjectMix I/O or an Apogee Duet FireWire Audio Interface.

Designer / Hacker / Developer -- All of these types of people take their Macs to the max. They usually run apps that peg the CPU usage at 100 percent, and they love to hear the sounds of fans kicking in. What do you get for the professional or advanced amateur designer, hacker or developer? Get 'em the top of the line. Either a 17" MacBook Pro or Mac Pro will feed the need for power for one of these people.

If they want portability, the 17" MacBook Pro is luggable and astoundingly powerful, with a gorgeous and spacious screen. It starts at $2299 with a 2.53 GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a half-terabyte of disk space, and climbs to $4399 for the 2.8 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a half-terabyte SSD.

The true professional's tool, however, is the awe-inspiring Mac Pro. Starting at $2,499 (without keyboard, mouse or monitor) for a quad-core Intel Xeon "Nahalem"-powered Mac Pro, 3GB of RAM and a 1TB HD, the costs can climb the heights up to over $14,000 for a 12-core Mac Pro with twin 2.93 GHz Intel Xeon "Westmere" processors, 32GB of DDR3 ECC SDRAM, a 512GB SSD boot drive, three 2TB hard drives, dual SuperDrives, dual ATI Radeon 5770 graphics cards and a pair of 27" Apple Cinema Displays.

Shelling out that kind of money for a gift means you have deep pockets and a big heart.

Couch Potato and Casual Surfer -- This person loves using a computer while doing something else, like watching TV or hanging out in the back yard. They're not going to be writing long posts or reports, they won't be editing photos or videos, but for the most part, they'll be visiting their favorite web sites and answering emails.

First, consider whether or not an iPad may be the better choice for this person. They might be much happier with a somewhat limited device that fulfills their needs instead of a computer that does much more than they'll ever take advantage of.

If it is a Mac that they need, then look at either the MacBook or 11" MacBook Air. Why? Portability and price. Both are perfect for using on the couch or in bed, and the price for the base models is perfect -- $999.

Photographer / Videographer -- Avid amateur or professional photographers and videographers need power and storage. Power is essential for running Apple's Pro Apps like Final Cut Pro or Aperture, or third-party apps such as Adobe Photoshop.

Consider the needs of your photographer or videographer. If they do a lot of field work, whether at weddings or shooting wildlife or landscape photos, then a high-end MacBook Pro is a good choice. For the mobile photo or video pro or high-end amateur, look for a 15" or 17" MacBook Pro with a lot of RAM and hard drive space, and be sure to toss in a high-capacity external drive for backups.

If your photographer or videographer does most of his or her work in a studio, or if they prefer to do their work in an office instead of on the road, then I suggest a high-end 27" iMac or a Mac Pro. I personally have a quad-core Intel i7 27" iMac with 8GB of RAM, and I find it to be perfect for touching up photos or editing video. The screen is large and bright, and the combination of a fast CPU and lots of RAM and hard drive space makes for quick work. A base quad-core i5 27" iMac with 4GB of RAM and a 1TB HD will put you back $1999, while spicing that up to a 2.93 GHz i7, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD boot drive and a 2TB HD will bump the price up to $4,099.

The true professional is going to want and need a Mac Pro. For high-end video work, they may want to equip that Mac Pro with 32GB of RAM and a fast RAID array and top it out with a dozen cores. That top-end configuration for the designer / developer / hacker works well here.

Traveler -- I'm in this category, but as a lot of you know from my recent screed about how an iPad just didn't do it for me as a professional writer / blogger, I feel that the MacBook Air (especially the 11") fits the bill. It's incredibly light; the 11" weighs the same as an iPad with an Apple Wireless Keyboard. And yes, I decided after writing that post that I'm going to get myself the 11" for traveling. I owned and used one of the original 13" MacBook Airs for over 2 years, and it was a remarkably powerful and light companion on business and pleasure trips. Lugging around a 13" MacBook felt like I was carrying a boat anchor in my backpack. At $999 for the base model 11" up to $1599 for the loaded 13", the price is right, and the new SSD drives give these lightweights a surprising amount of speed. My personal choice? The 11" with the 128GB SSD, 4GB of RAM and the 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo ($1399).

Business Traveler -- The business traveler usually has a different set of requirements than the casual traveler in that they need for their computer to work equally as well on the road or in the office. The answer? A MacBook Pro. Most business travelers aren't going to want to lug around a 17" MacBook Pro, so the 15" is probably the ultimate solution for them. My choice for most business travelers would be the 15" MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM, a 512GB HD and at least an Intel Core i5 processor ($1999). For those who will be running virtual machines or RAM-intensive apps, bump that RAM up to 8GB.

That's my list for Christmas 2010. I highly recommend that you question the recipient of your gift as much as possible before you decide on a Mac to buy, and that you familiarize yourself with all of the Mac models as well. Just go to apple.com and click on the Mac tab at the top of the screen to see all of the models, then go into the details as you need to. Consider talking to the staff at an Apple Store or a member of the Apple Consultants Network if you're having difficulties picking the perfect model, as these folks are trained to match hardware with user needs.

If you have any specific user types that we didn't list here and have a perfect Mac for them, please let us know about your users and your Mac choice in the comments below.

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