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Parenting Tip: Back to School guide for buying a Mac

Summer is waning, and the days of sitting in a classroom are drawing near. If you are looking for a new computer to support your future classroom activities, then read on as we have a handy rundown of the latest Mac models and some tips on getting the best deal.

Mac Models 101

Apple sells six basic Mac computers -- the iMac, Mac mini, MacBook Pro, MacBook Pro with Retina Display, MacBook Air and Mac Pro.

iMac -- The iMac is Apple's all-in-one computer and includes either a 21.5 or 27-inch display, a wireless keyboard and Magic Mouse. Prices start at $1299 and up to $1999 for the current models, with additional memory and storage adding to those prices.

Mac mini -- The Mac mini is Apple's budget desktop with prices starting at $599. It's a full Mac computer stuffed inside a small, flat cube. It does not include a monitor, keyboard or mouse. It's a great option for folks who have these accessories kicking around their house.

MacBook Pro -- The MacBook Pro is Apple's premier notebook line. It's portable and packs the power of the iMac and Mac mini. Compared to the slim and trim MacBook Air, the beefier MacBook Pro is more suited for at home use than traveling. It's available in 13-inch and 15-inch models with prices that start at $1499. Standard models ship with a hard disk drive, though you can upgrade to an SSD.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display -- The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is Apple's newest MacBook Pro model. It includes a high-resolution Retina display, two Thunderbolt ports, and flash storage. Just like its MacBook Pro cousin, the Retina MacBook Pro is portable and packs some powerful performance under the hood. The MacBook Pro with Retina Display starts at $1499 for the base 13-inch model.

MacBook Air -- The MacBook Air is Apple's hardware solution for the person always on the go. The latest MacBook Air now rocks Intel's Haswell architecture, delivering solid performance and extended battery life. Even the top of the line MacBook Air weighs in at a svelte 2.96 pounds. The MacBook Air is available in 11- and 13-inch configurations with prices starting at $999.

Mac Pro -- The Mac Pro is Apple's most powerful computer. It currently ships in quad-core, 12-core and server configurations, with prices starting at $2499. Apple announced at WWDC 2013 that the Mac Pro is getting a design and hardware overhaul that promises to revolutionize the line. The Mac Pro is designed for high-performance graphics, video-editing, 3D rendering and more. In almost all cases, it's not suitable for students.

Which Mac Should I Buy?

We've covered buying a Mac in our previous holiday gift guides and will point you there for some sound buying advice. One outstanding primer comes from Steve Sande, who lists his recommended Macs for kids, seniors and everyone in between. I've adapted that list and updated it for 2013.

In general, there are two questions you should ask yourself when buying a Mac -- how are you going to use the Mac and how long do you want it to last? The first question will determine whether you should look at the big screen of a desktop or the portability of a laptop. The second query will help set the price point as faster processors and more RAM extend the lifetime of a device, but also raise its price.

Parenting Tip Back to School guide for buying a Mac

Pre-schoolers -- Pre-schoolers are hard on anything they touch. They pick the keys off keyboards and steal the balls from trackball mice. Your best bet for this age group is not a Mac, but an iPad. The iOS app store is filled with educational titles that'll teach youngsters their alphabet, numbers, colors and more.

Elementary Children -- Elementary children are prime candidates for a used Mac. They don't need the horsepower of the latest Core i7 and are highly likely to damage the device they are using. A bored 6-year-old could be very tempted to draw over your screen with a sharpie, while a curious 11-year-old may start to disassemble your device. Stick with a desktop, unless portability is a must. Take it from someone who knows -- if you hand a laptop to a child, he or she will walk around with it and drop it at some point.

You can buy a used or refurbished Mac at any number of outlets, both locally (in most major cities) and online. Your best online options include Small Dog Electronics, OWC, PowerMax, and Apple's Refurbished store.

One piece of advice -- try not to buy anything that's too old, too complicated or too easy to drop. The minimum hardware specs for OS X Mountain Lion (the latest shipping version of OS X) are an excellent guideline for parents to consult before buying a used Mac. Check to make sure you are purchasing at least the following:

  • iMac (Mid 2007 or newer)
  • MacBook (Late 2008 Aluminum, or Early 2009 or newer)
  • MacBook Pro (Mid/Late 2007 or newer)
  • MacBook Air (Late 2008 or newer)
  • Mac mini (Early 2009 or newer)

You can expect to pay between $500 and $1800 for your average used Mac, depending on the model and specs. It goes without saying that older models will be less expensive, than newer models, which command a higher price tag.

Junior and High School Students -- Junior and High School students are a lot more responsible than younger students so you may want to consider buying new instead of used. New Macs come with a one-year warranty, and you can add on AppleCare to extend that out. They also ship with the latest hardware and software, which means they will not become obsolete anytime soon. You will get several years of usage out of a new machine. It's up to a parent to decide if the child is responsible with their personal belongings and deserves a new machine. If not, you can use our tips for the Elementary group to find a suitable refurbished model.

The non-retina MacBook Pro is the first choice for teens, who seek privacy and will appreciate the portability of a notebook so that they can take it away from the prying eyes of siblings and their dreaded parents. It has a middle of the road price tag and is durable. The MacBook Air is another excellent option, but I would recommend ponying up the cash for the 13-inch model, which starts at $1099.

Why a MacBook Pro and not a more expensive MacBook Pro with Retina Display? That gets back to the idea of taking care of possessions and the associated replacement cost. The Retina MacBook Pro is a gorgeous machine, but it is more expensive than a similarly configured MacBook Pro. Does your teen really need that high-res display?

Kids Sharing A Mac -- The best option for a multi-use device that's available to everyone is the 21.5-inch iMac. The base model starts at $1299, and comes with a 2.7 GHz Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. It'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. Don't forget to check Apple's refurbished store for savings on last year's iMac models. These refurbished units will save you a few hundred bucks and will serve you well for years.

Parenting Tip Back to School guide for buying a Mac

College Students -- 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 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.

How to get the best price on a new Mac

Apple is known for the tight price control on its products. Apple sets a price on a unit and their resellers like Best Buy and Amazon sell it at the same or slightly lower price. Shopping around may be helpful, but you won't find a huge savings as most retailers only cut a few hundred dollars off the price of a Mac.

You can buy your Mac directly from Apple's online store or by visiting an Apple Store. You will pay top dollar, but you can configure the device to meet your needs. If you are handy, you should choose the base model in most cases and add in your own RAM and SSD. Apple charges you a premium for these options and you will save $$$ by buying an SSD from OWC and memory from a company like Crucial. Before you decide to go the DIY route, check to make sure your computer is upgradeable. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display have limited upgrade options.

Keep your eyes peeled for sales as Apple, Best Buy, MacMall, Newegg and other retailers will have Back To School sales this time of the year. The discounts won't be huge, but a hundred dollars here and another fifty dollars there will add up. DealMac.com also has a running list of sales and will send you alerts when a new deal is posted.

Apple also has its own clearance store, but the inventory fluctuates. You have to buy what is being offered or keep checking back until the model you want becomes available. Unless otherwise noted, computers bought from the clearance store will include Apple's standard one-year warranty. Last but not least, if you are a student, homeschooler or a teacher, you may be eligible for an educational discount. Check out Apple's Educational store for the details.

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