Walt Mossberg

Here’s a Mac FAQ if You’re Looking to Buy a Computer

When I write my computer buyers’ guides, I typically focus on Windows computers, not the Apple Macintosh. That’s because I assumed that buying a Mac required little guidance: It’s sold by only one company and comes in only a few models.

But in recent weeks, I’ve been bombarded by reader emails asking for Mac-buying advice. So, here’s a quick guide — a sort of Mac FAQ — to shopping for a Macintosh. As with my Windows guides, this is aimed at average, mainstream users doing typical tasks, not techies or businesses or hobbyists.

Q. Who should consider a Mac?

A. Pretty much every average consumer using a computer should at least look at the Mac. It combines gorgeous hardware with an operating system I consider superior to Windows, with better built-in software. It can even run Windows programs if you buy and install a copy of Windows. And unless you do that, you won’t be vulnerable to the vast array of viruses and spyware that threaten Windows users. Only a handful, so far, have been written to run on the Mac operating system, OS X.

Q. Who shouldn’t consider the Mac?

A. People who spend much of their time playing cutting-edge games should stick to Windows computers, because there are far fewer games written for OS X. Apple doesn’t offer hardware tuned for serious gaming. People looking for the lowest-price PCs should also avoid the Mac, because Apple’s cheapest model, the Mac Mini, costs $599.

Another group that should shun Apple’s computers are people who depend for support on corporate IT departments that are either ignorant about, or hostile to, the Mac. Finally, if you know and like Windows, and expect mainly to use Windows programs, stick with a Windows PC.

Q. Can I run Microsoft Office on a Mac?

A. Yes. Microsoft makes a Mac version of Office, which uses the same file formats that Word, Excel and PowerPoint for Windows have used for years. A new version of Office for the Mac is due in January and it will handle the new file formats Microsoft introduced this year. But the Mac version of Office omits Outlook. It has a similar program called Entourage, but Entourage can’t use Outlook data files. If you want a Mac but must have Outlook, you will have to install Windows.

Q. Can I use all my Windows files on a Mac?

A. Out of the box, Macs can handle all the common file types Windows machines create, including text files, pictures, songs and Adobe PDF files. The Mac even comes with a simple word processor that can open Microsoft Word files.

However, some specialized Windows programs create files that the Mac can’t handle out of the box. And the Mac version of Quicken has a difficult time properly handling Windows Quicken files. If you are a Quicken fan, install Windows and run the Windows version.

Q. Can I mix Macs and Windows on the same home network?

A. Macs can plug and play with most brand-name wired and wireless routers, and can share Internet connections with Windows PCs.

Q. How are Macs at Web surfing?

A. Fine. Apple’s built-in Safari browser is very good and the Mac version of Firefox is essentially identical to the Windows version. However, Macs lack an up-to-date version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, so you will have to install Windows if you need IE.

Q. Can Macs run standard peripheral hardware?

A. Macs can run nearly all keyboards, mice and printers that use USB connections, even ones that don’t explicitly say they run on Macs.

Q. What desktops does Apple offer for consumers?

A. Apple’s main consumer desktop is the one-piece iMac, which I regard as the best consumer desktop on the market. It comes in four models, with built-in 20-inch or 24-inch, flat-panel screens at starting prices ranging from $1,199 to $2,299.

Q. How about Mac laptops?

A. There are two. The entry-level MacBook has a 13-inch screen and a starting price of $1,099. The high-end MacBook Pro comes with either a 15-inch or 17-inch screen and starts at $1,999. Apple currently doesn’t offer a smaller laptop for road warriors, but there are persistent rumors that it will do so soon.

Q. What minimum specs should I look for on a Mac?

A. All Macs come with at least one gigabyte of memory — twice the minimum required for the new version of OS X, called Leopard. If you can, get two gigabytes. Apple charges a lot for extra memory, but you can buy it for less at stores and online providers.

Macs use the same dual-core Intel processors and graphics systems as many mainstream Windows computers; and, as with Windows, I wouldn’t pay extra for greater processor speed.

The iMac comes with at least a 250-gigabyte hard disk, and Mac laptop hard disks start at 80 gigabytes. Mainstream Windows desktops typically start with larger hard disks. But Apple offers much larger disks as options, which you should consider if you store a lot of photos, music and video files.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com. Find all my columns and videos online free at the new All Things Digital Web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.

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