SolutionBase: Different Mac computer systems target various users' needs

Although commanding only a small percentage of the market, Macintosh systems are gaining popularity in the business world. Often, however, IT professionals may be unfamiliar with the Mac OS X platform and Apple's line of computers. In this article, Eric Eckel gives a primer on Apple's computer systems.

Ever since Apple Inc. leveraged the NeXT OS to launch its UNIX-powered Mac OS X platform, its computer sales have enjoyed a healthy resurgence. Released in March 2001, OS X quickly gained converts; both longtime Mac aficionados and regular computer users were attracted by a host of Mac OS X benefits, including high reliability, impressive performance, ease of use, and improved security.

Several years later, Macintosh systems are appearing within small businesses, medium-size companies, and even enterprise environments. While still commanding only a small percentage of the market, Mac systems are making inroads. If feedback from information technology professionals is any indication, more growth is in store: A 2007 Web poll conducted by Network World magazine found that 80% of respondents said Macintosh servers and desktops are now ready for meeting the demands of enterprise service.

Very often, however, the IT professionals responsible for maintaining the Windows-based networks and systems that dominate organizations are unfamiliar with various Macintosh platforms, different Apple system capabilities, and even the different Mac product lines available. Here's a primer designed to quickly get anyone up to speed on Macintosh systems.

Apple's Mac Mini

The original Mac Mini, shown in Figure A, made quite a splash when it debuted in January 2005. With one model originally introduced below $500, the small-form factor (Mini-ITX like) PC quickly caught on as a budget PC.

Figure A

The Mac Mini provides an entry-level option for familiarizing consumers with the Mac OS.

Upgraded several times since its debut, the Mac Mini continues to serve as an entry point for computer users curious about the Apple platform. Weighing less than three pounds, the unit is distinctive for its small size (it's roughly the equivalent of five stacked CD jewel cases).

Now starting at $599, the Mac Mini is available in two models. One packs a 1.66 GHz Intel Core Duo CPU, a 60 GB Serial ATA hard disk and a 24x DVD-ROM/CD-RW optical drive (known in Apple parlance as a Combo Drive). The second, $799 option, buys a Mac Mini boasting a 1.83 GHz CPU, an 80 GB Serial ATA disk and an 8x DVD+/-R/CD-RW optical drive (known as a SuperDrive). Both models feature 512 MB of RAM and Intel GMA 950 Graphics (with 64 MB of shared DDR2 SDRAM), by default.

Out of the box, the device includes 10/100/1000 Ethernet, FireWire, DVI/VGA and four USB 2.0 ports. There are also audio out and line in jacks, as well as a standard security slot for locking the device.

Targeted toward consumers seeking a low budget or entry-level PC, the Mac Mini isn't much of a candidate for business environments. However, it provides a cost-effective option for learning, experimenting with, and testing the Mac OS X operating system.

The iMac

Next up in Apple's lineup is the iMac, shown in Figure B. The all-in-one unit packages everything from the display to the CPU and other components in a single, sleek desktop design. Available with 17-, 20- and 24-inch displays, iMacs start at $999.

Figure B

The iMac provides consumers with an all-in-one desktop PC.

Four models are available (across the three different display sizes). 17-inch models are available either with a 1.83 GHz or 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. The entry-level iMac features a Combo drive, whereas the $1,199 model boasts twice as much RAM (1 GB), an ATI Radeon X1600 video card (vs. Intel GMA 950 Graphics), and a SuperDrive.

The 20-inch iMac boasts a 2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 1 GB of RAM, a 250 GB hard disk, and an ATI Radeon X1600 video card with 128 MB of SDRAM memory. The 20-inch model is priced at $1,499; 24-inch models, meanwhile, start at $1,999 and feature the same 2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 1 GB of memory. With the same hard disk (250 GB) capacity and SuperDrive, besides display size, a different video card also differentiates the 24-inch model from its 20-inch brethren. The largest iMac includes an NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT Graphics video card.

All iMacs include an Apple remote control, keyboard, mouse, and installation and restore DVDs. In addition to audio in and out jacks, each iMac includes two FireWire, a Gigabit Ethernet, a mini-DVI and three USB 2.0 ports, as well as a security slot.

Like the Mac Mini, the Apple iMac is targeted toward consumers. While the unit would prove capable in many small businesses, the inability to easily upgrade or expand its system components makes Apple's iMac mostly a consumer desktop offering.

The MacBook

More than any other Mac, the Apple MacBook likely crosses over more often into business environments than any other consumer-targeted Mac. Apple's entry-level notebook computer, the MacBook (shown in Figure C), actually packs quite a punch.

Figure C

The Macbook is one of Apple's most popular offerings. The consumer-targeted notebook often finds a presence in business environments.

Available in three models, including two 13-inch white and one 13-inch black designs, the laptops start at $1,099. The base MacBook is powered by a 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, features 1 GB of RAM and includes an 80 Serial ATA 5400 RPM GB hard disk and Combo Drive. Video, meanwhile, is powered by Intel GMA 950 Graphics, which support 1280 x 800 resolution. For $1,299, consumers can opt for a MacBook powered by a 2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo chip and a 120 GB hard disk, along with a SuperDrive. MacBooks also include one FireWire 400, two USB 2.0, and one Gigabit Ethernet ports.

MacBooks, which all feature 60 watt MagSafe Power Adapters, lithium-polymer batteries, integrated 802.11 b/g/n wireless networking and Bluetooth support, iSight video cameras, and the iLife software suite (iPhoto, IWeb, iMovie HD, iDVD, and GarageBand), are Apple's consumer laptop line. Despite their potent Intel Core 2 Duo chips, adequate RAM, and Mac OS, many businesses have chosen to roll them out as production systems. With the ability (using either Apple's free Boot Camp utility or the $79.99 Parallels Desktop for Mac application) to easily dual-boot into Windows environments, it's easy to see how the MacBook presence has grown within businesses and other organizations.

Apple's MacBook Pro

MacBook Pros, shown in Figure D, notable for their thin and stylish silver aluminum cases and minimalist design, are Apple's business-class laptops. The notebook line is offered in both 15- and 17-inch sizes.

Figure D

Apple's MacBook Pro delivers serious computing capacity to demanding mobile professionals.

Two models grace the roughly 5.5 pound 15-inch MacBook Pro line. Priced at $1,999 and $2,499, the less expensive model features a 2.2 GHz CPU, 1440 x 900 resolution, a 120 GB hard disk and a SuperDrive (DVD burner). The unit includes an NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT video card with 128 MB of SDRAM memory. The $2,499 15-inch MacBook Pro includes these notable upgrades: a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, a 160 GB 5400 RPM hard disk, and 256 MB of video SDRAM.

The 17-inch MacBook Pro, meanwhile, starts at $2,799. That model, which weighs in at 6.8 pounds, includes the same specifications as the high-end 15-inch unit, with the exception that resolution support increases to 1680 x 1050.

All MacBook Pros include 85-watt MagSafe Power Adapters, lithium-polymer batteries, Apple remote controls, install/restore DVDs, iSight cameras, full-size backlit keyboards, Front Row entertainment software, and the iLife application suite. They also include integrated 802.11 b/g/n wireless and Bluetooth support, one FireWire 400, one FireWire 800, one Gigabit Ethernet, and two USB 2.0 ports and an ExpressCard/34 slot (one exception is the 17-inch model, which includes a third USB 2.0 port).

With support for memory configurations up to 4 GB, Gigabit Ethernet and integrated wireless, high-speed graphics and fast Intel Core 2 Duo processors, the MacBook Pros deliver serious computing capacity for demanding mobile business professionals.

The Mac Pro

Apple's Mac Pro systems deliver cutting edge desktop performance. Users can select from either 8-core or Quad-Core Intel Xeon processors. Mac Pros host up to four disk drives, 3 TB of storage (including RAID support) and 16 GB of 667 MHz fully buffered DIMM RAM. Figure E shows one of the Mac Pros.

Figure E

Apple's Mac Pro line provides state-of-the-art desktop performance.

The 8-core systems are powered by two 3.0 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon 5300 series CPUs, each boasting 1.33 GHz, 64-bit dual-independent frontside buses. The Quad-Core Mac Pros are powered by two 2.0 GHz, 2.66 GHz or 3.0 GHz Dual-Core Intel Xeon 5100 series CPUs (with 1.33 GHz, 64-bit frontside buses).

The Mac Pros support double-wide, 16-lane PCI Express graphics slots that include support for the following video cards: NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT with 256 MB of SDRAM, ATI Radeon X1900 XT with 512 MB of SDRAM and NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 with 512 SDRAM. Multiple graphics card configurations are also supported using NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT video cards.

Pricing, of course, matches the systems' performance capacity. Units start at $2,499, but quickly escalate in price as RAID arrays are configured, RAM is increased, and additional video cards and widescreen displays are included.

Mac Pros also include two Gigabit Ethernet, two FireWire 800, two FireWire 400, and five USB 2.0 ports, as well as audio inputs and outputs. Mac Pros also include optional integrated 802.11 wireless networking and Bluetooth support.

In addition, the systems are designed with expansion in mind. Each Mac Pro boasts three full-length PCI Express slots, eight DIMM memory slots, and two optical drive bays.   

In short, that translates to incredible performance capacity. That's why graphics, production, and creative professionals often consider Mac Pros industry standard equipment.

The Apple Xserve

The Apple Xserve, shown in Figure F, meanwhile, fulfills the need for rack-mountable, OS X-powered server systems. Fueled by Intel dual-core Xeon 64-bit processors running at up to 3.0 GHz, the server platform also supports up to 2.25 TB of data storage. Combined with a 650-watt power supply, 1.33 GHz frontside buses, and 667 MHz DDR2 RAM, the servers provide blazing back-end performance.

Figure F

Apple's Xserve provides powerful back-end server performance.

Each Xserve is configured for expansion, too. In addition to two FireWire 800 and two USB 2.0 ports, each 1U model features a FireWire 400 and DB-9 serial port, not to mention two eight-lane PCI Express slots, twin Gigabit Ethernet ports, and up to 32 GB of ECC fully buffered DIMM memory.

Xserves offer licensing advantages, too. Each Xserve ships with Mac OS X Server version 10.4 Unlimited-Client Edition.

Priced at $2,999, the base Xserve setup includes two 64-bit 2.0 GHz Intel Dual-Core Xeon processors, a 1.33 GHz frontside bus, 1 GB of 667 MHz DDR2 DIMM RAM, and an 80 GB 7200 Serial ATA hard disk. Each entry-level Xserve also includes a built-in ATI Radeon X1300 graphics adapter with 64 MB of onboard memory.

Other Xserve platforms include Xserve RAID, with support for up to 10.5 TB of 2 GB Fibre Channel-powered storage. Those systems start at $5,999.