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I am refreshing my home technology stack and considering a Mac. I could use some advice about new versus used.

I am currently running a hodgepodge of old 2005-era machines running iTunes, web sites, dev, etc, all Windows/Ubuntu. Want to reduce that footprint and maybe start learning Mac.

A Mac seller in my hometown is offering a MacBook from 2008 for $399 with the following specs:

  • Late 2008 model, 2.1 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 13.3-inch glossy widescreen display
  • 2.0 GB RAM (upgradable to 4 GB), 120 GB hard drive
  • Mac OS 10.6 Snow Leopard installed
  • Comes with iPhoto, iMovie, Garageband, iTunes, iChat, Photo Booth and the Safari web browser

Based on those specs I believe this is a MacBook 4.1.

I'm looking for something which would support the following roles:

  • Convert programs recorded on Tivo to iPhone/iPad format for transfer to devices;
  • Watch iTunes movies on TV (could connect directly to TV);
  • Experiment with XCode development - would like to learn iPhone app development;
  • Host an Apache/Tomcat type stack for internal development.

My questions:

  1. Right now price is more important than portability. How much future-proofing would I buy with a new Mac Mini for another $200? I am just looking to learn about Mac, I don't use it for work so not keen to drop a lot of money here without some experience. Not interested in the Craigslist route.
  2. I know newer Macs are more user-maintainable but it seems like a lot of that changed during 2008. Can I upgrade this model's internal components myself, esp. the RAM? Have done lots of upgrades on PC cases, new motherboards, CPU/Fan, power supply but Mac is new to me and not sure about this model.
  3. What is the software support picture like for the apps I've listed under Snow Leopard? Will I have to upgrade to Lion for XCode, iTunes updates, etc?
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Now I see according to buyersguide.macrumors.com I should wait to look into buying a Mac Mini anyway because the new ones are about to come out and prices may drop... –  lonstar Jul 9 '12 at 7:57
    
All of these were great answers - thanks. I think the main point I got was that this laptop would be fine for 3 out of the 4 use cases I have (4th being XCode). For the 4th, because of likely incompatibilities running future versions of Mac OS, I would likely be more future-proof buying a Mini. –  lonstar Jul 9 '12 at 18:14
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4 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

With the exception of XCode, any Intel Mac should handle the tasks you listed. XCode is a bit of a special case. Apple seems to be doing this now:

  • Users of the current OS (right now Lion, soon to be Mountain Lion), will get access to the newest versions of XCode for free in the App Store.

  • Users of the previous version of the OS (Snow Leopard right now, Lion soon), get access to similar versions, lagging by a few minor revisions, IF they're a $99/year paid developer.

For example: App Store currently has XCode 4.3.3 for Lion for free. Paid developers also have access to Xcode 4.4 and 4.5 developer previews for Lion and Mountain Lion through the Apple developer site.

Paid developers can also get 4.2 for Snow Leopard (likely the last SL version) through the Apple developer site. Make of that what you will.

A huge amount of 3rd-party apps, and many of Apple's own apps still support Snow Leopard, though a lot of them have dropped support for 32-bit processors. So you'll see OS X 10.6.8 or newer, 64-bit processor required often. That said, the machine you mention has a 64-bit chip and should run those apps on SL. And Lion costs just $30 in the App Store.

A few other notes:

  • Given the specs, it's definitely a MacBook 4,1.

  • From my experience with lesser hardware (Core 2 Duo with the Intel GMA 950 graphics), this should run Lion well once you give it enough RAM. Because the machine you mention has the Intel GMA X3100 though, it WON'T be able to run Mountain Lion at all.

  • You can actually get up to 6GB memory if you need to on this machine. Apple only officially supports 4GB, but users have reported a 4GB + 2GB combination working. Of course, you will sacrifice some memory bandwidth since dual-channel mode gets turned off when you have dissimilar sizes of modules installed. The most significant effect this will have is on graphics performance since the graphics chip shares main memory.

  • These plastic MacBooks are actually among the easiest Macs to upgrade and repair. Much MORE maintenable than the current models (except maybe the non-Retina Pros). With a couple standard tools you can upgrade the RAM and hard drive easily and safely. With a bit more time and care you can swap the optical drive out for an SSD, repair the screen, speakers keyboard etc. Parts for these are readily available on eBay and sites like http://www.ifixit.com

  • At home we have 3 of these non-unibody polycarbonate MacBooks which I take care of, and are still in daily use; a 2006, a 2007, and a 2009. We've broken speakers, keyboards and screen bezels, all of which I changed myself. The 2006 had a faulty inverter which cost me about $10 and half hour to fix. Of course, RAM and hard drives have been upgraded over time, and we've worn out a few batteries. This sounds like a lot, but when you work the total cost of ownership, these MacBooks have been VERY cost-effective.

My suggestions:

  • You really want Mountain Lion. Don't count on Apple to support apps and updates for Lion past mid-2013. This is especially true if you plan on developing anything using XCode.

  • If you really wan't portability, try to get the MacBook 5,2 instead. That's the 2009 (non-unibody plastic) one I use. It's Mountain Lion compatible, so you should get at least two years of life out of it.

  • If portability isn't an issue, definitely go with the current MacMini. You'll put out a bit more cash, but have much more power available, and get a longer useful life (~3-4 years).

  • The current MacBook Air, despite it's lack of upgradeability is an excellent choice for a portable machine. If I were buying a laptop right now, I'd get the 13" Air with the 8GB RAM upgrade without hesitation.

If you just want to dip your toes in the Mac pool I wouldn't hesitate to get any Mac. Even older machines, which can't run the current OS, maintain good resale value. I wouldn't get anything that isn't capable of at least 64-bit Lion though.

Whatever machine you get, if the OS does nothing for you, worst-case is that you end up reselling the machine at a slight loss. Just be mindful of the limitations if you buy a used machine with an older OS version installed.

Good luck!

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Thanks for the comprehensive answer. I need to think about that XCode use case, and I think that will make the decision for me between this MacBook and a Mini. –  lonstar Jul 9 '12 at 18:19
    
What makes you certain it's a 4,1 instead of a 4,2? Not that it makes any difference to the question asker, but I didn't see any "definitely" there. –  Steven Fisher Jul 14 '12 at 15:18
    
You're right. I meant to say 4,2. In his original post he says "Late 2008". If System Information shows that, then definitely 4,2. 4,1 and 4,2 are both virtually the same machine anyway. –  Vickash Jul 14 '12 at 20:56
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From your description, this is a MacBook4,1 or MacBook4,2. They both have the same compatibility, and are essentially the same machine for considering the future:

  1. That MacBook will run Lion once the RAM is upgraded. It will not run Mountain Lion. Today's Mac mini would. The MacBook4,1 and 4,2 have less than a month before it becomes unsupported by the next OS. The Mac Mini probably has several years.
  2. Macs are not generally user maintainable. (Edit: To be clear, I mean to the degree that you're used to.) The RAM in that model is user upgradable. I believe it's just three screws in the battery compartment.
  3. You will need Lion for the current version of Xcode. In a month or two, you'll probably need Mountain Lion for the latest Xcode. Apple may ship the next Xcode with compatibility with Lion (say, 40% odds), but certainly next+1 won't be compatible.

Sources:

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The system you list could do the four tasks you list well enough. A Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge would do the video conversion a lot faster, since they have H.264 conversion in hardware. I wouldn't think a current Mini would give you a whole lot more, though it would include Thunderbolt for possible expansion options. If money is the chief consideration, this sounds like a good deal.

Looking at the system requirements for Mountain Lion, MacBook support starts with the Late 2008 Aluminum. So you look pretty safe for being future proof. Mountain Lion will be out this month, and just cost $20. You can upgrade from Snow Leopard for that cost, and that will get you access to the latest version of Xcode. So skip Lion.

Adding memory is not bad. You can actually upgrade to 6GB. That will make the system feel a lot faster. http://support.apple.com/kb/HT1651?viewlocale=en_US&locale=en_US#link2

Note that you can also boot this system to Windows or to Linux using Bootcamp, or via a VM.

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That's a MacBook5,1 that you linked to. The MacBook4,1 is a very different story. I doubt he has a MacBook5,1 as it was not available at 2.1GHz. –  Steven Fisher Jul 9 '12 at 1:43
    
Thanks for the comment - I don't think this is an aluminum and I see that is kind of the cutoff for ML. –  lonstar Jul 9 '12 at 18:16
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I did exactly that. I bought a $400 4 years old mac last year in the hope that I could learn how to use a mac a lot better (I do ruby on rails development and the market share is about 80% macs), though I prefer Linux (ubuntu) myself. I found that the $400 Mac was really just too old to be useful.

I completely understand that $2,000+ is probably out of the question.

I would consider either:

  • a Second hand mac from 2010.

  • a Mac Air 13inch. I got one for $1100 and this is my advice based on my experience. If you want a 4 year Mac I've got one for $300 now ;)

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Thanks - when you say useful, do you mean for XCode? And 4 years old last year was '07...from what I've read the pre-08 Macs were not user-upgradeable. –  lonstar Jul 9 '12 at 6:20
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