What’s the Best Affordable Mac?
It depends on what you need.
I spent a lot of time in the past 3 weeks researching and thinking about this question, and I’m going to share what I learned.
I’ve give you the list right here up front, and then I’ll talk about my specific situation because I think you’ll learn some useful stuff.
Note: I’m not including links because I buy used Macs from people on Craigslist. You could also buy used Macs from Ebay, but be careful and make sure you know what you’re getting and what the return policy is. If you’re going to buy from someone on Craigslist, always meet in a public place where there are security cameras. No exceptions. Starbucks has worked great for me.
Best Affordable Mac: Do You Need Power or Portability?
You aren’t going to get a powerful Macbook on the cheap. The best, most powerful Macbook Pros are expensive, especially if you want a recent model with good battery life.
Most Affordable Mac for Portability
If you need an affordable laptop, your best bet right now will be a mid or late 2013 (or newer) Macbook Air. I recommend this year model because it’s the first year that got the Haswell CPU, which is a lot more energy efficient than the previous years (which means longer battery life).
They aren’t the most powerful in terms of processor speed, but they have fast SSD hard drives and enough processing power and ram to get most tasks done.
Most Affordable Macbook for Power
I’m going to recommend the 13” Retina Macbook Pro, Late 2013 or newer. These will give you more power than the MacBook Air, but their battery life isn’t as good and they are heavier. The upside is that you get a really nice looking screen.
The Cheapest Mac that Works
If you have a minimal budget, go with a 2014 1.4ghz Mac Mini. It won’t be super fast and it’s not portable, but they are the cheapest option. You will need to buy a monitor and a mouse and keyboard, though.
You could also get an older Macbook Pro or Air (think 2010-2013), and they should still work, but again, it’ll be slow and heavy and the battery life won’t be great.
One of my readers suggested building a Hackintosh. If you’re comfortable with building computers, this is a good option for you. Otherwise, stick to a used Mac.
Powerful Affordable Mac for Home Use
I invested in a 2015 12” Retina Macbook (1.3ghz, 8gb of ram, 500gb SSD) a few weeks ago because I wanted something extremely light and portable for traveling.
It’s not a powerful computer, but it can do most things I need to do while I’m at a coffee shop or traveling (podcast editing, light video editing, writing). I found one on Craigslist for $1000 and jumped on it (the model I got costs $1750 new).
But I still wanted to get a powerful mac to keep at home for when I needed to do heavy video or audio work, so I started looking for a Mac with a good processor.
Lots of ram is nice, but not as essential for me, and an SSD is a given; I can’t use a computer with a spinning hard drive. It’s just too slow.
I had a budget of about $800, so I started looking on Craigslist. After reviewing some Geekbench scores, I realized that my best options were:
- Quad-core iMac (21 or 27”)
- Quad-core 15” Retina Macbook pro
- Quad-core Mac Mini Server
- Quad-core 15” Macbook Pro
To get a significant boost in processor speed over the 12” Retina Macbook I got, I knew I needed to buy something with a quad-core processor.
Because I stream podcasts live and I don’t want to run an ethernet cable to my bedroom where my desk is, I decided that I need to stick with late 2013 (or newer) Macs that have the 802.11ac wifi capability.
There were quite a few good deals on 2011 and 2012 Macbooks and iMacs and Mac Minis, but they don’t support 802.11ac wifi and I have an 802.11ac wifi router at home and I want fast wifi speeds. So Macs older than 2013 were out.
What About Spinning Hard Drives?
Computers have used spinning disk hard drives since the 1960’s. There are two variations; the slow 5400 rpm HD, and the slightly less slow 7200 rpm HD.
Solid State Drives (SSDs) blow them out of the water in terms of read and write speeds. They make everything on your computer happen way, way faster.
You can install an SSD in older Macs, but it’s very difficult or impossible to install them in most Macs made in or after 2013.
But if you’re like me and you’re buying a Mac to keep at home all the time, you can buy an external SSD that plugs in via USB and then boot your computer from it. Boom, fast computer and you don’t have to take your computer apart.
What I Ended Up With: a Late 2013 21” iMac
I found a late 2013 21” iMac on Craigslist for $650. It has a quad-core 2.7ghz i5 processor with a Geekbench score of 10,168.
For comparison, my 1.3ghz 2015 12” Macbook has a Geekbench score of 5,208, and a base model 2013 “Trashcan” Mac Pro (3.5ghz 6 core) scores 16,505.
So this 2013 iMac was right in the sweet spot; pretty powerful but not super expensive at $650. There were two downsides, though.
First, it has a 1TB 5400 rpm HD. Not great.
Second, it only has 8gb of ram. Also not great.
I decided that I could live with 8gb of ram. It’s a sacrifice I had to make to keep the cost below $800.
I also decided to buy an external SSD and install MacOS on it. I read some articles online that said it was pretty easy to install MacOS on an external SSD and booting from it instead of the built-in HD will give you much faster read/write speeds.
I’m very pleased with how it all turned out. Now I have a very capable, light 12” Macbook for travel, and a powerful and fast iMac that stays at home.
Apple is rumored to be releasing new Macbook Pros next month. If/when that happens, I’ll have to decide if I want to trade my extremely light 12” Macbook for a slightly heavier but more powerful Macbook Pro. I’m leaning towards keeping my 12”, but I need to see what they come up with.