How to buy the perfect Mac for music making

The Mac Pro is the most powerful and expandable of Apple's computers.
The Mac Pro is the most powerful and expandable of Apple's computers.

Last week, Apple refreshed its entire range of desktop computers, improving the specs of its Mac mini, iMac and Mac Pro models.

All of these machines ship with GarageBand '09 (plus the rest of the iLife '09 apps), which means that you could easily make music with any of them. However, we're going to examine all the machines' strengths and weaknesses and help you to decide which of the new Macs is right for you.

We'll look at each model in turn, before drawing some conclusions. Prices shown are for the entry-level models - if you want better specs, you'll have to pay more.

Mac mini (£499/$599)

The baby of the Apple desktop family now has a faster processor and a larger hard drive, which is certainly good news for music makers. However, as with the other machines, the improved graphics won't concern tunesmiths too much. Unlike the MacBook, the Mac mini retains a FireWire port (800), and there are also five USB 2.0 ports. Early reports suggest that it lives up to its billing as "the world's most energy-efficient desktop computer".

For: Tiny and cute; environmentally friendly; the cheapest desktop Mac you can buy.
Against: Only 1GB of RAM in the entry-level model; limited expansion options; not as affordable as we'd like; no mouse or keyboard; you'll have to provide the display, too.



iMac, 24-inch (£1,199/$1,499)

The only desktop Mac to come with its own display, the 24-inch model - which is the same price as its 20-inch predecessor - is the one to look at if you're a musician (you'll definitely feel the benefit of that additional screen real estate). Getting 4GB of RAM and a 640GB hard drive as standard should ensure decent performance and give you plenty of room to store your audio.

For: Ready to use out of the box; looks lovely; decent value for money; you now get the big-screen version at a lower price.
Against: Limited expansion options; you can't take the display with you when you buy your next computer.

Mac pro

Mac pro

Mac Pro (£1,899/$2,499)

This is indisputably the most powerful Mac you can buy, so logic dictates that it's also the most capable Apple-branded music machine. The latest Mac Pro is available in Quad-Core and 8-Core configurations, with all machines being powered by Intel's Xeon 'Nehalem' processors. A redesigned interior means it's now easier than ever to expand this high-end monster.

For: Seriously powerful; Massive expansion potential (if you want to install a PCI Express card, this is your only Apple option).
Against: Expensive; a display will cost you extra if you don't already have one.


If you're a professional musician with money to burn (congratulations on that, by the way) then the Mac Pro remains the best choice. It'll give you all the computing muscle you need to run the very latest music software, and it's easily the most future-proof solution that Apple sells.

There are certainly reasons not to buy the high-end Mac desktop, though, and they're not all financial.

If you're short on space, the Mac mini is definitely worth considering, though it'd be worth maxing out the memory to 4GB (you'll probably be able to save money if you buy and fit this yourself) and going for the 320GB hard drive version. This could be a good solution if you already have an Apple laptop but require a second Mac for home - or if you already have a good-sized display that you want to keep using.

Arguably the best compromise solution, though, is the 24-inch iMac. More affordable than its predecessor, this would be a great option for anyone who's starting from scratch. However, its strength - that it provides everything you need in one box - is also its potential weakness: it won't suit those who already have a display, and its own can't be re-used once you're done with the computer.

Now read FIRST TEST: Apple GarageBand '09

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Ben Rogerson

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it.