As I noted in Part 1 of How-To: Decode Apple’s Tech Specs pages before buying a new Mac, Apple has designed the Mac purchasing process to be easy: pick a model, pick the good, better, or best configuration, hand over your cash, and enjoy your computer. Since most people get confused by tech specs — bullet points filled with numbers and acronyms — Apple downplays them in its marketing materials, leaving customers to sort through the details and figure out what most of them mean.
But these specs are really important when you’re shopping for the right Mac for your current and future needs. So I’ve created this How-To guide to walk you through each of Apple’s Tech Specs pages using clear explanations, hopefully enabling you to properly understand what you’re about to buy. Part 1 focused on the “big 5″ Mac specs you really need to know about, and this Part 2 looks at the rest — generally things that remain the same in a given model, regardless of the configuration you choose…
If you want to make video calls from your Mac, a built-in FaceTime camera makes things a lot easier than buying a standalone webcam accessory. There are only two questions here: does your chosen Mac include a front-facing camera at all, and if so, is it a “FaceTime” or “FaceTime HD” camera?
“HD” means high-definition, and “FaceTime HD” means a 1280 by 720 (“720p”) front-facing camera. Apple phased out lower-resolution FaceTime cameras in most Macs, even upgrading MacBook Airs to FaceTime HD. The new ultra-thin 12″ MacBook, however, brought the old standard back. It’s limited to only 480p (640 by 480), which means that video calls made from the 12″ MacBook will look soft and fuzzy by comparison with current iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches, as well as other Macs.
All iMacs include FaceTime HD. Mac minis and Mac Pros don’t have built-in screens or cameras. If you’re looking for a camera to add to these Macs, I’m a big fan of Logitech models such as this one, which can deliver better-than-FaceTime HD quality.
Audio / Connections and Expansion
There’s enough overlap between the “Audio” and “Connections and Expansion” sections of Apple’s Tech Specs pages that they can be tackled together.
(1) Audio Line-Out/Headphone Minijack (Digital/Analog). At this point, this is the only port that’s guaranteed to be found on every Mac. It’s the standard 3.5mm-diameter audio port designed to let you plug in headphones or speakers. The “digital/analog” reference makes clear that it supports speakers that use optical cables, as well.
(2) Audio Line-In Minijack (Digital/Analog) / Support For Apple iPhone Headset with Microphone. Some Macs also have a second 3.5mm port for input from wired microphones and other audio devices. Even if they don’t, the aforementioned Headphone ports on most Macs also support monaural iPhone-compatible microphone input as a secondary feature.
(3) HDMI Port (Audio Out). If a Mac has an HDMI port, it can send both multi-channel audio and video through the same port to virtually any HDTV set. You’ll need to self-supply an inexpensive HDMI cable.
(4) Speaker / Stereo Speakers. Most Macs have stereo speakers built in; even the older non-Retina MacBook Pro is described as including stereo speakers plus a subwoofer. Apple never specifies the characteristics of these speakers; they’re always just assumed to be about as good as possible given the small sizes of the computers’ enclosures. The Mac mini and Mac Pro each have only one speaker, however, and it’s not really meant to be relied upon for more than basic system sounds. Consider Bluetooth speakers or wired speakers such as my recent holiday picks.
(5) Dual Microphones. Almost every Apple laptop and iMac has twin microphones for noise-cancelling use of dictation, clearer FaceTime calls, and better recording. The old 13″ MacBook Pro has a single microphone; the Mac Pro and Mac mini don’t have built-in microphones, so consider something like Blue Microphones’ Yeti or a microphone built into a Logitech webcam.
(6) Thunderbolt 2 Ports (up to 20Gbps). Built for connecting Thunderbolt hard drives and monitors to Macs using a single type of cable, Apple and Intel’s jointly-developed Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 standards promise up to 10Gbps (gigabit per second) and 20Gbps speeds, respectively. That’s faster than USB 3’s promise of up to 5Gbps, but very few companies have adopted either Thunderbolt standard, making the (generally fast enough) USB 3 far more common. The Mac Pro is an outlier for Apple, with 6 Thunderbolt 2 ports; most Macs have one or two.
(7) USB 3 Ports (up to 5Gbps). Used to connect iPads, iPhones, iPods, hard drives, hubs, cameras, and numerous other accessories to Macs, USB 3 ports work seamlessly with USB 2 and 1 devices. Most Macs have at least two USB 3 ports; the Mac Pro, iMac and Mac mini have 4. (My guide to the best Mac hard drives can help you find great USB 3 choices.)
(8) SDXC Card Slot. Found on most Macs, notably omitting the 12″ MacBook, 11.6″ Macbook Air, and Mac Pro, this card slot is better known as an “SD Card” (Secure Digital) slot, reading and writing to the ubiquitous memory cards notably used with most standalone cameras. SDXC is a newer “Secure Digital eXtended Capacity” version with more storage space.
(9) Gigabit Ethernet Port. More important to professional users than anyone else at this point, this type of port provides a means to get wired Internet access rather than Wi-Fi. It’s found in Mac desktops but not in most laptops at this point; the Mac Pro actually has dual Gigabit Ethernet ports. This is sometimes referred to as 10/100/1000BASE-T Ethernet, referring to support for 10-, 100-, and 1000-Megabit per second speeds, and uses an old “RJ-45 connector” that looks a lot like classic landline telephone plugs. Ethernet is capable of much faster data speeds than Wi-Fi, but far less commonly used by average consumers. Apple sells a Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter for Macs without this port.
(10) IR Receiver. The Mac mini and non-Retina 13″ MacBook Pro both have an IR (infrared) receiver built in to receive commands from universal remote controls (and Apple’s own Apple Remotes). Other Macs do not.
(11) Kensington Lock Slot. This small, pill-shaped slot is commonly found on Mac desktops and increasingly rare on Mac laptops. Accessory maker Kensington sells metal laptop and desktop security cables with attachments that fit the Lock Slot, preventing the machines from being snatched off a desk and stolen.
(12) USB-C Port. Only found in the new 12″ MacBook, this brand-new, small USB port (also called USB Type-C) combines bi-directional charging, USB 3 data, HDMI video/audio-out, and video-out via DisplayPort 1.2 and VGA into a single port. Most of these features require $19-$79 adapters, but the USB-C port is the standard of the future for Apple’s laptops. Third-party developers are just beginning to sell USB-C cables, as well.
(13) MagSafe/MagSafe 2 Power. Found on all of Apple’s laptops except the 12″ MacBook, the MagSafe connector is a magnetic contact point for charging the computer using Apple-made power adapters. Most machines use the newer, slimmer version MagSafe 2 rather than the taller original version MagSafe.
Almost every Mac at this point supports the same two wireless standards: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0, both of which are backwards-compatible with earlier Wi-Fi and Bluetooth versions. They are critically important for connecting Macs to wireless networks and to an increasing range of accessories.
(1) Wi-Fi. For long-range (230-foot or closer) wireless communications between a Mac and broadband Internet cable service, Apple has upgraded every Mac except the non-Retina 13″ MacBook Pro to the latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac. As a consumer, all this means for you is that your new Mac will be able to connect to pretty much any Wi-Fi network you may encounter at home, work, or school, achieving the maximum speeds and distances they support. Apple sells AirPort Extreme and Express routers with excellent 802.11ac wireless performance. Macs are also all backward compatible with the earlier 802.11a/b/g/n standards, which are found in most wireless routers currently in use. Macs can also use Wi-Fi for wireless printing and hard drive access, assuming that one of these peripherals is wirelessly connected to the same Wi-Fi network.
(2) Bluetooth 4.0. Typically used for close-proximity (33-foot or closer), low-bandwidth wireless communications between Macs and accessories, Bluetooth is now found in everything from fitness trackers and digital scales to wireless speakers, keyboards, trackpads, and mice; it’s notably not used for printing, hard drives, or video streaming. Although Bluetooth 4.1 is the latest (software-upgradeable) version of the standard, Apple has not updated any Mac to 4.1 at this point, and few accessories support it, either.
Input / Keyboard / Trackpad
Apple’s Input, Keyboard and Trackpad spec sheets vary based on the type of Mac you’re purchasing: laptop or desktop. The first three options are laptop-only; the next three are either bundled with iMacs, or sold as accessories that can be used with Mac Pros, Mac minis, and laptops.
(1) Multi-Touch Trackpad. Almost every current-generation Mac laptop comes with this type of trackpad — a frosted glass surface that can be swiped on to move your on-screen cursor around, and pressed down on the bottom left or right edges for left or right clicks. The magic is the Multi-Touch Trackpad’s ability to detect multiple fingers at once, enabling pinch-to-zoom, page-flipping, and app switching with simple gestures. It’s a great trackpad.
(2) Force Touch Trackpad. Brand new on the 13″ Retina MacBook Pro and 12″ MacBook (with a high likelihood of adoption on other Macs), the Force Touch trackpad does everything the Multi-Touch version did, but adds pressure-sensing sensors that can detect multiple levels of force. Buttons that used to be “on” or “off” can be made to sense deep, moderate, and shallow presses, with different responses for each. A small motor inside can provide feedback, as well. This is the future of Apple trackpads.
(3) Backlit Keyboard. Most of Apple’s laptops for the past five years have had backlit keyboards that can glow in the dark to make typing easier in low light. This is basically an expected feature at this point; the 12″ MacBook features a new design where the backlighting is more concentrated within the keyboard’s letters, rather than glowing from the edges of keys.
(4) Apple Wireless Keyboard. iMacs tend to come with a wonderfully compact Bluetooth wireless keyboard that’s similar to the ones found on MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops. It has one annoying issue: dependence on AA batteries that seem to constantly need replacement. An iMac can be customized with a larger, wired “Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keypad,” which Apple notes “takes a bit longer to build” if ordered through its website. Another option: get this Apple Battery Charger, which comes with six rechargeable batteries. Trust me, you’ll need them. (Apple Wireless Keyboards are sold separately for the Mac mini and Mac Pro.)
(5) Magic Mouse. iMac users have the choice of a packed-in mouse or packed-in trackpad. If you really like mice, this is your option — a nicely-designed mouse with a multi-touch top surface. But it’s a second-class alternative at this point, as Mac software is increasingly designed to benefit from the larger multi-touch surface of the Magic Trackpad.
(6) Magic Trackpad. Unlike mice, which need to be rolled around on a large flat surface, the Magic Trackpad occupies a roughly 5.1″ by 5.1″ space next to your keyboard, adding a generous multi-touch surface with two physical buttons (hidden underneath) to your Mac. Most people will be best off choosing this option.
Battery and Power
Last but certainly not least, Apple’s laptops always come with built-in rechargeable batteries and detachable chargers (“Power Adapters“), each of which includes a number indicating energy consumption. Apple’s desktops, by contrast, always come with “Power Cords,” and Apple generally doesn’t list their energy consumption in the Tech Specs — it’s mentioned elsewhere, typically without much detail. (iMacs are listed as “using just 0.9 watt of electricity in sleep mode,” but you have to visit this page and select a specific model to find out a specific model’s power consumption under other circumstances.)
(1) (Battery) Hours. Apple currently rates its laptop batteries in three ways. After years of offering overly generous estimates, Apple’s numbers eventually became pretty close to accurate, and sometimes even a little conservative. They’re always listed as “up to,” which means “could be less than.”
- Wireless Web. This means the number of hours of continuous wireless web browsing, typically at 75% screen brightness. It varies between 7 and 12 hours, depending on the Mac: 7 hours (non-Retina 13″ MacBook Pro), 8 hours (15″ MacBook Pro), 9 hours (12″ MacBook, 11″ MacBook Air), 10 hours (13″ MacBook Pro) and 12 hours (13″ MacBook Air). If you look closely at the specs, you’ll see that the non-Retina MacBook Pro’s test was actually done at a 50% brightness level, versus 75% on all the other machines.
- iTunes Movie Playback. This means the number of hours of continuous iTunes movie playback, again at 75% screen brightness. It varies from 8 to 12 hours: 8 hours (15″ MacBook Pro), 10 hours (12″ MacBook, 11″ Macbook Air), or 12 hours (13″ MacBook Air, 13″ MacBook Pro). But note that the non-Retina 13″ MacBook Pro has no number and would likely be lower; note also that the 15″ Pro was playing less complex video files than all of the other machines.
- Standby Time. This is the number of days of standby time — how long the machine can sit without being charged and still be capable of being turned on. The MacBook Air is listed as having 30 days of standby time; the 12″ MacBook and MacBook Pros don’t have standby ratings.
(2) Battery Capacity. This isn’t important to users, but the numbers range from 38 to 95 watt-hours (“whr”), the number of hours a battery can last if only 1 watt (1W) of power is consumed per hour. This is an abstraction: MacBooks and MacBook Airs consume between 5.5-6.1W when idle (display on, doing nothing), while MacBook Pros consume 8.6 to 16.7W under the same conditions. Specific capacities are 38Whr (11″ MacBook Air), 39.7Whr (12″ MacBook), 54Whr (13″ MacBook Air), 63.5Whr (13″ non-Retina MacBook Pro), 74.8Whr (13″ Retina MacBook Pro), and 95Whr (15″ MacBook Pro). The batteries are typically not user-replaceable.
(3) Power Adapter. Again, the specific numbers aren’t super-important to users, as all of Apple’s adapters are designed to fully recharge their respective MacBook batteries in two or so hours, depending on whether the machine is being used or not at the time. The 12″ MacBook comes with a small 29W adapter, versus the 45W adapters bundled with both MacBook Airs, the 60W 13″ MacBook Pro (both models), and 85W 15″ MacBook Pro. Apple sells extra power adapters for every MacBook, typically for around $79.
Part 1 of How-To: Decode Apple’s Tech Specs pages before buying a new Mac discussed the “big 5” topics you need to know: the Display, Processor, Memory, Storage and Graphics/Video Support. Remember, you can save cash on your Mac purchase by ordering from Amazon, which offers aggressive discounts on prior-generation machines, as well as savings on many current-generation Macs, or use the 9to5Mac product guides to the right.
You can find my recent 9to5Mac articles here, and scroll down to the bottom of the page (“Older Posts”) for many more!