Thursday, March 01, 2007

Not sure if I'll be among them, but a lot of folks I know are getting the chance to buy macs these days. A lot of people ask me for advice on how to configure it. RAM is always nice, but I've started to really think that the most important component is the hard drive. My own experience makes me think that this single component has probably the greatest effect on the lifespan of the machine, and my technical knowledge backs this up easily.

You know that RAM is the temporary storage your computer uses to hold the data it's working with at any moment. But there's never enough, and the hard drive is used for this purpose as well. The files that the operating system creates for this purpose are often very big - and it all works a lot better if you have plenty of spare room for them on your disk. If you don't, the drive has to work even harder by erasing the bits you've expired and splitting new files into bits that fit into the cracks. Your performance will be a lot faster if you keep a few gigs free for whatever extraneous files happen to come up.

One way of looking at it is this. Your computer goes through three stages of hard drive space: plenty, enough, and scarce. The performance of the computer changes, and the behavior that it will tolerate changes as you move from one stage to the next. I don't need to explain why it's much better if you can postpone the last two stages - this is why I recommend 300gb drives for anyone who buys a laptop.

These drives are pretty expensive - they cost more than the larger drives used in desktops. And in the new macs you can replace them yourself, so if you find one cheaper elsewhere that's a good option. You need a 2.5 inch drive - I assume any one will work but I'm not sure about that. I'm also not sure what consequences using a third-party drive has on your Applecare contract. But with the upcoming Time Machine technology in Leopard, hard drive failures look to be far less ominous from now on.

That's my other advice - wait until the new OS is out. My first mac was purchased just before Jaguar, and they gave me a deep discount when the OS came out. My second mac was right before Tiger, and they offered no such discount. I had to locate the OS myself (I did not pay though, there's no copy protection on OSX). Leopard should be released this spring. Some of you can't wait, and that's no problem - you'll either have to pay for the upgrade (130) or just find someone with the disc.

So when you buy a mac, splurge on the hard drive, the ram, and possibly the support contract. Then you're set for life. I know the price goes up to 2 pretty fast, so be prepared. But don't cheat yourself out of two good years or more by skimping on the hard drive. Good luck!

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