I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

What’s a good “starter” Mac?

Casey Liss asks:

I’m can feel myself start to buckle under all the peer pressure. I’m strongly considering buying my first Mac.

For all you fanboys, self-proclaimed and closet alike, what do you recommend? While I probably could blow $2k+ on a MacBook Pro, I don’t want to. I’d like to do something nice, but on the cheaper side. I’m considering the $1300 MacBook that has the DVD burner. On the plus side, my wife is a teacher so it seems that would get me $100 off.

Am I barking up the wrong tree? Should I go Craigslist/Ebay? Is that even a safe/good plan?

I definitely want an Intel-based laptop with whatever the latest and greatest cat is. That aside, I expect nothing much from it.

I should note I’m not entirely committed to this yet, so if waiting a few months is a good plan, I’m all ears for that too.

Any constructive thoughts, anyone?

Don’t buy a Mac this close to June if you can help it. Apple holds two big events per year at which new products are usually introduced: MacWorld in January, and WWDC in June. This year’s WWDC keynote is on June 9 — wait until then. Even if Apple doesn’t update the laptops at that event, any pending updates are likely to hit around or before that time.

Assuming the lineup’s relative features and pricing don’t change much (they’re unlikely to), the most economical, bang-for-your-buck answer is to get the lowest-end MacBook available from Apple, then max out the RAM (and add a 7200 RPM disk if you want to spend a bit more) with third-party vendors such as OWC.

You could spend the extra $200 for the midrange MacBook instead if you want, but it’s still stuck with a 5400 RPM hard drive. Keep in mind that if you buy upgrades separately instead, you can get 4GB of RAM for $90 and an awesome 200 GB, 7200 RPM hard drive for $160 — add that to the base-model MacBook and you’ve spent slightly more than the $200 difference between models and you lack a bit of CPU clockspeed and DVD-burning, but you have a much larger and faster disk with twice the RAM. I guarantee you that you will hit disk performance bottlenecks more severely and more often than anything else.

It’s worth noting that the hard drive is very easy to replace in MacBooks but nearly impossible to replace in MacBook Pros (without taking the whole thing apart).

I used a base-model MacBook with third-party RAM and disk upgrades as my only computer for 18 months and was perfectly fine, save for the slow hard drive performance and low capacity. I never missed the DVD burner. Now, I’m flying along with my giant Mac Pro with a desktop DVD burner, but haven’t burned a single DVD yet. I primarily got the Mac Pro for its immense disk capacity (four native 3.5” SATA drives, or six if you run cables to an eSATA bracket or can find a place to mount two more inside).

Once you realize that Macs are awesome and you don’t want to use anything else anymore (I expect, for you, for this to take about 6 months), you’ll probably want a desktop for its disk performance and capacity, like I did. An iMac will probably be the most sensible choice, or a Mac Pro will be the most satisfying and geeky choice (for considerably more money).

I can tell we’ve already won you over… it will just take a bit more time for you to realize it. Welcome to the addiction. You’ll thank us later.