Gifts of Christmas 2009: Macs and the Accessories to Go With

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 6:25 AM

So, you are thinking about giving a new computer for Christmas. Good choice – almost anyone will enjoy getting a nice, fresh, new computer free of the junk that accumulates over the years and with plenty of space and speed to spare. But, while you are at it, have you considered a Mac? (Keep reading for gift ideas for current Mac users too.)

In the past, that sort of question was the equivalent of affirming that alien abductions occur. Are you crazy, a Mac? However, thanks to the iPod and the iPhone – not to mention Windows Vista – a Mac is no longer the strange, off the wall, back-away-from-the-person-who-suggested-it sort of idea that it use to be.

And for good reason.

Current Macs, while still premium machines, are generally priced within the same realm as a decent PC. Sometimes, they even come out cheaper. For example, when we tried to configure a Dell Studio XPS 13 laptop to approximately the same configuration – same processor, GPU, and so on – as Apple’s base MacBook, the Dell priced out at just short of $1100. On the other hand, the white MacBook rings up for $999 MSRP and goes even lower — $800 after mail-in rebate since last month — at Micro Center. It may sound odd, but the “premium” machine actually costs less than the Dell.

The big advantage of a Mac, even if it did come with a larger sticker price (and, to be sure, models such as the Mac mini ($599; $574 on Amazon [affiliate link]) do cost a bit more than comparable PCs), is its ease of use, security and stability. While a few malicious programs have tried to attack the Mac, so far the only attacks on the Mac have been ones that had to do “social engineering,” that is, they had to trick the user into authorizing them to do their deeds. This is a far cry from the average Windows system, where even savvy users can pick up adware, malware and viruses while doing their best to be sensible about security.

Likewise, Mac OS X’s much heralded ease of use really is there. In our observation of new users, a new “switcher” from a Windows background will virtually never complain about how things are harder to accomplish. Rather, people repeatedly remark at how much simpler daily tasks are with the thoughtful tweaks Apple has placed throughout its platform. Usually Windows users can start to take advantage of the Mac’s unique features with only the most minimal of coaching (if any).

While the white MacBook is a “base” model that is relatively affordable, we are extremely pleased with the performance of its architecture. The system runs briskly, easily trouncing serious workstations of just a few years ago while performing agilely against current laptops and desktops.

The MacBook also includes Apple’s well-regarded suite of multimedia applications, iLife ’09, with excellent photo management, relatively sophisticated movie editing and audio mixing included in the package out of the box. Even if a particular Mac does cost a bit more, having more functionality built in helps to level out the cost.

Another nice thing about the Intel-based Macs available today is that they are low risk systems to switch to. If you or your gift recipient decide that a Mac is not for you, these systems will make perfectly great Windows computers, too.

Software Worth Gifting

Parallels Desktop 5.0

Whether you are giving a Mac or know someone who just got one, there are a few software programs most Mac owners will want to pick up. One of them is Parallels Desktop 5.0 for Mac, a handy tool that allows you to easily run Windows “in containment,” so that old apps you do not want to part with can be kept running with very little fuss.

Parallels can install a copy of most versions of Windows with almost no interaction from the user. It will even install the system on an external drive, if Windows will not be used frequently and one would rather devote space on the main hard disk to other things.

Once installed, Parallels offers a built in suite of Kaspersky security tools to help secure this contained copy of Windows, handy “coherence” and “crystal” modes that allows Windows apps to intermingle with Mac applications, and even tools to allow the user to launch a Windows app to read files on the Mac or a Mac app to read things located within the virtual copy of Windows. All of these features are implemented in an elegant and simple fashion that makes them more complicated sounding when described then they are in use.

We were impressed to find Parallels performed very responsively. Even 3D performance, always a weak spot for “virtualization” tools like this one, was quite good: perhaps not good enough to play the latest, most demanding Windows games, but certainly adequate for many other uses. On the 9400M graphics chipset used by most current Macs, we found that GPU-accelerated 3D performance was roughly half of native speed (though still besting many lower end PCs). Suprisingly, we actually found 3D rendering by the CPU ran slightly faster in Parallels than it did natively under Mac OS X.

Note, while Parallels retails for $79, some retailers, such as MacMall, offer Parallels for free after mail-in-rebate when purchased at the same time as a Mac. Either way, it’ll prove handy for many Mac users who want that “security blanket” of having Windows around if they need it (Parallels; $79, $51 on Amazon [affiliate link];

iWork '09

Apple iWork is another very good software product for new Mac users to add to their tool belt. While one can purchase Microsoft Office for the Mac, and Microsoft’s offering is a mature, useful tool, many users will find the cheaper Apple alternative amply powerful. Using an interface closely resembling the built in Mac OS X and iLife apps, a lot of sophisticated tasks are boiled down to very simple steps in iWork. It is also able to open and save Microsoft Office files.

What we especially like about iWork is that it has a very strong visual component. The design templates for word processor and presentation software documents are tasteful, yet bold. Keynote, Apple’s PowerPoint alternative, is the strongest component of the suite and is good enough that we recommend buying iWork to obtain Keynote even if one plans to purchase Microsoft Office as well. Keynote makes creating exceptionally beautiful and functional presentations an absolute snap (Apple, Inc.; $79, $61 on Amazon [affiliate link];

Accessories and Services


Every new Mac laptop really should be protected and over the years we have continued to find RadTech’s Optex lineup of products perfectly suited to the job. The Notebook ScreenSaverz (starting at $15) is a very high quality microfiber cleaning cloth that also serves to protect the laptop’s screen from pressing against the keyboard when the closed laptop is picked up. We recommend pairing that with RadTech’s Sleevez (starting at $25), which is a form fitting sleeve to go around the exterior of the laptop – very handy for keeping the machine from unfortunate scratches and other cosmetic damage, regardless of where it is stored. If you are a Bing Cashback user (requires a free signup), you can go through Bing to receive 20% off whatever you purchase from RadTech (RadTech, $15-$29,


Apple’s MobileMe provides a number of nice features, including a high quality e-mail box, a decent amount of online storage and the ability to synchronize bookmarks, contacts and calendar information between Macs and PCs. This makes it interesting, but what really turns it into a must have is its push synchronization for iPhones and iPod touches. For anyone with one of those devices, MobileMe will keep the calendar, contact and bookmark information on those devices constantly in-sync with the computer. It is a wonderfully convenient solution that will quickly pay off itself in information present where it is needed when it is needed (Apple, Inc.; $99, $70 on Amazon [affiliate link];

The products featured in this article have received Open for Business's Christmas Gift Editor's Choice seal, denoting that we found them to be of the highest quality and value. Open for Business Editor's Choice products are believed by OFB to be at the top of their product segment.Christmas Gift Editor's Choice seal

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. Disclosure: The author owns a small amount of Apple (AAPL) stock.

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