The big concern that some people have, and a core reason for the Mac's declining market share, is the possibility that Apple may not be around in the future. People fear that if Apple does go under, nobody will be able to service their Macs and the software they've invested in will no longer be supported or upgraded.
``The Mac is the highest-risk PC platform on the market,'' said Rob Enderle, an analyst for the Giga Information Group, based in Santa Clara, Calif. Enderle feels that it makes sense to buy a Mac only under these conditions: You're already using a Mac at school or at work, your organization has already committed itself to the Mac platform, or - for either individuals or organizations - the Mac enables you to do what no other computer can.
Other industry experts point out that because the Mac has such a loyal customer base, even if Apple does fail, the Mac will live on under the aegis of another company. ``You won't be abandoned,'' said James Staten, an analyst for Dataquest, a San Jose, Calif., market research firm. ``The Mac is such a valuable asset that somebody would pick it up,'' he said. ``As long as people continue to use their Macs, there will be companies that will make products and provide support for them.''
Staten is among many industry watchers who feel that Apple has a bright future. Apple is developing new machines with a lightning fast G3 microprocessor and is committed to its next-generation operating system, code-named Rhapsody. Staten expects those products to be well received by the computer-buying public.
Even if you make the reasonable assumption that Apple will survive as a company for the foreseeable future, there are other market realities to consider. Most important, nearly 20 Windows PCs are sold today for every Mac, according to Staten.
This means that Windows 95 PCs are less expensive than Macs - though some Mac clones are price-competitive. And it means that there are more software programs and hardware peripherals available for Windows machines. Still, only highly specialized products are made on a Windows-only basis, and for software products, an emulation program or an add-on card will let you to run Windows programs on a Mac.
For many computer buyers, it boils down to reducing the complexity. The bottom line here is that, despite the advances made by Windows 95, a Mac is still easier to set up, easier to learn, easier to use, easier to troubleshoot, easier to upgrade, and easier to connect to the Internet. Repeating a statement heard often among Mac enthusiasts, Bob Sandler, Macintosh special interest group leader for the Philadelphia Area Computer Society, said, ``Mac people swear by their machines. Windows 95 people swear at their machines.''
Apple offers a range of desktop computers for homes, businesses and schools. And despite Apple's recent decision to curtail its licensing program, there are still some bargains to be had in Mac clones.
The Power Macintosh 4400/200 is an entry-level machine that's targeted toward homes and small- and medium-size businesses. It comes standard with 16 megabytes of RAM, a 2-gigabyte hard drive, and an 8X CD-ROM drive. The 4400/200 PC Compatible comes with a PC compatibility card.
The 5400 and 5500 are all-in-one systems in which the monitor is attached to the case, and are good choices for students. The 6500 series comes with a case that stands on the floor rather than sitting underneath the monitor, for easy upgrading. The 7300 series includes a faster central processing unit.
The Power Macintosh 8600/200 comes standard with 32 megabytes of RAM, and is targeted toward desktop publishing, multimedia and Web authoring professionals. The top-of-the-line 9600 series comes standard with a 4-gigabyte hard drive, and is the fastest and most expandable Mac.
In a move widely criticized by users, Apple recently purchased its chief cloner, Power Computing, and clamped down on other companies that were licensing the Macintosh operating system. According to analysts, clone companies were putting out machines that were both less expensive and more powerful than Apple's own Macs, which was cutting into Apple's sales and profits.
You can still find a few Power Computing and Motorola clones out there, but Umax is the last remaining cloner with significant market presence. Some Umax SuperMacs are available for less than $1,000, whereas the least expensive Mac from Apple costs around $1,300. The low-margin low end is the only place where Apple is allowing cloners to compete with it.
Mail-order houses offer the best prices for both Macs and Mac clones, and are a good place to buy as long as you know what you want. Top Mac mail-order houses include MacWarehouse(800-645-9173, http://www.warehouse.com/MacWarehouse), MacConnection (800-800-2222, http://www.macconnection.com), Mac Zone (800-248-0800, http://www.maczone.com).
If you feel more comfortable looking at and putting your hands on a machine before purchasing it, you're better off shopping in a local retail setting such as Micro Center or CompUSA.
Apple provides a handy service through its Web site where you can locate other retail stores near you. At the Apple Resource Locator - http://buy.apple.com , you type in your street address and city, and whether you intend to use your Mac for home, business, education or other purposes. In a few seconds, you'll see on your computer screen a list of stores with their addresses and phone numbers, and how many miles they are from your location.
Here's one caveat when shopping for either a Mac or Mac clone. Make sure you factor in the price of the monitor.