Apples and Pears: A Guide to Alternative Apple Accessories
While Apple manufactures some of the best accessories for the Mac, they aren't the only company that does so. In fact, there are many other companies that manufacture some great accessories for your Mac, from keyboards and mice to cables and adapters. Some of these are not only cheaper, they're far more versatile and feature-packed than Apple's offerings.
In this guide, I'll show you some alternatives to Apple's own accessories for your Mac, saving you money as well as increasing your productivity using accessories that you may never have considered before.
Apple's keyboards have generated polarising opinions over the years, evenly splitting users between claims that they're the best - and worst - keyboards you can buy.
Apple currently offers two keyboards, a compact Bluetooth wireless keyboard or a larger wired keyboard. These aren't the only keyboards you can use for your Mac. In fact, any Bluetooth or USB keyboard will work though, for the best experience, a Mac-orientated keyboard is best. There are a number of companies that manufacturer keyboards specifically for the Mac and each of them have their own advantages and features that may make them a better choice than an Apple keyboard.
Apple Wireless Keyboard
Apple's wireless keyboard operates via Bluetooth and its small design is made possible by the omission of the numeric keypad. Depending on the work you do, a numeric keypad can be indispensable. There are certain devices that can be purchased that add this functionality by way of an additional device, such as the Belkin YourType Bluetooth Wireless Keypad, these are very costly and it can be more cost effective to simply replace the Apple keyboard completely.
While Apple's wireless keyboard is frugal on power, it does require a set of AA batteries to be occasionally changed.
Logitech have been making keyboards for the Mac for some time and their equivalent keyboard, the K811, will also use the built-in Bluetooth function of your Mac. It can even be paired with up to three different devices and switching between them is a touch of a button, unlike the Apple keyboard which would require consistently pairing every time you wanted to change device. If you're an iPad and Mac user, the K811 can save you a lot of hassle.
Additionally, the K811 is backlit, similar to the MacBook range of portable Macs, making it great for using in dim light and something that the Apple keyboard doesn't do. Furthermore, the K811 includes a USB port and built-in rechargeable battery so you can keep it running indefinitely, no need to keep a supply of AA batteries handy. If the battery starts to run down, simply connect it via USB and it (temporarily) becomes a wired keyboard.
Apple Wired Keyboard with Keypad
Those looking for a keyboard that doesn't need to rely on charging up or need to have a built-in numeric keypad can make use of another logitech keyboard, the K750.
It is actually wireless, so it needs power, but it features a built-in solar panel for this and requires no change of batteries or wired connection to charge. As long as your room is well lit, they'll keep themselves charged at all times. This provides all the benefits of a wired keyboard with the advantage of being completely wireless.
Similar to the Apple wired keyboard, it does require a single USB port as it relies upon the use of a USB receiver. These adapters are low-profile and, although they require the use of a USB port, they offer a great amount of reliability and range than Bluetooth does.
Windows PC Keyboards
Some of the best keyboards on the market are, alas, not necessarily designed for the Mac. Neither will they have a Mac-branded version. Gaming keyboards, in particular, will often not offer a Mac version, but that doesn't mean you can't use them.
For recent Windows-to-Mac switchers, who may prefer to use their existing keyboards, you can easily adapt a PC keyboard for the Mac with no special software. On a PC keyboard, the Alt (Option) and Command / Windows key are swapped around. We can easily correct this in System Preferences as Mac OS X includes the option to alter the Modifier Keys, such as Command and Alt.
This feature has been included Mac OS X for some time specifically to aid switchers who have great keyboards but don't want to throw them out simply because they switched from Windows to Mac.
Mice and Trackpad
Apple's own mice range hasn't been as highly praised as their keyboards and users often lament the poor ergonomics or relatively few features for such an expensive device. For anyone who needs to use a mouse for long durations then it's really a device to avoid.
Unlike keyboards, which can be more "Mac-like" with their unique keys, mice have no such requirements which means you're in a much better position to pick from almost any range that you feel would be best.
In addition to a mouse, Apple also offers a desktop equivalent of their portable Mac's trackpad called Magic Trackpad. It's a great device if you're someone who likes using the trackpad as it provides all the same multi-touch functions and touch capabilities in a larger trackpad for desktop users.
Similar to keyboards, the Mac supports both Bluetooth and USB mice. There aren't that many manufacturers who offer Bluetooth mice, preferring their own USB receivers, though companies such as Belkin and Microsoft do offer Bluetooth devices that you can use.
I've mentioned before about Logitech using USB receivers for some of their Keyboard for Mac range. These receivers, dubbed Unity, can connect multiple devices at the same time. If you were to use a Logitech keyboard and mouse together, you can just use one receiver for both devices.
When looking at alternative input devices, try and match up the brand where possible so that you can take advantage of this feature so your USB ports aren't being needlessly wasted on just to use a USB receiver.
Shapes and Sizes
By knowing about the alternatives to Apple's own accessories, you can find more ergonomic mice that are designed to the contours of your hand to can reduce the possibility of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) as much as possible. I don't think that any of Apple's mice have been particularly ergonomic and the Magic Mouse, in particular, becomes painful for me to use for longer than a few minutes.
I've never enjoyed using a mouse and I actually use a trackball day to day, something Apple doesn't manufacture. Thankfully, other companies do, meaning I have no problems using a trackball with my Mac.
While trackpads for the Mac aren't particularly common, Logitech has since joined Apple in options for the Mac with their Logitech Rechargeable Trackpad for Mac, a rechargeable trackpad that works in the same way as Apple's own device.
Just because you're using a non-Apple mouse doesn't mean you lose some of the functionality it offers. On the contrary, you're more than likely going to gain more features. Most mice and trackballs have more buttons that you can program using the device-specific software.
Certain multi-button devices may require additional software, such as Logitech or Microsoft mice, in order to get the most from them and use some of the additional features they provide, but it isn't always required. You'll find that Mac OS X can detect all of the buttons that a mouse or trackball contains and lets you assign them functions through the Mission Control preference pane.
Should you want to use a mouse that isn't specifically Mac-supported, the manufacturer makes terrible software or you want to do more than just open Dashboard, there are apps such as USB Overdrive, a 3rd-party tool that can manage and configure almost any USB and Bluetooth input device better than most drivers.
Going further than Mac OS X's built-in support, you can assign functions that will let those extra buttons open apps, perform double-clicks or even adjust the volume.
Tip: Check out our tutorial Using Third Party Keyboards and Mice with Your Mac for further information.
Apple only manufactures one display, the 27" Thunderbolt LED Display. This behemoth of a display boasts a range of features, such as built-in USB ports, speakers and FaceTime camera, in a design that closely resembles the iMac. It's one of the best displays on the market, but you certainly pay for the privilege of the Apple logo and, at $999, it's going to be out of many people's price range. Just because you're buying a Mac mini doesn't mean you need to buy Apple's expensive display as well.
Avoid Form Over Function
When it comes to looking for an alternative display, you'll not find anything quite as beautiful as Apple's offering. If you're willing to go for something a little more conventional, however, you can save yourself a lot of money and still end up with a display of equal quality.
Displays from companies like Dell and Samsung, for example, may not match the sleek aluminium styling from Apple with their more plastic casing, but a display of equivalent resolution and features can cost over 1/3 less. The Dell U2713HM is a 27" display that offers the same resolution as the Thunderbolt Display but with a faster response time. In fact, Apple's Thunderbolt Display still only offers USB 2.0 ports, something that the Dell has the advantage with as it offers full USB 3.0 support.
Not all the features are there, however. There is no Thunderbolt passthrough so if you're planning to use this with other Thunderbolt devices, make sure this is at the end of your Thunderbolt chain. There's also no built-in camera, ethernet or audio, but at over $300 less, it's a considerable saving.
Monoprice is well-known for its cheap cables and accessories, and their display, the 27" Glass Panel Pro, although lacking many of the additional connections of Apple's Thunderbolt display, is less than half the price.
All displays are made equal, Apple's are just made more equal than others with features that are more attuned to Mac users.
As the entire Mac range (with the exception of the outgoing Mac Pro) features Thunderbolt, there are a number of displays that can be used with them via the use of a display adapter. VGA, DVI and HDMI displays are all possible thanks to display adapters that can be purchased separately and as the Thunderbolt port also doubles as a
The Mac mini also includes a HDMI port as standard so this can even eliminate the need for an adapter if your newly-chosen display offers a HDMI connection.
Speaking of adapters, Apple is known for making rather pricey display adapters. Companies such as Amazon and Monoprice will offer their own branded cables and adapters that can be found for much less.
Apple's Mini DisplayPort to DVI adapter is currently $29 at the Apple Store. The same type of adapter at Monoprice is just $7. Again, it certainly pays to shop around.
When Sticking With Apple Counts
Despite my advice regarding looking at alternative options when it comes to input devices and displays, there is one area where you should always stick with Apple's accessories - power adapters and batteries.
Unlike Thunderbolt, USB and Bluetooth, Apple's MagSafe connection is 100% proprietary and isn't licensed for other companies to use. The same goes for batteries for older portable Macs that offered removable batteries. These types of adapters and batteries are copies where an attempt has been made to reverse-engineer what Apple has been able to produce.
The result is something that won't be guaranteed and has the potential to not only damage your Mac but cause injury.
By spending a little time researching alternatives to some of Apple's accessories, you'll likely find accessories that are a better fit for the purpose you require them for and at a substantial saving. While I'm very much a Mac user, I use a Logitech keyboard and trackball, as well as an AOC display. I even use a Monoprice Mini DisplayPort cable that kept the costs down further.
While Apple certainly makes some great accessories for the Mac, you don't necessarily have to opt for them and, in the case of the Magic Mouse especially, there are much better (and cheaper) alternatives out there.