Twenty years after launching its first Macintosh computer, Apple Computer has finally released the first guilt-free model: at a $499 starting price, the Mac mini is a boon to Windows-wary consumers and an almost unmitigated draw for fans of the company’s iPod portable music players.
If you’re inclined to believe industry insiders, Apple created the iPod to pique interest in the Macintosh platform, which for years was perceived as expensive and nichey. Ten million iPods and many long waiting lists later, Apple’s brand has become globally popular, and demand for an affordable Macintosh computer has grown.
Like last year’s trailblazing iPod mini, the aptly-named Mac mini preserves the core experience of a larger Apple product in a smaller enclosure. And unlike this year’s iPod shuffle, the Mac mini doesn’t compromise on any of the features average people would expect from a product bearing its predecessors’ name: it is a superb low-end Macintosh with more than enough computing power for most users.
Since the day of the Mac mini’s release, iLounge has been testing both its $499 and $599 uncustomized versions, as well as a collection of different RAM configurations designed to find each Mac mini’s performance “sweet spot.” Though the results of our tests varied, we discovered that value-conscious users will see better practical performance for the dollar if they buy the $499 model and add RAM themselves for $60 than if they buy the $599 model and leave it unmodified. Below, we explain this conclusion, and share our views on both machines for the benefit of iPod fans who might be interested in a great new computer. We also have a full Mac mini unpacking photo gallery available for your perusal, as well as XBench benchmarks, which we discuss briefly below.
What is the Mac mini?
The Mac mini is the smallest and cheapest Macintosh computer Apple has ever released. It is internally similar to several other machines in Apple’s current product line, namely the educational market’s eMac ($749 and up), the low-end iBook notebook computer ($999 and up), and the high-end PowerBook G4 notebook computer ($1,599 and up). All four machines include PowerPC G4 processors, which are comparable but not identical to Intel’s lower-end Celeron and Pentium 4 chips. Any current G4 machine is more than sufficient to run virtually any type of software “average people” use, and many professional users still buy and love G4-equipped PowerBook laptops.
Unlike the other three machines, however, the Mac mini does not include a built-in screen, which dramatically reduces its size and cost. Roughly the size of five CD cases stacked on top of each other, it is a stunningly elegant rounded box measuring 6.5 inches square and 2 inches tall. Its side casing is iPod mini-like anodized aluminum, at a thickness comparable to the casings of Apple’s top-of-line PowerMac G5 computers. The top and bottom are made from white and gray plastic and rubber, respectively, with a clear acrylic gloss on the top surface. Minimalism is a critical feature of its design. A single Apple icon appears on the top, while a single CD/DVD slot and single pinhole-sized white power light are the only features on the front. Ports, vents, and a power switch are all on the Mac mini’s rear.
Identical to each other in external appearance, there are two versions of the Mac mini. Apple’s lowest-end ($499) version includes a 1.25Ghz PowerPC G4 processor and 40-Gigabyte hard disk. The other is a higher-end ($599) model with a 1.42Ghz processor and 80-Gigabyte hard disk.
Besides those differences, the systems are generally identical in appearance and features. Each system ships with 256 Megabytes of RAM, a CD-burning, DVD-reading optical drive, a 56.6K modem, and ports for USB, FireWire, Ethernet, and video. Neither includes a keyboard, mouse, or monitor, as Apple rightly assumes that most people already own these items. A VGA-to-DVI adapter is included so that non-Apple monitors will work with the mini, as is a separate large white power supply, a spectacular array of free software, and manuals.
Apple also sells customized “built-to-order” Mac minis with more RAM (+$75-325), DVD burning drives (+$100), and wireless networking features ($50-99) inside. Each of these options can installed inside the machines at Apple’s factory, and is invisible from the outside. Buyers can add their own RAM to either Mac mini at a markedly lower cost, but Apple’s warranty policies require that internal hard drives, optical disc drives, and wireless add-ons be installed at Apple’s factory or retail stores. Notably, neither Mac mini is designed to hold a second drive, replacement graphics card, or upgraded processors; the machines are made to be used only with external add-ons.
Display, Mouse, and Keyboard Compatibility
We tested two PC monitors, two mice, and two keyboards with the Mac mini, and experienced predictable results. Our Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse combination worked perfectly without installing any special drivers or software, jointly occupying a single USB port. Logitech offered additional software that allowed the keyboard’s expanded capabilities to work on the Mac, and installation was even easier than on the PC. The two-button mouse and its scroll wheel worked perfectly with OS X, as well, permitting access to the same Right Click menus and scrolling we learned in Windows.
Our second set of keyboard and mouse were mismatched PC accessories, a Microsoft USB optical mouse and an IBM legacy non-USB wired keyboard. Predictably, the keyboard wouldn’t connect to the Mac, but the mouse did, and worked perfectly. No driver was necessary; it just worked.
We also tested two displays, one a Dell H1025 CRT monitor, and the other a Viewsonic VA800 LCD flat panel that had long been exhibiting sync problems with its host PC. The Dell monitor worked instantly with the Mac mini, offering our choice of resolutions and a good picture, again without any driver installation required. However, the troubled Viewsonic carried over its sync problems to the Mac, and would not establish a stable visual connection at any resolution we tried. Unlike the PC, which sometimes just led to a black screen, all of the Mac resolution modes displayed an image of some sort, but just not one that was practically usable.
For those without keyboards and mice, Apple offers wired and Bluetooth wireless options at newly discounted prices, each of which is stylistically a fair match with the Mac mini. Third-party keyboards of various colors, shapes, sizes, and features are available, as well.
Apple displays are considerably more expensive propositions. We’d venture to guess that at prices of $999 and up, Mac mini buyers won’t even consider them, and in fact, the most expensive 30” model isn’t even mini-compatible because it requires a special type of video card.
But these Apple monitors are unmistakeably beautiful. Sold only in a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio, the Cinema Displays feature thin aluminum bezels that match the mini, and can stand on a desk or hang on a wall. The cheapest 20” version is equally suitable for progressive-scan DVD movies and computing; the larger 23” model is HDTV-compatible for high-definition television viewing. Unfortunately, the 23” monitor has been plagued with quality-control complaints, but the 20” and 30” versions are enviably elegant technology.
In sum, the Mac mini does as well as whatever you connect to it, often without even installing drivers. It works best when you use a single USB port mouse and keyboard solution, leaving your second port free for other purposes. And unless you’re using physically incompatible PC parts from many years ago, it will be a breeze to use the existing components you already own.
Why Should iPod Owners Care?
The Mac mini presents three current benefits to iPod fans: first, easier use of all iPod models, particularly including the iPod photo; second, the opportunity for substantially better iTunes integration with other applications; and third, an easier, more virus- and spyware-free personal computing experience. There are also additional benefits widely anticipated in the near future, including Mac mini-matching iPod accessories, and hacks to make the small Mac work in cars and other non-traditional applications. We’ll discuss each of these benefits in turn below.
1. Enhanced iPod Compatibility: A Double-Edged Sword
Ever since Apple added USB 2.0 support to iPod hardware in mid-2003, PC owners have been snapping up iPods in droves. But they still have to deal with occasional driver conflicts, iPod formatting issues, and other problems not attributable as much to Apple’s iPod/iTunes software as the prevalence of numerous conflicting Windows programs. Using the Mac mini eliminates these risks entirely.
There’s also a chance that any future improvements to the iPod platform – such as video or advanced audio encoding technologies – will initially be optimized for Macs rather than PCs. Apple’s consumer-focused iLife suite of video, photo and audio programs have recently gained significant traction, would be a natural launching point for future iPod technologies, and have no single-suite equivalent on the PC.
The first signs of this are already apparent. Photo organization for the new iPod photo is easier and cheaper with the Mac mini’s included iPhoto software than it is with any of the options available on the PC platform – Adobe’s Photoshop Elements, Album, or use of Windows’ generic My Pictures folder. On a Mac, there’s no need to buy additional software or jump through hoops to organize your photos: iPhoto does it all for free.
Additionally, Microsoft has already threatened that it will limit iPod access to Windows PCs in the name of “heightened security” whenever it releases its Longhorn operating system, the sequel to Windows XP. Though the company is actually only interested in dampening competition for its own “Works for Sure” music players, using a Mac will avoid this trap, too.
Positive and negative reasons for Mac ownership aside, there’s only one practical problem for iPod owners. Except for the iPod shuffle, today’s iPods are formatted either for the Mac or PC, not for both. Format your hard disk-based iPod for use on a Mac and you won’t be able to see its contents on someone else’s PC unless you’re using a special piece of software. This may well change in the future, but for now, it’s a limitation.
2. iTunes: It’s Great on PC, but Better on the Mac
When Apple first launched PC-compatible iPods, there was no Windows version of iTunes: PC users had Musicmatch Jukebox, a fair but not great music library organization tool. By late 2003, Apple developed a PC version of iTunes that is for all intents and purposes identical to the Mac original, and quickly began to globally popularize the iPod/iTunes combination. In July, 2004, Apple expanded its PC offerings with the AirPort Express wireless peripheral and AirTunes, which together permit iTunes music to stream from PC to stereo and more.
For PC users, the iTunes story stops there. But on the Mac, iTunes integrates with a number of other Apple products (in the “iLife ‘05” suite, discussed below) that are included for free with the Mac mini. Songs from your iTunes music library can become background music for photo slideshows, movies, and DVDs created with iLife. And you can easily create iTunes songs – as well as edit them – with another program. While there are ways to do some of the same things with various PC applications, only Apple’s suite guarantees full compatibility for all of your iTunes songs regardless of the format in which they’re encoded.
3. Apple’s Packed-in Software: The Mac mini’s Greatest Temptation
Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and other Windows-compatible PCs are all marketed in the same way: abstract hardware specifications combined with vague promises that everything will work once you receive it. Unfortunately, Windows users know all too well that these promises are often unfulfilled: old pieces of hardware don’t work with new ones, buggy and incompatible third-party software frequently requires paid upgrades, and even the Windows operating system frequently exposes users to critical security threats and endless hassles.
Though most reviews of the Mac mini focus on the hardware, it is first and foremost a purchase made for the included software. Unlike any competing computer at its price point, it runs Apple’s Mac OS X operating system, which is not only more stable than Microsoft’s most recently patched and re-patched versions of Windows XP, but more useful out of the box for average users. Because the various components of OS X are well-designed and easy to use, you’ll turn on the machine, customize it, and connect to the Internet in 10 minutes time – all without a “helpful friend,” a call to technical support, or frustration.
OS X includes powerful but easy to use e-mail, web browsing, scanner and printing software that are generally better than their Windows equivalents. It is comparatively virus-free and immune to both pop-up ads and spyware, plagues upon all of Microsoft’s software. And last but certainly not least, it uses modern graphic design and visual effects that are beautiful to look at, leaving the Windows operating system looking antiquated by comparison.
If you feel committed to Microsoft’s word processing, graphic presentation, spreadsheet, or e-mail programs, the newest versions of those programs are available on the Mac. But Apple has quietly worked to obsolete these programs with its own offerings – the recently released Pages for word processing and page layout, the amazing presentation program Keynote, an upcoming spreadsheet program reportedly titled Cells, and of course the aforementioned OS X-bundled mail application called Mail. Each of Apple’s programs offers a simpler user interface than its Microsoft equivalent, with easier access to powerful tools and fewer “no one uses that” features.
Beyond productivity software, however, Apple’s decision to give away another software package is critical to the value of any Mac mini. In its previous 2004 incarnation, the iLife suite was a positive selling point for Apple’s $1000 computers. Its dramatically improved 2005 version iLife ‘05 is a best-of-breed killer app for $499 Mac minis.
iLife combines one application you know – the music library program iTunes – with four applications that are more than equally impressive. iPhoto is a super-simple digital photo library and editing tool that now creates incredible slideshows and printed photo albums in only a few button clicks. iMovie HD lets you create and edit digital movies, now including HDTV-resolution films. GarageBand creates and edits music, now including simultaneous recording of live multi-track performances. And iDVD simplifies the DVD making process to the point where any person can make a highly professional looking disc featuring music from iTunes and/or GarageBand, photos from iPhoto, and movies from iMovie.
Even as fans of iLife ‘04, we cannot begin to tell you how impressive iLife ‘05 is by comparison. The individual programs are fantastic and shockingly easy for a complete novice to learn, but the ability to seamlessly move content from one program to another truly separates them from any comparable offering. Better yet, though they scale in performance to take advantage of higher-end Macs, they all run perfectly well on the Mac mini. Seeing is believing; take a peek at the applications here to get your first taste of these great new programs.
Apple also includes some other software with every Mac mini: Quicken 2005 financial software, the word processing and jack-of-all-trades Office suite called AppleWorks, and two surprisingly enjoyable games – the slower-paced 3-D marble maze game Marble Blast Gold, and the game console-quality 3-D flying and shooting game Nanosaur 2. (Marble Blast resembles Sega’s popular GameCube and arcade game Super Monkey Ball, while Nanosaur 2 crosses Jurassic Park-style visuals with the classic Sega arcade game Afterburner.) Both games demonstrate that the Mac mini is no slouch in the visual department, comparing favorably to a PlayStation 2 in overall visual quality, though there’s no question that you won’t want to use a Mac mini to run really high-end games such as Doom 3, either.
In sum, when purchasing a $499 Mac mini, you’re not just buying an empty PC box with a security-compromised web browser and Solitaire – you’re getting a computer with software that you can immediately use and seriously enjoy.
4. Cool Mac mini Accessories Today, and More to Come
It didn’t take long for cool Mac mini-specific third-party accessories to emerge, and there are indications that plenty more are on the way. A Mac mini-specific iPod Dock has been discussed, and iPod shuffle-friendly parts are also under development. Several people have also formed teams to turn the Mac mini into an in-car or in-home media center device, complete with a special touch screen interface and simplified graphical access to iTunes and DVD movies. The future of Apple’s littlest Mac is looking very big indeed.
An Apple versus a Dell: The Hidden Costs of Mac Ownership
Not every aspect of PC to Mac conversion is positive, however. There are some hidden costs associated with the switch that can be summed up in two words: hardware and software.
If you have a scanner, printer, keyboard or mouse that you purchased on the cheap, there’s a fair likelihood that you will need to replace them. Non-USB versions of any of these devices just won’t work on the Mac mini, because it only includes 2 USB ports and 1 FireWire port – no antiquated PC-style keyboard, mouse, or parallel ports.
We already had USB keyboards and mice, and easily switched them over to the Mac mini. Combined keyboard and mouse solutions – ones that share a USB port – are preferable because of the mini’s paucity of ports. In order to switch to the Mac mini, however, we did need a new printer and a new scanner – ones that were guaranteed to be OS X compatible. It’s most likely that you’ll also need a USB hub ($5 and up) to plug both of them in at the same time.
We replaced our old, cheap Minolta 1250W laser printer with a new, cheap ($80 after rebate) Brother HL-1440, and though other models were available, we replaced our Visioneer scanner with a Canon Lide 80 for $80. The Brother printer quickly worked perfectly, but the Canon required far too much effort to install. Much to the consternation of Mac users, and despite the claims made on their boxes and in advertisements, the Lide 80 and numerous other Canon scanners are not properly supported with OS X drivers by the company. A great third-party application called VueScan is all but necessary to make them work, and may even save you the trouble of replacing your existing scanner if VueScan supports it.
You may or may not want to buy additional software. Apple’s free Mac mini software gets you off to such a great start that you may not need anything else: in addition to iLife, the AppleWorks suite includes simple word processing, page layout, painting, spreadsheet, database and presentation tools, reads and writes Microsoft Word and Excel files, and can create PDF documents, too.
But serious PC converts won’t be able to do without Microsoft’s Office applications – for now. A Student and Teacher edition of Office 2004 is $149.99 (or less if you shop around), including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage for mail. Alternately consider buying just the Word 2004 upgrade ($109.99, available for $89.99), unless you really have a need for the other applications.
Finally, almost every Mac mini owner will want to upgrade at least one component in the base machine: RAM. In our tests of both versions of the Mac mini, it was readily apparent that spending an extra $100 to buy the 1.42Ghz/80GB mini wasn’t as useful from a performance standpoint as spending $60 to buy extra RAM and putting the additional $40 towards either additional storage or whatever you prefer. A couple of our tests with Adobe’s Photoshop illustrate this point:
|Ram||Processor||Resize to 300MB||Gaussian Blur – 3 pixel|
|512MB||1.25Ghz||0:28 (-1:24)||1:19 (-0:18)|
|1024M||1.25Ghz||0:08 (-0:20)||0:45 (-0:34)|
|512MB||1.42Ghz||0:28 (-1:21)||1:12 (-0:22)|
|1024M||1.42Ghz||0:07 (-0:21)||0:45 (-0:27)|