Mac mini: tiny price, but monster features
Apple's smallest computer is easy to install and user-friendly.
When the original Macintosh computer was little more than a sketch, its creators envisioned the machine retailing for about $500. But when the first Mac finally rolled out in 1984, it carried a hefty price tag of $2,495.
Apple Computer Inc. has never had a problem capturing consumers' hearts, though their wallets have been another story. Over the years, Apple's reputation for innovation, fashion-forward design and high prices rose while its market share dwindled.
Now, it's finally selling a computer, called the Mac mini, for $499, the same price as one of its higher-end iPod music players.
Though this compact little box won't have the same impact that a $500 Mac could have had 21 years ago, it just might be the right computer for our times.
The Mac mini is elegant, inexpensive without being cheap, and it's not a magnet for the viruses, worms and other malware floating around the Internet. It could fit in any room as a first, second or third computer. And it plays well with others on a home network.
Most of all, it's a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows that doesn't carry the learning curve of Linux. It also doesn't presume you're guilty of software theft: And refreshingly unlike Windows, there's no activation when you set it up -- or an anti-piracy checks afterward.
Good thing in a small package
The Mini seems designed more like a consumer electronics device like Apple's iPod than a general-purpose computer. But despite the name, it's watered down only in size and cost. This is as much a Mac as any other that's been sold over the years.
It arrived on my front porch in a carton that seemed more like a cake box. Removed from the packaging, the 2.9-pound unit is basically a 6.5-inch square just 2 inches high. The silver-and-white case resembles the color scheme of an iPod.
It doesn't include a keyboard, mouse or display, but all can be purchased separately based on what you like and need. After my borrowed Mini arrived, I dug out my old iMac's keyboard and mouse as well as a 15-inch monitor from the attic.
The old parts worked beautifully and cost nothing extra.
Setup took less than five minutes and involved nothing more than connecting the monitor, the mouse and the keyboard to the computer, and plugging everything into the wall. (Yes, there is a pretty sizable power brick, unlike the latest iMacs.)
After completing a brief startup wizard, I was whisked to Mac OS X's simple desktop where I could launch Apple's recently updated suite of programs for music, photos and video as well as check e-mail and surf the Internet. All the software is included.
My unit came with a 1.25 gigahertz G4 microprocessor, double the default (and skimpy) 256 megabytes of RAM, a 40-gigabyte hard drive and a combo CD-burner/DVD player. It also had a built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless option installed. The extras brought the total price to $673.
A number of other upgrades are available, including a faster processor, even more memory, a bigger hard drive and a combination DVD-CD burner. The options are best ordered when you buy the machine. Unlike most PCs, the Mini isn't designed to be easily upgradeable at home.
I slid a DVD movie into the slot that, aside from a tiny power light, is the only feature on the front of the computer. The show started up immediately, and didn't stutter even though the Web browser and iPhoto picture management program were already running.
I downloaded and installed a trial version of Microsoft's Office for Macs, and the applications worked fine. (Apple's new productivity suite, iWorks, isn't included but can be purchased for $79. Microsoft Office 2004 standard edition for Macs is $399.)
You also can add a Mini to your existing home network, and it will work well even with all your Windows PCs. You can share files, printers and even desktops.
Because I use Microsoft's Windows XP Professional on my primary computer at home, I was able to control that system -- and view its desktop -- from the Mac mini in the dining room. That was thanks to a program called Remote Desktop Connection for Mac OS X that Microsoft offers as a free download.
Thus, I could run software on the PC while controlling and viewing it on the Mac, including the Windows-only text editor that I used to write this review. (I also could have used Microsoft's Virtual PC emulator, though I find it sluggish even on higher-end Macs.)
I could have done the same even without XP Professional. A number of Virtual Network Computing programs are available at little or no cost, including some that can transfer the Mac desktop to the PC or another Mac.
There are other options, too: including a $20 KVM switch that lets two computers share a single keyboard, video display and mouse.
Or you could abandon Windows altogether -- at the risk of breaking out in a cold sweat, not knowing what to do with the money you would have spent on anti-virus and anti-spyware software.