Mac Mini Dissected

At first glance, the most notable thing about the Mac Mini is its price: $499. But on closer inspection, it's also something of an engineering marvel: a powerful PC that fits inside a tiny, 2.9-pound, 84.5-cubic-inch box. Since the day the Mac Mini was announced, we've been bombarded with questions about it, from the general ("How does it work?") to the extremely particular ("Can I install an AirPort Extreme card myself?").

To satisfy that curiosity, we decided to crack open a Mac Mini, take an in-depth look at what's inside, and find some answers to the most commonly asked questions about this tiny new addition to the Mac family.

Mac Mini FAQ

Apple's Mac Mini
Photograph: Courtesy of Apple

Q: Do I really need more than 256MB of RAM?

A: We think so. With 256MB of RAM, the Mini's main memory will fill up quickly, forcing the system to off-load excess data to the relatively poky hard drive. For any Mac today, 512MB is really the minimum amount of RAM we recommend; 1GB is preferable.

Q: Should I buy RAM from Apple, or can I install it myself?

A: At press time, Apple Computer was charging $75 for 512MB of RAM in the Mini, and $325 for 1GB. (Since the Mini has only a single RAM slot, Apple is essentially charging these prices and recouping the cost of the 256MB module it doesn't have to install in your system.) At the same time, we were able to find 512MB modules from other vendors for as little as $66, and 1GB modules for as little as $164. So if you want to save money, you should seriously consider ordering your Mini with the base 256MB and then swapping out Apple's module for a larger one you purchase yourself, especially if you want 1GB of RAM.

Q: I want to save money but I'm not too technical. Should I just buy Apple's RAM?

A: Maybe. Installing RAM in the Mac Mini is the easiest upgrade you can perform on the machine. If you have a putty knife handy, are comfortable pulling RAM, and can look at the exposed guts of a computer without feeling faint, you can do it. But if you haven't installed RAM in a system before, the Mini is probably not the best place to start.

Q: If I don't order my system with Bluetooth, AirPort, or both installed, can I add them later?

A: Not by yourself. But you can get an Apple specialist or someone at an Apple Store to add them for you. If you're planning on using Bluetooth or AirPort on the Mac Mini at any point during its life, just order it now and save yourself the trouble.

Q: Can I replace the hard drive?

A: Yes, but only if you're a serious hardware hacker. For starters, you'll need to remove the optical drive, lift the entire internal plastic frame from the logic board, and then remove the fan. Only then will you have access to the four screws you need to remove before unhooking the drive. Instead, might we suggest an elegant external FireWire hard drive?

Q: Does the Mac Mini have an audio-in jack? How about digital audio-out?

A: No and no. For both, consider an external USB or FireWire device that supports audio input (such as the Griffin Technology IMic) or digital audio output (such as M-Audio's Transit).

Q: I have a VGA monitor. Will the Mac Mini work with it?

A: Yes. The Mac Mini comes with a DVI-to-VGA adapter--just a small plastic block you push onto the DVI connector. To attach it tightly, simply turn the two plastic wheels on either side of the adapter.

Q: I have a USB keyboard and mouse from a PC. Will they work with the Mac Mini?

A: Yes indeed. OS X natively supports the mouse's second button (and scroll wheel, if it's got one). You might want to use DoubleCommand to swap the Windows and Alt keys; otherwise, you may keep pressing the Option key when you mean to press the 1 key.

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