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Though smaller than a lunch box, Apple's Mac Mini doesn't want for computing power. In my tests of a $673 shipping unit equipped with a 1.25-GHz G4 processor, 512MB of RAM, a combination CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive, and built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, it handled most tasks gracefully, without hesitating or freezing. I even opened and switched among a half-dozen applications without any system slowness.
But I'm not convinced that Apple's $499 base configuration model, which includes just 256MB of RAM, would manage task switching or large files as nimbly as my test system. The base model lacks built-in wireless, too. For my money, the upgrades are worth the extra $174. It is possible to upgrade the Mini later, but it can be a tricky job.
My test machine played a DVD movie at full screen size without a hitch, though you'll certainly want to spring for a set of good speakers or headphones to use with it--the sound through the unit's single built-in speaker was way too low. When piped through a decent pair of headphones connected to the audio port, the audio was great. To bring such improved audio into the Mac Mini, you will need to spring for something like Griffin Technologies' IMic, which connects to a USB port.
Put to the Test
The only time the Mac Mini hiccupped was when I opened two large (15MB and 111MB) pictures in IPhoto. I watched the "processing" icon for a good 10 seconds before either image would open, and switching among photos was a little sluggish.
The unit ran about as hot as a typical notebook. I could feel heat coming from the back vents and from the bottom after about 2 hours of use. Despite its onboard fans, the unit is surprisingly quiet. I did hear a little drive noise when the CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive was spinning, as well as some fan noise when I was very close to the unit, but nothing like the droning system noise my PC can pump out.
The Mini has the same advantages and drawbacks as most notebooks, except that it doesn't come with a screen. On the plus side, the unit is extremely light and portable and fits unobtrusively into lots of different environments. On the minus side you can quickly clutter up your workspace with external peripherals. Also, its external power brick is about a quarter the size of the computer itself.
No mainstream Windows-based system is this small--about the only ones that come close are "cube-size" systems like those from Shuttle Computer. These Windows cubes have more flexibility in configuration, but they're also quite a bit bigger than the Mini.
After providing your own monitor, USB keyboard, and mouse, you'll want to add a powered USB hub. Since the Mac Mini has only two USB 2.0 ports--one of which must be used for the keyboard--you'll have exactly one port left for connecting peripherals. And if you can't plug your mouse into your keyboard, you'll have none. The Mac aftermarket probably will soon offer "Mini-look" accessories--including USB hubs and KVM switches.
For Windows users who want to experiment with a Mac on the side, the Mini is a great way to get started.
Apple Mac Mini
Plenty powerful for home and light business use; a great option for curious PC users.
Street: $673 as configured
Current Price (if available)
Apple's least expensive Mac ships without a mouse, display, or keyboard. But it does feature a G4 processor, up to 80GB of storage depending on configuration, and a slot-loading DVD-ROM/CD-RW optical drive. In July 2005, Apple doubled the installed memory to 512MB across the mini line.
- Fast enough for basic tasks
- Excellent design
- Small and light
- Good video-out options
- Doesn’t come with enough memory
- Hard-to-find power button on back of unit
- Performance not as good as similar, larger Macs
- No audio-in port
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