Mac Mini to max

I call it Macinstein.

Sitting here on my desk is the Mac Mini Apple sent several weeks ago for review purposes. It's not plugged into anything else Apple-made, and it's humming along just fine. Actually humming isn't quite right; it's silent in day-to-day use.

As you may remember, when the $499 Mini was unveiled by Apple last month, it was billed as a "bring-your-own-monitor-keyboard-and-mouse" computer. So after finding that it works just fine with the 20-in. Apple Cinema display and wireless Apple keyboard I have at home, I brought it to work and cobbled together my own little mismatched system.

The VGA monitor is an aging 17-inch MultiSync from NEC. The keyboard is from MacAlly, and the mouse -- the two-button variety, of course -- is from Kensington. (The monitor, beige and scuffed up a bit, required the included VGA-to-DVI adapter.) One of our IT folks dropped an extra Ethernet line for me and after plugging everything in, I fired up the Mac Mini and it was quickly computing away.

Now when I say quickly, I don't mean dual 2.5GHz Power Mac G5 quickly. I mean that in a more leisurely sense, since the Mini I have sports a 1.25GHz G4 processor. From Mac chime to desktop takes 1 minute and 4 seconds, perfectly reasonable given the older G4 processor and the slow, 4,200-rpm 40GB hard drive. Launching four applications in quick succession (Mail, Address Book, Safari and iPhoto with 1,140 photos in the database) took about 30 seconds. The mini's GUI response was fluid, although I wouldn't quite call it snappy, and on occasion the spinning-color-wheel-of-waiting reared its head. No doubt, doubling the RAM from its current 512MB would help there.

Happily, the relaunch time for those four apps was half the original launch time; they took just 16 seconds to show up for duty.

Running the benchmark utility Xbench yielded consistent scores of 104 and 105. In comparison, my Power Mac G5, which has dual 2-GHz chips, turned in an Xbench score of 230. That's with two, 10,000-rpm Raptor hard drives from Western Digital set up in a striped-RAID configuration and a price tag close to six times that of the Mini.

A top-of-the-line Power Mac G5 with dual 2.5GHz chips benchmarked at 249, while an iMac G5, with a single 1.8GHz processor and a Raptor drive came in at 165. And the latest 17-inch. Powerbook, which sports a 1.67GHz G4 processor and a 5,400-rpm hard drive, clocked in at 135 on the Xbench scale. It, like the other high-end machines, costs several times as much as a Mini.

In other words, the Mini isn't going to win any speed races, but neither will it break the bank. And according to the folks at Apple, that's exactly the point. In an interview last week, Jai Chulani, senior product manager for the Mac Mini, said the smallest G4 available is designed for people who've heard great things about Macs and Mac OS X but don't want to spend a lot of money.

"People tell us they love Mac OS X and how stable it is, and they're constantly showing off for their friends and family all the great things they've done," Chulani said. "Many of them go back and say, 'I wish Apple would make a more affordable Mac,' or 'I'd like to add a second or third computer to my home and I wish Apple would give me a way.'

"That's exactly what a Mac Mini is: a more affordable way to do that. And in typical Apple fashion, we do it with a sense of style," he said. "It's just 2 inches tall, 6.5 inches square. When was the last time you could hold an entire desktop computer in the palm of your hand? It's so small you can put it anywhere on your desk."

Although Chulani said the Mini is clearly aimed at the consumer market, Apple has seen some corporate interest in the little desktop as well.

A lot of enterprise customers use consumer products for enterprise tasks," he said. "Many of them are impressed with Mac OS X and the stability [it offers]. We are actually getting lots of queries about the Mac Mini in an enterprise situation. These customers have existing displays, keyboards and mice that are sitting around from past purchases that they can reuse. We see it in education, too.

"These customers have an investment [in hardware], and they tend to use their investment for a much longer period of time," Chulani said. "They try to squeeze out every dollar of their investment, and this plays perfectly to that."

Asked about the decision to go with 4,200-rpm hard drives rather than faster models, which would offer a performance boost, Chulani said that Apple "looked at what customers are going to do." For example,"for most of these things, you really don't need a high-speed hard drive. PowerBook customers [whose laptops have 5,400-rpm drives] are doing high-end digital editing. They're using professional applications," he said. "But 4,200-rpm hard drives work perfectly ... for most customers who buy a Mac Mini.

"We have a great collection of high-end machines" for buyers who want more speed, he said.

The Mini's small size is also spurring buyers to look for different ways to use it. "Some people will use it as a sort of portable hard drive," taking it -- and their work -- between office and home, said Chulani. "More power to them. It's not positioned as a portable, but we've seen a number of interesting ways to use it. People want to put them in their cars. Or use a Mac Mini as a home theater PC. People want to build rack-mount servers.

"It just shows how excited everyone is about this at the grass-roots level. You can use it in so many ways."

Anyone wanting a Mini right now will have to wait. Following the initial burst of deliveries after its unveiling at MacWorld San Francisco, delivery times have lengthened to about two to three weeks. According to Chulani, about half of Mini buyers are opting for the no-frills $499 model, and half buy the $599 version, which comes with a faster, 1.42GHz processor and an 80GB hard drive. "Some are adding memory, and we're starting to see an uptick in wireless and Superdrive [options]," he said. "It's a healthy mix. But there are a lot of customers who just want an entry-level system."

As for how long supplies will be constrained, that depends on demand, Chulani said.

"We hope to be constrained for a while," he said, laughing. "I've gone into Apple retail stores, and the thing I've heard a lot is that friends and family of people who have already bought one are looking at them. It's creating a momentum of its own. I've heard anecdotes of people coming in to pick up three or four machines."

As for the Mini on my desk, it goes back to Apple next week. It isn't the fastest Mac out there, by far. But given the number of people here who stopped by to see it in action -- and more important, given the number of people who seem to want one -- it could well turn out to be the most popular.

For more enterprise computing news, visit Computerworld.com. Story copyright (c) 2005 Computerworld, Inc. All rights reserved.

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