The Mac mini software challenge

Like many Mac users, I only buy a Mac every few years, when my old one is hobbling along like a sick pet. So when the 450MHz Power Mac G4 I bought in 2000 seemed beyond “optimization,” a Mac mini turned out to be my perfect salve. And when I brought home my new, tiny wonder and started it up for the first time, I saw that my Applications folder was already full of useful programs. Usually, my first inclination would be to compulsively install additional apps—Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, QuarkXPress, FileMaker Pro. That’s when it hit me: this Mac may have come with every application I need. This time, I’m taking the Mac mini software challenge.

That’s right—I’m not installing anything new on my new Mac mini, until I truly must. Let’s see how good a value this nice-looking bundle really is.

I figure, at work, my Mac is all tricked out and has some high-end programs (most for the demands of magazine publishing), but at home, just the basics will do. For regular personal use, I just want to listen to music, send and receive e-mail, travel the Web, chat with friends, and use a word processor to write and edit ( iTunes, Mail, Safari, iChat and TextEdit or AppleWorks, respectively). When I want to do some more-businesslike tasks like making a budget, managing my contacts, sorting out my finances, and creating a calendar, I have AppleWorks, Address Book, Quicken 2005, and iCal. (And of course, having a .Mac account enhances many of these tasks, and adds backup tools.)

As for generally making my Mac life easier, I can find my files with Spotlight, make useful workflows with Automator, look up movie times in Sherlock, and troubleshoot with Disk Utility. The Dictionary and Calculator have already come in handy, and Dashboard offers pretty much any little utility I need, for free.

I’m not much of a gamer, but there’s always Chess, Marble Blast Gold, and Nanosaur 2 in case I get bored.

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned iLife yet. For the time being, I’m not using iMovie or iDVD much, but there’s iPhoto for organizing my photos, and Preview for viewing common image files. And that’s about all I need at home. But as soon as I can get the new Front Row (which now comes with the new iMacs ), my Mac mini will become even more valuable to me as a home-office jukebox.

Thing is, the stock software on my Mac mini is really good software—slick, well-designed, and very useful. It’s not a bunch of fluff Apple threw at us that’s really sub-par. That said, I’m wary of AppleWorks. It has opened all the Microsoft documents I’ve needed, as it uses the MacLinkPlus translator, but it probably hasn’t been significantly updated for 10 years or so. It’s very OS 8, if you catch my meaning. To tempt me with better office software, there are 30-day trials of Microsoft Office 2004 and Apple’s iWork (which includes Pages, Apple’s new word-processing/page-layout program, and Keynote, the wonderful presentation program).

So really, there aren’t too many things I can’t do with my Mac mini. But there are some exceptions. I know I’ll miss Photoshop Elements soon, when I want to edit more photos. And my favorite utilities— St. Clair Software’s Default Folder and Publicspace.net’s MacBreakz are notably missing. Eventually, I’ll probably load numerous trial programs and buy a few other pieces of software.

But for now, it feels good to own a Mac mini as clean as the fresh-driven snow. There’s no clutter, and my little machine does everything I need. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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