First Look: A maximum look at a mini Mac, part three

IX. Conclusion

If you’re still reading this, you’ve got an incredible amount of patience, interest in the mini, or you just jumped down here to get to the good stuff first. Whatever the reason, here are my concluding thoughts after a long, busy week working intently with the new Intel Core Duo mini—thoughts on both the mini itself, and the Intel transition. Because my fingers are nearly ground down to stumps, I’m going to present the conclusion as a bulleted list…

  • I cannot directly comment on the Intel Core Solo vs. the Duo, but from what I read in Macworld’s review, the Core Duo seems to be well worth the extra $200, especially if you’re interested in HD playback.
  • As expressed in my opinion piece a couple weeks back, I was very concerned that the “Dellification” of the Mac’s internals would somehow change the user experience. Despite the fact that this mini is the most Dell-like Mac yet, my concerns in this area have been satisfied. Regardless of the parts inside, Apple’s hardware and software engineers have succeeded in making the mini “just another Mac.” And though it may not sound it, that’s a compliment for a job well done!
  • Rosetta, the technology that allows PowerPC code to run without recompiling for the Intel chip, is fairly amazing. Yes, it extracts a performance penalty, but not so much of a hit that you feel like you can’t use the technology. From opening a graphically-intensive game to navigating through a 75-page Word document and running complex Excel spreadsheets, I was impressed with Rosetta’s invisibility. You don’t think about; stuff just seems to work right.
  • As nice as Rosetta is, Universal applications are even nicer. They all load quickly and feel very responsive. Web pages in Camino basically appear; there is no drawing time. Amazing.
  • The Universal Finder is a real “wow” item for me. It’s very hard to explain just how much faster it feels and reacts. This is the first time since my days of OS 9 usage where I’ve felt the Finder was really keeping up with what I was asking it to do. Most impressive.
  • For an entry-level machine, the Core Duo mini does some amazing stuff. Playing back HD video, for instance, is something that my $1800 PowerBook can’t do. The Core Duo makes it look simple. It runs Java apps faster than my Dual G5. Many of its processing benchmarks surpass those of the G5. As impressive as this is on the mini, what I really think it bodes well for are the upcoming top-of-the-line Power Mac replacements. Those machines will simply scream.
  • The mini will meet the needs of its intended audience quite nicely. It won’t satisfy power users running huge apps in Rosetta, but for everyone else, it’s a very nice machine. Ideally, it would come with 512MB more RAM, but it’s very usable out of the box.
  • The on-board graphics chip handled Tiger’s Core Graphics with ease, and did a surprisingly good job with games. Apple’s decision to limit the chip to 80MB of system memory was a good one, removing my concern that free RAM would be sucked up by the graphics system. At no time did I ever feel like I was using a substandard system as far as graphics went. DVDs looked and played great, HD video playback was amazing, and it even did a reasonable job on most of the games. Just remember that it’s not a Doom 3 power machine, and you’ll be fine.
  • The final question is…would I buy one of these myself, and/or recommend it to friends? That’s a tougher question; it would really depend on who the user was and what their needs were.

    For first-time Mac buyers, I don’t think the machine makes a lot of sense, unless they already have a keyboard, mouse, and monitor from a PC system. If you order a 1GB Core Duo, that’s $899 up front. Add a keyboard ($20), mouse ($10), and monitor ($150), and you’re up to $1079. For an extra $300, you could have an Intel-based iMac with a faster processor, twice the hard drive space, and an included iSight camera. The iMac has a better video card as well, and makes a better gaming machine. Unless budget was “absolutely no more than $1100,” I would probably try to convince a newcomer that the iMac was the better value proposition.

    Yes, you can knock the mini’s price down by $200 by getting the Core Solo, but I’m not sure that newcomers will be as impressed by the performance of that machine, based on our review and lab tests… and it won’t play back HD video, so it wouldn’t work as well in the home entertainment center.

    For those who already have the accessories, however, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the mini, especially the Core Duo. Even power users may be surprised at how well the mini does some things—just don’t expect it to be a Photoshop-in-Rosetta powerhouse! As an add-on system, it’s amazingly fast, very quiet, and can be placed almost anywhere. It’s also a great way to get acquainted with the Intel processors, and perhaps test the waters before diving in with a new high-end Intel tower later this year. And as a centerpiece in a home entertainment system, it would perform admirably.

    And now, I really am out of things to say about both the Intel transition and the Core Duo mini. I hope you’ve found this information useful, and thanks for reading along!

    [ Rob Griffiths is a senior editor at Macworld and runs MacOSXHints.com. ]

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