Triumph of the Cheapskate

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My dad owns a Wintel PC—I don’t know the make or model, other than that it’s an ancient beige box puttering along on Windows 98. I also don’t know how my father got his hands on such a contraption, but if I found out that he bought it off the back end of a truck on a deserted country road, it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me. I should point out that owning a bargain-basement, barely functional PC does not make my father a bad person—it just makes him cheap.

As you might expect, my dad runs into his share of trouble using an antiquated machine. Not a month goes by that he’s not complaining about some unexplained application crash, maddening hardware failure, or other mysterious bugaboo. And that’s when he calls in me, to troubleshoot a computer I’ve never used that runs an operating system I can’t abide.

This does make my father a bad person, incidentally.

I’ve suggested that my father make the switch to a Mac. I’ve offered to buy him a Mac. I’ve told him that replacing his out-of-date hardware with something a little less mysterious will go a long way toward making both our lives immeasurably easier. And each time I make that suggestion, he looks at me like I’ve proposed that he spend his next vacation flying to Mars.

The nature of his resistance has changed over the years. First, he argued that it would be too much of a hassle moving from one platform to the other; Apple’s “Switch” campaign from a few years back put the lie to that notion. Then, he didn’t much cotton to the idea of paying the Mac’s higher retail price; that objection got shot down about the same time Apple rolled out a $799 eMac that, performance-wise, would have left his aging machine gasping for air. But when he found out that the eMac was an all-in-one system, my father revealed the last hurdle to overcoming his Mac resistance—he had paid perfectly good money for his CRT monitor, his keyboard, and his other peripherals, and he wasn’t about to junk them just because Steve Jobs thinks he should.

But I think the Mac mini unveiled as one of the centerpiece announcements in Tuesday’s Macworld Expo keynote will be the last thing that finally pushes my dad out of the land of clunky, temperamental machinery and into the Mac fold. You’re looking for improved performance, pops? A 1.2GHz or 1.4GHz G4 processor should fit the bill quite nicely. You don’t want to squander my inheritance on a new desktop? A Mac mini can be had for $499—$599 if you’re feeling daffy and wasteful. And it even comes with a VGA adapter so you can keep using your precious monitor.

And that’s why people like my father—the folks who would rather suffer through an unpleasant computing experience if the alternative requires a significant outlay of cash—are the big winners after Tuesday’s product announcements. Yes, the Mac mini has an appeal that extends beyond cheapskates—I ran into more than a few colleagues who normally wouldn’t think twice about paying up for the latest Mac hardware eyeing the mini lustfully. But if you’re tight with a buck—let’s use the more polite “bargain hunter” appellation from here on—Apple just dropped a nicely-featured, attractively-priced compact desktop in your lap. And, if you happen to like music as well, the new iPod shuffle can be had for less than $100. Yes, for bargain hunters, Tuesday’s keynote must have been like finding the world’s largest coupon circular ripe for the clipping.

Here are the other winners and losers stemming from Steve Jobs’s keynote:

Winner: Widgets I freely admit that I did not get the whole widgets thing when Jobs announced Dashboard as part of the upcoming OS X Tiger update at last June’s developer conference. I mean, I understand what widgets are and how they work (I’ve seen Konfabulator); I just didn’t see how it was such a key addition that it needed to be highlighted when you had a reported 199 other features to talk about.

I still don't know if Dashboard is all that an essential addition to the OS, but after seeing a more in-depth demonstration of it Tuesday, it certainly looks like a spiffy one. Whether it was widget dock on the bottom of the screen, the way these mini-apps appear with a ripple effect, or even the animated weather icons that are part of the weather widget, seeing Dashboard in action really drove home the point that this is something to get excited about. Jobs and Apple would be well-served to offer similar in-depth looks at Tiger’s major features to build up excitement for the OS X update’s release. It’s not like they won’t have enough time to do a bunch. Speaking of which…

Loser: Concrete Shipping Dates “We’re on schedule to ship in the first half of this year,” Jobs told the crowd. Well, that’s… vague. I mean, Apple has been touting the “first half of 2005” ship date for six months now. A little more detail would be appreciated. When you say first half of the year, what are you saying exactly? February? June? A month with an “m” in it? June Eleventy-Third? You’re not going to pull a fast one and switch from the Gregorian calendar to the Chinese Lunar calendar round about spring, are you?

Winner: Accessory Makers You already can’t walk the show floor for 10 feet in any direction without stumbling across a vendor selling iPod accessories—cases, headphones, docks, even a solar-powered battery charger.

Well, good news for the companies getting a piece of the iPod action—Apple just introduced another music player demanding to be accessorized. And even Apple’s getting into the act. Jobs ended his iPod shuffle unveiling by trotting out four $29 accessories—an armband, a dock, a sport case, and a battery extender—that will start rolling out over the next four weeks. I expect we’ll see a lot more accessories from a lot more companies by that time, too.

And it’s not just the iPod shuffle that’s in line for some complementary products. What about the Mac mini? This is a computer, after all, that Steve Jobs was able to hold aloft with one hand with no apparent strain or difficulty. That sounds like it’s pretty portable to me, which means we can probably expect a carrying case or two to hit the market soon enough.

Loser: Other Flash-based Music Player Makers: There’s a line in the motion picture Tombstone —which, quite frankly, has never received its cinematic due, though that’s really an argument for another time in another blog—which I’ll paraphrase loosely here: “You called down the thunder, and now you’ve got it. So run you cur, run, and tell all the other curs that I’m coming. And Hell’s coming with me.”

Why did I mention this? No reason, really. Although I suspect Steve Jobs probably called up Sim Wong Hoo on Tuesday and left a similarly-worded message on the Creative Technology CEO’s voice mail.

Right now, the makers of flash MP3 players say they aren’t particularly worried about the iPod shuffle. That’s their right, I suppose. But if you consider the numbers that Jobs quoted during his keynote—a 62 percent market share for flash-based music players at this time last year has shrunk down to 29 percent after a year of the iPod mini—maybe they ought to be fretting just a little bit.

Winner: Fans of PageMaker: This one I covered already.

Loser: Upbeat Finishes: Whatever you think of John Mayer and his Grammy-nominated song “Daughters”—and as a miserable crank whose musical choices ossified about a decade and a half ago, I confess that it’s not to my tastes—you have to concede that it was a curious choice to wrap up the keynote. You’ve just spent two hours unveiling product after product. You’ve given the masses a low-priced flash-based music player, an updated suite of iLife applications, and the least expensive Mac ever created. Wouldn’t you want to pick a tune that fires up the crowd to go charging off to the nearest Apple Store to buy, buy, buy, instead of a song that sends them off to the nearest phone booth to have awkward tearful conversations with their children and parents? I mean, seriously, could Apple have tried to find a more downbeat way to end an upbeat keynote? Don’t tell me that Morrissey was booked.

And finally, our biggest loser…

Loser: Anti-Mac Excuses: At some point, every Mac user has been in this situation: a tedious, circular argument with an anti-Mac zealot that usually ends when your adversary crosses his or her arms and smugly says, “But Macs are too expensive.”

Well, now they aren’t. Not anymore. So if nothing else, the Mac mini is going to force your favorite anti-Mac trolls to freshen up their material.

I look forward to seeing what the new “I don’t use Macs because…” rationale will be. I suspect an old chestnut like “There are no apps on the Mac that I like” will be the early leader in the clubhouse, but I’m holding out hope the anti-Mac crowd will wow me with something new and creative like “A Mac once attacked my father” or “I hear One Infinite Loop was built on an ancient Indian burial ground.”

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