Hands On with the Mac mini

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It’s here.

Just two days after writing my hotly debated comparison of the new Mac mini and Dell’s cheapest Windows PC, the Mac mini (Best Current Price: 1.25GHz model and 1.42 GHz model ) I ordered last week arrived on my doorstep. (Actually, given the size of the box at my door, at first I thought it was the 1GB iPod shuffle I ordered the same day. Seriously. The Mac mini’s box is tiny.)

Being the longtime computer user that I am, I didn’t expect to be that excited by the mini; I thought I’d do my duty as an “early adopter” and report back. (As I stated in my previous column, “machines like the mini or the cheap Dell desktop are underpowered for advanced users, but both will suffice for their target market.") But once you see how tiny the Mac mini’s box is, you realize that there’s something special about getting a functional computer in something the size of a stack of CDs. At only 8.5-by-8.5-by-5 inches, the box is smaller than the one for my first portable CD player back in the late ’80s. I actually had to laugh that it still has a handle —c’mon, Apple... my 10-year-old nephew could pick this thing up with one hand. (OK, just kidding; the handle is a nice touch.) So I admit that after seeing that box, there was a bit of geeky Christmas-morning-unwrapping excitement; you’d have to be incredibly jaded, or vehemently anti-Mac, not to feel it.

Opening Day

The first thing you see when you open the box is all the “paperwork”—Bluetooth Regulatory Certificate, AirPort Extreme User’s Guide, blah, blah, blah—and the software. You get Apple’s standard flip-open CD case, housing the Mac OS X install/restore/Apple Hardware Test DVDs (two of ’em), as well as the Mac mini User’s Guide, the ubiquitous white Apple stickers, software license agreement, and warranty documentation. (Boring, I know; but if I didn’t list it, someone would invariably ask about it.) You also get an Apple Software Proof-of-Purchase Coupon sheet that, oddly enough, says it’s for “iLife ’04 + Mac OS X v10.3.” I say oddly enough because the other disc that comes in the box is a copy of iLife ’05, which comes with its own Proof-of-Purchase Coupon sheet. (Not that these forms are actually worth anything—I’ve got a stack of them in my garage, hoping that someday Apple will let me trade them in for something, like Subway does with their sandwich stickers. Heck, I’d be happy if Apple actually gave me a Subway sandwich for them. Anyway…)

Then you get to the good stuff—the mini itself, as small and light as Apple promised, wrapped in one of Apple’s signature clear plastic wraps that apparently have no seams, edges, or tabs to help you remove them. Finally, the bottom of the box holds the Mac mini’s power supply—a 6.5-by-2.5-by-1.5-inch white brick—power cable, and DVI-to-VGA display adapter.

Throw the Switch

Since I didn’t want to disturb my Power Mac G5, I decided to test the “switcher” route. I unplugged my Dell LCD, keyboard, and mouse—I really did BMODKM, as Steve Jobs suggested in his keynote —and connected them to the mini. The DVI connector plugged into the mini’s DVI port and the keyboard and mouse took up one of the mini’s two USB ports. (If my keyboard had been a PS/2 model, I would have needed a $5 to $10 adapter from Radio Shack.) A press of the power button and the mini booted into the familiar (to Mac users) OS X setup mode. Five minutes later, the setup process was complete and the mini was up and running. The Dell display worked flawlessly, as did the keyboard and mouse, although I had to remember that the Alt key was equivalent to the Mac’s Option key, and that the Windows key was used as Command. (I plan on installing the excellent DoubleCommand, which lets you swap the Alt and Windows keys so that they reside in the same relative positions on a Windows PC keyboard as the Option and Command keys do on a Mac keyboard. NOTE: uControl, which I originally recommended, hasn’t yet been updated for Mac OS X 10.3.7. ) Holding the F12 key down even ejects CDs/DVDs, just like it does on Apple keyboards, and, as with any Mac, the Dell mouse’s scroll/click wheel and right button function as expected.

(Side note: My Mac mini has the internal Bluetooth module; I’ll be testing my Apple Bluetooth Keyboard and Mouse with it later.)

Out of the box, the Mac mini is running Mac OS X 10.3.7 build 7T21, a later build than the one on my Power Mac G5 (7M34). However, running Software Update reveals that it doesn’t have all the latest non-OS X software: I was told I needed to install Apple Bluetooth Module Firmware 1.2, Apple Remote Desktop Client 1.2.4, iCal 1.5.5, iSight Update 1.0.2, iTunes 4.7.1, Java 1.4.2 Update 2, and, most interestingly based on the date, iPod Updater 2004-11-15. (These updates took about 15 minutes over broadband.) In addition, iLife ’05 is not preinstalled—you need to install it yourself using the included DVD, which for me took about 18 minutes thanks to the GBs of iDVD support files. (Since iDVD ’05 lets you save projects to disk images for later burning on SuperDrive-equipped Macs, the installer will install iDVD ’05 on a Combo drive-equipped Mac mini.)

Performance Review

So how does the Mac mini perform? I purchased the 1.42GHz/80GB hard drive version and my initial impression is that it performs at about the same level as a 1.5GHz PowerBook G4. Working with the Finder is fairly snappy (although obviously not as quick as on a dual-G5), and applications perform well enough, considering that this is a 1.42GHz G4. iTunes rips songs at approximately 15x, and I noticed no hiccups when playing a DVD while surfing in Safari. The included games run well, even with iTunes playing in the background; although, to be fair, they aren’t the most demanding titles. And I was pleasantly surprised how well the Mac mini fared with just the stock 256MB of RAM. (My 1GB upgrade hasn’t yet arrived.)

(Side notes: The biggest question around the Web over the past week has been about how easy or difficult it is to upgrade the Mac mini’s RAM. Now that we’ve taken it apart; we can tell you whether installing RAM is easy or not. And for those curious about hard drive space, fresh out of the box the 80GB hard drive has 67GB of free space with OS X and the included applications installed; after installing iLife ’05, that drops to just over 65.5GB.)

One thing that did surprise me about the Mac mini was the noise level, both good and bad. Most of the time the machine is very quiet, basically silent; I expected more regular fan noise given the cramped quarters inside the box. On the other hand, under the heaviest extended loads—ripping a number of CDs in a row while performing other processor-intenstive tasks, for example—the fan ramps up to a surprising volume. Nothing compared to the wind tunnel levels of a crashed Power Mac G5, to be sure, but louder than I expected. Similarly, the Mac mini’s optical drive is about as loud as its PowerBook cousin—it can get noisy when ripping songs in iTunes. (Thankfully, it’s nearly silent when watching DVDs.)

First Impressions

Overall, as I suspected, the Mac mini performs well, but not spectacularly. It is a $600 computer, after all. But what makes the Mac mini special is something I hinted at in my previous column that is only fully realized once the mini is actually sitting on your desk: It’s a computer the size of some computers’ power supplies, that already includes all the software the average home users may ever need—e-mail, Web, word processor, spreadsheet, database, drawing, photos, making and enjoying music, making and watching movies, finances, and even a few games. For the money, I predict it’s as complete a system —hardware and software—as you’ll find for this price.

[ Questions or comments about this story? Talk back in Macworld.com forums. And to read more about the Mac mini, go to Macworld’s Mac mini page. ]

This story has been edited to include an update on installing RAM upgrades in the Mac mini.—Ed.

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