For years, people have complained that even the inexpensive Macs cost too much for some users. So when Steve Jobs unveiled the Mac mini, the likelihood of Windows users switching to the Mac became a lot greater. Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of hardware product marketing, told us that for people who are on the fence about buying a Mac, “the Mac mini makes it a lot easier to fall off that fence.”
But does the Mac mini’s appeal to switchers make it irrelevant to die-hard Mac users? Hardly. For the rest of us, the Mac mini has the potential to be a solid replacement for an aging system, an affordable additional Mac for another part of the house, or a convenient home media server. The fact that it will finally enable us to get that pesky PC-using uncle to finally abandon Windows is simply a bonus.
To make the Mac mini a compact block of a system, Apple clearly used the same design and engineering skills that crammed lots of computing power into the iMac G5, PowerBooks, and the iPod. But to hear Apple representatives tell it, the company’s real goal wasn’t just to make a tiny Mac or a low-cost Mac. It was to solve the problem of how to make a $499 computer that wasn’t a piece of junk.
The Basics The two Mac mini models vary in only three ways: processor speed, hard-drive size, and price. For $499 (see Best Current Price ), you get a 1.25GHz G4 processor and a 40GB drive; for $599 (see Best Current Price ), you get a 1.42GHz G4 processor and an 80GB drive (and both are quite similar to the eMac in terms of specs—minus the screen, a lot of weight, and some ports). However, if you order the Mac mini directly from Apple’s online store, you can load it up with extra features that take it far beyond the $499 realm. Apple offers larger RAM chips ($75 for 512MB or $425 for 1GB), larger hard drive ($50 for 80GB), a SuperDrive ($100), internal Bluetooth ($50), and an AirPort Extreme card ($79; see Best Current Price ). Throw in some of those upgrades, and a $499 computer can become a $1,203 computer very quickly, and a $599 computer can escalate to a $1,253 machine just as fast—and all without a keyboard, a mouse, or a display, mind you.
The Size Yes, the Mac mini is small. It’s so small that you would have to stack five of them to surpass the height of the Power Mac G4 Cube, a system that seemed amazingly small in its time. At 6.5 inches square, 2 inches high, and 2.9 pounds, the Mac mini fits comfortably in your hand. Its diminutive motherboard is exactly the width of its RAM slot. That’s because the Mac mini uses full-size PC2700 RAM. Apple could have saved space by using laptop RAM, but it wouldn’t have helped much—given that the size of the Mac mini is determined mostly by the optical drive. However, the Mac mini has a 2.5-inch, 4,200-rpm hard drive, which translates into slow, laptop-drive performance in a desktop computer.
The Ports Here’s what you’ll find on the outside of the Mac mini: (A) A power switch; (B) power adapter plug; (C) Ethernet port; (D) modem jack; (E)DVI/VGA output; (F) two USB ports; (G) a FireWire 400 port; (H) a headphone/audio line out; and (I) a security slot.
The Feel The Mac mini uses materials we’ve all come to expect from Apple’s latest designs: Its top is a piece of white polycarbonate plastic—the same as on the iMac G5 or the iBook. Its sides are a ring of anodized aluminum, just like a PowerBook’s or an iPod mini’s. And its bottom is the skid-resistant rubbery material that’s also on the bottom of an iPod dock.
The RAM The most widely criticized aspect of the Mac mini is its meager base of 256MB of RAM. But the RAM slot on the Mac mini appears to be accessible; if it turns out to be fairly easy to crack a Mac mini open, more RAM would seem to be the easiest thing to install. Keep in mind that there’s only one RAM slot, so if you want to upgrade your RAM after buying a Mac mini, you’ll need to yank the preinstalled module first.
Wireless Options Despite Steve Jobs’s lack of discussion of the Mac mini’s wireless capabilities during his keynote, the Mac mini can do wireless. Due to the tight spaces within the Mac mini, both the AirPort Extreme card and the Bluetooth module attach to the Mac mini’s motherboard via a special connector. Apple hasn’t made it clear whether that connector is included on all models or only on those that have had AirPort or Bluetooth preinstalled—adventurous types may be able buy an AirPort Extreme card and install it in a Mac mini themselves. But Apple doesn’t recommend it—the company suggests that you let an authorized Apple service professional perform upgrades. In previous Mac models, internal Bluetooth support was an option available only when you ordered the machine: if you didn’t opt for internal Bluetooth, you couldn’t add it later. But that’s not the case with the Mac mini: the Bluetooth module attaches to the same special connector coming off the motherboard. According to Apple, this means you can have an authorized dealer install the internal Bluetooth module later if you don’t feel that you need it right away.
Under the Cover The mini’s power brick (not shown) plugs into its back (A). The Mac mini uses standard full-sized PC2700 RAM, but has only one slot (B). Apple fit an internal speaker (C) into the mini. But external speakers are better for rocking out. The bulk of the Mac mini’s size is due to its optical drive (D).
The Noise True to Apple’s recent hardware-design history, the Mac mini has an independently controlled fan that turns on and off according to, and bases its speed on, the machine’s cooling needs. Apple says that the fan runs at 22 decibels, essentially whisper-quiet (its cooler-running G4 processor helps reduce fan noise as well). We had a hard time hearing any noise coming from the Mac mini’s fan, but there wasn’t a room at Macworld Expo that was quiet in the way that a home or office setting would be. We’ll have more on the Mac mini’s noise when we get one into the Macworld Lab.
The Video The Mac mini features an ATI Radeon 9200 graphics chip with 32MB of DDR SDRAM and AGP 4x support. It is not upgradeable. The graphics processor, combined with the mini’s DVI port, can drive a 1,920-by-1,200-pixel LCD such as the 23-inch Apple Cinema HD Display. And with the included DVI-to-VGA adapter, you can connect analog monitors with resolutions up to 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. (If you want to connect to a TV via an RCA or S-Video cable, you’ll need to buy a $19 adapter.) The Mac mini’s graphics may not make it the ultimate gaming machine, but it should be more than capable for every other type of user. (For more coverage of the Mac mini, go to Macworld ’s Mac mini page .)