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As Steve Jobs introduces the new $499 Mac mini and the $99 iPod shuffle in his keynote at Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco, I half expect a used-car commercial to break out onstage: Our prices are insane! But in reality, these prices make tremendous sense. As Jobs puts it, now people who have delayed switching to Apple products because they think those products are too expensive “have no more excuses.”

Tiny Mac

Yet the Mac mini’s $499 price—the lowest ever for a Mac—is only the second most startling thing about the new machine. The most startling thing is its size: 6.5 inches square and just 2 inches high. Its looks recall the ill-fated G4 Cube, but the Cube was nearly five times taller, not to mention nearly four times more expensive. Having already tested their ability to cram a remarkable amount of stuff into a tiny space with the iMac G5, engineers at Apple have outdone themselves.

In the mini’s 85 cubic inches, Apple fit a G4 processor (1.25GHz or 1.42GHz), an optical drive (Combo or SuperDrive), a 40GB or 80GB hard drive, the standard ports, and room for the optional AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth. It’s not a crippled Mac by any means; but if you start adding keyboards, mice, wireless cards, and the like, you’ll spend far more than $499.

Will the Mac mini help Apple make inroads on Windows’ market share? There’s no way to know. But the iPod has introduced a whole new audience to Apple’s skill at creating excellent products—the Mac mini’s low price may get those same folks through the door of an Apple Store again.

The Mac mini should also be of interest to those of us who are already in the Mac camp. For a few years, I’ve had an old Power Mac, which I use as a Web and music server, in my office closet. Now I could replace that server with an unobtrusive (and much more powerful) Mac mini. It would also make a great second machine—in the den or the kids’ room, for example.

Tinier iPod

In any other context, the Mac mini would be the belle of the ball. But at Macworld Expo, it was upstaged by the tiny iPod shuffle, which costs as little as $99 and weighs less than an ounce.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a backlash against the iPod shuffle from the usual chorus of second-guessers (the same folks who thought the iPod mini was doomed to fail). After all, the iPod shuffle has no display and holds only a few hundred songs.

But consider this: If you want a pretty interface and a big collection of music, Apple has a few other products you may have heard of—the iPod photo, the iPod, and the iPod mini. The iPod shuffle is a different beast, designed for people who want to have an ultrasmall, ultra-inexpensive player that lets them take along a respectable slice of their music collection.

Realistically, how many songs do you play in an average iPod session? For me, using Apple’s assumption of four minutes per song (no prog-rock epics for Steve Jobs), the number is 15, because I usually listen to my iPod for about an hour at a time. The only time I’ve listened to more than 100 songs in one sitting was during a very long car trip.

The large iPod lets you take your entire collection along for the ride and select your tunes to suit your fancy. But are there times when 300 songs would be enough to get me through a bus ride or a walk to the grocery store? Absolutely. And that’s what the iPod shuffle is for.

I doubt the iPod shuffle will ever be as popular as the other members of the iPod family. But, like the Mac mini, it fills some important niches. It’ll be great for people who’ve been resisting the iPod because of its price. And it could also be attractive to confirmed iPod lovers who want an inexpensive, tiny, and sturdy complement to their existing player. I think the iPod shuffle will be a hit in both camps.

The Best of Expo

In this month’s issue, we’ve got plenty of Macworld Expo news —the big Apple announcements and major news from the rest of the Mac community. Mac Beat has details on a bunch of product announcements—including Apple’s two new software suites, iLife ’05 and iWork ’05 – which includes Pages and Keynote 2. It also has our list of Best of Show winners—the hottest products at Expo. And in our cover story, we’ve got in-depth first looks at the Mac mini and the iPod shuffle.

And be sure to check out our snapshots of all things Expo.

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