Review: The Apple Mac Mini

The mini is about the size of a typical external CD drive and as stylish as the iPod with white polycarbonate on top and anodized aluminum neatly rounding its four sides. And while PC makers have released tiny computers before, none has made as few compromises in power, ports, and features as the mini.

Glenn Fleishman, Contributor

February 1, 2005

6 Min Read

As I write this review of Apple's latest desktop computer, the low-priced Mac mini, I am all too conscious that its innards more resemble the laptop I'm typing on than a traditional desktop or tower computer.

Apple says they were focused on price rather than size, and that the Mac mini's 6.5-by-6.5-by-2"inch dimensions are just a happy accident. But it's clear they took lessons learned from creating the aluminum PowerBook series introduced in September, 2003 and last year's G5 iMac to create a cheap and flexible computer that packs both power and savvy in into its form factor.

The mini looks, well, different. It's about the size of a typical external CD drive, and as stylish as the iPod with white polycarbonate on top and anodized aluminum neatly rounding its four sides. A raised rubber bottom keeps it firmly in place, doesn't transmit heat, and raises it slightly for air circulation.

True, PC makers have released tiny computers before, some not bad looking, but none have made as few compromises in power, ports, and features as the mini. Small is either expensive or underpowered, and the mini is neither.

Apple also managed to keep the noise down, with a variable speed fan that runs no louder than 22 decibels, the volume of a whisper. It also kept the power adapter small -- the size of a TV remote control. By contrast, the G4 Cube, a 2000-era design marvel that tanked in the marketplace, had a power converter that was roughly the size of a car muffler.

Some point to the Cube's failure, in fact, as presaging what might be the mini's success. The Cube was relatively large, couldn't meet consistent manufacturing quality standards because of it's unique materials, and cost much more than a similar but expandable tower. The mini is cheap, uses existing materials, and is practically invisible compared to other computing gear.

The mini comes in two basic configurations: For $499, you get a 1.25 gigahertz (GHz) PowerPC G4, Apple's last-generation chip that quite effectively runs all but their latest tower system and iMac series. The $499 includes a 40 GB drive. For $599, Apple bumps the processor to 1.42 GHz and the hard drive to 80 GB. Both models include a DVD-ROM/CD-R/RW or Combo drive; a DVD burner is an upgrade option.

The internal hard drive is one of the primary drawbacks of the mini. Apple uses a 2.5-inch laptop drive running at 4200 rpm (revolutions per minute). This is sub-par for any drive-intensive operations, making the 256 MB of RAM that ships with mini also a bit paltry.

The 2.5-inch mechanism, even if it were easy to get at, is expensive to upgrade and drive sizes don't typically top 120 GB. Further, Apple tells users how to install their own RAM and sometimes wireless cards on all of their models -- except this one. It's hard to prize apart, and they don't want you to break it.

But it's a trade-off in cost: 256 MB RAM modules are cheap, as are 4200 rpm 2.5-inch drives, and even the G4 processor. And this computer is more about cheap but good than moderate but fantastic. For fantastic (7200 rpm, gigs of RAM, and so on), you pay $1,000 to $1,500 more whether from Apple, Dell, or generic sources.

And remember that it's a headless computer: no keyboard, mouse, or monitor, so you can choose to be as cheap or expensive as you like with those "add ons."
The primary audience for a Mac mini is likely to be people who want a Mac and have otherwise found it too expensive, including Windows users who need a machine to handle digital media (photos, video, and music) as well as email, Web browsing, and word processing. It's a great computer for students, too.

Apple bundles its iLife '05 suite of a photo organizer and editor (iPhoto 5), a video editor (iMovie HD), a DVD video creation tool (iDVD 5), and an application for creating music (GarageBand 2). Quicken 2005 for Mac is also included.

The mini is ideally suited for intermediate tasks, and is more than fine for digital media archiving and editing, although working with video footage can tax the processor and hard drive's limits. (I should know: my 15-inch PowerBook has specs almost identical to the mini down its system bus speed, although I have a 5400 rpm drive and 1 GB of RAM. You could say I've been using a mini for 18 months.)

You can pump up your mini's cost and utility through additional RAM and drive storage, an optical drive upgrade, and two wireless add-ons, depending on what you need.

Most mini buyers might already have a USB keyboard and mouse available -- probably from an older or even dead system -- and VGA displays are inexpensive for even larger formats.

The Mac mini does come with a full complement of interface ports, which makes up for some of its drawbacks in speed. Its interfaces include a DVI (digital video interface) connector, one IEEE 1394a (FireWire) port for digital video and peripherals, two USB 1.1/2.0 ports, 10/100 Mbps Ethernet outlet, and a V.92 modem jack.

You can also add both 802.11g Wi-Fi (called AirPort Extreme by Apple) for $80 and Bluetooth for wireless keyboards, file transfers, and synchronization, for $50. Buy the upgrades together for just $100. Apple uses the latest Bluetooth specification to avoid interference between the two wireless flavors.

The mini shows its strength over competing PCs in the display area: Equipped with a DVI port, as noted above, the mini can push digital video with its 32 MB of dedicated video RAM out to an LCD display as large as 1920 by 1200 pixels, slightly deeper but no wider than high-definition (HD) format. DVI ports are found on modern flat-screen and HD televisions, too, meaning that you can work and play with the same monitor, using it for games or DVD playback.

The Mac mini includes a DVI-to-VGA adapter which supports resolutions up to 1920 by 1080 pixels. A separately sold DVI-to-video adapter handles both S-Video and composite video output for $19, allowing you to plug the mini into a regular television. Note that the mini can only support a single display at a time.

This last option hits at what a mini might do as a home-entertainment console, although the current model isn't perfectly suited to the purpose. A mini would seem to be the right machine to act as your digital video recorder, MP3 librarian and jukebox, DVD player, and general e-mail system.

Alas, the DVR part is still just a dream: No Mac product for digital recording yet has the simplicity of a TiVo or Replay, being able to change channels for you and record analog and digital cable and satellite. Broadcast HD and certain cable-based HD, however, is fully possibly through the El Gato eyeTV 500.

The Mac mini has compromises, but its usefulness far outweighs what made it small and cheap. Throw in an infrared blaster -- to change channels on a set-top cable box -- and a TV digitizer, and the mini can expand beyond its role as a great home and school computer into a full-fledged multimedia centerpiece.

Upgrades (including installation cost at factory):
80 GB drive (for 1.25 GHz model): $50
512 MB memory: $75
1 GB memory: $325
4x SuperDrive (DVD+RW, DVD-R/RW, CD-R/RW): $100
Bluetooth: $50
AirPort Extreme (802.11g): $79
Both wireless options at one time: $100
Apple USB keyboard and mouse: $58

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