March 22, 2005

A Mac Mini Review

Posted at March 22, 2005 12:17 PM in Computers .

I originally wrote this a couple weeks ago, hoping to enter it in the Mac Mini review contest on Engadget, but I got sick that week and didn't get to finish it. The computer industry moves fast, but I think it's still relevant. The review is a breakdown of the reasons I forked over a few hundred bucks for a Mac Mini. Just for reference, I currently have machines running Windows XP, Red Hat Linux, and now one running OS X.

OS X. Price. Software. Form factor. Everyone has their reasons for buying a Mac Mini, but those were mine.

OS X is simply one of the finest operating systems I have used (and I've used quite a few). It's a got a beautiful, functional GUI built on a rock-solid FreeBSD core. This makes it possible to use it daily for weeks and even months at a time without a single reboot required. A novice can use it without picking up a book, and a power user will be pleased with all the tools that are available. Some of the features (such as Exposé), which at first may seem merely decorative, quickly become indispensable. Be careful, using OS X can spoil you to the point where other operating systems seem cumbersome and irritating.

Historically, the Mac has been associated with high prices. Indeed, compared to PC hardware it has always commanded a price premium. With the Mac Mini it still does, but since it's a low-end machine the same percentage difference doesn't amount to much in actual dollars. I chose the $499 model with the 1.25Ghz processor and added only the RAM upgrade (to 512MB) and wireless networking (AirPort) for a total cost of about $650. Unless you are going for the 1GB RAM upgrade (which is WAY overpriced through Apple), it's easier to have the upgrades factory installed. If you want the 1GB upgrade and/or are handy with a putty knife then you may prefer to upgrade it yourself.

I was replacing an old Wintel box, so I already had the mouse/keyboard/monitor. If your monitor doesn't support DVI, a converter is included with the Mini. For PS/2 keyboards/mice you will need a PS/2->USB converter available for about $10-15. I also connected and reformatted my 250GB external drive for extra storage (40GB isn't much for high quality photos/music). If you are switching from an older Windows machine and have some existing hardware, the Mac Mini is a great choice.

Another important factor for me was that all the software I use daily is now available on the Mac. From free software to the most proprietary, from GNU Emacs to Microsoft Office, OS X native versions exist that are equal to or better than the ones on other platforms. Add to that the huge library of free software that can be used via the X11 server that comes with OS X and the well integrated iLife suite, and it covered everything I could possibly need.

Since I was planning to put this computer in a bedroom, I wanted it to be quiet and small. The Mac Mini is nearly silent, measures a diminutive 6.5" x 6.5" x 2", and, with its brushed metal housing, is asthetically pleasing to boot.

No, it's not for everyone. If you are a gamer, want the fastest machine out there, or want lots of expansion room, this is not the machine for you. If you don't already have a keyboard/mouse/monitor you can use, you may want to consider an eMac or iMac. But at this low price point, the Mac Mini is more than worth it for a lot people, including me.

My ratings:

Specs - 8/10 - The main complaint I have is that the Mini should come with 512MB standard. 256MB is not enough to fully enjoy OS X (or Windows XP, for that matter). I would like to see a faster hard drive, too, but there aren't 2.5" drives that are cheap enough, I think. Beyond that its specs are reasonable for an entry-level machine.

Design - 9/10 - This is Apple's forte. The machine looks great, and it's amazing what they've crammed into a small box. I wouldn't have minded a couple of front facing USB 2.0 ports, but those would probably mar the smooth lines of the front of the box.

Usability - 9/10 - You must get the 512MB RAM upgrade for real usability in my opinion. OS X is good at making use of extra memory to avoid slow swapping to disk (way better than Windows XP). I have used my Mini for web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, music, photo editing, X11 applications, and general applications (word processing, spreadsheet, etc.) and have had no problem even with many of those running simultaneously. I have not tried video editing, but I suspect that will not be as smooth. I plan to try out Garageband soon, but based on what I have read online that should work great for 4-track recording if no other apps are running.

Value - 8/10 - Based purely on the hardware spec, I'd give this a 7/10. But you have to consider that this is the most inexpensive way to get the fantastic OS X and the very useful iLife suite. The software bundle increases the value at least a full notch.

Overall - Weighting each rating equally we arrive at an overall rating of 8.5/10.


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