Apple Mac Mini
Will Windows users switch?
Review Is it a sandwich box? Is it a modern light fitting? No, it's Apple's attempt to ship a consumer-oriented computer without the usual array of stylishly designed mouse, keyboard and display. No wonder it comes in at a very affordable £339.
The Mini certainly hits a sweet spot of price against capability. There's a 1.25GHz or 1.42GHz G4-class CPU first featured in top-end Power Macs in summer 2003 plus the option to expand its standard 256MB RAM - which will gradually drive you mad the more apps you have open at once - up to 1GB. The hard drive is a meagre 40GB or 80GB. A slot-loading CD-RW/DVD drive is standard; a DVD burner, optional.
You can also add Bluetooth and 802.11g Wi-Fi wireless. Apple calls this 'Airport Extreme'; presumably the even faster 802.11n, when it arrives, will be dubbed 'Airport Outrageous'.
Officially, none of this enhancement is to be tried at home. In fact, the Mini isn't intended for ordinary mortals to open, despite eager online tutorials showing how to open one with a putty knife. Apple says you won't void your warranty if you open your Mini, as long as you don't damage anything - though if you do, you'll have to claim on your warranty. Except...
Mini it may be - stack up five CD jewel cases: there, you've got the dimensions - but it poses a big question: what is it for? Media server, or a Trojan horse to get Apple into the video-on-demand market? Is Apple solely aiming to capitalise on all those Windows users sick of spyware and who like the way their iPod, even on Windows, Just Works™? Or has Apple finally given in to the whining of its (online) fans calling for a "screenless iMac"?
In truth, it's probably only the last two. The early testimony is that Mac fanatics are snapping these up to be media servers, cheap Web servers (OS X, with BSD Unix underneath, comes with Apache, Perl and PHP already on board) and, well, just nice things to put on desks.
And Windows users? I took a trip to my local Dixons to see what the Mini is up against. Whereas the sub-£500 Windows computers you see in shops have all the grace of a wheelie bin, the Mac Mini, even when busy, shows no obvious signs of life - not even fan noise - apart from an intense white LED on its front. Do aesthetics matter in computer design? No, but it's nice when they're part of the price.
Compared to Windows machines in the same price range, the Mini stacks up well. They too come with 256MB RAM; their processors are 18 months or so old; their video cards aren't the best. The Mini's ATI Radeon 9200 video card comes with 32MB of RAM, but unless you were planning to drive a 30in screen, or play the latest shoot-'em-ups, you'll be happy. The low-end Windows machine would probably have a bigger HDD and a DVD burner as standard, though.
Perhaps the neatest trick about the Mini is how it's built down to size, sound and heat targets by using 2.5in laptop drives, running at 4200rpm rather than a desktop's usual 7200. Quieter, cooler, smaller - but also slower if you didn't invest in RAM and you're doing some disk-intensive work. But the reasoning is that most people won't be. It's for Joe Average, doing some email, surfing the Web, doing some media stuff on the cheap.
The wireless options are powerful additions. Using a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse gives a strange feeling of release. And as Apple was the first to build Wi-Fi into its machines, the Mini handles all those networks and protocols, including LEAP and WPA, effortlessly. What you also notice with OS X is that it doesn't tell you stuff all the time. I find XP's insistence on telling me that "a network cable has come unplugged" when I was the one who unplugged it more than a little annoying.
The included media software bundle, iLife 05 is great. No other words for it. Most people are familiar with iTunes, but the iPhoto photo organisation and editing app, iDVD DVD-burning tool (which can be used with third-party DVD burners), iMovie HD movie-making program and Garageband music-making program have the niftiness of use that shows iTunes wasn't just a happy accident.
In software, Apple follows the 'less is more' philosophy; whereas Windows programs will either expose you to every possible option (creating confusion) or none (creating frustration), Apple offers a carefully-chosen amount; occasionally frustrating, but usually you don't notice. Garageband, in particular, is the most addictive time-wasting program since Tetris, and demonstrates why real bands can spend years in a studio mixing albums. Just how much echo should your looped hi-hat have? How about a touch more flange on the guitar? As the updated version can now import MIDI files, you can also investigate important musical questions, such as whether Bach's Toccata and Fugue in C sharp minor sounds better played on ukelele.
Key omissions? The lack of expandability for a TV tuner. Watching TV on your PC is becoming a must-have. With a Firewire 400 input and two USB 2 ports, there's room for the mini to take a digital TV feed - you could add Elgato's EyeTV digital tuner to get the Freeview channels, but that bumps up the price by £250 or so. You only face the problem then of having enough storage.
You'd think that if getting people to dump their Windows machines was the prime aim, Apple would put 'Windows data import' front and centre of the Mini software package. Yet when I asked Tom Boger, Apple's senior director of worldwide desktop product marketing, about bundling Move2Mac, he gave me the 'Cupertino stare' - an inscrutable gaze that either means 'How can one person be so stupid?' or 'Damn! Knew that to-do list was unfinished!', except you can't tell which. His reply: "We do proactively mention it."
Hmmm. The problem is that while Apple machines will join networks of all flavours very happily, talking to Windows machines is another matter. I struggled for hours trying to get an HP laptop running Windows XP SP2 with file sharing on to play nicely with the Mini. So how would Joe Wannaswitch import his bookmarks and Outlook Express files?
Was it SP2's firewall? Who knows? If Apple is truly going to make inroads into the Windows market, dragging your Windows life onto the new machine, has to be made imperceptible. The Mac Mini is a fine computer - at this price, even a great one. And the dearth of spyware and malware aimed at OS X, which remains a source of smugness among Apple users, should tempt Windows users too. Trouble is, the upheaval involved in switching operating systems, from Windows to OS X, is on a par with moving between rented accommodation, though less than moving house. Apple has gone all the way on the hardware side to ease the hassle. It just needs to do that last bit on the software side. ®
|Apple Mac Mini|
|Pros||— Wonderful aesthetics; cheap; superb software bunde.|
|Cons||— Insufficient RAM; almost no scope for expansion; little help for Windows Switchers.|
|Price||From £339 inc. VAT|
|More info||The Apple Mac Mini site|