For more than a week now Ive been playing with a Mac mini that Apple sent over. Today Id like to offer some first-look opinions on the new machine and its place in this Windows-dominated world.
I know many readers have at least a passing interest in running a mini alongside their Windows machines, so that is what I will concentrate upon. Its also precisely what I am doing here in my own office.
So let me start with the question Ive been getting most often: Is the mini as cool as it seems?
Yes, its small and stylish and can hide almost anywhere on your desk. It works fine with my Dell LCD monitor, in both VGA and DVI modes. It is happy to share a Microsoft keyboard and Logitech mouse with my other computers.
The mini is one of three and occasionally four machines connected to a single IOGEAR KVM switch. With just three keystrokes, I am able to switch between the mini, a Dell desktop, a Dell server and occasionally a notebook that Ill plug in.
The video from the mini looks great on the LCD display. Maybe I am blind, but the difference between using VGA and the DVI digital output on the mini is hard to detect. It might be more obvious in the home entertainment applications I will test later. (I am writing a book about using the mini for Peachpit Press).
The one problem Ive had has been with the audio, and this is not solely a mini problem, as the Dell desktop suffers the same. It sounds like the video, mouse, and/or keyboard signals are bleeding over into the audio part of the KVM switch. This creates a high-frequency noise that changes when the mouse is moved.
I want to talk to IOGEAR to see if the problem can be solved. But Im not counting on it and have started using two sets of speakers—one for the mini and another for the Dell desktop.
This works fine and has the benefit of allowing me to listen to audio from the computer that I am not currently using on the LCD display. Sometimes I actually turn off the audio on the main computer in order to avoid IM and incoming e-mail alerts and just listen to music on the other machine, which doesnt have messaging and mail turned on.
Can Windows and Mac Keyboards Get Along?
Apple makes a big deal out of the minis support for USB keyboards and pointing devices. Since my other Macs work well with third-party (even Microsoft) keyboards and mice, Im not sure why this is supposed to be so impressive with the mini. I guess its just that many assume that Macs and PCs use incompatible keyboards.
That isnt, however, to say that there are no keyboard compatibility issues. People who have used both Macs and PCs are quick to point out the slightly different arrangement of the keys on either side of the spacebar. Macs have option and command (or “Apple”) keys and PCs have alt and Windows keys. Both platforms have control keys.
These three keys are pretty much functionally and logically equivalent across the two platforms, but their relative positions are somewhat reversed.
This has not been a huge problem for me, though someone who has only PC experience might want to consider a Mac utility called DoubleCommand, which can swap the keys and make Windows users completely at ease. Then your Apple and Windows keys can be combined, as can alt and option, resulting in a harmonious computing experience.
Ive been using both keyboards for so long that I adapt pretty well without changing the keyboard.
Can a Mini Do
Can a Mini Do Real Work?
People wonder whether a $499 Macintosh can actually do anything useful. The model Im using is the somewhat faster $599 model with a memory upgrade from 256 MB to 512 MB. This machine has performed quite well. Ive been running Office, editing photos, even recording television programs without problems. All of the iLife applications, which would be a good reason to invest in this hardware, work quite nicely.
Would they work better on an expensive Power Mac G5 dual-processor machine with gobs of memory? Of course they would. And I will admit I havent had the heart to load Photoshop onto the mini and try something really processor-intensive.
However, one of the magazines has done performance testing and found both minis to perform at a level below the eMac, Apples lowest-price all-in-one machine. The minis were much slower than the G5-processor-based iMac all-in-one machines, Apples other consumer hardware line.
Still, for everyday tasks and iLifes creative applications, the mini performs quite well. That is, it performs well so long as you increase the memory to 512 MB. Apple charges $75 for this upgrade and its well worth the investment.
A Bigger Investment Than It Seems
Something you may have already noticed is that, like most computers these days, the mini isnt quite as inexpensive as it may at first seem. The $599 model, with the faster processor and larger hard drive, ends up costing $873 when you increase the memory, add 802.11g and Bluetooth wireless capabilities, and replace the CD/DVD drive with a DVD burner.
If you dont already own a mouse, keyboard, and screen that youll use with the mini, youd be better off buying a $1,299 iMac. Of course, the iMac takes some accessorizing, too, also raising its price before you leave the Apple store.
To be fair, the Dell computers Ive recently ordered have significantly increased in price to meet my requirements, so Apple is certainly not alone in quoting the lowest possible price to get customers in the door.
Finally, the Mac for Windows Users
Is the mini the ultimate switcher machine? Yes. Or at least the concept works, even if you might want a machine with a tad more oomph.
The problem with getting Windows users to buy a Mac has been threefold: Macs were too expensive; Macs came with built-in displays; and Windows users typically still need Windows-only apps that prevent them from tossing their PCs in favor of the Mac.
The mini addresses all these issues: Its less expensive than any previous Mac; works with the screen you already own, saving both dollars and real estate; and is perfectly happy sharing your desk with a Windows machine.
This removes significant barriers faced by people who wanted a Mac but didnt want to make huge changes in their computing lives in order to have one. It embraces the reality of the old Apple “switcher” ad campaign: Most new Apple customers didnt throw their PCs away when the Mac arrived. This made them “adders” rather than switchers.
The mini is the perfect “adder” box and will probably bring Apple more new customers than all the switcher hype. However, dont be surprised if the switcher ads return. Or maybe Apple will make some new “adder” commercials instead, though they probably wont use that term, associated as it is with a family of deadly serpents. Australian Death Adders, anyone?
No Extra Software Required
No Extra Software Required
I assume readers are already familiar with the pros of the Unix-based Mac OS X operating system. What might not be familiar is the collection of useful software, including iLife 05 and AppleWorks, which ships with every mini.
Add these to the mail, address book, synchronization and calendar applications that also come with the machine and its quite possible to be very happy with a mini as it comes, never buying any additional software. That makes the mini an even better value compared to a Windows machine.
Theres another market the mini addresses, but one that probably wont fully appreciate the new machine. Ill just point out that Mac OS X is a Unix-based operating system with an excellent user interface and more than adequate applications support. Desktop Linux pales by comparison. And with the minis low price, maybe Linux cheapskates will finally see the light and buy a real desktop machine.
In summary: The mini addresses two major issues Ive been struggling with for some time. One is that many people who would benefit from having a Mac never get the chance because they are so firmly wedded to Windows. The other is that most of us buy a lot more computing and software performance than we actually use or need.
With its minimalist approach, ability to live right alongside a Windows PC, and low price, the mini is finally a Mac that the non-Apple world could easily embrace. I have friends whove already decided to buy a mini instead of a planned upgrade of their Windows machine, and I bet there will be many more like them.
If youve always wondered about the allure of Macintosh computing, the mini is an inexpensive way to find out. And its a very nice piece of hardware—regardless of what OS it runs.
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