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Mac mini: Smaller Than a Bag of Potato Chips, but Not All That

Mac mini: Smaller Than a Bag of Potato Chips, but Not All That

by , 4:55 PM EST, January 13th, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- Something funny has happened to me during Macworld Expo: for the first time that I can remember, a product I was convinced would floor me has failed to do so while another I was skeptical about has made me a believer. I'm talking, of course, about Apple's new Mac mini and iPod shuffle.

It has been impossible during the last month to ignore the rumors surrounding Apple's US$500 Mac and flash iPod. The Mac mini left me feeling that Apple finally got it -- switchers (and many Mac users alike) already have invested in a good enough display for their needs and therefore don't need everything an eMac or iMac delivers, and not everyone wants to spend about $1,500 for a Power Mac G5.

At the same time, I was looking forward to a flash-based iPod, which my athletic side has been waiting a couple years for, until I learned a couple days prior to the keynote that it wasn't going to have a screen. I struggled to grasp the logic in such a decision, for there are times when I'm in the mood for one particular song, and hitting fast forward a hundred times to blindly find that track didn't seem very efficient to me. Furthermore, when I have my 40GB iPod set to shuffle, I greatly appreciate being able to assign a star rating to a song I had forgotten about or maybe never heard before but was impressed by.

After hearing the specs of both the Mac mini and iPod shuffle on Tuesday, and seeing them up close and personal at Macworld Expo, I'm less blown away by the Mac mini and more impressed by the iPod shuffle. Perhaps I'm subconsciously trying to justify rushing out of the keynote to the Stockton Street Apple Store to purchase an iPod shuffle, but I really like the little guy. I can't feel it around my neck or in my pocket and the blind shuffle playback (as well as the random Autofill) makes listening to my iPod more akin to listening to satellite radio (except only songs I own or enjoy get played), and it prevents from returning to old favorites all the time like I find myself often doing with my 40GB iPod when I'm quickly trying to find something I know I'll enjoy instead of "giving chance a chance," as Apple puts it.

I find myself once more reminded by what Mac Observer Editor-in-Chief Bryan Chaffin told me on Monday about the screenless iPod shuffle: "Apple wouldn't do it if it didn't make sense."

The Mac mini, on the other hand, I'm not so sure about. At first glance, it's a sweet deal. A G4-based square that's one-third the size of the long-gone Cube and one-third the Cube's original price. Let me make it clear, however, that I don't think the Mac mini is going to flop the way the Cube did. In fact, I don't think it's going to flop at all, I'm just not very impressed with it.

The eye-catching, minimalist design is the Mac mini's worst feature for a number of reasons. For starters, the Mac mini only has a single RAM slot. Fortunately, DIMMs can be had in sizes up to 1GB today -- a comfortable enough capacity to run Mac OS X smoothly -- but it means that anyone looking to upgrade the Mac mini either needs to customize their system at the Apple store and pay Apple's exorbitant RAM prices ($75 to upgrade to 512MB, $425 to upgrade to 1GB) or, if they upgrade later, are left with an unused 256MB module. But it's not so easy to upgrade the Mac mini later. In fact, according to Apple, you must take it into an Apple store or authorized reseller and pay them to add any extra RAM, a costly and annoying endeavor. Like the iPod, Apple doesn't want nor does it expect its customers to ever see the inside of their Mac mini.

It doesn't matter if surveys show that 90 percent of PC users never open up their systems or are scared to, the reality is that they usually know someone who can do something as simple as adding RAM. And let's not get into how 256MB is a laughably small amount if you wish to run Mac OS X and any of the iLife '05 components, except for maybe iTunes.

"So, you expect a customer to spend $425 to upgrade a $499 computer to 1GB of RAM?" I asked an Apple product manager on the show floor. "Yes," they curtly replied. And I thought the Mac mini was Apple's push into affordable computing.

In order to give the Mac mini its tiny dimensions, not only did Apple forgo a second RAM slot (or a third, like the Cube had), they also decided to use costlier 2.5-inch hard drives, designed for laptops. This creates a few annoying limitations: first, if you ever want to upgrade the hard drive later (assuming you manage to crack open the case or can pay someone to do so), you're going to be paying a small fortune for the larger hard drive (2.5-inch drives also currently top at 100GB, compared to 400GB for their 3.5-inch counterparts).

A quick check at Pricewatch finds the average 40GB 5400-rpm hard drive (found in the $499 Mac mini) selling for about $65, while the 80GB 5400-rpm drive (found in the $599 Mac mini) is selling for around $120. Looking at 3.5-inch hard drives, $65 buys you a 160GB model these days, while $120 can get you 250GB. Am I missing something here?

Asking the same Mac mini product manager why they settled on using costly notebook drives in a desktop computer, I was told that the 2.5-inch drives met Apple's needs while allowing Mac mini's design to be as small as possible. But would anyone have been less impressed if the Mac mini were three, four, or even five inches high instead of two?

What we're left with is a miniature computer that has even fewer expansion options than is typically associated with Apple products. Even the iBook has an open RAM slot, and the notebook hard drive in a PowerBook can be replaced and upgraded fairly easily by an end user.

Like the current iBooks, the Mac mini uses a Radeon 9200 video card with 32MB of VRAM. This won't be enough to take advantage of Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger's Core Image, nor many of the newer computer games.

Some have said that with the included S-Video/composite video adapter, the Mac mini will find its way into homes already awash with Macs as a media center. I won't pretend this doesn't sound appealing to me, but ideally you'd want wireless peripherals to compliment the experience and eliminate unsightly cable clutter across your coffee table. The Mac mini supports Bluetooth and AirPort Extreme, but if you want both you need to add them as a joint AirPort Extreme + Bluetooth card when you buy the Mac mini -- you won't be able to later. Cost? $129. If you add an AirPort Extreme card and later want Bluetooth as well, you're in a bit of a pinch (assuming you can get this option even added later) and left with an AirPort Extreme card that joins the original 256MB DIMM in the collection of now useless Mac mini parts.

The Mac mini is a decent computer and a fair first attempt for a company that has never produced a $500 system before. It's encouraging that Apple "gets" that a market exists for such a product, I just hope that with a revision down the line will see polish off what I see as the products rough (and costly/annoying) edges.

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