Written on: 03/06/2005 by gerrards (3 reviews written)
Tiny footprint, looks good both on the desk and on screen, loads of decent included software, great sound from external speakers, pretty fast, cheap for a Mac, USB2 and Firewire as standard, fun to use, generally stable, and virtually silent.
Laptop quality components, basic memory inadequate but tricky to upgrade, no Mic input, internal speaker almost inaudible, punitive OS upgrade costs, poor ergonomics.
Apple Mac Mini - I support computers, so I need both PC's and a Mac. Unable to afford a standalone G4 I've had a cumbersome eMac taking up far too much desk space. Until the Mac Mini, that is. It was an impulse buy the weekend it came out and I haven't regretted one moment of it. With its footprint only a little bigger than a CD case I've been able to use my Windows keyboard, mouse and TFT screen via a KVM switch, and so have reclaimed a continent of desk space.
The Mac Mini is simplicity itself to set up and runs straight out of the box without the irksome software validation of Windows XP. There is one proviso here: if 256Mb RAM is too small (and I assure you it is - the whole machine is much more responsive with a minimum of 512Mb), you must either say so on purchase or go through a delicate process which Apple unsurprisingly do not advertise. This involves preferably two more hands than you possess to dismantle the machine and probably void the warranty. The same goes for changing a DVD ROM/CD-RW option to a Superdrive (DVD Writer). And you can forget about internal disks above 80Gb for the moment. The reason is that this is really a laptop without a screen or battery (or keyboard or mouse for that matter), so the disk is a limited capacity 2.5 inch one. Apple also say an Airport wireless card cannot be added after purchase - I can't say if this is strictly true or not. Though I am using a Windows keyboard for compatibility I would generally advise against it. It will work (USB only) but some keys will be wrong. There are programs on the internet to put this right, though swapping @ and " is not an easy process.
Once you have accepted the Mac Mini for what it is, however, there is a lot to praise and not that much to fault. The supplied software is comprehensive, and includes Internet browsing and email, Appleworks (much more grown up than Microsoft Works), a game or two and the brilliant iLife multimedia package. One fly in the ointment is the way the DVD software in iLife resolutely refuses to recognise most external burners, which implies to me Apple trying to ensure its revenue streams, or am I being cynical? Another example of this Apple trait is the hideous cost of upgrades. The machine now ships with OS X Tiger but if you bought the first examples which "only" had Panther, I shouldn't worry. In reality, whatever enthsiasts say, unless you really need one of the changes in Tiger, the upgrade is nearly all cosmetic and only worth the asking price if you have to be seen to be cool.
One myth born of half baked incarnations of Windows before 2000, is that Macs don't crash and Windows machines do. They both do, but these days neither do it often. iTunes, for example, finds it hard to cope with bad data while importing music from CD's. The Mac does have the advantage of less viral attention for the moment, but it is still unwise to be unprotected and I have not so far found any free and effective antivirus software for the Mac such as AVG (personal use only) for Windows. Please correct me someone if I'm wrong.
Physically, the front of the Mac Mini is simply a slot in the brushed aluminium for DVD's / CD's and a tiny white power LED. In typical minimalist (obtuse?) Apple fashion there is no DVD/CD eject button, so if you are using a non-Mac keyboard without an eject key you may have some unwanted fun here. The gaps in the ergonomic armour continue with the power button mounted where you can't see it on the BACK of the machine. Idiocies like this have commonly marred Apple's otherwise brilliant designs - by comparison with the eMac this power button is well located! There is a price to pay when good looks are everything.
More than one price. The back panel crams in 2 USB2 ports, 1 Firewire port, 1 Monitor port (standard VGA adaptor included), modem and Ethernet connectors, a headphone socket and a security slot. Great. But though more USB ports in particular would be desirable, things are already too cramped at the back for some devices (like many memory sticks), so a USB2 hub is an almost essential extra. Once again Apple style wins over substance - extra front mounted or even side mounted USB and other ports would have made the machine much more capable and certainly easier to use (for example, for plugging and unplugging digital cameras) but the designers obviously couldn't bear to spoil the lines of their (admittedly gorgeous) baby with something so useful. This is the main reason for my marking down the ease of use to only 7.
Incidentally, forget Apple's beautifully shaped but ultimately dinosaur-like single button mouse. Get a modern two button scroll mouse which OS X supports. Right clicking options are not as well supported as in Windows but they are still useful.
Where Apple wins hands down over comparatively priced Windows machines is in the supplied software. Everything you get is at least good, and mostly superb. Windows machines are much better supported with vast quantities of auxiliary software, often much cheaper than the scarce Apple equivalents. However in real life most people do not need much auxiliary software beyond virus protection, and if you really must have a favoured Windows application (like a genealogy program), then unless it's high performance software such as multimedia you can probably run it on your Mac - just buy Virtual PC software from Amazon for under £200 including a licensed copy of Windows XP.
I began by saying that I bought the Mac Mini for computer support. What has happened is that for all its minor annoyances I've fallen in love with it. iTunes (a great program) already contains half of my 600 CD collection. My photos are in iLife. I've added a LaCie dual layer Mac/Windows DVD writer. I'm using Safari for general surfing. In other words I'm actually USING it in preference to my Windows machines for an awful lot of purposes. More and more I'm running my business from PC's and the digital bit of the rest of my life from the Mac Mini. The main reasons? The Mac Mini is eerily silent and the sound wonderful so it's ideal for home use, particularly music, and this from a baroque specialist singer with an easily offended ear. And it just works, with a minimum of fuss and without having to think too much. I'm even considering buying the cheapest option and networking it in the lounge simply as a kind of jukebox, though there might be better options here.
In summary, a gem of a machine which even with its flaws is cheap to buy and a joy to use right out of the box. I wouldn't recommended it for critical business applications because of its insubstantial laptop-like components, but for personal use it's near perfect so long as it's kept fully backed up. Just make sure you get the specification right from the start, but otherwise if you feel an impulse buy coming on, don't resist.