• The Apple Hardware Report: Putting the New Mac mini in Perspective

    March 11th, 2006

    Although I’ve had a fair amount of experience with the first generation Mac mini, and I find it a pleasing product, I don’t know if I’m going to review the MacIntel version, although I expect many close encounters with it within the next few weeks. However, the real point of today’s exercise is to consider just where it fits in.

    It is not, for example, a gaming computer, not even close. If you want to get stellar frame rates in Doom or Unreal Tournament, look elsewhere. In fact, if you want marvelous performance and beautiful pictures from computer games, and need to save some money, buy a gaming console. They are dedicated to the purpose, and cost a whole lot less than any personal computer with true gaming aspirations. If you think Macs are expensive for games, go ahead and price out a PC from Alienware.

    Now look at the user profile of the typical user of a low-cost PC. Maybe you’re a home user that wants to spend time online, share photos, make home videos, and perhaps even make a personal Web site. Maybe you do want to use it as the hub of your digital lifestyle, Apple’s dream, and put it in your living room to play stuff from your Mac on a high definition TV. Or maybe you have a small business, an equally small budget, and your needs for graphic software are minimal at best. In either case, perhaps you have an older display, keyboard and mouse hanging around, looking for a new home.

    Such needs may be relatively modest in the scheme of things, the Mac mini, even the cheapest version with the Intel Core Solo processor, is perfectly suited. Consider the specs, and the performance levels measured so far by the first round of reviewers, and now compare them to a far more expensive Mac you might have purchased four or five years ago. It all depends on your expectations, and when you hear people telling you that the Mac mini is a slowpoke, that its integrated graphics chip is worthless, don’t pay any attention. This isn’t a horse race. It’s just a tool to get your work done, or to have a little fun. Besides, the people who Apple expects to buy a Mac mini aren’t going to worry whether their neighbors have faster computers.

    The other factor is the price, and hopes that Apple would continue to produce sub-$500 Macs have been dashed for now. But when you add the cost of AirPort, Bluetooth, gigabit ethernet and a remote control, not to mention a larger and speedier hard drive, paying an extra $100 doesn’t seem such a stretch. There are also a pair of extra USB ports, plus audio ports that support digital cables. But you would, of course, use one of those USB ports if you need the optional modem. Yes, Apple’s mission to banish the modem from our lives is on a roll.

    Of course, if you want to add memory to the new computer, you won’t just need passable skills with a putty knife. You have to remove the drive cage and disconnect a pair of delicate cables to get at the two RAM slots. The process may give you pause, and it should. It’s also better left to the service person unless you know what you’re doing. However, at least for this first version, the processor is socketed, which means you could add a faster one if you want. But, until prices for those chips come down, it’s probably not worth the expense.

    Oh, and one more thing: For best performance, add memory in equal pairs and it’s something you’ll want to do right away, unless you intend to limit yourself to Apple’s own applications and other Universal applications, ones tuned to the Intel processor. Upgrading to 1GB will cost you around $100, plus the dealer’s fee for putting their fingers, and not yours, inside to accomplish the task.

    Now, I’m not going to denigrate Apple for making memory more difficult to install. It was probably done for design reasons that have nothing to do with a plot to shower service fees on its dealer network. I still think you should be able to pop off the bottom of the Mac mini’s case by, perhaps, turning a couple of thick screws with a quarter, and that, engineering considerations aside, the memory slots should be readily available. As downsides go, this may not be so serious in the scheme of things, but something you might consider should a mini be on your short list.

    As to whether or not Apple should add TiVo-like recording capability, I have mixed feelings. Apple says no, although I can see where it might be a neat idea. On the other hand there are perfectly capable set top boxes that perform the task quite well, thank you, even if they don’t come from TiVo. More to the point, consider the limitations of the present TV recording hardware, particularly their inability to record from satellite or premium cable. Yes, there is the CableCARD, which would permit connection to the latter, but the more complexity we add to the product, the less apt Apple is to keep the prices down. Let the third parties fill that need, for now anyway.

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