Before proceeding, be sure to read Parts I and II of our Month with a Mac series to get a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the Mac platform from a PC user's perspective.

Weeks before MacWorld San Francisco, there were rumors appearing about a "headless Mac", an ultra cheap Mac offered without a monitor.  The first thing that came to mind was an Apple version of an eMachines system.  Interestingly enough, however, the rumors also stated that it was an attempt from Apple to get iPod users to give Mac OS X a try.  It sounded odd at the time...

The actual unveiling of the machine, however, put everything into perspective.  In the PC world, ultra cheap computers usually offer nothing to make them stand out other than their price tag.  For the first time, Apple's low end offering, dubbed the Mac mini, brought something unique and interesting to the entry level marketplace - style.

Look at any of the successful PC manufacturers - Dell, HP, Gateway - and none of them have attempted to make the entry-level PC an enticing item for the intended market.  What draws users to these ultra cheap PCs is their price point and the idea that they need a computer.  With the Mac mini, Apple took a much different approach - attract users because of style (and size) and the idea that they need a computer, and remain competitive with price. 

Priced at $499, there's no question that the Mac mini is price competitive with entry-level PCs.  Barely larger than a DVD drive, the Mac mini is basically a repackaged Apple notebook - minus the display and input devices.  Let's have a look at the specs as well as the specs of a comparatively priced Dell system:

   Apple Mac mini  Dell
CPU: PowerPC G4 1.25GHz Intel Pentium 4 2.80GHz
Memory: 256MB DDR333 512MB DDR400
Graphics: ATI Radeon 9200 Intel Integrated Graphics
Hard Drive: 40GB 2.5" HDD 40GB 3.5" HDD
Optical Drive: DVD-ROM/CD-RW 48X CD-ROM
Monitor: None 15" LCD
Price: $499 $499 (after $50 rebate)

The comparison above was set up very deliberately to focus on hardware alone, ignoring things like software differences and form factor differences.  Before you get up in arms about the comparison, let's consider three very important points:

1) At the same price point, you can get a much more powerful CPU from Dell.

2) Sure, you get better graphics with the mini and a better optical drive, but you get more memory and a faster hard drive with the Dell.

3) To the user, to which this type of computer is targeted, do either numbers 1 or 2 matter?  The answer is no. All that matters is price and whether or not the thing works.  If that statement weren't true, then you would never hear the phrase, "I've had my computer for 5 years, I need a new one." Instead, everyone would be a performance fanatic like the rest of us and upgrade every year at worst.

The PC continues to be a better value from a hardware standpoint, there's no doubt about that - the above comparison alone proves that.  At the same price, you get a similarly configured Dell (from a hardware standpoint) and a free 15" LCD monitor.  What the Mac mini does provide, however, is an Apple desktop that is finally comparable in price to a PC desktop.  Remember the $3000 G5 from our first Mac article?  The Mac mini removes the biggest barrier to Mac OS X adoption - price.  It's not the cheapest computer that you can buy, it's not the best performance that you can get for the money, but it is the cheapest ticket to OS X out there, and we're here to see if it's worth it

Introducing the Mac mini
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  • WorkingHardMan - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    #94. I don't think anybody was biased, and certainly didn't mean to imply so. Regarding your hypothetical computer and related points, Dan Frakes addressed such concerns in a follow-up article (see URL below). At any rate, you make my point with your final statement " but I agree that it still has a small price premium over equal performing PC's.". A small price premium, when you consider other factors, such as differences in warranties, complexity of ordering, set-up, and software acquisition, does not equate to a "better value" except perhaps for a small sector of the population. Consider how many users for a sub $600 computer have the inclination, knowledge, or desire to go out to get, install and configure the freeware you mention, much less figure out the case and internal hardware components to use such as those you suggest be used for an alternate base Wintel ( WinAthlon?) computer. The statement in Mr. Shimpi's original review that I feel does not maintain the same high standards as his other work is the one reading "The PC continues to be a better value from a hardware standpoint, there's no doubt about that." For many, if not most users, the "small price premium" that you note does not constitute "a better value." People want a computer that works for them. As Mr. Shimpi stated in one of his articles, "I came to the realization that what attracted me most to [Macintosh] OS X was the way everything just worked the way that you'd expect it to. Prior to my OS X experiment, I had done things in reverse. I molded my usage patterns to the way Windows wanted them to work in order to get things done. " This sort of benefit in use, for most users, outweighs any small cost differential. In his review of the Mac Mini, Mr. Shimpi used the phrase "a better value" where it would have been more accurate to say "a slightly lessor cost." There is a big difference.

    The url for Mr. Frakes follow up to points similar to the ones you raised is:

    http://www.macworld.com/weblogs/editors/2005/01/mi...
    Reply
  • DigitalDivine - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Antivirus is free... avg is a great antivirus program that loads faster than norton and other anti viruses out there,

    dvd player is free... windows comes witha dvd player and media player classic is excellent...

    Open office is a great office suite that has replaced microsoft office in my pc.

    Picasa is great, and so is gimp. for the pc.
    just going through sourceforge.net would give you great free and legal software that rivals and is sometimes better than leading commercial software.

    but the apple does have one thing going for it, is that the OSX is an excellent OS, very easy to use and microsoft should take note. I think apple can gain more ground with the PC users if they just go ahead and release an operating system for the x86 platform, but apple has invested way too much in R and D to just dump their platform. Heck if you look at a mac, it uses pc tech the only glaring difference is that it uses the power archetecture.
    Reply
  • CrystalBay - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Lookin good AMan, very right right to the guts review. Apple needs more like you....Sold I'm picking up one ,just for Shitz and jiggles Reply
  • Cygni - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    No offense #92, but I think that "Apples and Oranges" article is also very biased in its comparison. Here is what i posted when the Mini first shipped:

    "I built a comp on Newegg, comparble to the Mini. Shuttle SFF NF2U case, Athlon XP 2200 (should smash the 1.47 G4), Radeon 9250 128mb (signifigant step up), everything else comperable to the higher end Mini... with a copy of XP, comes out to $533. Compares pretty close to the Mac Mini. WMP plays DVDs and burns CD's, AV and adware are free... and i really doubt alot of people will use their mac mini for audio video editing. In general, i dont really think the Mac software package comes into play for me, although it is a nice bonus.

    When all is said and done, the Shuttle box will probably wipe the floor with the mini... but it is considerably larger, and a little more expensive"

    and remember that the shuttle has an Internal PSU. Without that unit, it would likely be fairly close to the mini's size. It also is upgradeable with any AGP card, and has a PCI slot. It has firewire, twice as many USB ports, PS2 ports, SPDIF in and out, and much better sound. For a dollar more, you can get a Sempron 2600+ and get a little performance boost.

    Its tough to compare the Mac Mini to a PC. I personally feel like a Mac Mini with 512mb would be quite a good little comp, but i agree that it still has a small price premium over equal performing PC's. It is a Mac, afterall. Its still very neat.
    Reply
  • mzlin - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Anand, one small quibble to your otherwise outstanding review: by mentioning that a certain program can export to PDF, you make it sound like that is something special, when all programs can export to PDF via the "Save as PDF" button in the print dialog box.

    So that means you can add Adobe Distiller to the list of software you do NOT have to buy to get a usable system. Other things would be anti-virus, Office, photo editing, movie editing, etc.

    By the way those who claim they will wait for the price of the base mini to fall to $150 on ebay -- you will be waiting 3 years, I predict. Even now a 500Mhz Powerbook G3 from 2000 costs $500, about a quarter of their original price. The most "faddish" and much-criticized clamshell iBooks, also from 2000, have depreciated about the same %.
    Reply
  • WorkingHardMan - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Generally, a well written article. I believe, however, that it does have two weaknesses. (1) Based on your earlier articles on your experience using a PC, and the level of thought that went into them, I was surprised to see the statement: "The PC continues to be a better value from a hardware standpoint, there's no doubt about that - the above comparison alone proves that." Mr. Dan Frakes did a more detailed comparison of the low end Dell to the Mac Mini, that, if objectively reviewed, would I think cause anyone to see that such a blanket statement about "better value" just can not stand close scrutiny. Mr. Frakes review can be found at:
    http://www.macworld.com/weblogs/editors/2005/01/mi...

    (2) The second area in which I think your review came up short was in its dismissal of Appleworks. Admittedly, this older application does not take advantage of all of OS X's bells and whistles, but for most people it has all the power they need. I switched from Microsoft Word to the Word Processor in AppleWorks because, for the work I do, which involves preparing engineering reports and proposals (running from 10 pages or so to in excess of 200 pages) with lots of figures, drawings and photographs interspersed with the text, I found it to be far superior to Word. For a new comer to computing, its also a much faster learn than Word. While the Appleworks spreadsheet doesn't have anywhere near the power of an Excel, it is more than adequate for 98%+ of the work I actually see done on spreadsheets. Considering the likely target market for an entry level computer, I would suggest any purchaser give Appleworks a good hard look before shelling out any extra money for word processors or spreadsheets. And, the next time moving a graphic or text box around in MS Word gives you a pagination problem, I suggest you crack open the humble little AppleWorks program, get your paper done, and get a good nights sleep with the time you save. I know it has saved me hours of time I used to spend fighting Word.

    Overall, I found all three of your articles most interesting and informative. I would, however, suggest you review Mr. Frakes work, and reevaluate Appleworks through actual use. If you do, I suspect you will want to make a few changes to your article, which will only make it better.
    Reply
  • mzlin - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Anand, one small quibble to your otherwise outstanding review: by mentioning that a certain program can export to PDF, you make it sound like that is something special, when all programs can export to PDF via the "Save as PDF" button in the print dialog box.

    So that means you can add Adobe Distiller to the list of software you do NOT have to buy to get a usable system. Other things would be anti-virus, Office, photo editing, movie editing, etc.
    Reply
  • wad45 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    #87 I have read most of the posts on the forum and well yours are the longest lol. But they were all well pressented and not all one sided. I figure you like the mac alot or atleast their OS. I personally only have had PCs my entire life so I cant share your enthusiasm but I would love to get more exposure to their systems as I know alot of people say they are a great OS. You were not rude in anyway.

    #85 msva124 your the kinda person that starts these flame wars and gets everyone in a huffle. Your post did seem like an attack perhaps in the future you should think before you post because you just sound like a jerk in the end.

    Anyway I wish the price was lower on the mac mini. The ram options are still a bit too high. I have seen the video of the case opening but has anyone tried it yet and is there a better video?
    Reply
  • jm20 - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    This is the kind of review people look for. Another great review from Anand. =) Reply
  • Rand - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    "Hello? The Mac Mini comes with over $100 worth of software. Where are you going to get a software suite on Wintel for $100? Kazaa?

    Not to mention the lack of a need to buy an antivirus subscription, which kicks in at $25/year for Norton's antivirus program."

    There are some pretty good antivirus programs that are quite decent available, Picasa is a pretty good freeware image manipulation/editing app, and there are excellent free office applications available for the PC.

    iMovie/iDVD are a bit harder to match without spending some extra $ though. I haven't spend much time with GarageBand, but that's definitely one application that cannot be easily matched on the PC without spending a decent chunk of cash.

    I wish it came stock with 512MB of RAM, I've always felt OSX to be a bit more RAM hungry then WinXP and 256MB under OSX will kill the user experience except under the most basic of uses.
    Would have been nice if the R9200 had 64MB of RAM as well, Expose is much nicer with at least that.

    Beyond that the Mac Mini's stock setup should be more then comfortable for most users IMHO, the 1.25GHz G4 does quite adequately in under OSX.

    The hardware configuration isn't perhaps quite as nice as one could get in a comparably priced PC, but it'll do nicely for an intro to the Mac for PC users. For many the sheer size and convenience of the Mac Mini would more then mitigate that factor.

    Anyone that's been tempted to give the Max platform a chance but has held off due to price finally has a reasonable option.

    I've been quite enjoying the Mac articles on AT. It's slowly been easing a bit of the ever present Anti-Mac stigma that's so prevalent among PC enthusiasts.

    Maybe it'll entice a few to try Apple's PowerBook/IBook lineup, thats where Apple reakky shines IMHO. Their notebooks are absolutely fantastic and the quality of manufacture is easily comparable to the best you'll find in PC notebooks.
    Reply

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