A Renewed Assault

December 1st, 2005 Computers, DG, Tech

After decades of trying, Apple finally broke out of its small, pro-user loyalty base to hit consumer dollar pay dirt with the iPod. The Mac Mini represents the same ambition, but is it the right direction?

Restyling themselves a digital lifestyle provider rather than just another computer manufacturer, Apple not only revolutionised the sound and image worlds, they rescued themselves from huge losses in an increasingly stagnant personal computer market.

So now that they have the eyes and ears of millions more devotees than the traditional 1990’s dyed-in-the-wool designers who comprised most of their market since the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, they’re firing another salvo at the home and personal market — the Mac Mini.

How well received it is (and how successful it’s seen to be as a personal computer) depends which direction you’re coming from. If you’re a PC user sick of virii and jokes about Longhorn, you could make a much worse decision than moving to the safest and coolest OS there is — depending on the power of the PC you’re coming from.

Criticism about the fact that the Mac Mini doesn’t come with a mouse, keyboard or monitor is pretty unfounded — how many households or workplaces don’t have at least one old CRT screen and keyboard laying around (or can’t pick one up for $100)? If you’re making the jump from another Mac and it’s anything but a very basic model, be wary. Don’t be fooled by its beautiful design — there aren’t many machines you could migrate up to the Mac Mini from and be impressed with the clock speed and specs — unless you’re still on an old Quadra or Centris.

Because it’s slow. If you’re a designer or someone else used to a late model pro machine (or even something as old as a G4 tower), the difference will be marked — especially the heavier the workload you try to throw at it. Long pauses after switching between even simple applications while the RAM shakes its head and works out what it’s doing are commonplace.

Of course, Apple doesn’t just offer a base model. You can upgrade to a 1.42Ghz G4 processor from the standard 1.25Ghz, or get an 80Gb hard drive instead of the usual 40Gb, and also have Bluetooth or Airport installed. The limited expandability will please only a narrow market of buyers, but that’s the market Apple’s going for. There are eerie echoes of the ill-fated G4 cube (the poor thing still has a status of ‘suspended manufacture’), which looked like the father the Mac Mini never had and suffered similar lack of expandability.

The legions of Mac hackers who can’t wait to pull the guts out of anything Apple produces and post it online have been at it already, and have reported that unlike Apple’s desktop tower models, the Mac Mini isn’t designed for post-purchase tinkering. Changing the memory or installing a bigger hard drive or other components is described as being for someone with very nimble fingers and a calm temperament.

But there’s no pretence about the Mac Mini and expandability isn’t one of its ambitions. With only two USB and one firewire port, an audio jack, the power, monitor, Ethernet and modem sockets, it lives up to Apple’s stark minimalism. They inhabit only one side of the aluminium casing, the optical drive occupies the front, and the rest is clean, smooth metal.

It’s usually shown in photographs on its rubber base, but it can just as easily be stood on its side. Not that you’d have to bother on the average desk — the whole thing takes up as much space as two coffee cups and if you can’t find room for it you need to reassess your way of working, not the size of your computer.

Also like the G4 cube however is that the Mac Mini is virtually silent, and the fan is so light you have to hold your hand in front of the vent on the back and concentrate to even feel it.

But keep in mind there’s at least one more extra purchase you’ll have to consider if you’re starting from scratch that isn’t immediately obvious. The single speaker is awfully tinny and if you’re as serious about using the Mini to manage your digital life (more or less what they’re pushing it for) you’ll need external speakers.

There’s a value added bonus to get you on the road to digital nirvana in iLife 05, and getting the whole thing ready to use takes user friendliness to ridiculous new heights. Unpack the box, plug everything in, and you’re there. Like everything else Apple has produced, it’s something you’ll want to display proudly. And since reviews have claimed the performance is comparable to that of a G4 iBook, you could do a lot worse for your first splash into the highly stylised Macintosh waters.

So besides a penchant for producing beautiful things people want to touch, hold and own, there’s one more thing you can say for Apple; it’s a company that knows it’s market (often before anyone else — often including that market itself). And in the market of light household users who don’t do much more than play music, surf the web and play with iPhoto, the Mac Mini serves it in a gorgeous looking package.

Mac Mini 1.25Ghz 40Gb $799
Upgrade options; 1.42Ghz, 80Gb, Superdrive, Bluetooth, Airport Extreme
Apple Australia: 13 36 62

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