Mac Musings

The Impressive Value of the Mac mini

Daniel Knight - 2005.01.11
Updated 2005.01.25

Apple really outdid themselves this time - they've build a whole Macintosh into a 6.5" square case that's just 2" high. And it looks stylish. And it's just US$499.

Honestly, I wasn't expecting anything this stylish in an entry-level headless Mac. I can hardly comprehend how they managed to squeeze a Combo drive, a hard drive, a motherboard, and even a tiny speaker into such a compact space. The Mac mini is a lot smaller than those "zero footprint" SCSI drives we used back in the Mac Plus era. Those generally measured 9.6" wide, over 10" deep, and at least 3" high.

What Apple has really invented here is the hand-holdable, transportable desktop computer. It weighs less than three pounds (plus the external power supply), works with any USB mouse or keyboard, and connects to any DVI or VGA display. With a $19 adapter, you can even connect it to most modern TVs using S-video.

How Did They Do It?

In terms of hardware specs, the Mac mini is pretty much an eMac without a display or stereo speakers. It has either a 1.25 GHz or 1.42 GHz G4 processor, a 40 GB or 80 GB hard drive, and normally ships with a Combo drive. (For the first time in Apple history, the SuperDrive option cost only $100 more.)

There are still two memory sockets. [Correction - there's only one memory socket.] There's room for Bluetooth and AirPort Express, just like on the eMac. But there are a few less ports - just one FireWire 400 port and two USB 2.0 ones.

Mac miniApple kept the power supply outside of the computer, which keeps the size, weight, and heat down. And they made the mouse and keyboard optional, which helped keep the retail price down. (You can add Apple's mouse and keyboard for $58.)

From a geek's standpoint, built-in video, no extra hard drive bays, and no expansion slots will be disappointing. From a user's standpoint, that will hardly matter. Most computer users never upgrade their video cards, the Mac mini works with external FireWire and USB 2.0 hard drives, and about the only reason you'd want an expansion slot would be to add a TV tuner. That can also be done with USB or FireWire.

All the pieces are in place, and in addition to the hardware, the Mac mini buyer will get the $79 iLife '05 bundle, Apple's new $79 iWork package, Quicken 2005, and a few extra goodies - even a 30 day trial version of Microsoft Office. [Correction - iWork isn't bundled.]

Mac mini Value

The design is nothing less than we should have expected from Apple, and the price point is going to tempt a lot of iPod owners and Windows users who are sick to death of viruses and spyware and adware to consider a Mac. If they already have a USB mouse, USB keyboard, monitor, and speakers, they can do that for just US$499.

If they don't have all that, they're going to get Delled. $58 for Apple's mouse and keyboard. $189 for a 17" Mitsubishi monitor. Maybe $29 for an inexpensive set of speakers. Suddenly it's not a whole lot less than the $799 eMac.

On the other hand, it's much more portable than the eMac. You could easily throw the Mac mini in a briefcase or duffle bag or large purse to transport it between home and work or school.

It's also very flexible. You can use it to watch DVDs on any TV with S-video input. And you can probably use it to play games on those TVs as well. Or surf the Web.

The $499 price point is going to get a lot of attention, especially since that doesn't assume any mail-in rebates. It's an out-the-door price, and the Mac mini offers a lot for the money.

The $599 Mac mini runs at 1.42 GHz, a 13% speed boost over the entry-level model, and it comes with an 80 GB hard drive. Is that worth a 20% price premium? Just barely. The speed isn't going to make a big difference, but that 40 GB hard drive can fill up pretty quickly if you work with video.

The other question is whether you can replace the stock 2.5" hard drive with a higher capacity, faster drive without worrying about heat problems. If that is possible, I'd buy my Mac mini with the 40 GB drive and replace it with something big and fast for US$80-100. (Apple charges $50 to put an 80 GB drive in the Mac mini, and it's probably not a 7200 rpm drive. However, there's no option to buy the 1.42 GHz mini with a 40 GB drive.)

It's also nice that Apple doesn't include their keyboard and mouse, because a lot of us prefer a mouse with more than one button. I'm hooked on wireless two-button mice with a clickable scroll wheel and a thumb switch. If I can save $58 by not buying Apple's mouse/keyboard combo, I'm better off.

I'm working very comfortably with a 1.25 GHz eMac, but if I'd known something like this was coming last summer, I wouldn't have two eMacs today. (One at home, where it's also the household file server and voice mail system, and one at my apartment.) I could have stuck with my PowerBook G4/400 for a while longer.

Regardless, I'd love to have one of these, a Mac I could take anywhere that's not much larger than an external hard drive, has plenty of power, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

I think a lot of people are going to feel the same way. Between this and the iPod shuffle, the Apple Online Store is pretty much unusable this afternoon.