David and Goliath? -- A first look at the Mac mini

By Graham K. Rogers

A day or two after the Apple press release a Mac mini arrived at home and I had the pleasure of this little warrior for a week. Looking at it needs a certain soberness. People enthuse about the size, the compactness, the clean design, the way the disks slide in and out so easily, its cuteness; or they liken it to a lunchbox, a biscuit tin.

cookie tin on G4

One colleague refused to believe it was a computer at first, sitting on top of my office G4. (It is also considerably faster than that two-year old computer.) To view the Mac mini dispassionately takes some doing. As it comes with several new programs, I will report on the use, and then on the applications themselves in subsequent columns.

It has been so well designed there is no room spare. Everything inside is so carefully placed that Apple strongly recommend that any maintenance or upgrades are left to trained Apple technicians at the retail shops.

Like my eMac it has the 1.25GHz chip. A faster version has a chip of 1.42GHz (and 80GB hard disk). All models come with 256 RAM as standard. I hoped this was what the review machine would have, but Apple slipped in a 1GB module. Even from independent suppliers, like Crucial, the single 1GB unit is expensive. I expect many users to go for the 512MB upgrade.

It simply lacks drama. It sits there unobtrusively with its tiny light shining when on, and is a music centre, a computer, a video player: what you will. Despite the urging not to open the case, many are; and even more are putting the Mac minis to uses which were probably not in the original list of possibilities.

When it was delivered, I had no monitor. I bought a DVI to Video adapter in Fortune Town, but the image on my television, using the composite video connector, was poor, even trying several display settings. Text was hard to read and the images indistinct.

Using the same adapter, I tried at work using the s-video connector. The picture was slightly clearer: text could be read. As many target users may have a VGA monitor, I borrowed an old 15" one and the picture was good. On a projector at my office -- also using a VGA connector -- the picture was clear and sharp. With its portability (it spent part of the week in my back-pack), there is good reason to consider it as a second computer.

TV+DVD flat screen

The computer comes out of the box -- well-protected against damage -- then monitor, keyboard and mouse are plugged in. I used a flexi-keyboard I keep as a spare and borrowed the mouse from the eMac. As the back is only 6.5" wide, space is tight. Getting my fingers to work back there was fiddly: with only two USB ports as well, a powered hub would be a good investment.

After registration screens are done with (a few minutes only), the Mac mini is ready to roll. There is no software to install (unless you insist): consumer Macs come ready with enough software to write, check mail, use the World Wide Web, organise and fix photographs, create songs, listen to recorded music, play a few games and make movies. A full list of the software (including iLife '05) is available at the Apple website . Macs also come with a full version of OSX: Unix underneath.

With the ADSL modem/router upstairs, I strung a 10-metre cable downstairs and plugged it in. I changed the Ethernet setting to "Using DHCP", pressed "Apply" and was online in a moment. Setting up Mail took a minute more -- to type in the details -- and that was running too.

iTunes came loaded with songs as this machine had been used for demonstrations. The minuscule speaker with its tinny sound could not be expected to produce hi-fi. I hooked up my JBL Creature speakers and we had a room full of sound. The computer itself on the other hand is almost silent (unlike the eMac -- noticable if the rear is near a wall). The Mac mini air vents, which need to be kept clear, are around the base. I heard some slight vibration, and felt a little airflow when my ear was near the slots. Heat was not a problem in the slightest.

mini_speaker mini memory
Mac mini Speaker Memory module (1GB)

mini+combo speaker/light
Combo drive Speaker and light (far right)

Larger copies of these images are available if required

A technician in my office opened the case (coward as I am, I watched). It was not easy, particularly trying to guard against scratching, but it was even harder to put it back. It is so compact that it is no wonder Apple want only specialists to deal with adding RAM -- there is only one slot -- while Airport (broadband radio) and Bluetooth installations are done by the factory.

A week with this baby has made me readjust my future computer plans. Again. The Mac mini should be in the shops soon -- they may be available already -- and I have to add this to my list.

See also:

  • New Apple Products Available in Bangkok: Mac mini; iPod shuffle; iLife, iWorks, Final Cut Express DVD
  • Mac mini (2): The Flexible Mac mini

  • Made on Mac

    For further information, e-mail to Graham K. Rogers.

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