The Mac Mini is Apple's first desktop computer to sell for under $500. It's also the first desktop from Apple -- or any other source -- that comfortably fits in my car's glove compartment.
Both traits make this tiny computer big news. At $499 and $599 in its two configurations, the Mac Mini represents Apple's first attempt in years to compete on price with entry-level PCs -- a surprising but welcome move for a company that has said it aspires to be the BMW of the computing business. But this diminutive machine -- just 6 1/2 inches square by 2 inches high and weighing 2 3/4 pounds -- also amounts to a sharp break from traditional desktop design.
Think of the Mac Mini as a laptop with the screen, keyboard and battery sliced off, or a desktop with all the air sucked out of its case. Apple has taken the stuff of everyday computing and stuffed it into the smallest possible enclosure.
To judge from the past week of testing, the Mac Mini fills that role just fine -- as long as you choose your setup wisely. The Mini's shrunk-to-fit design forces some compromises that can drastically limit its usefulness.
To start, Apple ships Mac Minis with only 256 megabytes of memory. That suffices for browsing the Web while listening to an iTunes playlist, but once you throw another program or two into the mix, the Mini bogs down. At worst -- for example, while copying a DVD's worth of photos to the hard drive -- the Mini briefly stopped responding to any input.
To avoid getting too familiar with the system-busy cursor that Mac users resentfully call the "spinning beach ball of death," you need 512 megabytes of memory. But since the Mac Mini offers only one memory slot, adding more later won't do unless you enjoy the challenge of cracking open the Mini's case (a difficult and anxious task if you're not used to tinkering with computers).
Instead, you'll need to upgrade the Mini's memory when you buy it, not later. Another 256 megabytes costs $75 from Apple, $25 more than what Dell and Hewlett-Packard charge for the same step up.
The other potential hiccup with the Mini comes when you try to attach an existing keyboard and mouse to it. (They aren't included in the box.)
It's not that the Mac Mini won't accept non-Apple gear. An IBM keyboard worked instantly; the only trick was guessing that its Windows-logo key took the role of a Mac's Command/Apple-logo key, while Alt subbed for the Option key (the Mini's manual should explain this but does not). Similarly, every mouse I tried -- even a fancy Logitech wireless model -- functioned immediately, without needing extra software for its right button and scroll wheel to work on the Mac.
But the keyboards included with almost every PC lack the right plug, as do most of their mice. Instead of USB, they use older, clunkier PS/2 cables.
An adapter to let a PS/2 keyboard and mouse share one USB port will cost you only $12 or so; Apple, however, has yet to stock any in its stores.
If your old PC, by some miracle, includes a USB keyboard and mouse, you may be even worse off. Plugging both input devices into a Mac Mini will leave no USB connections free. You'll be checkmated, unable to add a printer, memory key chain, digital camera, memory-card reader or cradle for a handheld organizer.
The FireWire port next to those two USB ports won't bail you out; it connects only external hard drives, iPods, digital camcorders and other data-intensive gadgets.
Most people switching from a PC will do best to get Apple's $29 keyboard, which includes two of its own USB ports, to solve the limited-connections issue. If you need a USB mouse, skip Apple's $29, single-button rodent; a two-button model costs $10 or $20 less at any computing store.
Attaching a monitor -- the other item not included with a Mac Mini -- is far easier. With support for both digital and analog displays, it should accept any display made in the past decade.
A tiny speaker is built in, possessed of all the thunder of a clock radio; a line-out jack accepts any standard headphones or speakers, through which the Mini sounds far better.
If you can steer past the memory and USB roadblocks, the Mac Mini should be an utterly pleasant machine. The base model's 1.2 GHz G4 processor, 40-gigabyte hard drive and CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive provide enough speed and storage for the usual home-computing chores, and it's nearly silent in use. (The $599 model has a 1.42 GHz chip and an 80-GB hard drive; you can also double the base model's hard-drive capacity for $50, while $100 adds DVD-burning capability to either model.)
If you'll add a Mini to a home network, its Ethernet port on the back accepts any wired connection, while an internal slot takes an optional WiFi wireless card.
And yes, the Mini looks cooler than any desktop save Apple's own iMac. The only false note in its design comes from its plain white brick of a power adapter.
But the most important feature of the Mini to many buyers will be its price tag. Factoring in $40 for a new keyboard and mouse, the Mini costs $190 to $130 more than the cheapest home desktops sold by Dell, Gateway and HP, but most of those models are stripped-down systems, lacking the essential ingredient of a CD burner. Adding one cuts that price gap to $150 to $100, and upgrading other components to match what's on the Mini trims that difference still further -- to as little as $15.
I didn't try to match the software bundles of those PCs to that of the Mini, because that's not possible. The PC universe has no answer to Apple's elegantly matched bundle of its virus-free Mac OS X (news - web sites) Panther, its Safari, Mail and iChat Internet applications and its new iLife '05 multimedia suite.
There's still a difference between the start-up costs of Windows and Mac computing, but with the Mac Mini, Apple has shrunk them to the size of an ATM withdrawal, not a car payment or a month's rent in a group house.
That ought to be enough to make buyers give Apple a second look. Given the woeful state of Windows computing, they should.