Apple has tried everything to get Windows users to switch to the Mac. First, it created a revolutionary operating system, Mac OS X, then it launched the 'Switch' ad campaign, with former Windows users frankly explaining why they like Macs better. When these efforts didn't produce the intended results, Apple employed a more straightforward strategy: make Macs cheaper.
With the Mac Mini, Apple has finally conceded the possibility that most people shopping for a desktop choose price above all else and don't want to throw away their expensive monitors to move to the Mac platform. Now, at £339 (as of May 2005), the standalone Mini (and it really stands alone, without a keyboard, a mouse, speakers or a monitor) offers would-be Apple converts a more affordable and flexible, but still stylish, entry-level Mac.
Its performance limitations make it glacially slow at processor-intensive tasks, so power users should look elsewhere; but for everyday home computing, it's a great buy. Even with a few recommended upgrades, the Mac Mini still costs less than £550, an enticing price point for investigating the Mac platform and the included software, such as the bundled iLife '05 suite.
Apple has become synonymous with sleek, minimalist design and the Mac Mini certainly embodies this ethos. A low, square box with rounded corners, the Mini is made of white plastic and anodised aluminium, and it measures 165 by 51 by 165mm and weighs 1.3kg. Smaller than any Shuttle system we've seen (and Shuttle pioneered the small form-factor PC), the Mini looks great in any environment, equally at home on a desk or in the lounge. And when in use, the Mini is marvellously quiet, with its cooling fan producing less than a whisper.
True to Apple's styling, the top of the Mac Mini displays the simple Apple logo, and on the front there's only a slot-loading CD/DVD drive and a small white power light. In order to maintain the Mini's elegance, Apple has put even commonly used items, including the power button and the audio jack, on the rear. You may tire of feeling around the back to turn it on or sync your iPod, but the Mini's small dimensions mean it will likely be sitting on top of your desk rather than under it, making its back-panel ports more convenient than they would be on a tower design.
Also on the back of the Mac Mini, you'll find two USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 400 port, a 10/100BaseT Ethernet port, a modem port (for the included 56Kbps V.92 modem) and a DVI video-out port. We were happy to see the Mini ships with a DVI-to-VGA video adapter so that users can connect both digital and analogue monitors. We were less than happy to find only a pair of USB ports: unless your monitor or keyboard provides such ports, you'll need to get a USB hub. It's far from a big-ticket item, but it will somewhat diminish the Mini's small footprint and clean design.
The Mini's case isn't sealed, but opening it is a challenge and not for the nontechnical (it involves some elbow grease and confidence with a putty knife). If you want Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or extra RAM, we recommend ordering them as custom options when you buy the Mini or taking it to a local Apple repair shop. Adding an AirPort Extreme card is especially challenging, since besides installing the card, you'll also need to add an internal antenna. If you plan to shuttle the Mini from room to room, as Apple suggests, you'll want to tack on the wireless upgrade before you buy.