We tested the basic £339 Mac Mini, which gives you a 1.25GHz G4 processor, 256MB RAM, a 40GB hard drive and a combo drive (CD-RW/DVD-ROM). Apple also sells a £399 Mini that has a faster 1.4GHz G4 processor and a larger 80GB hard drive.
The Mini comes hobbled with only 256MB of RAM, which makes it a poor performer (see 'Performance') for any processor-intensive applications, including editing video or high-resolution photos and playing 3D games. Memory has long been a shortcoming in Macs, including both the iMac G5 and even a couple of Power Mac G5 configurations, which also ship as standard with 256MB of memory. (In fairness to the G5 machines, they do use faster 400MHz memory, but 256MB is still not enough.)
If Apple wants its computers to be seen as cutting-edge media machines, it should make 512MB RAM the standard and ship high-end machines with a full gigabyte. We'd recommend that anyone eyeing the Mini spend £30 to double the memory to 512MB. And if you plan to make use of iMovie and iDVD, you'll want to upgrade the combo drive to Apple's DVD-burning SuperDrive. That upgrade was more costly than we expected at £70.
In our real-world testing, the Mini's limited RAM meant it performed complex tasks much more slowly than a Power Mac G5 would, but the difference was usually in seconds, not minutes. Working with clips in iMovie was noticeably slower, but never so slow that we needed to make a cup of tea while the machine caught up. Transferring an iMovie file to iDVD, however, gave us more than enough time to fetch a cuppa. The Mini also choked on GarageBand songs with several instrumental tracks, occasionally pausing for a split second in the middle of a song during playback.
In addition to the memory, the slow-spinning hard drive contributes to the Mac Mini's performance limitations. In order to pack it into such a small case, Apple uses a notebook hard drive. Whereas the iMac G5 uses a 99mm (3.5-inch), 7200rpm drive, inside the Mini spins a 71mm (2.5-inch), 4200rpm drive. Expansion, or lack thereof, is also another obvious drawback to the Mini; there are no free PCI slots and opening the case is difficult.
One way Apple has kept the Mini's price down is by not including a monitor, a keyboard, or a mouse. If you're switching from a Windows computer, that won't be a problem, because Macs can use nearly any peripherals that Windows PCs can use -- as long as your keyboard and mouse are USB and not PS/2. If you're a new user, however, you'll need to tack on the extra expense (Apple offers a wireless keyboard and mouse kit for £70).
We recommend a Logitech or Microsoft mouse and keyboard (Apple's one-button mouse and rinky-dink plastic keyboard are so poor that it's probably a plus that the Mini doesn't come with them). You can also configure the Mini with wireless capability: Bluetooth for wireless keyboard and mouse -- saving valuable USB ports in the process -- and 802.11g for wireless networking. Apple offers both for a reasonable £70.
The £339 price pulled us in, but when we were done with customising the Mac Mini the way we'd want it, the price rose to £539 with four upgrades: doubling the memory (£30) and the hard drive (£30), upgrading to the SuperDrive (£70), and adding wireless Bluetooth and the AirPort Extreme card (£70). While other budget PCs beat the Mac Mini on hardware, the Mini has the edge -- in addition to its small footprint and quiet operation -- with its software bundle.
The Mini comes with the recently released iLife '05 suite, which includes iMovie HD, iTunes 4.7, iDVD 5.0, iPhoto 5.0, and GarageBand 2.0. You also get AppleWorks (oddly, the Mini doesn't come with iWork, Apple's new office suite) and a few kid-friendly games. The abundant software bundle greatly adds to the Mini's overall value.