Review - Mac mini 1.5GHz Intel Core Solo

Product: Desktop computer
Developer: Apple Computer
System Specs: 1.5GHz Intel Core Solo processor, 2MB L2 Cache, 667MHz Frontside Bus, 512MB memory (667MHz DDR2 SDRAM), 60GB Serial ATA hard drive, Combo drive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW), Built-in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0, Apple Remote
Retail Price: $599
Availability: Now
Product Page:

My mother recently retired from the hospital she's worked at for nearly 40 years. After all that time as a surgical nurse, what did they give her when she left? A telescope. That would actually be quite cool (she chose it from a list of possible gifts), except that...well, when I asked an astronomer friend about the quality of the telescope, he said, "It's better than the one Galileo invented in 1600s."

My friend went on to explain that the problem with people buying low power/quality telescopes is that you can only look at the moon and the rings of Saturn so many times before you get bored and give up with astronomy. Spend a little more, and the universe opens up to you...literally.

His concern echoes mine with the new Intel Mac mini. Yes, it's an inexpensive way to get into the world of Macintosh computing, but is there enough there to keep people around, or will they quickly grow bored and give up?

That, of course, depends on the user. Me? Bored. My mom? Loving it. The mini may be a cheap way to introduce new users to the Macintosh, but there's another market out there...people's mothers who are still messing around on 500MHz G3 Indigo iMacs and wouldn't even consider upgrading unless they can do so for under $1,000. The Mac mini allows for that, even with the additional purchase of a mouse, keyboard and monitor. With store and manufacturer rebates, this is not only possible, but simple, even throwing in a flat panel monitor and a printer. Don't believe me? Ask my mom.

To give this machine a fair review, therefore, I have to do so from the point of view of my mother, not me. I didn't run Photoshop, Dreamweaver and Toon Boom Studio on it. I didn't play Quake 4. Instead, I surfed the web. I checked e-mail. I played some CDs, imported some photos and played a few rounds of Burning Monkey Puzzle Lab. The Mac mini performed ably.

Mac mini

The Intel GMA950 graphics processor was a big concern for me, as I don't like the idea of my graphics needs pulling power away from the system. Mac OS X alone requires 80MB of graphics memory, leaving you with only 432MB available to the system, which comes with only 512MB to begin with (and which I didn't upgrade for my mom). That's going to flat out kill your ability to play a lot of games and use graphics intensive applications, many of which will ask for you 512MB of system RAM to begin with, let alone demanding another 256MB of video RAM. Confusing? If so, you're safe buying this computer, as graphics power obviously isn't a concern of yours. I gave up trying to explain it to my mom. Why confuse her when all she really wanted to know what whether she can play Freeverse games and listen to Kenny Rogers CDs. The answer is, "Yes. No Problem."

The Apple iLife apps are quite skippy on the new Intel processors. Even on this low end Mac mini, I was impressed by their performance. The boot speed was good, too; good enough to make me understand why Apple made the switch to Intel. If the system can perform this well at the bottom end of the system specs, imagine what it'll be doing when the Intel PowerPCs are released later this year.

Right now, though, it's all about the digital hub. The software included with the Mac mini ranges from necessary (Safari 2, Mail 2) to useful (iPhoto 6, iWeb, Quicken 2006) to fun (iMovie, Comic Life). What's sorely missing is a word processor. Appleworks was never any good, but at least it was free. Now, new Mac mini users get trials of iWork and Microsoft Office, both of which are complete overkill for most users. Office is overpriced at $400, costing almost as much as the computer. iWork may be counterintuitive and clumsy, but at least it's only $79. Still, if you plan on doing any word processing on the Mac mini, I recommend heading over to the Nisus Software and adding the Universal Binary release of Nisus Writer Express to the mix of word processors to try. Not only is it cheaper than Microsoft Word (from Office) and Pages (from iWork), it's also better.

Still, moreso than processors and software, the selling point of the Mac mini is its form factor, and it really is pretty impressive. At 6.5" wide by 6.5" deep by 2" high, it'll change the way you think about desktop computers. But not only is it small, it's also slick. People don't believe it's the whole computer, just as they don't believe the flat panel iMac is the whole computer. Those Apple developers sure are sly, huh. I wonder if they wanted to make it even smaller, but couldn't because they had to fit that pesky CD slot in there.

The lack of any ports in the front of the system (aside from the CD slot) makes for a nice looking unit, but it kills functionality. The power switch is easy enough to find and press, but it annoyed me that mom had to keep sliding the computer out from under her monitor (a 17" flat panel Acer) to access the headphone and FireWire ports, or any of the four USB 2.0 ports. Yes, there are two on her keyboard, but some of her devices require powered USB ports. At least two ports up front would've been helpful. As it stands, a USB hub is the next logical purchase for most Mac mini users. And although there are many great options available, the Hi-Speed USB 2.0 4-Port Hub for Mac mini from Belkin not only gives you convenient access to two USB 2.0 ports, it does so in exactly the manner that Apple should have to begin with.

Mac mini

By the time I was done with mom's Mac mini, I was surprised by what did and didn't bug me about it. Accepting it for what it was meant to do, it's a good little machine. It's inexpensive, it's small, and it's speedier than I expected. Its small, clean design, however, makes it a bit of a hassle to get to the ports you'll need to use the iLife '06 apps Apple includes with the computer. The $600 price is nice, but it leaves you at the mercy of a potentially shoddy third-party monitor, keyboard and mouse to keep the price down, which can hamper the Macintosh experience. Some may choose to spend $200 more for the higher-end Mac mini model, adding an additional 20GB of hard drive pace, a slightly faster processor (1.66GHz Core Duo) and a SuperDrive (with the ability to burn DVDs), but it's probably not worth it. Taking in the price of all that with the aforementioned keyboard, mouse and monitor, plus maybe an additional 512MB RAM, and suddenly you're not far from the price of a 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo iMac with a much better...everything.

In other words, the Mac mini is just fine for Galileo, but those with their eyes on the entire Macintosh universe may want a little more than...well, than what my mom's willing to accept as a retirement gift.

Applelinks Rating:

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