The skinny on Mini
Now you can take a bite of Apple's easy-going technology for a lower price, courtesy of the Mac Mini ($500). It's the first Mac priced to compete in price with low-cost Windows PC s and the smallest desktop computer from any major maker. The downsizing sacrifices some of Apple's plug-and-play convenience, but the Mini does offer an inexpensive option for anyone thinking of retiring an old Windows PC.
The diminutive Mac weighs 2.9 pounds and is only 2 inches tall and 6 1/2 inches square--small enough to carry in a backpack between home and office. Its list price is a bargain, but you do have to provide your own keyboard, monitor, and mouse. You'll also probably want to upgrade the memory. The basic model offers a 40-gigabyte hard drive and only 256 megabytes of memory; Apple recommends you have 512 MB ($574) just to run its own iLife software.
Adding up. A reasonably equipped Mini with an 80-GB drive, 512 MB memory, and a drive that can read and write DVD s as well as CD s costs $724. By the time you add the display, keyboard, and mouse it could cost $1,100 or more. For comparison, $1,200 buys a comparably configured iBook laptop, or, for about $200 more, you could get an Apple iMac with a built-in 17-inch display and a newer and faster G5 processor (the Mini and iBook have the older G4). Dell offers a Windows-based system with hardware specifications similar to that of the $724 Mac Mini for $669--plus it comes with a 15-inch LCD flat-panel monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse.
But hardware, of course, is not the entire story. The Mac is less prone to viruses and other security problems than the PC, and Apple's OS 10.3 operating system is elegant measured against its Windows and Linux competitors. It also comes with a suite of highly regarded applications such as iPhoto 5, iMovie, and GarageBand.
For those ready to commit to Apple, an iMac is still the best bet. But the Mini does offer a money-saving option for PC users who want to test-drive Apple's reputation without having to buy the whole orchard. -Larry Magid
This story appears in the March 14, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.