Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2005 / 2 Adar I 5765

MAC'S mini Marvel...

By Mark Kellner | My wife, a graduate of Northeast High in Philadelphia, was watching the first hour or so of Super Bowl XXXIX, and I, a die-hard (if heartbroken) Washington fan, had less interest than perhaps I should have. So, I decided to plug in Apple Computer's $499 (more or less) Mac mini (stet) for a test drive at her desk in our apartment's loft.

It was a good location, maybe even great, for such a project: a small computer desk is there, along with a small-ish Hewlett Packard ink-jet printer. Also present are a 15-inch LCD display monitor and a Microsoft keyboard. A mouse was at hand, but more on that in a moment.

Why a great location? Well, the Mac mini's mini size (think of a slightly overgrown CD-ROM burner) makes it great for small spaces. And, it's built to work with your existing keyboard, mouse and monitor; there's even an adapter for LCDs that have a VGA connector, more common among PC users than Mac-heads. As has been widely reported, Apple has aimed the Mac mini at Windows users who are tired of system crashes.

My test system arrived with a 40 GB hard disk drive, a "combo drive" that plays DVD and CD discs and writes to blank CDs, and 512 Mbytes of RAM. That extra RAM — 256 Mbytes is standard-issue — will push the $499 price up by $75. Adding, as Apple did, wireless connectors for Bluetooth devices such as a wireless keyboard and mouse, as well as wireless networking, or WiFi, tacks on another $129. All told, we're just a hair beyond $700 for a machine equipped as tested, sales tax not included.

For the price, however, even this slightly pimped-out Mac mini is still a bargain compared with other Macs in years gone by. And don't forget that Apple's Mac OS X is a far, far more stable operating system than Windows XP, or that Apple includes a free copy of iLife '05 — a suite of multimedia applications including iTunes, iPhoto, IMovie, iDVD and Garage Band — with each model. That's a $79 value (if not more) right there.

I wish, however, that Apple had included its Keynote 2 presentation graphics software and word processor/publisher Pages in the bundle. Not only would that make this an even better value, but it might save millions the utter disappointment and banality of AppleWorks 6, a program which might once have had a purpose but now is a gaseous reminder of how software can sour faster than an open container of buttermilk at high noon.

All that is to say that buyers of the Mac mini likely will have to shell out some bucks for a word processor, if they're at all serious about writing. Microsoft offers an "educational market" version of Office 2004 for Mac (the latest version) for $149; iWork, which combines Pages and Keynote 2, is $79. Either way, you'll probably need one of these.

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You'll also need a speaker system of some stripe: except for startup sounds, there's no sound to be heard from the Mac mini without speakers or headphones. If you don't opt for Apple's Bluetooth keyboard and mouse ($129), you may need a USB hub to connect a mouse, keyboard and printer, since there are only two USB ports available. Ethernet networking is built in, as is a dial-up modem.

Not everyone has my tastes or computer sensitivities, of course, and some may be able to get away with less in the way of equipment. That would suggest that the Mac mini, at present, is made for computer users who just want a good working system, which this certainly is. Questions will likely arise as to how much this system can grow, however, and I hope Apple will continue work on small-form-factor devices. But despite its limitations, there's no skirting the issue: the Mac mini raises the bar for what a good, low-price computer can and should do.

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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