Apple Archive

Is the Mac mini Worth More than a Low Cost DIY Windows PC?

, 2005.01.21

I've seen a number of people doing "the Mac mini is $499 - how much can I build a low-end PC for that matches the specifications?" comparisons. I've found that some have come out heavily biased on the Mac side, others heavily biased on the PC side.

Since I recently built a PC for myself, I know that it was significantly less expensive than any Mac alternative available at the time. However, with the introduction of the Mac mini, I thought I might as well do a new comparison for.

I hopped onto PriceWatch.com, which is perhaps my favorite site for finding inexpensive computer parts, to see what I could build a basic PC for. Here's what I chose, and I will also be explaining why I selected what I did.

PC Price List

  • PC Chips M863 motherboard with AMD Sempron 2600, 256MB DDR RAM, heatsink, and fan - $141. 29
  • ATX case and 450W power supply - $25
  • Quantum 40 GB hard drive, 5400 rpm - $35
  • Samsung 52x Combo drive (52x24x52 CD-RW, 16x DVD) - $32.95
  • 64 MB Apollo ATI Radeon 9200SE - $36
  • Total - $270.24

Yes, the total is less than the Mac mini.

Let me finish my explanation.

First of all, the AMD Sempron (which replaced the Duron) - this one running at about 2.1 GHz is going to be similar in performance to the 1.25 GHz G4 in the Mini. 256 MB is what the Mini comes with, so I didn't change that. However, if you want to do anything more than email and basic Internet browsing with the machine, you'll want to upgrade the RAM (on either the Mac mini or the PC).

The need for a case is pretty obvious, but these days a larger power supply is necessary for dealing with the increased demands of newer motherboards, hard drives, and other parts. That being said, I have a 250 watt power supply in my PC, and it has no issues.

I chose a basic 40 GB hard drive because this is what the Mac mini comes with. When it comes to DVD and CD-RW drives, I actually have separate drives in my PC - an internal DVD-ROM and an external USB CD-RW - simply because it worked out cheaper that way (the DVD drive was already in the machine, and I bought the CD-RW used for only a few dollars). I'll get to used parts in a moment. A Combo drive is most convenient and leaves more room for upgrades. It's also gnerally cheaper than buying two separate drives.

When it comes to the video card, the most low-end version of the ATI Radeon 9200 card available for the PC is a 64 MB version, and in most stores all you'll find is the 128 MB version (which is what I installed in my PC). While the 32 MB in the Mac mini should have no problem with most graphics, no matter what current video card you end up buying for a PC, it will be superior to the video in the Mac mini.

Since Apple's betting on you keeping your old keyboard and mouse, I'll bet on the same thing. I'll also bet on that you have a copy of Windows from your old PC, which saves money (if not, add $80 to the total cost of the hardware) - or you can simply install one of the many Linux variants for free.

If you're currently using a PC, it's from within the past eight years, and it was a relatively mid- or high-range PC, you might be able to upgrade it by replacing the motherboard and processor. This means you'll be keeping some of your other older hardware, which can save on costs. I'd go into more detail, but this is a Mac columnÖ.

With the $270 and change PC that we've just put together, it's starting to look like the Mac mini isn't such a great value after all. That is, until you consider some of the additional features that the Mac mini offers and the PC doesn't.

The first is size. The Mac mini, as I stated in my last article, is small enough to go into a backpack. The $270 PC - maybe, just maybe - would barely fit into one of those large, old-fashioned cloth suitcases that people stopped using 20 years ago. For people who keep their computer under a desk, this isn't a big deal. But for some, space is a major concern.

The second is a warranty, and the idea that if something goes wrong, all you have to do is send the machine away and have it back on your door working like new in a few days. With a home-built PC, you'll have to spend hours troubleshooting it until you finally figure out that the reason the machine couldn't find the hard drive (and thus start up Windows) was not because the hard drive failed, but because the cable to the drive was defective. This, of course, would be after you'd already replaced the hard drive.

This also brings me to the time required to assemble the PC. It can take a few hours, or it can take days. The PC I built for myself took months to get working correctly. I built a PC for a friend, and it only took a few hours to get up and running. It all depends on your experience with building computers and your luck (in receiving hardware that's working in the first place, especially).

Assuming you get the local neighborhood computer geek kid to come put your new PC together, he'll probably charge you anywhere between $80 and $150. Assuming he charges you $100, your $270 PC is now a $370 PC.

When it comes to software, there are some free or inexpensive alternatives to some of Apple's software. I don't really want to get into this argument, however, because whether iPhoto is better than Picassa or iMovie is better than Windows Movie Maker is really based on personal opinion.

While I think a lot of people find it nice that their new computer comes with software, most won't use anything beyond a word processor, iTunes, and maybe iPhoto. If they want anything else, it's probably specific (family tree software, for example) and would have to be purchased separately.

So which is the better deal? Well, since I already have a new PC, I must say I'd choose the Mac mini.

However, for the market that the Mac mini is aimed at, it's clear that it's the better deal because of the simplicity factor (for those who are more interested in technology and computers, the PC might be the better way to go). Putting the PC together, making sure it works, and hoping that it stays working for more than a few weeks are headaches that most home "I just want to email this photo to my sister" users aren't going to want to have to deal with. A week of "oh no, the computer's broken, who do we call? What do we do?" followed by a $75 repair isn't worth the $150 that might have been saved in the first place.

Comparing it to the basic $500 pre-built PC boxes, the Mac mini still ends up an excellent buy.

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