Mac Musings

Test Drive a Mac mini - or Wait for Something Better?

Dan Knight - 2005.08.31, updated 2005.09.01 - Tip Jar

UPDATE: Apple discontinued the Mac mini Test Drive program on August 31 without explanation.

Think the Mac mini might be the right computer for you? Now your can test drive one for 30 days and return it if it's not to your liking.

This isn't the first time Apple has offered a Macintosh test drive, but I think it's the first time since 1984 that they've done it since then. And this time you get to use the computer for a whole month, not just over the weekend.

You can also get an Apple keyboard and mouse with your test drive.

Is there a catch? Only one that I can see - you have to order the Mac mini from the Apple Store online.

If you have an old Power Mac or long-in-tooth Performa, if you've never moved to OS X because your hardware just isn't up to it, or if you're wondering if the Mac really is a workable alternative to Windows, here's your chance to try a Mac mini with no commitment.

Apple's betting that most people who try the Mac mini will love it, and that those who don't might still fall in love with OS X and buy a different model at the end of the test drive.

If my main computer was a traditional desktop (instead of an eMac with a built-in display), I'd be very tempted. The US$599 model has enough RAM, a big enough hard drive, and AirPort Extreme. It's also a bit faster than my 1.25 GHz eMac.

But I don't have a decent external display that would work at 1280 x 960 or 1280 x 1024, and I wouldn't buy a monitor just so I could test drive a Mac mini.

The Mac mini is a good consumer computer. It comes with enough memory. It has a pretty bullet-proof operating system. The hard drive on the US$499 model is adequate, but the slightly faster US$599 model with an 80 GB drive plus Bluetooth plus AirPort Extreme is the better value.

Buy an eMac?

Still, it is a consumer computer. If you want more than 512 MB of RAM or a 7200 rpm hard drive, you might be better off with an eMac.

Why? First, because you have two memory slots in the eMac, so you don't have to discard the 256 MB or 512 MB module that comes with the computer. Adding a 512 MB module to the eMac costs less than putting a 1 GB module in a Mac mini.

Second factor: Your eMac just might come with a 7200 rpm hard drive. I was surprised to find a 7200 rpm 80 GB Seagate Barracuda hard drive inside my SuperDrive 1.25 GHz eMac when I replaced the hard drive last weekend (more on that tomorrow).

I never expected to find a high-end hard drive in my eMac, and I'd been using it with an external 7200 rpm 80 GB FireWire drive since I first got the computer. Further, Apple doesn't specify whether the drives in today's eMacs are 5400 rpm or 7200 rpm drives, so you may not end up with the faster drive.

Even if it doesn't come with a 7200 rpm drive, those drives are less costly and available in a much wider range of capacities in the 3.5" size that the eMac uses vs. the 2.5" size the Mac mini uses. In fact, I only find one 7200 rpm notebook drive on Other World Computing's website, a 60 GB Hitachi Travelstar that sells for US$229.99.

You can easily find a 160 GB 7200 rpm drive in the 3.5" size for under US$100 without even worrying about mail-in rebates.

The eMac isn't perfect. It's a lot less portable than the Mac mini, and it's not a quiet computer, but it does have a flat 17" CRT that supports 1280 x 960 and built-in stereo speakers. For US$300 more than the entry-level Mac mini, you get the display, speakers, a mouse, a keyboard, and more flexible/less costly upgrade options. (Not that changing the eMac's hard drive is easy!)

Of course, is you already have a monitor that you're happy with, the Mac mini has a lot to commend it. It's small. It's quiet. And it's inexpensive.

Not Quite Perfect

No computer is perfect. The Power Mac G5 is very expandable and huge. The Mac mini has limited, more upgrade options. And eMacs and iMacs have their own displays.

What would be perfect? Something between the extremely flexible Power Mac and the fairly limited Mac mini. Something with more expansion options than the mini but less than the Power Mac.

I like the portability of the Mac mini, but there are a few things I don't like:

  1. The 2.5" notebook drive. Notebook drives cost more and are usually slower than 3.5" drives.
  2. The single memory slot. That means you have to remove a perfectly good memory module to upgrade, and buying a single higher-capacity module costs more than adding a lower-capacity one.
  3. Built-in video. Radeon 9200 with 32 MB of RAM isn't bad at all, but it doesn't support Apple's Core Image technology. And there's no way to change video on the Mac mini (or the eMac or iMac, for that matter).

My ideal desktop Mac would be compact, quiet, easily transported, and affordably expandable. Here's what I'd like to see:

  • 3.5" Serial ATA hard drive. These cost just a tiny bit more than parallel ATA drives and are already used in the Power Mac G5. I suspect all Intel Macs will use Serial ATA.
  • Two memory slots so you don't have to set aside a perfectly good 512 MB module when you want/need more RAM.
  • An AGP 8x slot so graphics can be upgraded. Apple could make Radeon 9200 standard and offer a couple more powerful alternatives - like they do with the Power Mac G5.
  • Bluetooth 2.0 on the motherboard. Standard AirPort Extreme slot. Also a modem slot.
  • Two USB 2.0 buses so one can be used for keyboard, mouse, and other low-speed USB devices.
  • Two FireWire ports.

In a lot of ways, this would be an eMac with an AGP slot and no screen or speakers.

I'm trying to come up with any reason at all for Apple to offer a single PCI expansion slot in this prosumer model, but I can't.

We could build all of this into something that looks like a taller Mac mini, 3-4" tall. Apple could sell it with a slower, less costly hard drive for not much more than the current Mac mini - and also offer lots of memory, hard drive, and video options for users who want more.

Or maybe it would look like a 4" tall Power Mac G5....


Some of you are already thinking, "Hey, hasn't this guy just reinvented the Cube? And didn't that bomb?"

Astute observation. The Cube was a great computer in many ways - enough power, enough expansion, and a beautiful case. It bombed in part because of some design flaws (that power button on the top was just too sensitive, and the top-loading CD/DVD drive was slow and awkward to use), but mostly because it offered a fraction of the Power Mac's flexibility at nearly the same price.

This middle desktop Mac would be a great entry-level alternative to the Mac mini, and it could sell for a bit more because of its flexibility while still retailing for a lot less than the Power Mac G5.

The market would be anyone interested in a Mac who needs more flexibility than the Mac mini offers but not as much as the Power Mac has. People who want to add their own RAM, upgrade the hard drive themselves, and choose a more powerful video card for better gaming.

And we haven't even talked about processing power yet.

I'd like to see some real flexibility here, maybe using the same CPU socket as the Power Mac G4 did. Maybe offer a 1.42 GHz Combo drive model, a 1.67 GHz SuperDrive model, and a dual 1.5 GHz power user model. With an external power supply (like the Mac mini uses), it should be easier to control heat.

Or go G5. Running at 1.4 GHz to 1.6 GHz, they shouldn't be nearly as hot as the 1.8 GHz and faster G5 iMacs and Power Macs.

And when it's time to go Intel, all Apple has to do is design a new motherboard for the enclosure. (They did the same thing when the transitioned from Quadras to Power Macs 11 years ago.)

This is a computer I'd be interested in test driving! 

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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