Charles Arthur On Technology

Why it's time to downsize

One's first reaction to seeing the Mac mini face to face is: surely you can't get a whole computer in that? A metal-and-white enclosure the size of a sandwich box - but far more elegant - packs up to 1 gigabyte of memory, fast Wi-Fi networking, Bluetooth connectivity, a DVD-burning slot-loading drive and an 80-gigabyte disk. But what makes the Mac mini appealing to any Windows user is not its compact size, but the software that comes with it and the price.

One's first reaction to seeing the Mac mini face to face is: surely you can't get a whole computer in that? A metal-and-white enclosure the size of a sandwich box - but far more elegant - packs up to 1 gigabyte of memory, fast Wi-Fi networking, Bluetooth connectivity, a DVD-burning slot-loading drive and an 80-gigabyte disk. But what makes the Mac mini appealing to any Windows user is not its compact size, but the software that comes with it and the price.

For years, Apple has been stuck with the label "nice, but pricey". The Mac mini, starting at £339, represents its first real thrust at the low-cost end of the market, one where you'll find bigger names such as HP and Dell.

The twist: you have to supply your own USB keyboard, mouse and display. The first two will probably cost about £30, even if you're buying new (I recommend a scroll-wheel two-button mouse; it'll work straight out of the box). Keyboards for Windows machines will work fine (but if they have PS/2 plugs, as many of the cheapest do, you'll need a USB adaptor). And any separate display will be compatible. Apple clearly expects some Windows desktop users to plug in their existing machine's peripherals and start work. The alternative is to buy an expensive Apple LCD screen.

If you save cash on the screen, you can spend it getting as much RAM as you can afford - at least 512MB or you'll grind your teeth as the machine struggles to swap data back and forth. Wi-Fi (called "AirPort") is a good idea if you have multiple machines.

After the success of the iPod, the Mac mini has to sell itself not on the basis of performing all Windows functions better than Microsoft does, but with a few specific improvements. On this it scores highly. It's small. It's very quiet; there aren't noisy fans, so you hardly know it's on apart from the tiny white LED on the front. It uses a laptop disk drive, which is slow, but cooler; another reason to get extra RAM.

Once you're plugged in, the fun starts. Along with Apple's e-mail, calendar, address book, synchronisation and browser programs, the Mac mini comes with a program suite already loaded, called "iLife '05", which includes a movie-making program called iMovie HD, a photo organisation package called iPhoto, a DVD-making program called iDVD (you'll need the DVD-burning drive for this to work), a music-making program called Garageband, and the iTunes program that's familiar to Windows users who own iPods, for music organisation.

There are programs for Windows that perform many of these functions; Roxio's Creator 7 Suite for Windows runs music organisation, disc-burning, film and photograph editing. But it's not as elegant or as integrated. The iPhoto application allows for subtle picture editing or simply removing red-eye from snaps. And e-mailing pictures is a one-click task. Similarly, iMovie HD is an increasingly powerful application, and Apple hasn't been afraid to borrow Microsoft's idea of letting you connect your camcorder to create an instant "movie".

Garageband is great fun. Updated from its first incarnation last year, it can import MIDI music files, which instruct a computer how to play a song; many classical and rock works are available online in MIDI format. It can record multiple tracks, and comes with dozens of music loops, so you can produce something that sounds like a disco classic in minutes. Record your singing, and it can tune the bits that are flat or sharp - a technology available to studio stars for years.

On its own, iLife '05 adds terrific value. But is the Mac mini a serious machine? Or are the programs frivolous, befitting the price tag? Ultimately, Apple's long-term ambition is to shift people away from Windows.

On its own, iLife isn't enough. But there are a couple more factors to consider. A program suite launched at the same time as the Mac mini, called "iWork", contains an updated version of Apple's Keynote, a rival to the Microsoft's all-pervading Powerpoint, and a new program called "Pages", which Apple weirdly calls a "word-processing program" but which most people would consider a low-end desktop publishing package. It comes with readymade layouts for science projects, marketing brochures, standard letters and journals. Pages is adequate but lacks a word-count feature - essential for most writing and layout. Anyone looking for a well-designed project, such as a school pupil or a marketing employee, will be delighted. But it's not a real challenge to existing DTP programs.

That could change, though, because Keynote 2 is so much better than its first incarnation. When I reviewed the original version two years ago, the lack of Powerpoint features such as web links and display in pages made it an elegant laggard. Now, it's been upgraded with a vengeance. Web links? Check. Embedded web pages that can be updated live in a presentation? Check. Better animations? Check (even if OTT). It can even export your Keynote presentation as a Powerpoint file, or a self-contained Flash file, or a Quicktime movie - all with working hyperlinks. This is a potential "category killer" - a product that squashes its rivals. You don't need Shockwave to write a Flash site now. You don't need Powerpoint to do Powerpoint presentations. And it costs £49 for the whole iWork package, £150 less than the cost of Powerpoint alone.

The second reason for trying the Mac mini is that you won't be troubled by spyware and viruses. So far, Apple's OS X operating system is virtually a malware-free zone. The peace of mind that brings is hard to overestimate, though Apple keeps quiet about this because hackers are expected to break through its security system eventually.

One final point: if you decide to switch to a Mac, get a program called Move2Mac ( www.move2mac.com), which will save you a huge amount of tedious poking and prodding with machine settings to try to get Windows to talk to OS X - something it's reluctant to do. Given that big threats can come in small packages, perhaps that's appropriate: the Mac mini certainly makes using a Mac more affordable and more attractive than ever to Windows users.

www.charlesarthur.com/blog

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