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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat