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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

Modest Mini Can Put Macs in Hands of the Masses

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page F07

The Mac Mini is Apple's first desktop computer to sell for under $500. It's also the first desktop from Apple -- or any other source -- that comfortably fits in my car's glove compartment.

Both traits make this tiny computer big news. At $499 and $599 in its two configurations, the Mac Mini represents Apple's first attempt in years to compete on price with entry-level PCs -- a surprising but welcome move for a company that has said it aspires to be the BMW of the computing business. But this diminutive machine -- just 6 1/2 inches square by 2 inches high and weighing 2 3/4 pounds -- also amounts to a sharp break from traditional desktop design.

Apple's new Mac Mini (Courtesy Apple)

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Think of the Mac Mini as a laptop with the screen, keyboard and battery sliced off, or a desktop with all the air sucked out of its case. Apple has taken the stuff of everyday computing and stuffed it into the smallest possible enclosure.

To judge from the past week of testing, the Mac Mini fills that role just fine -- as long as you choose your setup wisely. The Mini's shrunk-to-fit design forces some compromises that can drastically limit its usefulness.

To start, Apple ships Mac Minis with only 256 megabytes of memory. That suffices for browsing the Web while listening to an iTunes playlist, but once you throw another program or two into the mix, the Mini bogs down. At worst -- for example, while copying a DVD's worth of photos to the hard drive -- the Mini briefly stopped responding to any input.

To avoid getting too familiar with the system-busy cursor that Mac users resentfully call the "spinning beach ball of death," you need 512 megabytes of memory. But since the Mac Mini offers only one memory slot, adding more later won't do unless you enjoy the challenge of cracking open the Mini's case (a difficult and anxious task if you're not used to tinkering with computers).

Instead, you'll need to upgrade the Mini's memory when you buy it, not later. Another 256 megabytes costs $75 from Apple, $25 more than what Dell and Hewlett-Packard charge for the same step up.

The other potential hiccup with the Mini comes when you try to attach an existing keyboard and mouse to it. (They aren't included in the box.)

It's not that the Mac Mini won't accept non-Apple gear. An IBM keyboard worked instantly; the only trick was guessing that its Windows-logo key took the role of a Mac's Command/Apple-logo key, while Alt subbed for the Option key (the Mini's manual should explain this but does not). Similarly, every mouse I tried -- even a fancy Logitech wireless model -- functioned immediately, without needing extra software for its right button and scroll wheel to work on the Mac.

But the keyboards included with almost every PC lack the right plug, as do most of their mice. Instead of USB, they use older, clunkier PS/2 cables.

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