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Modest Mini Can Put Macs in Hands of the Masses

An adapter to let a PS/2 keyboard and mouse share one USB port will cost you only $12 or so; Apple, however, has yet to stock any in its stores.

If your old PC, by some miracle, includes a USB keyboard and mouse, you may be even worse off. Plugging both input devices into a Mac Mini will leave no USB connections free. You'll be checkmated, unable to add a printer, memory key chain, digital camera, memory-card reader or cradle for a handheld organizer.

Apple's new Mac Mini (Courtesy Apple)

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The FireWire port next to those two USB ports won't bail you out; it connects only external hard drives, iPods, digital camcorders and other data-intensive gadgets.

Most people switching from a PC will do best to get Apple's $29 keyboard, which includes two of its own USB ports, to solve the limited-connections issue. If you need a USB mouse, skip Apple's $29, single-button rodent; a two-button model costs $10 or $20 less at any computing store.

Attaching a monitor -- the other item not included with a Mac Mini -- is far easier. With support for both digital and analog displays, it should accept any display made in the past decade.

A tiny speaker is built in, possessed of all the thunder of a clock radio; a line-out jack accepts any standard headphones or speakers, through which the Mini sounds far better.

If you can steer past the memory and USB roadblocks, the Mac Mini should be an utterly pleasant machine. The base model's 1.2 GHz G4 processor, 40-gigabyte hard drive and CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive provide enough speed and storage for the usual home-computing chores, and it's nearly silent in use. (The $599 model has a 1.42 GHz chip and an 80-GB hard drive; you can also double the base model's hard-drive capacity for $50, while $100 adds DVD-burning capability to either model.)

If you'll add a Mini to a home network, its Ethernet port on the back accepts any wired connection, while an internal slot takes an optional WiFi wireless card.

And yes, the Mini looks cooler than any desktop save Apple's own iMac. The only false note in its design comes from its plain white brick of a power adapter.

But the most important feature of the Mini to many buyers will be its price tag. Factoring in $40 for a new keyboard and mouse, the Mini costs $190 to $130 more than the cheapest home desktops sold by Dell, Gateway and HP, but most of those models are stripped-down systems, lacking the essential ingredient of a CD burner. Adding one cuts that price gap to $150 to $100, and upgrading other components to match what's on the Mini trims that difference still further -- to as little as $15.

I didn't try to match the software bundles of those PCs to that of the Mini, because that's not possible. The PC universe has no answer to Apple's elegantly matched bundle of its virus-free Mac OS X Panther, its Safari, Mail and iChat Internet applications and its new iLife '05 multimedia suite.

There's still a difference between the start-up costs of Windows and Mac computing, but with the Mac Mini, Apple has shrunk them to the size of an ATM withdrawal, not a car payment or a month's rent in a group house.

That ought to be enough to make buyers give Apple a second look. Given the woeful state of Windows computing, they should.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

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