I have been an omni-platform user, Windows, OS X and Linux user for some time now. I love different things about each platform and loathe just as much as I like about all three. The release of the Mac Mini at MacWorld really made me wonder if Apple made good move in jumping into the low range market. I decided the best way to see was to compare the Mini to my primary box, a similar system in specifications and price.The Works
How does the new Mac Mini stack up to a homemade box? I didn’t want to do the comparison to a Dell or a Gateway/eMachine bargain deal. I wanted to use a system I have built for day-to-day users who want what the Mac Mini market is hoping capture, namely internet and “digital lifestyle”(how I hate that term) markets. This is my present setup at home as well as the setup I have built for a few folks including “Mom and Pop” newbie users:
Antec Aria Case w/300 Watt power supply
Size is 7.9″ x 10.6″ x 13.2″ $119.00
Intel Celeron 2.6gHz chip, 400mHz Bus speed, 128KB L2 cache $99.00
SY-P4VGM v1.0 micro-ATX Motherboard, Socket 478 for Intel Celeron Processors (includes 4 USB 2.0 ports, 1 1394/Firewire 400 port, 10/100 Ethernet, Compact Flash/SD reader, on-board sound w/audio in, out, mic with included 8-in-1 card reader) $65
Xtasy/ATI Radeon 9200SE Video Card, 8x AGP, 128MB DDR w/VGA, DVI- I and TV/S-Video $74
PNY 256MB PC133 SDRAM DIMM 168pin Memory Module $65
Western Digital Caviar SE 80GB, 7200RPM, Internal SATA Hard Drive $75
Sony 52x32x52 Internal IDE CD-RW / 16x DVD-ROM Combo Drive $60
Mandrake Linux 10.1 Download Edition $0 or Windows XP Home Edition SP2 $150
Weight 7.5 pounds
$557 with Linux, $707 with Windows XP
Here is the new, and I admit, very cool Mac Mini:
240 Watt power supply
Size is 2” x 6.5” x 6.5”
1.42GHz PowerPC G4, 167mHz Bus speed, 512KB L2 cache
256MB PC2700 (333MHz) DDR SDRAM, expandable to up to 1GB
ATI Radeon 9200 with 32MB DDR video memory AGP 4x
80GB Ultra ATA hard drive
Slot loading Combo drive at 24x16x24
Built-in 10/100BASE-T Ethernet and 56K V.92 modem
2 USB 2.0
1 Firewire 400 port
DVI or VGA video output
Included TV/S adapter
OS X 10.3 w/bundled software
Weight 2.9 pounds
So, how does the new Mac mini stack up to a homemade machine? Lets take a look:
Appearance, Size and Power: Even. The Mac has the same quality construction as the iBook and appears to be rugged and pleasant to the eye and without a doubt is smaller. That said, the Antec Aria case is stylish and modern with its included blue neon front lights and mirrored black finish. The Aria also has extra power to give with a larger power supply. Advantage: For aesthetics, Mac Mini by a landslide. For power, Home Built for the larger power supply.
Processor: I have had opportunity to use both the Celeron 2.6ghz in my present machine and a 1.25ghz G4 in my girlfriend’s 12” Powerbook. While the G4 performs well, the Celeron seems snappier and, for a bargain chip, has a much better bus speed than the G4. I would like to see how the 1.42ghz chip feels with more RAM than 256MBs. It might change my mind. Advantage: Home Built
Hard Drive: Both are 7200rpm. Who knows the difference anymore? Let’s call this one even.
Removable Media: If we were strictly speaking about the combo drives, the edge goes to the home built machine. The Sony drive is faster, no doubt. We firmly have to give the advantage to the home built machine when we add in the included 8-in-1 reader that comes with the Antec Case. Advantage: Home Built
Video: 128MB vs. 32MB. AGP 8x vs. AGP 4x. Both have DVI, TV/S and VGA connections. Both are ATI branded. One is better in this case but to be fair, I could use the same card in my machine but had the better one in there for the cost comparison. Advantage: Home built unless you use Linux. Due to the lack of games for Linux, unless you want to use Cedega, a 32MB card in the Mac that can run some popular 2D titles makes it a slight, very slight winner. The 3D experience while using XP, however, makes the card in the Mac seem puny and outdated when firing up titles like Half-Life 2 and Doom 3.
Plug-in Ports and Networking: The Aria and Mac Mini are equal here on the surface only. Both have a 10/100 Ethernet card, Two USB 2.0 and one Firewire port included. The Aria has an additional two USB 2.0 ports on the 8-in-1 reader but even with the extra ports, Firewire just works better with Mac. The Mac Mini also has a 56K modem included. Advantage: Mac Mini
Software and OS: No worms or spyware to worry about on Linux or OS X. Mandrake is free and OS X comes with the Mac Mini. Both are stable, professional operating systems that look great. Clearly, though, OS X trounces Mandrake on software with titles like iLife. There are Open Source products that do video, photos and music like KdenLive, Digikam and Rhythmbox but nothing really stacks up in the Linux world to the integration and ease of use available with iLife. Add Garageband and iDVD to the mix and you have a true winner. I still have to choose OpenOffice.org over iWork for now, especially with the great improvements made to the 2.0 Beta. Maybe iWork will prove me wrong when I get a chance to use it. Now, if you add XP to this mix and have either knowledge or access to someone who has knowledge of basic computer security, you will see XP even out the OS X advantages. Advantage: Even for OS under the right conditions. Even for online use and productivity. Mac Mini for multimedia and XP for “big name” titles.
So how does it add up? The Mac Mini is a machine I might buy if it had a better video card and more/faster RAM. 256MB of RAM for OS X is just too little out of the box and 32MB of video is a real disappointment for anyone who was looking for a small form factor gamer of the PPC flavor. At least it isn’t shared video RAM. The cool factor just isn’t enough to push the purchase or make me advise the purchase to newbie users unless they were really set on Apple or had some knowledge of their product line. As a matter of fact, as much as I like the look and idea of the Mac Mini, I think its small size might scare “Mom and Pops” away from it. The Aria was a hard enough sell because the average user still equates size with power. It isn’t like selling an iPod.
Apple has probably produced a winner with this model but the winners are already in the Apple camp. I am sure Mac fans will gobble up the machine in the coming months but I don’t think the “Halo Effect” they were hoping for, namely iPod users looking to switch, will gravitate toward this offering.
Of course, only time and holes in the reality distorion field will tell.
About the author:
Brian Czarski is a omni-platform Systems Analyst at a K-12 school in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a self-professed gadget fanatic and a hack writer at eXtraheavymarcellus.com, a blog about life in Baltimore, Technology and how it all comes together.