The Mac Mini: a fine Windows 7 computer

macminidimensionsRecently, Apple refreshed its neglected Mac Mini line.  The new Mac Mini comes in a 2.4GHz, 2gb version running Snow Leopard and sells for $699 and a 2.66GHz, 4GB version running Snow Leopard Server for $999.  The low end version comes with a 320GB hard disk, an 8x SuperDrive and NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics.  The high end version comes with dual 500GB hard disks.  The new Mini is even smaller than before, measuring just 1.4 inches high by 7.7 inches wide by 7.7 inches deep. It weighs three pounds and feels very solid.  To give you an idea of just how small it is, the base for the ViewSonic 20inch LCD panel completely covers the top of the Mac Mini.

The case of the Mini is aluminum and looks great, save for the big Apple logo that adorns the top of themacminiports device.  The front is minimalist, with only the SuperDrive slot and the power LED.  The back features all of the necessary ports, including HDMI, four USB, FireWire, Mini-Display Port and the power cord connector.  There is also an SD card slot.  The power cord connector means that the computer does not need a power brick, the power supply is internal and only requires the AC cord.  A nice touch, indeed.

Setting up the machine was a snap, except for an issue with the WiFi.  Plug in the monitor, keyboard, mouse and the power cord, turn on the device and then fill out a couple of screens that setup Mac OS X for you.  Everything went well until I got to the WiFi setup.  It found my network, but took multiple tries for it to actually work. I ended up glomming onto a neighbors WiFi and then promptly deleting that profile. It then saw my network, connected, asked for the password and, viola, it worked.  That process added about twenty minutes to the overall setup time, which would probably been only about twenty minutes.

Once I was ‘in’ OS X, I had to explore the operating system.  While it looks nice, I cannot say that it looks better than Windows 7 but it does not look worse either.  They are both on par in the UI appearance arena.  There are things about OS X that I like and things that I don’t.  And that bloody menu bar being at the top of the screen instead of in the window where it belongs is my number one UI complaint.  It is confusing and not very intuitive.  I was closing application windows, thinking I had shut the app down when all I done was simply close the window. I had to go to the app menu and select Close.  NOT intuitive at all.  Other things I dislike are the speed of the operating system, it just feels more sluggish than Windows.  The silly bouncing icon does not fool me into thinking it is responsive. 

I do like the way in which you install applications. It took me a bit to get comfortable with it, but then I was able to appreciate the way that works.  Microsoft really needs to address this in Windows.  I also like BootCamp.

BootCamp is the mechanism that lets you install another operating system and then be able to switch between them.  One of the first things I did was put Windows 7 Ultimate on the machine.  Installing Windows on the Mac was a breeze. It took about twenty five minutes from start to finish (and another ten minutes installing the bloody updates to Windows.)  BootCamp installs all of the drivers for Windows 7 as well as the BootCamp manager applet.  The manager applet is what you use to boot back into OS X.  I have to say, the Mini makes one heck of a nice Windows 7 computer.  Everything just works, in both operating systems.  A very pleasant surprise.

I really am having a hard time understanding why Mac fans say it is so much easier to use than Windows.  I just don’t see that.  It isn’t any harder to use, but it is not significantly easier to use and the bundled applications often leave you wondering why they bothered.  The bundled apps like iPhoto, iMovie and iTunes work well enough, but they are slow and, in the case of iMovie, aren’t all that easy to use, compared to other similar apps.  Windows Live Essentials, in the current beta release, is better.  iPhoto, especially, was disappointing to me.  It does not do all that much and is very slow to start.  I had only about twenty photos and it took quite a while to start up.  iTunes is just long in the tooth now. I’ve been spoiled by the Zune Marketplace software. iTunes, by comparison, looks and feels old.  It gets the job done, but that is about it.  The fact that Apple still charges $79 for the bundled applications if you upgrade seems like a major rip off.  The apps, however, do have some good things about them. iPhoto, for instances, has a really nice slideshow feature with nice themes and music.  iMovie has a some terrific special effects and iTunes…well, does work.  Plus, you don’t have to download the suite like Microsoft forces you to if you want their suite.

Overall, OS X is a nice operating system, but not any better than Windows 7.  I’d say that they are on par with each other, both having good and bad things.  You can be very productive with either and, with BootCamp, there is no reason to have to choose, use them both.  BootCamp makes that a snap.  Of course, you do have to purchase a copy of Windows.

The Mac Mini, while still over priced, represents a relative bargain in the strange world of Apple.  Yes, you have to buy more stuff in order to use it, but even though you have to spend thirty bucks on a display adaptor if you don’t buy an Apple monitor and you might have to buy a keyboard and mouse, you still get a very nicely made and well designed computer for a lot less than most of the Apple line.  Since it runs whisper quiet, it is an ideal candidate for your living room.  OS X’s Front Row application gives you a nice, TV friendly interface into your media.  The user upgradeable memory (accessible via this odd round cover on the bottom of the device) means it future proof for at least a couple of years.  This is one solid little computer and a fine introduction to the odd world of Apple computers.  

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