Apple's Mac Mini

A Windows expert tries out a new Mac mini -- and discovers that he likes what he sees.

March 4, 2005

14 Min Read
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From a hardware perspective, the pressure points are: 1GB of RAM maximum, notebook-like internal speaker quality, 32MB of video RAM maximum, and an utter lack of user-upgradeable options (internally). Unlike most PCs, Macintoshes are not designed for users to remove the case. More experienced Mac users will quibble with me on this point. But when you look at the way Apple offers support and warranties, they really don't expect or want users to tinker with these boxes. After all, this is proprietary hardware, whereas Wintel PCs are really open. As I wrote it just there, that only presents the downside of the Mac's proprietary design. The upside is that Apple exerts far more control, and that means an inherently more reliable environment. Less flexible, but less prone to issues.

Something else about the hardware: Why is it that Steve Jobs is the only man on earth whose company can design a computer that people somehow instinctively "love"? Within seconds of unwrapping my Mac Mini, I heard myself whisper "This is utterly cool!" in admiration over the packaging, the industrial design, the eloquent smallness, the profound simplicity. The Mac Mini doesn't need color coding and a pre-opened four-color slick step-by-step guide to tell you what to do to set it up.

The Mac Mini, which is about the size of a small, square external Macintosh hard drive from the 1990s, just disappears on your desktop. It looks like an office toy left there for your co-workers to pick up, or the perfect place to rest your coffee cup. It doesn't look at all like a computer. The AC power brick that comes with it is the same length as the computer itself. I haven't loved all of Apple's designs. The "works in a drawer" iMac G5, for example, is not my idea of scintillating design. It's form over function, IMHO. On the other hand, Apple's notebooks are also well designed — but pricey.

First Boot
My first Mac Mini experience was nearly perfect, but in the end, it failed. To me, bring your own keyboard meant I would use the same keyboard I use on all my desktop PCs (which number over a dozen), Microsoft's Natural Keyboard Elite. Newer versions of this keyboard come with USB adapters. But I buy these keyboards in bulk every two years or so, and I don't have any with the USB adapters.No problem -- I have some PS/2-to-USB adapters which I've collected along the way. They are clearly marked as being for keyboard conversion. So I thought I would be all set. The mouse I use on all my computers, the Microsoft IntelliMouse Optical, with the scroll wheel and four buttons, comes with a USB connector (and a PS/2 adapter). The monitor I selected for my Mini was the Samsung SyncMaster 213T 21.3-inch LCD, which I have several examples of and have recommended in the past.

On that first night, after about two hours of playing around, I went to bed frustrated. I couldn't get past the second screen of the initial boot process. My Mac couldn't detect my keyboard through the USB adapter. I tried another USB adapter without success. The next morning I went down to CompUSA and bought an open-box example of the Mac Bluetooth wireless keyboard for $55. After setting up the keyboard, turning it on, and powering up the Mini, it didn't initially detect the keyboard. So I waved the keyboard within literally two inches of the Mini and instantly got the ping of recognition.

The rest of the initial boot went fine. A few points of irritation included asking for my "Apple I.D." and then requiring me to answer demographic information (which I lied about, as usual) in order to register my Macintosh. Incidentally, the way I lie about demographic information is that I decide what the company's demographic sweet spot probably is, then I choose the answers that are as far away as possible. Apple should not require demographic information from people who just plunked down their cash on a new Macintosh.

Addendum to the keyboard digression: A few days later I decided I couldn't deal with the Mac Bluetooth keyboard. I've been typing with split keyboards so long that my arms feel "knock kneed" with the Mac keyboard (this would be true of most non-Microsoft keyboards for Windows, too). While I was able to locate an $80 Mac USB keyboard that looks identical to the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite (whose system requirements list Windows only), I don't need another keyboard. I just need a PS/2-to-USB adapter that supports the Mac. offers one for $25 list that supports Windows, Mac, and Sun platforms. So I just bought it. That will let me plug the PS/2 mouse and PS/2 keyboard into a single USB port, freeing up the second USB port on the Mac Mini for other stuff.

Back to the first boot (let's face it, all this keyboard stuff is picking at nits). Once past that, the Mac Mini detected my wireless network immediately, without my having to configure a thing. All it needed was for me to choose the correct SSID name from the list of detected wireless networks (there are a lot in my neighborhood). The interface, though different from the old Mac System interface, isn't vastly different. I had no trouble figuring out how to use it, though clearly there are many nuances I'm still working through.Scot's Newsletter Forums' All Things Mac forum has also been very helpful. Other forum members are also testing the Mac waters with me.

I'm also fortunate to work with several people who are outright Mac experts, including Brad Shimmin of Network Computing, Richard Hoffman of Developer Pipeline, Suzanne Warfield of TechWeb, and Arena2045, who is lead administrator my forums. In fact, one of the surprising things to me is just how many people I know who use Macs. Being a registered Windows maven, I'll admit to having overlooked this for years. But a disproportionately large number of people I know use Macs.

The next most surprising thing to me is how much software is out there for Macs these days. This continues to be Apple's Achilles' heel, but the software collection is larger and more mature than it was before. I still have a lot to discover on the application front, but that's my initial impression. In fact, if you use the Mac or you manage Macs in an IT setting, I'd be very interested in your input about Mac apps I should check out. Please shoot me off a message with any suggestions. URLs would be appreciated.

This article is not a review of the Mac Mini. Please don't mistake it for that. Consider it my notes on the maiden voyage. So it's a first installment. Also, I want to be baldly honest about something: I am not putting my main Windows machine in a box and plopping the Mac on my desk. The Mini is set up next to my main machine. There's no way I can use it as my primary machine. For one thing, I'd have to shell out another $300 or so for Microsoft Office 2004 for the Mac before I could even think about doing that. I would also need to spend some serious time working out my email situation, which is complex, to say the least. (Eudora for the Mac, I guess.) But I am doing the next closest thing. I'm trying to use the Mac whenever possible. What would also be great is if I had a Mac laptop to use when I'm not working. Because of money, that's not happening any time soon either. But Mac OS X and the Mac Mini will get a totally fair shake from me. It just might take a while.

For those of you who might doubt my sincerity on the fairness thing, I was an ardent Mac user long before Windows came along. I eventually came to hate Apple in the 1990s prior to Jobs' return to the company, but I never lost my admiration for the Macintosh. If anything, my underlying fear is that I might get subsumed back to the "light side." This Mac flirtation definitely complicates my monogamous Windows. Besides, Macs aren't cheap, and Apple isn't very generous with evaluation machines. So, I approached this purchase and evaluation experience with trepidation. In other words, it wouldn't look good if I suddenly became a Mac junkie. Again. It'd be like a computing mid-life crisis. (Hey, maybe I should get that 15-inch PowerBook G4 with SuperDrive ... in Candy Apple Red. Let's see, tricked out with all the goodies I want, it'd only be $2,849. And I deserve it, right?)Initial Thoughts
All that said, let's get down to what I didn't like about the Macintosh interface after the first 60 minutes -- the juicy part. It must be a huge long list from a Windows guy, right? Uh, that would be no.

Here's what I wrote in a SNF All Things Mac forum post 60 minutes into my initial Mac Mini experience:

So, what do I think of the Mac? I like it a lot. I'm ... already looking forward to Tiger, the next version of the OS [due in the second quarter]. There are some very cool features [planned for] it...

The only thing I find extremely annoying is the fact that -- and I'd forgotten this -- you can't reposition the sides of windows by dragging their edges. You have to go to that lower right corner to resize any open window or dialog....

Perhaps someone can set me straight on networking. While my Mac Mini connected wirelessly to my Windows peer network better than most Windows computers, wireless internet connection is dog slow. Not suitable for downloads. And when you consider my service is 4Mbps, that's pretty bad. I suspect something about the wireless internet protocols is amiss. When I plugged in an Ethernet cable to my router, presto, perfect connection and wicked fast ... Any and all suggestions on this wireless stuff [would be] appreciated!

Although it's perfectly serviceable as is, the user interface construct that still needs work in Mac OS X is "the Dock." The Dock is a program launcher, task switcher, and container for minimized apps that's designed to be always visible wherever you go on your Mac. It is not as elegant as the Windows taskbar. The Dock has a much newer, more inviting look and leverages newer multimedia technologies delivered by its operating system. But from a purely functional standpoint, the Taskbar is easier to understand and uses less space. Although the Dock can be scaled down in size, it was designed to be bigger than the taskbar.

That concludes the criticism portion of our program (in this installment). Because of past experience, I didn't have to adjust myself to the Finder structure, the fact that the menu bar across the top is modal, and displays options based upon the application that is currently active (one of the things I think Mac newbies coming from Windows sometimes have a hard time with). Installing applications, is, of course, much easier on the Mac.

Mac Joy
One of the first things I did was open a terminal window and stare at the UNIX underpinnings, which bear a much closer resemblance to Linux than they do to Windows. In fact, I would have to say that the Dock actually draws some design cues from Linux desktops, especially KDE. The reality is that computer interface designers borrow from each other routinely. And everyone has borrowed from Apple, which initially borrowed from Xerox PARC, and so forth. The fact that such borrowing is legally dangerous for companies building operating systems and desktops means that this is shrouded in mystery. But if you've got eyes, there's no mystery about it. I think Apple may have consciously decided to pick up a few Linux design cues with OS X. Let's face it, this operating system's UNIX underpinnings are very attractive to a great many experienced computer users, including yours truly. (Even more than that, the Mac UI over UNIX is truly cool.) To me, the UNIX-ness of this OS whispers "power!" They might as well pop out fender bulges and put a hood scoop on the thing. That's the reason for these faint Linux/UNIX design cues.

There hasn't been enough time yet for me to try all of the many Mac applications that people have recommended to me or that come preinstalled on the Mac Mini (consisting primarily of iLife, Apple's consumer-oriented package, which includes iTunes, iPhoto, iDVD, iMovie HD, and GarageBand). But the first Mac app I took to was iChat. Instead of trying to be the network, Apple is doing what it does best: Being the interface. In about 30 seconds, I was able to configure my AIM-based login and was iChatting with a whole bunch of folks. The iChat UI is first rate. Simple, but much better than AOL Instant Messenger. The two-sided orientation of the cartoon balloons makes it a much less tiresome interface to text-chat with someone. Little touches mean a lot with software.

Since I own an iPod Mini, I connected that and immediately ran into trouble because my iPod is formatted for Windows FAT32, and of course, that's a different file system from the Mac. There is a somewhat arcane process for moving your music library to a Mac, but there's no way (supported by Apple) for moving your library from a Mac to a PC. What I haven't had time to investigate is whether I can access and update both Windows and Mac libraries by reformatting my iPod for the Mac. My guess is that one or more of you may tell me before I check it out, and that's fine.Mac OS X's Expos feature is a simple, useful UI addition designed to manage window clutter. Windows has a rudimentary version of Expos called Show Desktop. Microsoft's Show Desktop lets you click an icon on the Quick Launch bar that swiftly minimizes all your open application windows so you can get to something on your desktop. Click the Show Desktop icon again, and all your minimized app windows, open dialogs, and folder windows reopen where they were. It doesn't always restore the pre-existing active window state, but it works pretty well.

Expos offers that functionality, but takes it a step or two further. It does the Show Desktop thing with aplomb, but it has another trick. Instead of showing you the desktop, it can help you find a window buried by layers of more recently opened windows -- an everyday experience on my desktops. When you choose the All Windows option, it smartly moves windows out from behind others while simultaneously scaling down all open windows, making all windows visible. .Expos has four separate functions (All Windows, Application Windows, Desktop, and Show or Disable Screensaver). You can mount initiation points for them on the four corners of the screen, so they'll occur when you point your mouse at them. Once the All Windows action has been tripped, you merely click the window you want to work with and it comes to the fore, while the rest of the windows return to their original state. This tool is very slick. And it makes excellent use of the Mac's excellent native scaling and animation abilities.

Expos can also be kicked off with keyboard or mouse-click shortcuts. It can even be used to make it easier to drag and drop copy or move objects from one place to another by whisking obstructing windows out of the way. Expos is such a great idea, I think Apple should mount it to the four corners of the screen by default. (It does have default keyboard function key settings.) You'd still be able to customize the behavior in the Expos System Preferences area, but having this functionality preset in a known screen location would be a boon.

Overall, OS X today (and for some time) has delivered some of the many goals Microsoft has set for Windows Longhorn -- the ability to scale many constructs of the interface, for example, or moving images not just by pushing bits but by more adroitly drawing them with algorithms. Graphically, the Mac remains well ahead of Windows. In fact, that's more true today than it was eight years ago.

More to come on Windows Boy's experiences with the Mac. And, at some point, my considered and detailed opinion about where Mac OS X lives in the pecking order of desktop operating systems. Until then, one hint: It isn't at the bottom.Scot Finnie is Editor, the Pipelines and TechWeb, as well as the author of Scot's Newsletter and previously an editor with Windows Magazine, ZDNet, and PC/Computing. He has been writing about Windows and other operating systems for two decades.

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