Which Mac mini to Buy (and Where to Buy It)
This chapter is primarily for readers who have not yet purchased a Mac mini. Yes, there are only two models to choose from, but there are still a handful of choices to make about specific components you should buy.
As you read this chapter, you will learn:
- How to select the Mac mini that's right for you.
- The best place to buy a Mac mini.
In the next few pages, I describe the two Mac mini models and all the options available from Apple to help you decide what's best for your needs.
Which Mac mini you purchase should reflect your needs balanced against your circumstances. My recommendation is to buy as much Mac mini as you can afford. You can add accessories later, but making changes to the basic system should be avoided.
The only easily user-upgradeable part in your Mac mini is the memory. The Mac mini has a single slot, and when you upgrade, you must remove the old memory. This will leave you with a 256 MB or—worse—a 512 MB memory module that you can't use and eBay may not want. You can add a USB Bluetooth device later, but it will use a precious USB port. Self-installation of the AirPort Extreme card, easily accomplished in other Macs, is not recommended in the cramped confines of the Mac mini.
Which Mac mini for You?
As I write this, Apple offers the Mac mini in two models:
- 1.25 GHz PowerPC G4 processor, 40 GB hard drive, $499
- 1.42 GHz PowerPC G4 processor, 80 GB hard drive, $599
Both models come with 256 MB of RAM.
At first, I was reluctant to recommend the $499 model to anyone, but I just checked and found that my still-quite-usable PowerBook G4 Titanium has only a 667 MHz processor and a 30 GB 4200 RPM hard drive. Compared to the TiBook, as the model was called, the low-end Mac mini measures up quite well—except in one area: The TiBook has 512 MB of RAM, which I consider the minimum amount of memory any Macintosh should have—including the Mac mini.
Still, developers are always demanding higher performance, and the $599 Mac mini delivers. The difference in processor speed was quite noticeable in testing done by MacAddict magazine. Also, the larger hard drive will come in handy if you want to build a music library, digital photo collection, or both.
And if you have any interest in editing home movies on the Mac mini, you'll need all the speed and drive space you can get.
As for memory, MacAddict tested its Mac minis with an extra 256 MB installed, bringing the machine up to a respectable 512 MB of RAM. I don't know of any serious Mac user—regardless of model—who is running with only 256 MB.
My recommendation: If you can afford the extra $100, buy the $599 model. I also recommend adding 256 MB of memory, for a total of 512 MB. That will add $75 to the bill. If I could only afford $599, I'd still buy that model and add the memory later.
How much memory?
A stock Mac mini comes with 256 MB of memory. Yes, the machine will run on that amount, but it won't run well, and you will be limited in the number of applications that you can have open simultaneously. This is a bigger issue than most people realize since people often have e-mail, instant messaging, iTunes, and other programs running in the background, where they aren't seen but still use processor cycles.
Adding another 256 MB of RAM improves the situation greatly. Apple charges $75 for the upgrade, which involves removing the 256 MB module that comes with the Mac mini and replacing it with a 512 MB module.
If you buy your Mac mini with the standard 256 MB and later decide to add new memory, you can take your Mac mini to an Apple Store or ship your machine in for service. Or you can perform the upgrade yourself, provided you're willing to use two thin-bladed paint scrapers to open the case (possibly voiding your warranty as well as damaging the case). I strongly recommend avoiding all of these upgrade-later scenarios, however, and just buying enough memory in the first place. (If you must do it yourself, you can Google the instructions for opening a Mac mini, but I won't take responsibility for what you do to your computer with the paint scrapers, okay?)
Apple also offers a 1 GB memory upgrade, currently $325. While I am sure a "gig" of memory would improve overall performance, it also makes the Mac mini too expensive for many would-be owners. If you think you need this much memory, you can buy it from a non-Apple source and either install it yourself or pay someone else to install it for you.
My recommendation: Purchase your Mac mini with an extra 256 MB of memory, for 512 MB total. This amount—512 MB—is fine, and 1 GB seems like overkill to me.
Which optical drive?
The stock drive in the Mac mini is what Apple calls a Combo drive. This drive lets you play DVDs and play or record CDs. For $100, you can upgrade to a SuperDrive, which allows you to write DVDs and CDs as well as read them. If you want to create home videos that can be shown on consumer DVD players, you need this upgrade.
You might also want the SuperDrive because it allows you to back up data onto a DVD disc—handy considering that each disc can hold about 4.4 GB of data. This is how I keep a copy of all my iTunes music and digital photographs, using the Backup software you can download as part of a .Mac membership.
You can also back up to an external hard drive or even an iPod if you like. I carry some of my most important files around on a 20 GB iPod as well as a 1 GB iPod shuffle.
My recommendation: Get the SuperDrive. It makes DVDs of your home movies and provides data insurance—what's not to like? (But the insurance exists only if you actually use the drive to back up your data. Refer to Chapter 7 for more information on protecting your Mac mini.)
How will you connect?
The Mac mini includes a 56K v.92 dial-up modem and an Ethernet port. The modem is used for a dial-up Internet connection, and the Ethernet port can link the Mac mini to a wired network or a cable or DSL broadband modem.
These are all fine if you want to connect only one computer at a time to the Internet and the Mac mini is located near a telephone outlet for dial-up/DSL access or a cable outlet for a cable modem.
In Chapter 5, I explain in detail why you should set up a wireless network built around an Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station. But to do that, you'll want to buy your Mac mini with an AirPort Extreme wireless card installed. This card is compatible with almost all 802.11b, 802.11g, and Wi-Fi networks. (I say "almost" because journalistic caution keeps me from saying "all," even though I have not run into network incompatibility in several years.)
The AirPort Extreme card adds $79 to the cost of the Mac mini. Unless you are sure you'll never have a wireless network, this is an upgrade I recommend.
Another wireless option is Bluetooth, used to connect the Mac mini to the Apple wireless keyboard and mouse as well as to some cellular telephones and other devices. Bluetooth adds $50, but a combined AirPort Extreme/Bluetooth package is $99. The Apple wireless keyboard and mouse combo costs $99.
If you aren't buying the AirPort Extreme card and don't have a very specific reason, I'd skip Bluetooth as well. If, however, you're following my recommendation and buying the AirPort card, then $20 for Bluetooth seems fair enough. One of these days, Bluetooth will actually do useful things, and for a mere $20 you'll be ready. Such a deal.
My recommendation: If you know you'll never have a wireless network, save your money. If you think you might go wireless someday, buy the AirPort Extreme card. If you might also want Bluetooth, buy it along with the AirPort Extreme card.
Need a keyboard and mouse?
The official reason Apple gives for not including a keyboard and mouse with the Mac mini is to allow you to use input and pointing devices you already own. That it happens to save everyone money is good news for both Apple and the customer.
The happiest situation is for a Mac mini purchaser to already own a USB mouse and keyboard. Less good, but acceptable, are devices with PS/2 connectors, which is what most people already own.
This book has an entire chapter about keyboards, displays, and mice and how you can share them between a Mac mini and one or more Windows PCs. If you are sharing, I don't recommend an Apple mouse, which has only one button instead of the two or three more common on today's PC mice.
My recommendation: Don't buy a keyboard or mouse from Apple right away. Make sure, however, that you either own a USB mouse and keyboard or purchase a PS/2-to-USB adapter so your PS/2 mouse and keyboard can be connected to the Mac mini. And read Chapter 4.
Buy a new display?
If you don't already have a display you want to use, I don't know why you'd be buying a Mac mini. The same chapter that talks about sharing a keyboard and mouse (Chapter 4) also talks about displays. The Mac mini is quite ecumenical in the displays it supports, which range from standard VGA computer monitors to some of the latest HDTV displays.
My recommendation: Use whatever display you already own and replace it when you feel the need.
Need an extended warranty?
I generally consider extended warranties a bad deal. That doesn't mean I haven't bought one—but only one, and it was for an expensive Dell machine. The cost of the Dell plan, however, wasn't nearly as large a percentage of the cost of the hardware it protects as what Apple wants for its extended warranty.
For $149, AppleCare extends the basic 90-day software/1-year hardware warranty to 3 years for both. The extended warranty also covers your Apple-branded software and operating system. In independent surveys, Apple gets good marks for the support it provides.
Still, we're talking about a $149 extended warranty for a computer that, depending on how it's equipped, costs anywhere from $499 to $1,100. I have a hard time recommending a $149 warranty on a $499 computer. However, if you need hand-holding, Apple is happy to provide it at a price that is a lot less than what you would pay on a per-hour or per-call basis.
My recommendation: Apple hardware is well constructed, and if it doesn't blow up in the first year, it will probably make it three years. But if you are uncomfortable with computers or just feel you need access to extended support, don't let me talk you out of it. This is your call.
Also see what I have to say about Apple ProCare in the discussion of Apple's retail stores, later in this chapter.