Why I’m Buying the New Mac Mini: Value Reconsidered

39 Comments

macmini1Yesterday, Apple (s aapl) introduced new hardware across its desktop offerings, and with one exception, the changes were pretty much hailed and welcomed by all. That one exception received, and continues to receive, fairly harsh criticism from all sides, including from our very own Tom Reestman, who argued that Apple really under-delivered with yesterday’s update to their tiny all-in-one. Tom’s main problem is with the value prospect of the new machine, since, as he rightfully points out, you don’t get very much bang for your buck when you drop $600 on the entry-level machine.

What’s Wrong With It

It is underpowered, it is overpriced, and, worst of all, as Gizmodo points out, it is not easily upgradeable after the fact, so most users would be advised to bite the bullet and pay Apple’s extortionate rates for in-house upgrades, or risk breaking something. The hard drive options are almost insulting, with the max available upgrade being 320GB. That seems pretty clearly intended to force your covetous gaze towards the higher-priced iMacs, if you ask me.

Even though I agree with Tom, and I truly believe everything I just said, I will still be buying a new Mac mini today…despite already owning an iMac and a MacBook. Maybe I’m masochistic, or just a compulsive shopper, right? While both of those things may be true, neither is the reason for my purchase.

What’s Right With It

The reason I’m buying the Mac mini is that for my needs (not as a small business owner, and not with such specific tastes as some), and with my existing setup, it is the perfect home theatre PC. Before you protest, let me explain. Afterward, you can protest till the cows come home.

The Current, Mac mini-less Setup

I currently don’t have a proper home theater receiver, or traditional book shelf or floor speakers or any kind of 5.1 surround setup. What I do have are two sets of Logitech X-series (two different incarnations of the same product, but released at different times) 5.1 computer speakers, three gaming systems (Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii), an HD cable box, and an LCD HDTV. To wrangle these mismatched, hodge-podge devices, I currently use a system of plugging and unplugging depending on what I intend to do, watch, or play, and what source I intend to use. Volume is controlled either remotely or manually, owing to my speaker sets lacking a wireless remote. I would provide a visual diagram, but I don’t want anyone to become terribly lost and confused.

There is one set of circumstances during which everything seems at peace with my home theatre setup. In order for everything to come together, I have to have my MacBook hooked up next to my TV, with both set of speakers attached to the headphone jack via a 2-mini stereo jack to 1-mini stereo plug adapter, and with the optical audio out from my TV attached to the MacBook input via a TOSLiNK to mini-TOSLiNK cable. Also, my MacBook’s video out is hooked up to my TV’s VGA input.

Still with me? I also need a software helper, the freeware app called LineIn that lets you pass audio directly through your computer from the input jack to the output. This means that audio from the cable box will play through the speakers, or, if I watch something from my MacBook, I can hear that too. It also gives me remote volume control, thanks to Apple’s own IR remote (of which I have many).

All that sweet synchronicity falls apart every time I have to unplug my MacBook to work, or to travel, and in the meantime I trip on all the cables it takes for me to be able to use my computer from the couch. Then it’s back to fumbling with plugs and switches, and turning dials to control volume.

The Setup With the Mac mini

The Mac mini will sit quietly in my TV console, nestled comfortably next to my cable box, all wires out of site. With the improved graphics card, it’ll be able to handle full 1080p HD video without issue, and maybe even some older games. Thanks to LineIn, it will be doing the duty of a receiver, and thanks to my existing external media hard drives, which will be plugged in behind it, it will provide access to my entire media library, including movies, TV shows, and music.

Buying a new home-theatre-in-a-box would cost me at least $600, and that’s not for a good one. I don’t need Blu-ray, because I’ve got it with my PS3, and even then, I suspect digital distribution will replace it in a few years anyway. I don’t need an HDMI connection, although it would be nice, because the PC-in on my TV, even if it does required two cables (gasp!) works just fine. I’d like a larger hard drive, but I can live without it, thanks to the FireWire drives I already own. I don’t want a screen, because that’s precisely what’s stopping me from using my iMac in the same capacity.

The new Mac mini may not be the ideal computer for everyone, and I fully acknowledge its many failings. For someone like me, however, who’s looking to leverage his existing components, and cares more about form factor than whiz-band features and specs, it might just be the perfect machine.

39 Comments

ckm

The comments above are hilarious. Most people have no idea what the use-case is for anyone else, and can hardly identify what their own use-cases are.

OK, so the Dell HW may be $100 cheaper, but that does not mean the capabilities are the same. In my case, I needed to upgrade an old AMD 1.8Ghz/2G RAM/320gig lunchbox PC running WinXP. My goal was to run Linux with Windows virtualized. The problem was that no VM software supports accelerated hardware on Linux (there is a VMware kludge, but not OpenGL), so it was back to square one or deal with software acceleration.

However, Parallels on a Mac supports OpenGL and Direct3D, so you can run hefty graphics apps in a virtualized Windows and still get mostly unix with Mac OSX. Pretty good, but I already have a 22″ widescreen and a comfortable keyboard/mouse, so a MacMini is perfect. With 4gigs of RAM, a 7200rpm 320g HD and a fast built-in video card, it’s at least twice as fast as my old PC. And the Mac is ~$50 cheaper than the equivalent Dell if you install your own upgrades….

In the end, what I think all the comments are missing (from the Mac or Windows camp) is that operating systems are basically a commodity and they are equally good (and bad). It really just comes down to whether you can do what you want and find the applications you need.

Matthew Watson

Here in Aus, the expensive macmini has more power and is cheaper than the Dell equivalent…
Amusing to see people say Dell’s are more reliable – I’ve had a G4 Mini on 24×7 for 4 years – never crashed once, doing SD Tv with 2 EyeTV’s works perfectly.
Only reason to upgrade tot eh new beastie is for Full HD – the G4 drops frames playing HD back.

steven

Can anyone help me with a question? If I buy a mac mini, will I be able to rent movies from I-tunes in HD and watch them on my hd lcd tv, or do I need an apple tv to view the rentals in hd? If you look on I-tunes, below a movie description it will say, “this movie is available for rent in hd on apple tv”. I have been thinking about getting an apple tv but if the mini will do the same thing, I will probably go with it.

Rick

Would it be better to run a DVI cable directly to the television (my tv has DVI input) or do the DVI to HDMI cable caper? Any opinions on that?

Danclo

Wanted a Mac mini, ended up with refurb Dell i7, 512MB video, at the same price w/ 6GB etc etc. Just got back from a visit to the ‘mothership” and use Mac’s and PC’s, and find it more difficult to justify cost. Realization is good.

achoi02

Although i really really want the new mac mini,
i wish they had changed the form factor to apple tv / time capsule and put in a 3.5″ drive. making the disc drive an upgrade a la macbook air would’ve been acceptable.

also, mini display port is fine but why not include hdmi port?? sure adapters and such work but hdmi really is the tv-out standard now.

Go Mini!

After using an AppleTV for a year, I picked up a used Mac Mini on Ebay 3 months ago. Since there’s tons of Mini-tinkerers on ebay, I was easily able to get similar (if not higher) specs for the same price. I use a DVI to HDMI cable for the TV and an optical cable to the stereo. My Mini does torrents, file conversions, and home library for music and media. When listening to music in iTunes, I have Flight404’s awesome visuals playing on the HDTV. Brilliant!

Definitely the best way to go.

Apple Development Center

I think the new mini’s are pretty cool. I don’t think I would buy one, though. I like being able to upgradeee more than the mini’s allow. They’re just so cute, though!

againseminoma

Save your money. Buy a $250 Dell Mini, buy OSX, and load OSX on the Dell Mini. You can do it, checkout hackaday on WordPress. The Dell Mini’s hardware is fully compatible with OSX.

Heck, you could even get more memory, a bigger hard drive, or a bigger netbook screen on that Dell Mini before you even approach the price of a Mac Mini. Plus its portable to boot!

Why buy a small footprint underpowered computer like the Mac Mini if it’s not portable? Seems like a waste of money.

Sloppychachi

Whether or not the Mini makes good sense as a purchase is one thing but dude, save yourself the hassle and pick up a receiver… you can get a great box for less than the price of the Mini.

Paris

I’m using an old mac mini with core duo 1.8ghz and 512 ram underneath my tv and it plays hd video fine!

Michael

Let’s face it, the Mac Mini isn’t exactly the best general purpose computer, but it never really has been and might never be. If you want a computer like that then buy a MacBook or an iMac. The Mac Mini is much better if purchased for a specific task, such as a media center or some sort of network appliance.

I’m not currently planning on buying the Mac Mini but if I had the funds for it I would buy it in a heart beat, not as a computer that I would necessarily use as a general purpose computer but as a headless Mac thats sole purpose is to record television programs using an Elgato EyeTV and then share them with my AppleTV. For that purpose alone it is well worth the $599 for it and anyone who continues to complain about the pricing of the Mac Mini needs to get over it and just buy an iMac or MacBook.

Ben of BenandJacq

And if you went to all that trouble to trick out your Dell, at the end of the day you still have a clunky Dell running a clunky OS. I am forever amused by people that are so into bashing Macs that can’t understand it’s the OS that we like, and the integration between the OS and the hardware.

Peter

Well, not so fast, JD.

First, your comparison is with the larger Dell Studio PC. You’re forgetting the mini’s size. A better comparison would be a Dell Studio Hybrid.

WIth that, though, the Mac mini still falls behind on some specs but comes out ahead in others.

The Dell Studio Hybrid I specced out came to $679. It has a 2GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 2GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive. The Mac mini with a 2GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 2GB of RAM, and a 320 GB hard drive comes to $824.

On the other hand, the Mac mini also has a faster FSB (1066MHz vs. 800MHz) and faster memory (1066MHz versus 667MHz) so it will be faster than the Dell Studio Hybrid with the same specs as above. Furthermore, the dedicated graphics card of the Mac mini will run circles around the Dell Intel X3100. Finally, the Mac mini has 802.11n versus 802.11g for the Dell.

Of course, the Dell comes with a keyboard and mouse and a card reader. Still, the Mac is $145 more expensive.

Now assuming that you’re going to Hackintosh it, you need to go buy a copy of Mac OS X for $129. Meaning that you’ve saved a grand total of $16 on your build-it-yourself Mac mini.

David

When I have the money I’m getting a Mini for my home theatre too. Even with the 320GB internal hard drive it wouldn’t have enough storage capacity so I’ll get the base model and stream data wirelessly from a hard drive connected to my AirPort Extreme N. That way I can access my music, TV, videos, etc. from any computer anywhere in the house.

Having an actual computer hooked up to the TV instead of an AppleTV also allows email checking, web surfing, etc. from the couch.

JD

To anyone that says $599 is a “great value” for the new Mini.. your an Apple lemming. Seriously, look around even a little and you will find similar “small” form factor machines with more power/less cost. While I love OSX, I’m not dropping this kind of money on last years spec’s. I’m glad there are the “cult” followers so Apple will keep making huge profits to fund future innovations, but there has to be some limit to what “value” their products bring.

Example:

Dell studio (baseline model) $449 – 2.8ghz, 2gig ram DDR2, 500gig 7200rpm drive, GMA x4500 graphics, 16x dvd. The downfall is Windows, but with so many “hackintosh” how to’s there is a huge gap in hardware here.

Mac Mini (baseline model) $599 – 2.0ghz, 1gig ram DDR3, 120gig (they don’t list speed?), Nvidia graphics(likely better), 8x dvd. The upside OSX… (worth the 150 if hardware was the same imo) but come on at least put in a respectable HDD Apple.. wow 120gig, really?

I would even consider upgrading if they weren’t trying to bend customers over with their HDD and Ram pricing. Profit is great but so is growing your market share. This falls to the bottom of the wish list. I hate to even consider a Dell (or other brand) HTPC type machine but no way in hell I am dropping 6 bills on these spec’s.

Alfiejr

@ noah – if running windows whatever on a dell whatever makes you happy, and/or if all you care about is what is cheapest, you’ve come to the wrong website.

kevin

i like the way you’re thinking, but honestly it sounds like a bit of a stretch. I’m an avid mac fan, so i’m familiar with trying to come up with crazy justifications for new mac purchases… But in this case, i would seriously just recommend a decent receiver and let one of your game systems (PS3 or Xbox360) handle the media serving capabilities. Personally, I’ve got a classic Mac Cube running as my home media server that feeds content through my router and then wirelessly to my PS3, through my receiver/theater system and to my TV. works like a charm for me.

When the cube dies, I’ll definitely upgrade to the mini, but for now am happy with the set-up I’ve got running.

MarkT

I also want to buy a mini. What changed my mind on this are the following improvements:
1) It has NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics which replaces the integrated graphics. I hate the old integrated graphics system.
2) Firewire 800
3) 1066MHz memory

I think these new minis are a great improvement over the older ones.

noah d

“http://lowendmac.com/musings/09mm/2009-mac-mini-value.html”

This is a joke, right? I can get a Dell 530s for $599 that comes with a 19 inch monitor that’s better than Apple Displays (which are so expensive it has to be a joke), 4GB of RAM, a 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo and a 500GB hard drive. Yes, the mini has better graphics but you can configure the Dell to match it. Okay, so the Dell might not come with speakers (not sure) but the Mini doesn’t come with a KB/M or Monitor…. Not to mention Dell’s are more reliable, easier to upgrade, and it’s better for gaming.

Macs are too expensive, period.

Twist

I think the Mac mini is now a nice little machine. Max out the RAM third party and plug in an external HD and it is all good IMHO. Would make a fantastic HTPC or a nice little iPhone developer machine. As someone who replaced the HD in an iBook G4 the thought of upgrading anything in the Mac mini doesn’t phase me in the least.

Tom Reestman

Darrel,

A great example and explanation of where the mini can really shine. Thanks.

In the comments section of my original article I said this:

“I don’t dislike the mini. I think it’s a beautiful machine. And if you want, say, a tiny server or media center you can tuck away, it might be perfect.”

Looks like you just confirmed that. Seems there are more people getting the mini to run along these lines than for its supposed original purpose. As the former it works, as the latter it leaves a lot to be desired.

Alfiejr

The boo-birds whining about the new Mini are full of it. typical pack-blogging.

– so what if it can’t be a Mac server (that guy’s problem)? businesses actually buy Mini’s for staff workstations and special purpose situations, in much greater numbers. the $600 MIni is a great little workstation (my company uses them).

– it is not underpowered nor overpriced (Giz is full of snark as usual). it’s big jump technically, not a mere spec bump, compared to the 2007 Mini. as to price/value vs. the PC competition, check out a real and intelligent analysis at Low End Mac:

http://lowendmac.com/musings/09mm/2009-mac-mini-value.html

– so the geeks can’t take it apart and add stuff. fine. go hack an AppleTV or something instead. but please stop whining about your hobby within earshot of all the rest of us.

– you are right about one thing: it is also a great HTPC.

the new Mini is a terrific product/value for those of us who need a basic Mac (or HTPC). no more, but no less either. if $100 or $200 more or less in its price is so utterly critical to you, then you got a lot bigger problems in life than Apple.

AJ

@ spark0919

I’m not speaking for Darrell but it probably has something to do with the fact that he owns multiple macs. He’s already going to have to purchase Snow Leopard’s family pack just to have his MacBook and iMac running Snow Leopard legally. The family pack comes with 5 licenses so it’s not an extra cost for him. This is only a guess.

Andrew Bednarz

I have a previous generation MacMini for my TV Media computer and its absolutely perfect. I upgraded the ram to 2gig myself – have two EyeTV USB digital tv tuners attached and a FireWave firewire 5.1 sound box to go to my powered active surround speakers. Chuck a wireless mouse and wireless keyboard in the shelf under the coffee table and its perfect. The Mini also looks nice next to the Wii under the tv. :D

David

I think what you are getting it for is perfect – and I use one for the same reason… but dude, get a receiver already :-p

spark0919

Can I ask a question to you Darrell? I’m just curious as to why you aren’t waiting until the WWDC Season to make a purchase when Snow Leopard is (inevitably) going to come out? After all, June/July isn’t THAT far away and, while Leopard is great and all, it’s always better to save a few bucks on a spiffier OS than having to upgrade it later, no?

walkerp

This is exactly the argument I am facing. I already have a MacMini doing almost exactly what you want yours to do, but mine is the first intel one, the Core Solo and it has worked great (except the intermittent remote). We hook up to it using JollyVNC, keep all of our music, our movies and tv shows and photos on it. It goes right into the back of our 1080P flatscreen. Very nice. The only issue is that it can’t really drive full HD videos. There is a tiny stutter that I am almost positive is ultimately due to insufficient hardware. So I think I’m ultimately going to have to upgrade to a faster processor and video card, which this new MacMini exactly has. I’m still good with mine for at least another 6-12 months and will probably transition it over to replace my G4 Sawtooth desktop (still running fine on Tiger), so I hope there may be a price drop by then.

The one thing that is weird is that they dropped the remote. Is their concern that this thing trumps AppleTV?

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