Unboxing the mini is as pleasurable as with any Mac product, with its neat and tidy packaging that amusingly has the words ‘actual size’ next to the product photo. It’s fairly inevitable that the power supply is external, with the block being about one third the size of the mini itself. Even the cabling boasts typically classy Apple build quality with the connectors at each end slotting snugly into their slots, like expensive designer Lego for adults.
The white finish of the mini is iPod-like and while it looks great it keeps the scratchabilty factor dangerously high. However, as ever with Apple products, there are already a wave of accessories available for it, such as this protective case, enabling you to mount it sideways and protect it from damage at the same time.
Spec wise, the Mini contains most of the tech found in Apple’s current iBook line. It’s powered by a G4 processor running at either 1.25 or 1.4GHz. A G5 would have been nice but it’s still too hot to run in such a small system. Unfortunately to reach the tempting price point, Apple has made some harsh compromises – the base spec of 256MB of RAM is not enough to really enjoy Mac OS X, especially once users start to delve into what the bundled iLife05 suite of applications can offer. There’s only one internal slot, so any later upgrade would involve throwing away the supplied DIMM and as the mini is not designed to be opened by the user, it’s best to do it straight away.
That said the base spec mini still outperformed my own 800Mhz iBook G4 equipped with 640MB of RAM. The mini opened Photoshop in seven seconds, compared to 12 on my iBook. Comparison to a PC's performance is difficult due to the lack of meaningful cross platform benchmarks. But talking about raw performance is missing the issue. While it’s likely a PC of around the same price might be slightly quicker, it won’t look anywhere near as cool as the Mac mini.
The standard hard disk is also under-specced with only 40GB capacity, which could mean you’ve got the bizarre situation of your iPod photo being fed content by a computer with a smaller hard disk. Graphically things are sped along by an AGP 4X ATI Radeon 9200 with 32MB of DDR SDRAM. It's fine for everything except the latest games but again that's not what the mini is about.
Round the back you’ll find a FireWire 400 socket, two USB 2.0 connectors, and a DVI connection that can feed a digital panel up of to 1,920 x 1,200 resolution or an analogue monitor via the included adaptor. There’s also a modem port an Ethernet connection and a headphone socket. The power switch is at the rear and when it turns on the only indication is a tiny LED on the front. The CD combo drive is naturally, slot loading, and the noisiest the machine ever gets is when it’s accessing a disc.
What’s missing is a PS/2 port so while you may want to reuse an old keyboard you won’t be able to unless it’s USB or you get hold of a PS/2 to USB adaptor.
While this review is focused on the hardware, it’s worth mentioning the software as with a Mac they are uniquely tied together. In fact the biggest issue for a potential newcomer from the Windows world will be the move to Mac OS X. While there’s a lot of talk of its ease of use, it will involve a learning curve for many. And after a year or so of using both Windows XP and Mac OS there are features in the former than are missing from the latter and it’s not crash proof, whatever you may have heard.