New Mac minis: Beware small gains at a big price!

by Torley Wong on 6 March 2009 13 comments
Photo: Wrote

Apple recently revamped their desktop line. It wasn't an asteroid impact, but has so far been generally acknowledged as a welcome update. Amidst the revisions are the Mac minis, always a hot point of contention — some journos have a compulsive habit to exclaim "They're dying!" every few months. Such irrationality is useless.

But what is useful is knowing where the sweet price points are. I'm a Mac enthusiast, and I also use Windows regularly. Like a daywalker vampire, I have the perspectives of both platforms. Every time talk of "The Apple tax" or "Apple stuff being overpriced" comes up, the same arguments are redundantly trotted out, often centered around cost vs. convenience. (It'd be nice if there was one master FAQ so people didn't repeat themselves since certain facts are well-established, but that's not going to happen.)

My warning, not to frighten, but to enlighten: you probably should NOT order from the Apple Store unless you want a BTO (Build To Order) custom configuration sooner. The generic base configs are available at resellers for less; they'll be populated over the next stretch of weeks and you may not have to pay sales tax, which could save you $50-75 or more. (There are also edu and gov discounts, but I'm focusing on the broad consumer market.)

Hopefully, if you've been dreaming of a new Mac mini, I can help you make sense of what to avoid. Namely…

The "2.0GHz : 320GB" model doesn't make sense

You get an additional 1GB of RAM (for 2GB total) and roughly 200GB more hard drive space (for 320GB total, actual formatted capacity is less), but at what price? An extra US$200 over the $599 base model! (Much more in some other countries.) Why is this a bad idea?

There's no processor speed boost

Yes, you can BTO a 2.26GHz (for $150 more) and I'm awaiting benchmarks on that. But with this price premium, you'd expect something special.

RAM is a rip-off

Yes, it's harder to install RAM in a Mac mini. 1GB is unpleasantly cramped in this day and age so I'd recommend at least 2GB, which the Apple Store charges you $50 extra for. 4GB total is even better but that's $150, nearing 3 times the price of Other World Computing's 4GB kit @ $65 (which will require removing the 1GB base DIMM). RAM prices are volatile, but even with convenience weighed here, this is a bad bet. Not as bad as this red flag, but still absurd.

I'd suggest watching YouTube for forthcoming videos on how to install RAM in the new Mac mini and decide whether you can stomach the cost.

That hard drive upgrade is horrifically overpriced

OUCHBLEGHH! That's the sound of your pocketbook and/or PayPal account hemorrhaging. In Apple's BTO, it's listed as a 120GB -> 320GB upgrade for an extra $175! OUCH. Considering 1TB — roughly 5x the upgrade size — external hard drives routinely sell for a touch under $100 and continue to drop, you're not getting your money's worth here. Compact (2.5" form factor) hard drives are common at 500GB for the same price, like this Seagate FreeAgent Go (I own a smaller 320GB one and it's very nice). As Gizmodo and many others have pointed out, get an external drive instead.

If speed's your concern, opt for a FireWire enclosure which typically runs $25-50 more. If that's still not fast enough, there are pricier options, but you likely wouldn't be looking at a Mac mini anyway. I would only go for the 320GB upgrade if I was using the Mac mini as an HTPC and it was absolutely necessary to store all those movies & music internally because I found an external drive aesthetically unappealing, or if I needed to move my mini around a lot.

What to do if you want a good deal on a new Mac mini

  • Check MacSurfer regularly. They compile daily reviews, user stories, and of course, pricing comparisons to help you make an informed decision.
  • To that specific effect, refer to Mac Prices. I've called around to several places and it seemed there was an "up to 10-day wait" on getting BTO configs from them. If you want it sooner, you could go with the Apple Store, but remember the sales tax.
  • Don't rush unless getting the Mac mini sooner will give you an irreplaceable amount of joy (not to be confused with buyer's remorse) OR it'll help you generate more money & resources in that lead time.
  • If you're absolutely sure of your needs, then by all means override my guidance.

What about Hackintoshes?

I'm aware of the multiplying, even-cheaper "run Mac OS X on non-Apple hardware" possibilities out there of legal dubiosity. I'm not looking at those because there simply isn't another machine as beautiful, quiet, tiny, etc. as the new Mac mini. It's not just about looks but the overall experience and proverbial peace of mind.

I'm aware Hackintoshes are maturing to be more stable, but still: system updates aren't as easy, numerous quirks exist, and they certainly aren't supported by AppleCare, which can be had for cheap. Until those hurdles are substantially bypassed, Hackintoshes are fascinating experiments with many caveats I'd rather not deal with. In the ongoing balance between cost vs. convenience, I've slid towards the latter, but haven't slid so far as to be impaled on the spikes described above.

Am I getting a new Mac mini?

I plan to. And why not, say, an iMac? Because my HDTV is already a decent-sized screen. I want a handy little home media controller to occasionally bring from one room to another without the pain of lugging a tower (my Mac Pro). It'll also free up my MacBook Pro, currently serving as my media center, to do suitably portable things. As you can see, while our household thrives on some things like tech and kittens, other stuff falls happily into Linsey Knerl's camp.

IMG_0738

Furthermore, a Mac mini will be a nice way to run some apps with the elegance Apple offers. While I'm not counting on it being a stellar performer for the virtual world of Second Life, it's better than the previous generation, and I'm thinking of using to rez additional avatars for machinima. Maybe my Mac mini will help my wife understand why Apple is such as "liquid experience" compared to the Windows cruft I'm appalled by (but continue to endure).

Now you know where I'm coming from, I'm looking at getting a 2.26GHz Mac mini with 2GB RAM and 120GB hard drive, then upgrading the RAM later if I need the expansion (I'm clumsy with tools, ask the stripped screw in my Mac Pro) and hooking up an external drive. The cheapest price I've found on this so far is $794 at MacMall before shipping, but despite it saying "In Stock" on that front page, it's actually not. Boo for crummy advertising. My desires could change based on what I find out in the next week or two, so stay tuned.

Are you interested in a new Mac mini? Have tips on what to look out for? Caught something I missed? Chime in!

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Guest's picture
joe23521

That's a lot of Macs you've got there...

I use Macs exclusively for work and I love them, but still can't justify paying the premium for one out my own pocket. Recently bought an HP HDX 18.4" laptop, which is comparable to the MBP 17" in specs at about 60% the price.

Torley Wong's picture

@joe23521, I've had several more Macs and 3 Windows PCs up to the present. I was "off" of Macs as main computers for awhile until the Intel line matured. Some of the premium is unjustifiable to me too — like how much Apple charges for most DIY upgrades like RAM and hard drives — but there've been numerous memories when convenience did indeed trump cost, and saved me hours of trouble: I can make more money, but no can do on time. I definitely crash less on my Mac Pro than Q6600-based rig. (I still prefer XP; Vista gives me too many headaches.)

I just got off the phone with Michelle of PowerMax, who was very helpful and gave me a quote for US$818 on a Mac mini 2.26GHz w/4GB RAM and 120GB hard drive. That's markedly better than the MacMall example I listed above. PowerMax installs the RAM at a cheaper price than Apple or MacMall has listed, but their HD upgrade to 320GB costs $99, which is still too much for my purposes. I placed an order and am going to verify details. Will reply back here with how it goes. :)

Guest's picture
Brian

1. Paying for upgrades on the mini is the proper choice for *most* computer users, because very few people are interested in voiding their warranty right out of the box. Funny how you don't mention that. Seems to me that "loss of warranty coverage" has at least a theoretical value, no?

2. Apple charges a premium for their upgrades, particularly the RAM upgrades. This has always been the case. It amount, IMO, to taking advantage of users who aren't technical adept or bold enough to do their own upgrades. But making the case that this is a ripoff on a machine sold exclusively as non-user-serviceable is tenuous, at best.

3. Your hard drive comparison is ludicrous. You simply cannot compare pricing on a 3.5" 1TB desktop drive against a 2.5" 320GB laptop drive. I'm not arguing that the upgrade is competitively priced, but you have deliberately chosen an apples-to-oranges challenge designed to exaggerate your point. Shame. Also, comparing FireWire drives, even 800s, to internals for speed is bogus.

4. Oddly, you also neglected to mention that the more expensive mini includes 256MB graphics card, instead of the lower-end 128MB.

So let's revisit, shall we? For 30% increase in price, you get:

270% of the low-ender's hard drive space
200% of the low-ender's RAM
200% of the low-ender's graphics memory

And, of course, you get to keep your warranty intact. What's that worth? Well, it's about $150 to add two years, so figure your year's worth of AppleCare is worth $75 at least.

I won't argue that the mini is a good deal to begin with. I think it's an okay niche machine for people with a specific purpose in mind (in fact, if you actually read the materials on the store site and look at the Compare tab, Apple very clearly positions it against a 20" iMac so you can figure out if it's a worthwhile deal). For most people, I think it's a bad choice of computer.

That said, the more expensive model is *hardly* the outrageously bad bargain your piece tries to make it out to be. While getting a mini is a "bad idea" for most people, to begin with, paying Apple for the upgrades -- especially if you're the nontechnical type AT WHOM THE MINI IS PARTICULARLY TARGETED -- is hardly so.

Guest's picture
Brian

(Apologies for the typos in the above comment...I got distracted by actual work :).

Anyway, I forgot to add that the "red flag" you point to at CrunchGear is, well...basically bullshit, and admits as much in its own text.

You try pricing out 2 4GB 1066 DDR3 DIMMs. Go on. I'll wait.

If you're willing to buy off-brand, you can get to around $700. If you want reliable, name-brand RAM, though, you're going to pay around $800. So figure the Apple premium is maybe 25%, less a half point or so for the installation charges you'd save by doing it yourself. High, but not out of line for Apple.

All CrunchGear is doing is scoring "Apple is expensive" points by ridiculing an expensive accessory. That a similar product from a non-Apple source is nearly as expensive is apparently just fluff data to them. (And their insinuation that anyone who buys an iMac instead of a Mac Pro is broke is ignorant and insulting.)

Torley Wong's picture

@Brian: I appreciate you taking the time to write. But you missed a number of key things, in particular re: #3, I also mentioned 2.5" drives.

You also made some errors: the "256MB graphics card" is shared with system memory, not its own GPU.

Please explain what computers you favor? It'd help me understand better.

Guest's picture
Dwight

Good post. There's one more option for the hard drive. You can buy a 500GB replacement hard drive and install in the mini for $120. 320GB is $85. I'm not a computer expert, but had no problem doing this kind of work on my laptop after watching some You-tube videos. Of course you're going to install some RAM while the box is open.

I plan use my old G4 mini until Snow Leopard comes out. Then, I'll get the new mini and upgrade it. I've never seen an Apple product fail, so the warranty is not a big deal to me. I'll still turn the computer on first to make sure it's OK before I void the warranty.

This doesn't save a huge amount of money compared to the Apple upgrade. Someone who doesn't want the hassle could just buy the computer from a dealer.

You are more that correct about Hackintosh. I'll never go there again!

Torley Wong's picture

@Dwight: There are also authorized Apple resellers who can do the work for you at less cost than Apple.

I'm looking forward to see how substantial the speed optimizations in Snow Leopard are. :)

Guest's picture
Guest

Apples are for suckers. Seriously.

Guest's picture
Guest

expercom.com offers the base Mini w/ 2GB RAM for $619.

they also offer the base Mini maxed out to 4GB RAM & 500GB hard drive for $799 (you get the original 120GB hard drive back)

the latter is a great deal and worth the trouble of having someone else max out the Mini.

Torley Wong's picture

I haven't heard of Expercom before. That sounds like a competitive price, strange I don't see a 2.26Ghz w/4GB RAM & 500GB hard drive option tho.

Guest's picture
l337haxor

apples suckz for the lulz. linuz rulz.

Torley Wong's picture

It arrived today from PowerMax. Very happy with how it was packed — even with them upping the RAM, they managed to re-wrap it without signs of wear, and it felt very pristine.

Besides the initial setup experience (an overall smooth one 'cept for Migration Assistant hanging on me), it's been working well so far. Let's see how it fares in the days ahead.

Let me know if you have any questions and/or curiosities. :)

Guest's picture
YouCanDoIt

I guess it's never too late to comment.

This is an excellent article. Back in April 2009, I purchased a Mac Mini, 2GB, 1GB RAM, 120GB HD for $579 and chose to upgrade the memory and hard drive myself to save on the overpriced upgrades. I agree with you above the overpricing (Apple lovers ready don't care, so it seems).

To answer Brian's comment #4 - if you upgrade the memory, the graphic's shared memory bumps to 256MB. He must be one of those Apple lovers.

Also, it's funny how Linux users lurk around Apple and Microsoft topics. I tried Linux and there are serious problems with hardware drivers (wireless, video, & ethernet - Ok, I'll stop now).

Again, excellent article!