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