Mac mini to the max -- Part 1

Here's how I know Apple Computer Inc. has a hit on its hands with the new Mac mini.

No sooner had I opened the box than our Technology editor joked: "Who wants that cheap Mac thing?"

Now, when's the last time someone used the words "cheap" and "Mac" in the same sentence? Another co-worker almost grabbed it from my hands; still another popped up, gopher-style, over an office partition to ask how much it weighed; yet another asked whether it could be used for digital video editing (yes, it can).

All this commotion, and the mini -- sent out by Apple for review purposes -- still had the plastic wrapping on it.

This particular model comes with the entry-level 1.25-GHz G4 processor, a combo drive, 512MB of RAM and a 40GB hard drive, and it's equipped with Apple's AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi card and Bluetooth wireless technology. In other words, it'll work perfectly with my 20-in. Apple Cinema Display and wireless network at home.

Apple officials have made it clear that they're aiming the new Mac mini, unveiled earlier this month at MacWorld San Francisco, at the consumer market. And I have few doubts it'll do well there, given both the interest here in the office and from the crush of sales that has led to lengthy delivery times for computers ordered after the MacWorld event. Currently, you're looking at a three- to four-week wait, if the timetable on Apple's online store is correct.

But I also have a hunch this will be a godsend to IT departments in mixed environments where Macintoshes and Windows-based PCs have to play well together. Why? Because a lot of companies likely have extra keyboards, monitors and computer mice lying around. And since the Mac mini comes with none of those peripherals, it's perfect for IT folks eyeing Mac upgrades for older models -- or thinking about trying a Mac or two in their corporate environment to see how it might work.

The Mac mini, which measures just 6.5 in. square by 2 in. tall, starts at just $499. But that price is much like the "low, low, low, buy-it-today" price you see in newspaper car ads. It's designed just to get you in the door. Once there, you'll want to upgrade to something spiffier. It's the same with Mac mini. That $499 can jump quickly by the time you go for the faster 1.42-GHz processor (which comes with an 80GB hard drive -- twice the size of the entry-level version), add a RAM upgrade, opt for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and tack on the SuperDrive so you can make your own DVDs. Suddenly, you're out $873 for a Mac with the previous-generation processor and only 512MB of RAM. (Go for the whole enchilada and buy 1GB of RAM at Apple's inflated prices, and you'll be shelling out $1,123.)

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