Are Macs More Expensive? Round Four: The Skinny on the Mini

The smallest, cheapest Mac takes on three little guys from the Windows world.

By  |  Monday, August 25, 2008 at 12:00 am

Pity the poor Mac Mini. After being unveiled with plenty of hoopla in January 2005 as “the most affordable Mac ever,” it departed the limelight with surprising swifness. The glossy white micro-Mac has received only minor updates such as CPU upgrades and actually got less affordable when the base model went from $499 to $599. Last year, there were even premature reports of the Mini’s imminent death, and most Mac enthusiasts didn’t seem too griefstricken at the prospect of its demise.

But the Mini lives–and even though $599 is no longer anywhere near a dirt-cheap price for a computer, it remains the cheapest Mac. It also comes in a super-small package that’s still fun and distinctive. So it’s the subject of my fourth excessively in-depth Mac-vs.-PC price comparison. My goal, as always, is to gauge whether you pay a “Mac Tax” when you buy a Mini instead of a roughly comparable Windows PC.

Before we get started, here are links to earlier comparisons in this series, just in case you missed ’em:

Round one: A mid-range MacBook vs. custom-configured Windows laptops.
Round two: The cheapest MacBook vs. cheap Windows laptops.
Round three: The iMac vs. Windows all-in-ones

As usual, I’ve got some questions and answers about this comparison…

Q. How did you decide what Windows computers to include?

A. There are relatively few Windows PCs that are anything like a Mac Mini. But Dell’s new Studio Hybrid clearly means to compete against the Mini in size and stylish design. Shuttle is famous for its small PCs, and it explicitly compares its XPC to the Mini on its Web site. And while HP doesn’t have anything quite as comparable, its Pavilion Slimline is close enough.

Q. The Mini is the cheapest Mac you can buy, but you can buy a Windows PC for half the price.
Surely that fact alone proves the Mini is expensive?

A. For some folks, a dirt-cheap Windows box might be all the computer they need, However, they’re really not that comparable to the Mini in terms of overall specs, case style, or industrial design. Which doesn’t mean I might not decide to do a comparison in a future article.

Q. How do you factor in the obvious superiority of the Mac platform? (Or, if you prefer, its obvious inferiority.)

A. I don’t! For this series, I tried to make my research err on the side of things that are easy to measure, like hard-drive size and the availability or unavailability of a particular feature. I’m not factoring in the quality of the operating systems, the presence or lack of junkware, or the amount of time that users have to spend wrestling with security software. Folks who are commenting on my comparisons are doing a great job of going beyond that to discuss the platforms in general, and I plan to do so myself eventually.

Q. Will you tell me which of the systems is best?

A. Nope–I’m just trying to determine whether the Mini looks pricey or reasonable when compared to compact Windows PCs that are at least sort of similar.

Q. Is there any way I can convince you to reveal your conclusions this very minute?

A. You need only ask. The Mini I configured looks pricey in comparison to the Dell and HP, not so much because the sticker price is high as because it scrimps on specs. The Shuttle, however, is pricier still. You can configure a well-equipped Mini, but that takes you over $1000, a price range in which the iMac looks more attractive.

Q. Stop calling it the “Mini.” It’s mini, capiche?

A. Sorry, my years of PC World copy editing are showing. We didn’t let companies give their products names that began with lower-case letters. We called the iPod the IPod until the e-mail from angry Apple fans became angry and disturbing! If I get any similar hate mail about “Mini,” I’ll probably fold quickly.

Q. You done asking yourself questions?

A. Why, yes. Yes, I am. Click on to the next page, and I’ll introduce the computers in this comparison.

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12 Comments For This Post

  1. Sterling Johnson Says:

    Hey, very nice job. I found this review very informative. That HP looks really nice for the price to me. I’ve never bought myself a pc. I’ve been a apple//, and mac user since 1982. I was considering a mini to use solely as a home media center. But, that HP’s is really giving me second thoughts about it. Look forward to checking out the rest of your site. By the way, if found the link to this article on the site.

  2. David Speiser Says:

    Hey Harry,

    Great review, another excellent edition to the series. Just curious – why wasn’t the Eee Box from ASUS included in the comparison? Are the specs just too far off? The Atom processor is probably not in the same league as what comes stock in the mini, but it seems like a neat device with a related size, form factor and intended use.



  3. Viswakarma Says:

    A very good and unbiased comparison of “Hardware”. However, hardware alone does not make a “Computer”! At a minimum it should include the operating system and a few basic applications (text editor, web browser, graphics editor, video/audio players etc). A better comparison will be to compare a Macintosh (hardware+Mac OS 10.5+applications) with a Windows machine (hardware(s)+Vista Ultimate+applications).

    Then one can make an well informed decision as to which computer to buy!!!

  4. Al Says:

    Hardware comparisons really aren’t all that useful when every vendor uses mostly the same parts. Cameras, for example, can have equivalent features but vastly different lens glass quality and user input software and controls. The finished product, the actual photo, is the ultimate comparator.

    What makes computer brands different is not the hardware bang for the buck but the user experience. In game consoles, for another example, The Wii, for the most part, has inferior hardware but outsells all others. User experience is paramount there. What good is a hardware rich PS3 with no cool games?

    Hardware comparisons are used only by peddlers of products with poorer user experiences. All iPhone and iPod Killers use hardware comparisons.

    You aren’t trying to make Vista PC’s look more desirable, are you? Accept or decline.

  5. Dave S. Says:

    Great and very thorough review. I agree that the question is ridiculous and most of the debates I get into run straight into fanboy territory, i.e. something like this

    “You just like the Mac because you’re a pompous cool hipster.”
    “Oh yeah, well you use Windows cause you’re slave to Gates, man.”

    Or something equally ridiculous. Overall, I think Mac has done a great thing with their OS, but truthfully they’re hardware costs are way too much for what you get. However, everyone seems to neglect the cost of buying Vista *alone*. For example, Vista Home Premium costs somewhere near $200. Leopard is just $129. And there’s no tiering of features for Apple. This is the kind of simple offering (just like their UI themes) that *keeps* Mac owners loyal. And that’s really what the debate is about, I think. Niche marketing to your fans or making the choice to try to be everything for everybody, which Microsoft will learn the hard way that such a task is impossible.

  6. Gui Says:

    If you did the comparison about a year ago, certainly the Mini would look a lot better. I bought mine about a year ago, and it looked a fairly good choice, compared to the few alternatives I had.

    Really, if Apple really wants the Mini to succeed, they should treat it on equal footing with their other offers. Since the last iteration of the mini was released, the MacBook was updated 3 times, the iMac was updated twice and both the MacBook Pro and the Mac Pro were updated once, not to mention they introduced the new MacBook Air and there are already rumours of a revision. Giving a newer hard drive, slightly faster processor, more RAM and a DVD burner across the line shouldn’t change their price point these days, given their low-end MacBook is barely over a grand.

  7. rufwork Says:

    Fwiw, the Mini will take 3 gigs… actually it’ll take 4, but like every other computer with a non-64 bit processor or a non-64 bit OS, it’ll read less than that.

    Here’s a link to a reputable Mac RAM makin’ company saying the Mini will, in practice, take 3, np:


  8. iMe Says:

    Dave S., what’s the point of comparing the prices of the retail boxed editions of Vista and Leopard? If you’re shopping for a PC with low price or convenience of purchase and set up as one your criteria, you’ll get a PC with Vista pre-installed. If you want to build your own PC or get a manufactured PC without Windows so you can install the OS the way you like, you can’t do the same with OS X (at least not legally or easily).

    If you’re going to install Leopard on a Mac, you’ve already paid for an earlier version of OS X on that Mac.

  9. win32forth Says:

    Interesting article, and relatively unbiased. Being a Mac use, I am not that unbiased. The most disturbing thing to me, was the attempt to bring all the computers up to your definition of parity, which to me seemed pretty unbalanced. OSX will run reasonably well in 1GB, it might be a bit slow, but for most home users it will still be faster than anything they happen to be upgrading from. Vista will run in 1GB as well, perhaps a bit slowly, but again it should be usable.

    Perhaps the biggest problem I have is that you almost totally ignored the excellent software that the mini comes with, except for the photo editing software you tried to make parity. In my view, none of the PCs (as you configured them) is even remotely configured for parity in the software area. The standard Apple software package including the ability to play DVDs, and music, create and edit music, create web sites, edit and manage photos, maintain your calendar, email client, address book, chat client, CD/DVD burning software, movie and DVD creation software (you need a DVD burner obviously), automatic backup software. yada, yada, yada… Ok, I will stop now.

  10. cielo Says:

    Nice breakdown. I am a mac-mini owner, and I love it. I admit to finding the Dell Hybrid sexy and appealing, but the thought of using windows as my main OS makes me want to vomit. A couple hundred bucks to avoid the Microsoft chain is worth every penny. Shoot, I’d pay a couple grand extra.

    BTW, in the “Bundled Productivity Software” category you introduce the iMac, and fail to mention the mini. I assume this was just a typo.

    Thanks, it was an interesting read.

  11. Henry Says:

    I realize that it doesn’t have the form factor of the others, but consider building a box for your next editions. I was able to get _identical_ stats to the iMac on for $793. If you, like me, have a closet full of mice, keyboards and speakers you save $49. If you choose to run Linux (an OS superior to both Vista and Mac OS 10.5 IMO), you can save an additional $165. (Alternatively you can build a hackintosh with Mac OS 10.5 [it should work with these parts] and save $55.) If you trust the power supply that comes with the case then you can save another $36. With these considerations it comes down to only $543 ($644 as Hackintosh)!

  12. Henry Says:

    Sorry for the double posts. My post was rejected and I thought it had to do with length rather than the included URLs. Likewise I posted in the mini article, because I thought the iMac one wasn’t working when I was rejected.


    The part list:
    Western Digital Caviar SE WD3200AAJS 320GB 7200 RPM 8MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive – OEM

    Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 Wolfdale 2.53GHz 3MB L2 Cache LGA 775 65W Dual-Core Processor – Retail

    Acer X203Wbd Black 20″ 5ms Widescreen LCD Monitor 300 cd/m2 2500:1 ACM – Retail

    A-DATA 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory – Retail

    Silver Steel MicroATX Mid Tower Computer Case 350W Power Supply – Retail

    Anyware GV-IR01WT Windows Vista Infrared MCE White Learning Remote Control

    SeaSonic SS-300ES 300W ATX12V Ver.2.2 80 PLUS Certified Active PFC Power Supply – OEM

    LITE-ON Black 16X DVD-ROM 52X CD-R 32X CD-RW 52X CD-ROM SATA Combo – OEM (Better, but actually cheaper than 8x)

    Hercules Deluxe Optical Glass 640 x 480 30 fps USB Interface WebCam – Retail

    Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate SP1 64-bit English 1pk DSP OEI DVD for System Builders – OEM


    APPLE Mac OS X v10.5.4 Leopard (New version) – Retail

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