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Alive 10
                    The Mac Mini Considered - Part 1

You  are  reading what was originally going to be the front end  of  a  full
review  for the Mac Mini,  the latest addition to the CiH pedigree stable of
computery!  However,  as Alive 11 is going to be some months off,  and in my
opinion,  a lot of this prequel material deserves an earlier reading slot, I
decided to split the review into two parts.

So this is episode one, which offers a sort of explanation of my motives for
getting it,  and some kind of advocacy for the Mini.  There is also a useful
section  where we consider some of the less positive things which have  been
said about it ;-)

Let the battle commence!


Firstly,  this  has been one of the most difficult decisions of my computing
life. The time has finally come to seriously consider updating over my tried
and  trusted  Atari system.  There are varied reasons as to why things  have
come  to this.  It is definitely not just about getting more "power",  as my
CT60  is  good and responsive with the efficient software that it  has  got.
This  is  when I've got my 66mhz '060,  and even before I get my revision  6
100mhz capable '060.

On the other hand, there are some issues with capabilities.

1. Broadband. This is the primary motive for the update. Now that pricing is
extremely  competitive,  and  this  is actually  working  out  substantially
cheaper than dial-up, I'd be stupid to keep burning a hole in my pocket with
an outdated connection for any longer!  Yes, there is a good solution on the
way for the CT60,  but there is still a little way to go.  Besides which, no
service  provider  is going to be able to provide a smooth  introduction  to
broadband  for  my  Atari set-up.  it has to be  a  mainstream  'recognised'
computer,  no  arguments.  So  when  the EtherNat is available,  we've got a
stable in-place connection to play with from the off!

2.  Notwithstanding  the  superb efforts of the Highwire team,  sometimes it
would be nice to have a fully featured modern web browser. (Note to Highwire
Team, don't worry, I'm not losing interest in your work!)

3.  There is an increasing tendency for people to forget that I don't have a
'current' computer, as they email me links to stuff I can't use!

4. I'm sort of into digital photography in a *very* small way right now, and
I'd  like  to expand this.  A good solution is coming for the Falcon,  and I
fully  intend to explore this when it does (see 'EtherNat again),  but  once
more, I'd rather not wait too much longer!

5. I reckon I am really the last one left standing with a pure Atari set-up.
Let's  not  get  pedantic  about the Acorn stuff,  that wasn't  a  big  leap
forward. Everyone else has some kind of mainstream hardware, and they manage
to  combine  it  with their Atari passions without this  agonising,  so  why
should I feel guilty about it and hold back anymore?


So  having overcome the psychological barriers,  what are the choices  these
days?  Well they are a bit more interesting than they were during the locust
years  of the late nineties and early noughties.  With alternative platforms
folding  and dying before the dominance of Microsoft,  it was a real  choice
desert back then.  Now,  it's a different story. We're no longer confined to
just  having a generic orange crate styled windows Peecee.  There are  still
plenty  of  those around,  but now you can also get Linux as an  alternative
desktop flavour.  Now the more visually appealing and less bulky laptops are
starting to come down to a reasonable price level. Then there is Apple...

What,  Apple, the maker of the expensive Macintosh? Well yes. Apple gear was
always  pricey and exclusive.  I remember my first encounter with a  classic
Mac  back in '85,  which only had a simple sketching program,  but the whole
experience was something really special,  and also out of my price range!  A
couple of years later,  my advanced GUI-based computing hunger was satisfied
with  the  affordable  STFM,  and Apple drifted out of the picture,  into  a
rarefied  stratosphere of bleeding edge kit and pricing.  So I lost interest
in it from there.

But  very  recently,  Apple suddenly jolted back into the picture  with  the
release of the first affordable Mac, the Mac Mini. Well it was not quite the
first,  as  I remember Jody Smith writing about the first bubble-shaped  and
semi  transparent  coloured  iMac,  back  in Maggie 28.  I wasn't  ready  to
entertain the idea back then, so what is different about now?

Well the pricing is more appealing. Apple have dispensed with the compulsory
supply of a monitor,  which makes it better for those of us who already have
a perfectly good screen, and limited room for more. They have also dispensed
with a compulsory keyboard and mouse, but more of that when I come back to a
detailed analysis of pricing in due course.

The clincher,  for me at least, is the ultra-small form factor. The Mac Mini
really is "mini",  coming in at around 6.5 inches square, and 2 inches high.
This  will  fit into any odd corner,  and will probably have to!  It is also
light,  at  just under 3 pounds (lighter than a lot of laptops!) which makes
it  an  eminently suitable candidate for airborne travel  to  future  coding
parties,  providing  I can get either a very small LCD screen to go with it,
or a loan screen at the other end.

The  Mac  Mini  is the exact opposite of the lumbering  orange-box  form  of
computing that has been foisted on the public by default.  It is even neater
than the majority of laptops, which suddenly look hulking in comparison. You
can  successfully  argue  that the Mac Mini is  merely  a  repackaged  iBook
laptop,  but  I think the majority of PeeCee manufacturers would have  great
difficulty   in  replicating  it,   with  the  current  supersize-me  wintel
technology.  Maybe the new slimline Sonoma chipset would have a chance,  but
these  aren't  going to be going into cheap computers in  the  near  future?

Certainly,  the  Mini has introduced a new paradigm for personal  computing,
where small is beautiful. In my opinion, this is sorely overdue!

This  part  of  the Mac Mini appeal is personal,  and down  to  the  strange
workings of my brain! My first computer was a ZX81, and in my opinion, there
hasn't  been  such a perfect combination of form and  function  since  then.

Every  computer  owned subsequently,  has grown bigger.  I understand that a
large part of this is inevitable, as the function and motherboard complexity
increases,  and  you  add in various forms of storage,  but I think that the
size  issue  got out of hand completely,  once the Wintel market  domination
kicked  in.   At  a  stroke,  the  mini  reverses  the  years  of  entrophy,
complacency, and middle-aged spread that have crept into personal computing.
There are certain caveats to the Mini form factor smallness,  once you start
adding  external stuff in,  but I'll see how we go in that regard,  with the
second part of the review.

Q.  You mentioned you had Acorn hardware near the beginning of this article,
why not do something meaningful with that instead?

A.  Good  question,  I  got the Archimedes and Risc PC out of curiosity. The
RiscOS  platform was another area which had interested me historically,  but
was  also  out of reach through high pricing.  The rapid decline  in  RiscOS
fortunes  led  to  a  fire sale situation,  and me being a  late  but  cheap
adopter.  This  was fine for while,  but the decline of the RiscOS scene was
even more dramatic and deeper than the slow fall for the Atari scene. It has
got  to  the stage that yes,  there is still an active RiscOS community  out
there,  but it would need a serious cash commitment to keep up with it, even
more so than investing in Apple kit.

It  looks  like the 'serious' power users have taken  over  completely,  and
crushed  the  life out of everything else going!  It seems that  Acorn  demo
scene activity, and computer entertainment in general, can only be spoken of
in  a  past tense?  I don't think that RiscOS is going anywhere  interesting

This leaves Linux as well? Well Linux would have been a good choice, and may
still  be one day,  but we're up against the fact that all new PeeCee's  are
still sold with Windows built in.  Damn vendor lock-in!  Yes, you can have a
dual-boot system,  but you are starting off in the grip of Microsoft, not to
mention  that  a proportion of the cost of your new PeeCee will be  for  the
unwanted  Windows,  and  you are paying extra for the Linux.  Maybe one day,
retailers  will  offer Linux as a genuine choice for  the  in-box  operating
system at point of purchase, but I won't hold my breath!

So for now, we're back with Apple..


To  say  that  the Mac Mini has made Apple a hot topic  of  conversation  is
correct.  Unfortunately,  much of this chat has little merit or sense,  with
the split along ancient tribal lines re-emerging. It really is a case of too
much heat and too little light on both sides.

It  is worth a page or so of text to consider some of the things  that  have
been said about the Mini Mac, and Apple in general.

"Steve Jobs is sucking people in with the Mini,  to get them used to Macs so
he can hit them with a big upgrade later!"

I saw this on one of the many forums that sprung up in the aftermath of  the
Mini's  launch.  This  comment  amused me,  as it was describing  the  basic
function  of  free market capitalism,  like every computer manufacturer  has
followed since the dawn of time. Maybe he was comparing Steve Jobs to a drug
dealer? The terms "Addict" and "fix" have been used when describing Mac fans
from the Wintel viewpoint before.

On  the  other hand,  should Steve Jobs be restrained from carrying out  his
"naughty"  form  of capitalism?  We should be following the good example  of
Saint Bill Gates, who is so concerned with the increasing spiral of computer
addiction,  that  he  makes Windows as a form of aversion  therapy,  leading
people  to kick their screens over in disgust and take up healthy  pursuits,
like basket weaving and country dancing!

"The Mini is not very expandable.."

1. The same goes for anything in the notebook or laptop class.

2.  Anecdotal information from other Mac owners suggests that their machines
generally  last  better,  and have a lower 'churn' rate than the  equivalent
wintel systems.

3. Expandability as a virtue is overstated for most people. The typical end-
user  will  buy  a system from new,  and happily flog it for  years  in  its
original configuration, only replacing it when something physically dies, or
they finally outgrow it.  If you were to try to 'expand' at that stage,  you
would  be  throwing out so much obsolete stuff,  you will  have  effectively
gutted  that  machine,  then  why  not get rid of that tatty  old  case  for
something  new  as well?!  Expandability is only really relevant if you  are
doing  it constantly as a dedicated modder.  You will also have a house full
of discarded bits of old PeeCee. You will also be the sort of person who has
to  do it for all their friends too,  and thus have no time for yourself ;-)
(Hi Shiuming!)

"It's a cunning way of re-using old technology.."

That  is  a fair point,  and probably the best argument against it.  On  the
other hand,  if you are working to a budget, your options tend to be limited
in  general,  unless  you  build it yourself,  and know where to get  decent
quality  bits for the right price.  This suggests a level of experience  not
normally available to the average user.

"Nyaaah! Apple Sucks! The Mini is lame because it isn't a PC!"

I shouldn't really dignify that one with a response,  but then again, we all
like a good punch up!  F-I-I-I-I-G-H-T !

There was one television reviewer who clearly had that opinion as his hidden
agenda. This was on the UK terrestrial Channel 5, on a programme called "The
Gadget Show".  In deciding that the Mac Mini was too expensive,  he added on
an  extra 300ukp for Microsoft Office software,  that he mysteriously failed
to  mention when it came to the 500ukp Dell box.  Of course,  loading up the
Mini  with  all the most expensive options to make it look  bad  would  come
easily  from  there.  It is wankers like that,  which make me come out  more
strongly in favour of the thing they are slagging!

The whole tribalism thing is hard to get my head around.  It recalls the old
ST  versus Amiga feud.  I get the impression that although Wintel people are
the vast majority,  they are afraid of the Mac in some way? They complain of
a  "Steve Jobs reality distortion field",  and a "cult of Macintosh",  as if
Wintel  users  are  abducted in an alien fashion,  never to be  seen  again?
Surely  if we're all grown up about it,  it is possible to mix and match the
two amicably?!

On  the  other side I have been previously put off by the image  that  Apple
carved  for  itself,  as  an exclusive club for smug rich  American  pseudo-
rebels.  There  is a real possibility that the Mac Mini will widen the  user
demographic. This is certainly an experiment worth trying.(With apologies to
all the Mac owners out there who aren't stereotypes!)

"It's not really that cheap, is it?"

The  Mac  Mini  is a bit of a chameleon really.  It can be as  cheap  or  as
expensive  as you want to make it.  A reasonably cheap option,  assuming you
are starting from scratch, would go something like this.

Mac Mini base unit, 1.25ghz, no add-ons - 339 ukp
'PC-Line' keyboard, from PlasticWorld   - 9.99 ukp
Cheapo but reasonable mouse, ditto      - 9.99 ukp
El generico 15 inch LCD flatscreen      - approx 150 ukp

Which  makes a grand total of 508.98 ukp,  which is in the right price  band
for what is considered to be an entry level system. There is scope to save a
little  bit  even here,  if you get a good pricing deal on the  monitor  and
shave a bit off the mouse. Alternatively, add another 20 ukp if you want the
stylish  Apple keyboard and mouse combo,  which I think most people will  go

You can also get this below the 400 ukp mark,  if you have a screen already.
Even  a  screen already in use can be taught to share nicely,  by  adding  a
multi-input switcher box from Maplin Electronics,  or their Euro-equivalent.
Those aren't really too expensive.

Or you can make it expensive,  by ordering the 1.42ghz model,  maxing out on
the hard drive and 1GB ram,  putting in Bluetooth and Wireless,  and topping
it  off  with a mondo 26 inch screen.  The Apple store are always  happy  to
accomodate your needs :-)

So  I'm going to get one,  I made the phone call to Apple Store UK today,  I
did, and my new Mac Mini is on the way!


In the second and final part of this series,  I'll have spent some time with
this new machine, and I'll give you the lowdown on how it all works.

Steve Jobs reality distortion field, or reality? We will see!

CiH, for Alive Mag,April '05.

Alive 10