Myth of the $499 Mac Mini

Tonight, during an X-Files re-run, I saw an ad for a $579 computer from Dell. This isn't unusual considering Dell regularly runs television advertising with machines priced between $399 and $699, but it caused me to pause and think about the new budget priced $499 Mac Mini from Apple. As the story goes, Apple released this phenomenally affordable machine that's going to change the adoption curve for Macs and finally increase market share for Apple computers for the first time in ages. Forget about connecting your iPod to that Windows PC, you can connect your music symbiote to a proper host device.

As a point of comparison Dell also offers a $499 machine on their Website, which is usable right out of the box. It comes with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor (a CRT, but still a viewing screen); the Mac Mini comes with no human interface devices.

We could assume that the person most likely to be attracted to a Mac Mini already owns a PC, which would mean they also own a mouse, keyboard, and monitor. That's a big assumption in my book, but for purposes of this illustration I'll run with it. All the pre-built PCs I've encountered recently come with PS/2 mouse and keyboard connections which means they aren't Mac compatible. According to the Apple website, a mouse and keyboard combination cost an additional $58. At this point we're still competitive with the Dell machine at a total price of $557, assuming we've already got a monitor.

It's hard to compare the 1.25GHz G4 processor in the Mac Mini with the 2.8GHz P4 in the Dell, but I'm inclined to guess the Dell is slightly faster despite all the hardware optimization Mac fanatics are sure to claim. Both machines have base memory of 256MB, which is not enough if you plan on participating in the iLife of video editing with iMovie and making music in GarageBand. Upping each machine to the maximum available 1GB results in dramatically different costs. At 1GB of RAM the Dell now has a total price of $656. The Mac Mini, complete with 1GB of RAM, a keyboard, and mouse is now $982.

Both machines offer a 40GB hard drive, which is on the small side for importing home movies or making your own music. An 80GB drive in the Mac Mini bumps the total cost to $1032. Replacing the 40GB drive in the Dell with an 80GB drive increases total cost to $674.

Want to burn your movies to DVD? The price for each machine climbs a little more. The DVD burning SuperDrive in the Mac Mini brings the price to $1132. A dual-layer combination CD/DVD burner in the Dell brings the total price to $737.

In the interest of making a more accurate comparison, I'll replace the base Windows XP Home in the Dell with Windows XP Professional, which includes networking features more on par with Mac OS X, increasing the Dell price to $808. A 3GHz Hyper-threaded P4 could be added for another $18, compared with the $50 price jump from a 1.25GHz G4 to the 1.42GHz G4.

Final Specs for each machine:

Dell Dimension 3000
Processor: 3GHz P4
Hard Drive: 80GB
Optical Drive: Combo CD/DVD Burner
Operating System: Windows XP Pro
Monitor: 17-inch CRT
Keyboard and Mouse
Total Cost: $836.00

Mac Mini
Processor: 1.42GHz G4
Hard Drive: 80GB
Optical Drive: SuperDrive
Operating System: OS X
Monitor: None
Keyboard and Mouse
Total Cost: $1182

I'm sure Mac fans will argue that they still get a better deal for the almost $300 price difference and no monitor. They get the iLife suite with the Mac Mini, what does the Dell buyer get? All versions of Windows XP ship with Windows Movie Maker, which doesn't have an identical feature set as iMovie, but includes most of the features. Photo Story 3 is a free download for making photo slideshows. Picasa 2 is a free photo management app as good as iPhoto (maybe better). iTunes is free for Windows users too, so the only thing missing is a GarageBand replacement. You could purchase several killer audio apps for the difference in price between the two packages.

The bottom line here is Apple finally released an entry level Mac that isn't out of line with pricing available to PC buyers for years. If Apple wasn't overcharging for RAM, the prices wouldn't be quite so spread. A useful Mac (or PC) can't be purchased for $499.