Mac mini: Steve Jobs gets his Cube Back

by Chuck Toporek

With Steve Jobs' announcement of the Mac mini at Macworld San Francisco, the first thought that came to mind is: "Steve's got his Cube back."

Now your first reaction to that might be, "Huh?", but when you think back to the G4 Cube, it was basically the same thing you're seeing in the Mac mini, just with a better processor, bigger hard drive, upgraded components, and different packaging. Oh, and one helluva killer price!

There's no denying that the Mac mini is revolutionary. Apple has proven once again that they can be innovative as hell, and the Mac mini is a (small) shining example of things done right. And sure, while I don't have one (yet, obviously, since they won't start shipping until January 22nd), you can bet it's on my list of many things to get -- ASAP.

While many people are looking at the Mac mini as a low-cost entry point to win over all those Windows folks who've purchased an iPod and have been noodling about getting a Mac, I see many more uses for it, one of which being something I'm guessing not many people outside of Apple have thought about (but I'll get back to that in a bit).

The first, and most obvious use, for the Mac mini is as a component in a home theatre system. Since you can add an AirPort card and Bluetooth to the mini, you can stream iTunes to the Mac mini and pipe that through to your stereo system. And since you can add AirPort, you might as well use the Mac mini to share its Internet connection. And since the mini has a built-in DVD player with the Combo and SuperDrive, you can use that to play DVDs on your television. Lots of good stuff here.

Another use I have for the Mac mini is as a small, lightweight server. These things are incredibly quiet (just like the G4 Cube of yore), so if you need small-ish server for tossing up your blog or to act as a file sever between a couple Macs in your home office, here's your baby. And the best thing is, if you know a bit of Unix, you can run the Mac mini as a headless server and just SSH into and administer the mini.

Oh, and one more thing...clusters and grids.

Yep, you heard it here. And while using the Mac mini as a cluster might sound far-fetched, think about it. While they don't have a G5 processor, the minimum 1.25 GHz G4 is nothing to sneeze at, especially with a cost of $499. Buy another one, and you've got -- essentially -- a dual-processor system for less than $1000 if you tie them together with Xgrid. And because the Mac mini's are so small (6.5 inches wide and 2 inches tall), you can pack a lot of these puppies in a room and build a cluster that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. (Think of the possibilities for an inexpensive graphics rendering farm based on a bunch of Mac mini's. Would be mighty cool to see, wouldn't it?)

And yes, I can see where the Mac mini might be an attractive answer to all those Windows users who've toyed with the idea of switching to the Mac, but have been riding the fence because they don't want to toss away all their PC gear and then spend a bunch of money on all new Mac gear. Now you can buy the Mac mini and use your existing PC monitor, keyboard, and mouse along with it and essentially have the Mac you've been wanting. I'm not sure if there's a KVM switch that allows you to share monitors, keyboards and mice between two PCs. If so, I can see where these will be hot items, since you could essentially switch between your Mac mini and Windows PC with a flip of a (KVM) switch.

For me, the Mac mini is more about possibilities than it is about Apple gaining market sure (which I'm sure they will). Slap me if I'm being silly, but Apple's really hit one out of the park with the Mac mini, and it hasn't even reached the shelves yet. And while the masses may not have embraced the G4 Cube years ago, the Mac mini is going to have a significant, positive impact on Apple's bottom line.

What're your thoughts about the Mac mini? Are you planning to buy one? If so, which model, and how do you plan on using it?


2005-01-12 00:30:48
A/V component?
When I saw the mini Me, (oops) mini-Mac, I thought the same thing: This would be a great computer for the entertainment center. But the only output is a mini-headphone jack, not a great way to play your DVDs or even your MP3s. It would be great if it had digital optical output that even the $70 DVD players have.

It has a great form factor for a personal video player, but for that it needs a tuner (or two), a few video inputs and a bigger hard disk. Perhaps some VAR can mod the box? That would be great way for Apple to get back in front of more people. God knows there are no PC based media players you'd want to put in your living room.

2005-01-12 00:42:13
What about as replacements?
I'm sure Apple hasn't written off the enterprise market. This also gives them an in to compete with the likes of Dell, etc. in the corporate market. There's no price/performance/size comparison to be made against Dell desktops for office workers.

The most interesting thing I heard all day was from my boss who suggested we buy a bunch of these and replace windows desktops with them. I work for a 25,000 person company. This might be an interesting consequence of releasing such a machine!

2005-01-12 00:45:40
re: A/V component?
True, but there are a couple solutions to the problem you've pointed out. The Mac mini has DVI out, so you can purchase a DVI to S-Video adapter from the Apple Store for $19, and the Monster iCable for iPod Stereo ($29.95) to connect the Mac mini's headphone jack to your TV or stereo's audio-in jacks.

I'm sure Monster will come along with a combo cable just for the Mac mini that has the DVI to S-video and audio connectors as an all-in-one. Price it at $39.95, and I'm sure they'd sell a TON of them.

2005-01-12 00:48:50
re: What about as replacements?
Oh, I totally agree with you. I've thought that all day long, too. Here at O'Reilly, we have a bunch of aging PCs, all with monitors, keyboards, and mice. I'd love to see us replace all those Windows PCs with Mac mini's. Whether that happens or not isn't for me to decide, but it sure would be cool if we did.

Just think of all the old PC gear that Apple just saved from going to the trash heap.

2005-01-12 03:54:38
Many different views
Chuck says:
There's no denying that the Mac mini is revolutionary. Apple has proven once again that they can be innovative as hell, and the Mac mini is a (small) shining example of things done right.

Bill Palmer says:
This Mini Mac, or whatever they're calling it, isn't just stupid. it's groundbreakingly stupid. And it's far worse than anything we read about in the rumors. It's far worse than I ever could have imagined.

Let the wars begin! LOL!

2005-01-12 04:00:49
A/V component?
I had similar thoughts when I saw the Mac mini specs. I've been pondering building a HTCP with Media Center 2005 to put in the living room, because currently the Mac alternatives would be too expensive, but the Mac mini would be a wonderful option. If it had a TV-tuner built-in, and S-video/composite connections, it would be (for me) almost perfect :-) I know I can add those things with external boxes, but that's not as elegant, you know :-)

But overall, I think they've done a wonderful thing with the Mac mini, and I am sure it will sell a lot.

2005-01-12 04:04:52
What about as replacements?
Not just replacing PCs. Macs have long had a longer lifespan than their PC counterparts. There are still lots and lots of Mac folks out there who run OS X on Beige G3 machines that are more than four and five years old (using processor upgrade cards). The new Mac Mini is comparable to the cost of a respectable processor upgrade. Now the old beige towers will stay what they are (as fileservers and backup machines on the network), but the sale of new devices to the longstanding Mac faithful is going to be the initial burst of Mini buyers. This is finally going to use the distinction between userbase and marketshare for Apple's benefit. They simply won't be able to make enough of them.
2005-01-12 05:28:07
A/V component?
"it would be great if it had digital optical output..."

yeah, but it's is NOT a problem: I'm just using the m-audio Transit ( ) with my PowerBook and the logitech Z5500 it just works GREAT.
That's what I'll use it with my Mac mini.... ;-)

2005-01-12 05:58:15
Possible use-cases
Two upgrade cases I can think of:

* Windows users who want in on a cheep Mac. They've already got a monitor, and can either get a new USB keyboard and mouse or use a PS/2 to USB converter (this is assuming they're upgrading a pretty old PC, which is typical in the home case).

* Has anyone wondered about using Mac mini as a server? I have a Performa 6400 running as a Debian sever and it's loud and slow. Plus, not everything in deb'spowerpc architecture runs on 68K. Come to think of it, does anyone know if Mac mini has a fan?

Speaking as a Cube owner, one huge difference between it and the Mac mini is that the Cube was wildly over-priced at launch. Equivalent towers were much cheaper, so the Cube was only justifiable if you could put a dollar amount on your need for quiet or space.


2005-01-12 06:01:08
Regarding KVM, it looks like Apple's on the case:


"Perfect for Programmers

Set a space-saving Mac mini atop your workstation PC and add a KVM switch to share keyboard, monitor and mouse. Mac OS X includes free developer tools for Mac, UNIX and Java. Test out a Mac version of your latest creation, instantly. Pretty soon you’ll be using the Mac full-time, with that PC relegated to the testbed."

2005-01-12 07:15:47
Oh Yeah
In case anyone still has doubts about the Mac mini driving users of other OSes to Macintosh, I just have to say that I'm a Linux user who will be doing so.

Some people may consider it a step down, but I don't really need a "do-it-yourself" OS when Mac OS X is UNIX-based. And just think, if Linux users are willing to switch, how many Windows users are going to drop their filthy machines as well?

2005-01-12 08:50:14
re: Re: KVM
Thanks for posting that; I hadn't caught that. :)
2005-01-12 09:50:24
The other advantage....
When I was seriously considering a 17" or 20" iMac, a friend at Apple pointed out that a lot of what I was paying for was the gorgeous display -- a display which would remain gorgeous long after the iMac's hardware performance no longer thrilled.

What would I do then? Let that display stagnate in a closet because the hardware was a dead end? Keep using the dead-end hardware just for the sake of its display? Neither felt like good long-term thinking.

If only I could separate the pieces of the iMac, slash the price of each individual piece accordingly ($499 is better than I expected), and take the still-worthwhile components with me as I staggered future upgrades....

Separation has its efficiencies.

2005-01-12 10:44:30
The Cube...
The cube I was thinking about when reading this headline was not the G4 cube, but of course the NeXTcube - the most innovative computer of all times, running NeXTstep which was the predecessor of OSX - Steve's brain child of the late 80's. Unfortunately, it has never been widely know in the Mac world how much modern desktop computing, and specifically, OSX owes to Nextstep. It seems that most Mac experts and commenters do not realize where it all came from. NeXTstep was so much ahead of its time ... the time of Windows 3.5 and Sun Openlook, Motiv, CDS and various other sorts of X-Windows crap.
2005-01-12 11:23:38
Beowolfe Cluster of these?
Yeah, I like the idea of using a few of them strung together with XGrid, but how would say 4 of these compare to one dual G5 2.3?
2005-01-12 11:26:02
re: Re: KVM
Steve even used one in the keynote speech when spotlight locked up his G5 and then made a comment about having backup systems. Sounds like a jab at Gates' slideshow crashing at CES.
2005-01-12 13:41:01
re: The Cube...
For the record, I'm well aware of the NeXTcube and how it was (sort of) reincarnated as the G4 Cube (and now the Mac mini).

Like the NeXTcube, the Mac mini is ahead of its time, even if it has a long history back to its origins.

2005-01-12 13:47:58
The Mac mini's $80 discount
While talking with one of my authors/friends, James Duncan Davidson, he reminded me that the Mac mini ships with the new version of iLife '05. If you were going to buy that separately, you'd spend $79 (plus any applicable taxes and shipping), so by buying a Mac mini, you're saving yourself at least $80 if you were planning to also get iLife '05.

Just another random thought.

2005-01-12 15:19:43
Do a google search for "VGA to Component"

Now, they have just standalone cables, as well as "Scan Converter Boxes"

I'm thinking the flat out VGA to Component cables -SHOULD- work, considering two things:
1) ATI sells a DVI-I to Component adapter for some of their Radeons, which is nothing more than one of those cables.
2) You would need to set the timing right using a program such as Switchres X.

But, it seems like you could go direct from the Mac mini through VGA to the component outputs on your HDTV in 1080i this way.

M-Audio makes a cheap USB to Optical box IIRC. So, that takes care of surround sound.

Now, the only thing left is to bring HDTV -IN- to the Mac itself... Does anyone know of affordable solutions to do this?

If you could get an HDTV signal into the Mac, someone could write a software TV-Timeshifting application. Also, think about the possibilities here. Wouldn't it be cool if all your video went through your Mac then to the TV? Think about all the cool transparent overlays you could do! If you have a Mac with Obolab Phlink setup on your network and the phone rings, the Mac could turn down the volume on your TV and display the number of the caller in a transparent window over whatever you're watching! Heck, take that one step further and have it pause live TV or whatever movie you're watching...
You could have it notify you when you get new email... Stock changes... Think of the possibilities!!


2005-01-12 15:48:20
Many different views
It'll be very interesting to see what Mr. Palmer says if the Mac mini does indeed succeed, as he's made a strongly worded and highly confident prediction of the Mac mini's failure in the marketplace.

Then again, I'm a bit biased - I'm going to be getting me one of these babies. It's a big upgrade to my G4 iMac at about 1/3 the cost of an iMac G5, and thanks to a KVM switch, I won't need to move desks when switching between Mac and Windows development anymore. As the macmini page says "Perfect for Programmers". ;-)

2005-01-13 02:35:00
Many different views
groundbreakingly stupid is revolutionary, especially if Apple survives the experiment ;)
2005-01-13 02:40:10
What about as replacements?
and you're also going to spend the money to replace every last bit of software your company uses with Mac software?

The $500 a piece is just the start, there's another several hundred (and for Macs likely several thousand especially if it's custom work) software to buy as well.

That suddenly makes that $700 P4 at 2.8GHz seem like a far better option than the (including software) $1500 minimac at 1.2GHz...

It's a cool looking bit of kit and I might get one just to have a Mac (once had a very old Mac classic I picked up in a dumpster, always considered them a bad investment because of the cost) which could find use in image processing.
But I've no illusions about it suddenly destroying the market for lowend PCs just because it looks cool...

2005-01-13 08:17:12
Cost of moving from Windows
In some companies this isn't always as great as it might seem. Software cross-grades are possible (with a PC license simply swapped for a Mac one), and large site licenses for Office (as in my institution) cover Mac & Windows versions. Many internal systems are web-based, and custom Java apps are commonplace. There are always a few bits that don't play nice, but then on the plus you get all the great Mac & Unix apps too. The argument for Linux isn't always as easy, with many major apps unavailable (yeah I know it has better stuff than Windows, but try convincing my bosses of that..)
2005-01-13 08:22:20
Thinking too small
Yes, media center/pvr would be nice, but something that many people aren't aware of is that the MacMini has a modem in it that gives it the potential for being a PBX/VoIP center too! There is an individual who is currently writing a driver to allow the Mac Mini's modem (and other similarly modem-outfitted macs) to work with Asterisk PBX. Benjamin Kowarsch is leading an effort to provide an up-to-date OS X Asterisk with nice GUI tools. The effort is early on, but in the future you could be hundreds of miles away from home, yet answer your home phone through your Mac Mini. The Mac Mini would be ideal for small, branch offices too as it could act as workgroup server, PBX, and your Voice/Video conferencing machine (using Tiger's iChat). This is one promising little machine.

You can check out the OS X Asterisk project at

2005-01-13 12:43:38
One gotcha
Don't know how much this matters to the mini's target audience, but according to its specs, it has an ATI Radeon 9200 graphics card with 32 MB... not powerful enough to support Core Image / Core Video in Tiger. I know Apple moves quickly to obsolete old hardware, but jeez, it would suck to have have a box for 3-6 months before there's an OS update with features you can't use.

--Chris (invalidname)

2005-01-13 15:10:07
elgato for mac mini
video input -> from hdtv to sdtv, elgato has the firewire hardware to make the mm a cool DVR. eyeTV!eyeHome
video output-> gefen and other manufactures have the gear to get video to an HDTV TV or SDTV TV...

i don't see any problem making the mm a cool coachp. item

for my part i will pickup a mm for my media server needs, and still be able to use it as a server for my internet needs:-)

my 2.4 cents with interest

2005-01-14 11:49:05
2 for me, please
I already have a 12-inch Powerbook 1.33GHz and an 800MHz Powermac. If it's not for the Mini Mac I'd never dream of buying another Mac - let alone two - this year. But I will: one will replace the Powermac, the other will replace my DVD player. And maybe one for my brother who's doing design in college right now.

I'm also going to persuade more of my friends to go for the Mac Mini (some are already saving up for one!)... Reason being that I've just read Mr Palmer's arrogant little rant, and I'd sure love to see him whimper a little.
2005-01-15 02:33:49
Beowolfe Cluster of these?
The performance would entirely depend on what you used it for. If your usage is processor bound, and can stay within the max 1GB limit, or the 256MB limit, then it might be faster. However if you are disk bound, i think it would be slower. Then there is the question about how distributed your usage is. How interconnected are your usage?
Suppose you wanted to encode 349874623 .wav files to mp3, then 4 mac mini's would probably be faster. But if you had 1 wav file 387458945 seconds long, a G5 would be faster.
2005-01-15 02:35:22
mac mini has a small fan
on the "Design" page Apple writes that mac mini has a fan. Your server performance would depend on the usage you had.
2005-01-15 10:54:58
OS X Server?
Would there be any trouble running OS X Server on a mini?
2005-01-17 15:48:15
Mac Mini
I'd get one, because it looks nice and can be tucked away innocently in the corner of the room, without looking like some horrible mess of technology. But I'd have to do something about the operating system. Linux most likely. Mini's are not groundbreaking, but perhaps it is intruiging when a good quality one comes along, others do exist already.

Of course, its hard to go wrong, when all you have is 2 colours, a button, a slot drive and a logo. ;) I suspect in a few weeks time, the hype will wear off and people will reognize it as a nicely designed and compact mac of modest specs. But I think Apple is (mostly) aiming for the market of iPod users, who wouldnt mind matching electronics to their iPod.

(One general complaint. Why did they have to put the audio connector in the back? Lots of people like using headphones...)