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KELLNER: Apple’s Mac mini a good, basic box

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Steve Ballmer, erstwhile CEO of Microsoft, dropped a little rain on Apple's parade a few days ago.

Speaking at McGraw-Hill's Media Summit in New York City, Mr. Ballmer opined that Apple was charging an excessive premium for its notebooks. "Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment - same piece of hardware - paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that's a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be," i Computerworld's Seth Weintraub quoted Mr. Ballmer as saying.

Comes now the latest revision of Apple's Mac mini, starting at $599, to partly challenge that notion. The miniis a bare-bones desktop computer, a small half-cube, which encourages users to bring their own keyboard, monitor and mouse. Apple will sell each of those items, if you desire, but the idea is to get "switchers" to shuffle the PC off to recycling and replace it with Apple's hardware and the Mac operating system, or OS.

And it's the OS where both Microsoft and Apple are focused, make no mistake. If the Jesuit's claim is true: "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man," then there's probably a tech corollary. Give someone enough time with an operating system, and he is a customer for life. Or at least that's the hope.

The Mini is an Intel-based hardware box that runs the Mac OS X, and does so quite nicely. It's compact, it's compatible with all sorts of displays, and it plays well with assorted printers and peripherals. It's a good, basic computer, and I can recommend it highly in this regard, both for home users and even in some business applications.

Setup is a breeze: Take the unit out of the box, plug in the external power pack, connect the monitor using a supplied adapter, connect the keyboard and mouse, press the power switch and go.

The operating system setup is very quick and easy, and I found it a breeze to transfer data and settings from another Mac to use here. Within a very short period of time, I was ready to go and worked as seamlessly on the Mac mini as I did on my regular notebook.

The computer now ships with 2 gigabytes of RAM as standard, and that's a very good thing. Also standard is a "SuperDrive" optical drive capable of reading and writing DVD discs as well as CDs, and that's another plus. The DVD media lets you store more data on a single disc, making it good for backing up, say, a digital music library or a small photo gallery.

My test unit came with a 320 GB hard disc drive, more than double the 120 GB of the base model. That ups the price to $799, and might be worth it for those who do a lot of work in design or photos or even (short) film editing and want the extra storage. For some users, the 120 GBmodel should be fine. I do wish the premium for the larger-storage version were a bit less, however.

In operation, the mini is exceptionally quiet, since keeping the power pack separate eliminates the need for a noisy fan. Its performance is fast, both from the dual-core Intel processor and Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics, which have been amped up for this version. Power consumption has been reduced: Apple claims the mini uses 45 percent less electricity than the previous model, making it a very green computer.

My only performance hiccup was in terms of networking: The mini didn't like my office's Ethernet network cable. It would "talk," via Ethernet, from its port to my MacBook Pro, but not over the wired local-area network. Fortunately, we also have a Wi-Fi network here, and the mini had no problems communicating that way. I even had wireless access to network storage drives and files.

If you don't have to tote your computer around, and want to save a fair amount of cash, the Mac mini is a good way to start. Mr. Ballmer might not like it, but you'll get an OS, and a computer, that won't give you some of the pains Windows has presented over the years.

• E-mail Mark Kellner

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