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

I chose the basic configuration of the Mac Mini…

The Dell was the Studio Hybrid…

The HP was the Pavilion Slimline s3500z…

…and the Shuttle was the XPC X200H.

Let’s walk our way through the major specs, as well as some minor ones:

CPU
The Mini has a 1.83-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with a 667-MHz bus–in theory, a mobile CPU, even though the Mini is a desktop computer. The Shuttle has a 1.73-GHz mobile Core 2 Duo with a 533-MHz bus. The Dell has a lesser Intel mobile chip–a dual-core Pentium with a higher clockspeed (1.86-GHz) and slower bus (533-MHz). And the HP is the first computer I’ve covered in any of these comparisons with an AMD chip, and the only one here with a desktop CPU–a 2.33-GHz dual-core Athlon 64 X2 with, I think, a 1000-MHz bus. I haven’t seen any benchmarks comparing the Mini’s Core 2 Duo against the HP’s Athlon 64 X2, but I’m going to give a provisional ADVANTAGE to the Mini.

RAM
In their basic incarnations, all of these machines scrimp on RAM with just 1GB. I made an executive decision to upgrade everyone to 2GB, in part because it’s a much more reasonable configuration, and in part because the HP’s basic configuration comes with Vista Home Premium and 1GB of RAM while Dell refuses to sell you Home Premium on a 1GB machine, making comparisons tricky. The Mini and Shuttle can only be upgraded to 2GB, while the other machines can go to 4GB, so even though I’m comparing 2GB machines all around I’m giving the ADVANTAGE to the Dell and HP.

Hard Drive
The Mini gives you a spartan 5400rpm 80GB drive, the Shuttle has a 7200rpm 80GB one. The Dell has a 5400rpm 160GB model. and HP trumps everyone else with a 7200rpm 250GB one. ADVANTAGE: HP

DVD Burner
Well, actually, the Mini doesn’t have one–it’s among the last computers you’ll find with a combo drive that plays DVDs but only burns CDs. The Dell and Shuttle have 8X burners; the HP has a 16X one with LightScribe label etching. (Side note: The Dell and HP can be ordered with Blu-Ray drives, but the Mini and the Shuttle can’t.) ADVANTAGE: HP

Graphics
The Mini and Shuttle both have Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics. The Dell has Intel’s superior X3100 integrated graphics, and the HP has NVidia’s GeForce 6150 SE integrated graphics. I’m not an expert on how the Intel and NVidia technologies compare, but the X3100 seems to be tops here, giving the Dell the ADVANTAGE.

Display
For the record, I priced all of these machines without a monitor. PARITY

Wi-Fi
The Mini has 802.11g standard, so I configured the HP with 802.11g. The Dell doesn’t come standard with Wi-Fi at all, so I added it–and it’s 80211n, beating the Mini and HP’s g. I don’t see Wi-Fi as an option for the Shuttle at all. ADVANTAGE: DELL

Ethernet
The Mini and Dell have Gigabit Ethernet; the HP and Shuttle make do with 10/100 Ethernet. ADVANTAGE: MINI AND DELL

Bluetooth
The Mini has it; Bluetooth is not very common in PC desktops at any price, and isn’t present in any of the ones here. ADVANTAGE: MINI

Modem
None of these systems seem to come with one. PARITY!

USB
The Mini has four USB ports; the Dell and Shuttle have five of ’em; the HP has six. ADVANTAGE: HP

FireWire
Everybody has one FireWire-400 port except the Shuttle. ADVANTAGE: MINI, DELL, AND HP

Expansion Slots
Slots? Subcompact computers usually don’t have ’em, but the HP, which is less tiny than the other systems here, has a PCI Express slot. ADVANTAGE: HP

Video Out
The Mini and HP do DVI and VGA. The Dell does DVI and HDMI. The Shuttle appears to do only VGA standard, so I added a DVI adapter. HDMI support in a fairly low-cost PC is cool, so ADVANTAGE: DELL

Sound
The Mini, Dell, and HP are all 5.1 sound system capable; the Shuttle can do 7.1. The Mini has optical in and out. I’m going to give ADVANTAGE to both the Mini and the Shuttle.

Memory Card Reader
Apple doesn’t do memory-card slots; I’m still glum about that fact. The Shuttle has a 4-in-1 reader and the Dell has an 8-in-1 model, but I’ll give the HP, with its 15-in-1 reader, the ADVANTAGE

Keyboard and Mouse
Only Steve Jobs could turn a computer not coming with a keyboard or mouse into part of the marketing story, as he did when the Mac Mini was introduced back in 2005:

The Shuttle takes Apple’s lead and doesn’t come standard with a keyboard or mouse; the Dell and HP, like the vast majority of the PCs in the world, do. ADVANTAGE: DELL AND HP

Remote
The Mini comes with an Apple Remote; I don’t think any of its rivals include a remote control standard. ADVANTAGE: MINI

Bundled Media Software
The Mini, like all Macs, comes with iLife ’08. I tried to give the Dell and HP at least vaguely comparable tools by adding Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements to the Dell and Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 and MediaOne to the HP. I don’t see any media software available for the Shuttle, either standard or as an option. When all is said and done, iLife is still the best media bundle here. ADVANTAGE: MINI

Bundled Productivity Software
The iMac doesn’t include iWork, and the Shuttle doesn’t come with anything. The other two come with Microsoft Works 9.0. ADVANTAGE: DELL AND HP

Operating System
I’m still trying to steer clear of making this into a Windows vs. OS X story. The Mini, of course, comes with OS X 10.5 Leopard, and I put Windows Home Premium on the others. At the risk of repeating myself, OS X is the single best reason to buy a Mac by far, but for the purposes of this comparison, the four computers are at PARITY

Warranty
Everyone comes with a one-year warranty; Apple excels in third-party surveys, so I’m giving it the ADVANTAGE

Compactness
All of these computers use smaller-than-usual size as a selling point. The Mini’s normal orientation is horizontal, which eats up more desk space, but Apple says you can use it in a vertical position, too. The Dell and HP are designed with a space-efficient upright form factor; the Shuttle seems to treat horizontal and vertical orientations interchangeably. The Mini is 165mm by 165mm by 50mm; the Dell is 197mm¬† by 211mm by 72mm; the Shuttle is 210mm by 296mm by 50mm. And the HP is much bigger than everybody else at 353mm x 276mm by 107mm. Use a Mini in upright position, and it gets the ADVANTAGE here.

Aesthetics
I’m not going to factor this in, but all these guys make some attempt to be something other than a generic box–the Dell offers six color choices and a $130 bamboo option, for pete’s sake. I could see any given buyer having a preference for any of the four, since they’re all quite different.

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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 Macsurfer.com 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.

    Thanks,

    David

  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:

    http://transintl.com/store/category.cfm?Category=2720&CFID=1065547&CFTOKEN=21002369&RequestTimeOut=500

    Enjoy.

  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 newegg.com 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.

    Woops.

    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

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

    OR

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

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