The Mac mini is tiny, beautiful and dirt cheap. And, remarkably, Apple Computer didn't compromise on performance or features in pricing...

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The Mac mini is tiny, beautiful and dirt cheap. And, remarkably, Apple Computer didn’t compromise on performance or features in pricing it at $499 for the starter model with no keyboard, mouse or display.

Apple took hardware components it has incorporated in its laptops for several years and which have become commodity parts. The mini and PowerBooks released before this week were kissing cousins.

But I can work with a PowerBook anywhere; for that privilege, I’ll spend well over $1,000 more for a set of features similar to the mini’s but including an integral LCD display, backlit keyboard (most models), PC Card slot and a trackpad.

To keep its price low, the 6.5-by-6.5-by-2-inch mini avoids peripherals. You can pick and choose how to enhance it. You could add a $50 monitor or a $1,000 LCD panel, or use an existing monitor. It might be a regular home computer or a home-entertainment powerhouse playing DVDs, CDs and MP3s to your high-definition television.

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The mini shines at video, especially compared with similarly priced PCs. It includes a DVI (digital video interface) jack for LCDs and high-end televisions or HDTV sets, but it also comes with a DVI-to-VGA adapter for older LCDs and CRTs. For $19 extra, you can get a DVI-to-S-Video/composite video adapter for analog TVs.

The mini displays up to 1,920 by 1,200 pixels through DVI and 1,920 by 1,080 pixels via VGA.

The mini can be upgraded to add both Bluetooth wireless ($50) for remote keyboards, mice and synchronization, and AirPort Extreme ($79) to hook into Wi-Fi networks.

Together, the two options are $100. This untethers the mini even further.

The Mac mini’s only real limitation is the slow, laptop-style hard drive that runs 25 to 40 percent slower than the baseline for a desktop computer. If you plan to work extensively with iMovie HD or Final Cut Express HD, you’ll want a G5 iMac for its performance and hard-drive speeds.

But the mini is ideal if you don’t spend all your time reading and writing giant files, and the computer includes the full iLife ’05 suite with updates to iPhoto, GarageBand, iMovie and iDVD, as well as AppleWorks and Quicken 2005. (The new $79 iWorks program with Pages and Keynote 2 is sold separately.)

Apple executives bristled in an interview when I compared the mini to the PowerBook, but they shouldn’t worry: There’s a large difference between portable and transportable. But Apple has graduated from “luggable.”

The mini comes in a 1.25 GHz/40 GB hard drive model ($499) and a 1.42 GHz/80 GB model ($599). Both have 256 MB of RAM and a Combo drive that reads DVDs and writes CDs. The $499 mini can be upgraded to 80 GB of storage. It can handle up to 1 GB of RAM. A SuperDrive (DVD/CD writer) is also an option.


Powerfuller Books:

The PowerBook line is now faster in four ways with three unique new features. They’re also cheaper in the their 12-, 15- and 17-inch base configurations, while the backlighting on models with that feature has been boosted to a maximum of tenfold higher illumination.

The new models sport 512 MB RAM and 5,400 rpm hard drives, faster than the 4200 rpm drives in the previous generation and found in the Mac mini and other laptops. The CPUs are faster, too: 1.5 GHz and 1.67 GHz are now standard.

The SuperDrive, included with three of five models, runs at 8x now instead of 4x. And the built-in Bluetooth wireless network has been upgraded to 2.0: It runs as fast as 3 megabits per second instead of 1 Mbps.

Apple is unique in shipping Bluetooth 2.0 so far; Dell has plans for the near future. This new flavor is backward compatible, which is good. Peripherals using 2.0 haven’t shipped yet.

The Sudden Motion Sensor (SMS) is the second unique addition. SMS detects quick changes that indicate a PowerBook is heading to a hard impact. The hard drive retracts its read/write heads, preventing certain kinds of damage that occur when they’re in use. The system resumes without interruption when danger has passed.

It does not yet deploy airbags to cushion impact, but your data will be safer.

Finally, for a three-fer, Apple adds an upgraded trackpad that can translate a two-finger motion into horizontal and vertical scrolling and panning. It’s a hardware change, so older PowerBooks can’t install new software to add this feature.

Models range from $1,499 for a 12-inch PowerBook at 1.5 GHz with a 60 GB drive and a Combo Drive up to $2,699 for the 17-inch behemoth running at 1.67 GHz with a 100 GB drive and a SuperDrive.

Glenn Fleishman and Jeff Carlson write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to Fleishman at gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists