Last week's Macworld Conference and Expo may have been larger than previous years, but it focused on smaller gadgets.
Last week’s Macworld Conference and Expo may have been larger than previous years, but it clearly focused on smaller things — specifically, the new Mac mini and iPod shuffle, as well as a ton (or at least several hundred pounds’ worth) of iPod cases and accessories.
As usual, Apple Computer’s offerings garnered the most attention, but a few other products stood out as I walked the aisles with thousands of other Mac fans.
The most talked-about product was Apple’s new Mac mini (www.apple.com/macmini/), a full-featured Macintosh crammed in a box that’s smaller than many external hard drives.
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Measuring 6.5 inches square and 2 inches high, the $500 Mac mini includes a 1.25 GHz PowerPC G4 processor, 256 MB of RAM, a 40 GB hard disk and a Combo optical drive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW). For $100 more, you get a 1.42 GHz processor and 80 GB hard disk.
Both configurations include a standard complement of FireWire, USB 2.0, Ethernet, and video ports, as well as Mac OS X 10.3 Panther and the new iLife ’05.
Although priced well below $1,000, you can easily ratchet up the cost by adding optional AirPort Extreme wireless networking ($80) and internal Bluetooth ($50), or swapping the Combo drive for a DVD-burning SuperDrive ($100).
But if you’re going to spend more money on the Mac mini, buy more RAM. Mac OS X will run fine on 256 MB of memory, but real-world usage (e-mail, Web browsing, word processing, etc.) can gobble that up quickly. At that point Mac OS X starts using hard disk space as virtual memory, but the Mac mini’s hard drive is a slower laptop-sized drive, so don’t expect speedy performance.
You could add more RAM when ordering from Apple, but you’ll pay a premium. Instead, buy a 512 MB or 1 GB memory chip from a reliable third-party vendor.
Normally I’d advise installing the memory yourself, but it’s not easy to access the Mac mini’s innards. According to Apple, and unlike the iMac G5, nothing on the machine is user-installable. Instead, take your cheaper memory and Mac mini and have an Apple service provider perform the installation for a small fee. (If you’d still prefer to do it yourself, installing RAM will not void your warranty.)
The Mac mini notably does not include a keyboard, display, or mouse, so buying those items also increases the overall price. (Apple quietly reduced the costs of its wired mouse and keyboard, which you can get as a pair for $58.) However, Apple is counting on attracting people — particularly of the Windows persuasion, but also existing Mac users who want another computer — who already own a monitor, keyboard and mouse to buy Mac minis.
You’d think a computer the size of a folded hand towel would be the big news, but Apple topped that with the introduction of the minuscule iPod shuffle (www.apple.com/ipodshuffle/), a flash-memory music player weighing less than an ounce.
Although it holds “only” 120 songs (in the $100 512 MB version) or 240 songs ($150 1 GB version), that’s still enough music for casual listening, exercising, or studying. The iPod shuffle gets its name from its lack of a screen: instead of navigating to the songs you want, the device’s main mode is to play your music in random order (you also can switch to Playlist mode to listen in the order you specify within iTunes).
Although the Mac mini and the iPod shuffle are small, they represent some big thinking on Apple’s part. In his keynote address at Macworld, Steve Jobs expressed Apple’s blatant desire to own, not just dominate, the portable music player market.
Given Apple’s marketing muscle and iconic status, the company is in a position to do just that. The shuffle’s thin white slab comes with a lanyard, so expect to see them soon draped around the necks of students and other purveyors of cool.
The Mac mini will be the more interesting product to watch. Despite analysts’ misguided, and continual, calls for Apple to increase its market share, Apple has wisely charted its own course. When your profits are up (the company reported a record $295 million first-quarter profit last week), you have $6.4 billion in the bank and no outstanding debt, market share isn’t a high priority.
And yet, attracting new customers by offering a low-cost, fully capable Mac can only help boost the bottom line; if market share increases, all the better.
On the software front, Apple introduced the $80 iWork ’05 (www.apple.com/iwork/), a combo containing the presentation tool Keynote 2.0 and Pages 1.0, a word processor and desktop-publishing application.
Apple also announced the $80 iLife ’05 (www.apple.com/ilife/), which contains iMovie HD, iDVD 5, iPhoto 5, GarageBand 2.0, and iTunes 4.7. Both iWork ’05 and iLife ’05 are due to be released today.
Looking away from the shiny Apple, a number of smaller vendors at the show offered interesting products.
SecurKey Professional Edition:
A friend working at a Macworld booth reported her PowerBook unfortunately stolen during the show, which made me all the more interested in the SecuriKey Professional Edition by Griffin Technologies (www.securikey.com). The SecuriKey is a small USB key that you insert into your Mac’s USB port when you start up or log in to the computer.
If you remove the device, Mac OS X automatically logs you out. Even if you type your correct password, the key must be present to access your data. If my friend had been using SecuriKey, the thief would have nabbed himself some nice hardware, but her data would still be safe.
Although not yet released, I’m looking forward to the SmartDeck from Griffin Technology (www.griffintechnology.com/products/smartdeck/, no relation to the previous company).
The $25 SmartDeck is a cassette adapter that enables you to listen to an iPod in the car, but does it, well, smartly. Turning off your car’s stereo pauses the iPod, and using the stereo’s controls switches between songs. It’s too difficult to focus on an iPod screen and drive at the same time, so the SmartDeck keeps your attention closer to the road.
Apparently, people are losing track of their stuff. Two applications let you catalog media and other things on your computer without making the process pure drudgery.
Seattle-based Delicious Monster (delicious-monster.com) showed off its $40 Delicious Library software, which stores book, music, movie and game information. You can type the title of an item to look it up (via Amazon.com listings), but a faster method is to use an iSight or digital camcorder to scan the item’s barcode. (Glenn Fleishman wrote about Delicious Library, Practical Mac, Dec. 4.)
What makes Delicious Library stand out, though, is its look: I think people are drawn to its superb graphics that simulate books on wooden shelves, rather than viewing yet another list of data on their computers.
Intelli Innovations (www.intelliscanner.com) offered a similar utility, Media Collector, but its standout was Wine Collector. Using a USB or Bluetooth barcode scanner (also sold by the company), you can scan wine-label barcodes to get data such as the wine’s name, varietal, winery, country and more.
I’m not a wine collector, but I know a few people who would love to keep track of this information. Wine Collector and Media Collector are part of the IntelliScanner Express bundle, which includes a scanner. The USB version sells for $249, while the Bluetooth version goes for $349.
Many of the devices at a show like Macworld offer lots of functionality, but some are nice and simple. The PaperHub, from Pressure Drop (www.pdrop.com) is a FireWire and USB 2.0 hub encased in … a paper tray. The $150 device includes four FireWire 400 ports, four USB 2.0 ports and two paper shelves. It’s the first paper tray I’ve seen that requires a power brick.
Finally, I want to mention Bare Bones Software’s TextWrangler 2.0 (www.barebones.com/products/textwrangler/), a superb text editor that’s not only improved, it’s now free. If you need a word processor that’s more functional than Apple’s TextEdit, but not as full-blown as Microsoft Word, TextWrangler is the application for you at the best price.
Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.