The Mac Mini remains unique as the smallest mainstream desktop, but competition from Dell and HP has narrowed the competition. If your goal is saving space or running two operating systems on a single desktop, the Mac Mini is a contender. If you'd rather get the best deal, there are better options.
Editor's note: While this is not a hands-on review of this specific model, we did review the higher-end 2.0GHz Mac Mini. This write-up of the 1.83GHz model is based on our experience with the more expensive one, which shares many of the same characteristics.
At $599, the 1.83GHz Intel Core 2 Duo-based Apple Mac Mini is the least expensive Apple computer you can buy today. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Windows system this stylish and this small. If you're truly unconcerned with performance and instead aspire toward simply an attractive, untethered workspace, the baseline Mac Mini will deliver. For $599, however, you can find much faster, smaller Windows desktops. The Mac Mini includes wireless-networking features that you won't find in more expensive Windows desktops, but aside from that and looking pretty, there's not much this system can do that a Windows PC of the same price can't do better.
With a 1.83GHz CPU, only 1GB of RAM, and a paltry 80GB hard drive, you should limit your performance expectations for the low-end Mac Mini. Compared with our benchmark tests of the 2.0GHz unit, you can expect that the 1.83GHz Mac Mini will lag on everything by a small but likely noticeable amount. Perhaps the lackluster performance is no surprise given the lower-end specs, but we should add that even the performance of a $799 2.0GHz Mac Mini disappointed us compared with the speed of a $500 eMachines system. At $599, the 1.83GHz Mac Mini narrows that price gap, but it's at the cost of a likely even slower performance.
If you work with digital media, such as photos or video (the tasks for which most people associate with a Mac), you really need 2GB of RAM. Such an upgrade, however, jacks the Mac Mini's price up another $150, which is disproportionately expensive compared with similar upgrades in Windows-based systems.
Another downside to the 1.83GHz Mac Mini is that it only comes with a DVD/CD-RW combo drive and an 80GB hard drive. The higher-end model gets you a full-fledged DVD burner and 120GB of storage. This brings us to a major criticism of the Mac Mini product family in general. In either model, Apple limits you to only 160GB of hard drive space at most, via a 5,400rpm laptop hard drive. Compared with the larger, faster hard drives in budget Windows PCs and the iMac, the Mac Minis look weak in comparison.
If you are not married to the Mac OS, you can find better values with the Windows Vista-based Dell Inspiron 531s or HP Slimline s3200 series--both of which you can configure with more memory and larger hard drives for roughly the same price as the $599 Mac Mini. Neither the Dell nor the HP systems come standard with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as the Mac Mini does, but those features are available as relatively inexpensive upgrades or after-market add-on options.
We don't typically expect low-end systems to offer much in the way of 3D-gaming power because of the slow integrated graphics chips common to this price range. Both the Dell and the HP systems offer minor graphics upgrade paths, but the Mac Mini gives you no alternative because of its closed case and notebook chipset. Perhaps it's not a surprise that we don't find the Mac Mini suited to gaming, but this also illustrates another of its disadvantages. Because of the closed case, upgrading the Mac Mini with after-market hardware upgrades isn't a practical option. Those comparable Windows PCs also have limited upgrade paths because of their size and other factors, but they at least give you some room to tinker.
On the other hand, many people might take away points simply because those competing systems use Windows. We also find the Mac OS and bundled Apple iLife '08 digital-media productivity suite as easy to use as they are practical, and you seldom see such useful, full-featured applications right out of the box on Windows desktops. If you're shopping for your first PC or are just fed up with Windows, the software factor could be a major draw. You should also keep in mind that the next iteration of the Mac OS, Leopard, is due out by the end of October, and is expected to up the ante even further in functionality and ease-of-use.
Of course, the Mac Mini, like all modern Macs, also offers operating-system flexibility in that it can support both the Mac OS and Windows on the same system through various means. Having a computer that can run both the Mac and Windows OSes might more than make up for the extra money you'd pay for a Mac over a similarly-configured Windows system. But the Mac Mini will be hampered here as well because of its small hard drive, which will limit the number of apps you can install. If having both operating systems on a single system is critical to your needs, you're probably better off considering the higher-end and more expensive Apple iMac.
While the one-year of parts-and-labor support tracks well with what you find with most of Apple's competitors, Apple's meager 90 days of free telephone support is too short. Most competitors provide free phone support for at least one year.