The Blind Men and the Mac mini

By Loyd Case  |  Print this article Print


Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame

Notes from the Lab: Loyd's Mac mini column created a big stir. After reading the messages and other articles on the topic, he realizes that we've all overlooked the big picture.

First, an important note: I like to give credit where credit is due. In last week's column, I noted several compact PCs, but forgot to credit ExtremeTech forum member Chris Flock, who dug up the info on the Logisys PCs. Thanks, Chris!

When I wrote my little opinion piece on the Mac mini, it stirred up quite a storm of email, forum posts and even other articles on the topic. Quite a few ExtremeTech readers pointed me to this MacWorld column. In a comparison between the Mac mini and a less-expensive Dell, it's probably no surprise that a Mac-oriented site would declare the mini the winner. On the other hand, Ed Stroglio over at Overclockers.com wrote a more detailed analysis comparing the Mac mini to a Dell and declared it a wash.

Some readers saw my comparison to x86-based small-form-factor PCs and noted that the majority of these are more expensive, so naturally the Mac mini is better. Other readers agreed with me, in some cases taking pointed slams at Apple. A number of readers made cogent arguments that the Mac mini was indeed the perfect PC "for grandma," noting that cost wasn't necessarily the most important issue for that class of user.

As I read through all this, the gestalt of the matter struck me: We're all missing the bigger picture, just like the blind men and the elephant. In that old parable, each blind wise man touches a part of an elephant and declares that the elephant must be similar to that individual part. The man touching the leg declares that the elephant is like a tree, while the one who touches the trunk notes that the elephant must be like a snake.

Let's talk about my own set of blinders. Having written for years about PC hardware and PC gaming, my inclination is towards building or buying effective PC game platforms. And since I build most of my own systems, I tend to love the sort of vast, chaotic array of choices that exist for the PC.

The key difference between the Mac and the PC is one of choice. With the PC, you get a staggering array of choices, even with the basic system platform. With the Mac, the choices are made for you ahead of time.

It's easy to then start assigning value judgments:


But the situation is really not that simple. If I were buying a system for grandma (or, in the case of our family, my brother-in-law), I'd build one similar to the ExtremeTech $500 web surfing PC that Jason Cross built last year. I'd install Windows XP with Service Pack 2, then FireFox and antivirus software, and that's what I'd pass on to my less technically savvy relative. (In fact, I did just that, and he's happily surfing without a pop-up or worm in sight).

But for those who don't have an ExtremeTech analyst to build a PC for them, a pre-built, preconfigured machine could be just the thing. And for someone with limited space and little time or inclination to learn about their system, the Mac mini might well be a good answer. But then, so would a PC pre-configured with a good Linux distro like Xandros—one example being the sub-$200 Wal-Mart PC.

Stylistically, though, the Wal-Mart PC is indeed bulky and rather unattractive, while the mini wouldn't be out of place in a modern kitchen.

So what's the right answer? As always, "it depends." Most of us here at ExtremeTech are enamored of the rich set of choices. You could even make a case that we make our living giving people a little clarity when faced with the confusing array of choices. But for a normal consumer, those very choices may be simply overwhelming.

It's great to be in an industry that offers both options. The universe of PC users and PC systems is large enough to encompass every user's need—and that sort of choice is good. Viva la difference! Jason Cross puts Nvidia's latest budget GPU offering through our battery of performance tests. He also weighs in on several tabbed browsers. Look for our reviews of six dual-layer DVD burners this week. There's more coming in the near future—new system configurations, nifty small-form-factor PCs, and other great stuff. Check back often!

Loyd Case came to computing by way of physical chemistry. He began modestly on a DEC PDP-11 by learning the intricacies of the TROFF text formatter while working on his master's thesis. After a brief, painful stint as an analytical chemist, he took over a laboratory network at Lockheed in the early 80's and never looked back. His first 'real' computer was an HP 1000 RTE-6/VM system.

In 1988, he figured out that building his own PC was vastly more interesting than buying off-the-shelf systems ad he ditched his aging Compaq portable. The Sony 3.5-inch floppy drive from his first homebrew rig is still running today. Since then, he's done some programming, been a systems engineer for Hewlett-Packard, worked in technical marketing in the workstation biz, and even dabbled in 3-D modeling and Web design during the Web's early years.

Loyd was also bitten by the writing bug at a very early age, and even has dim memories of reading his creative efforts to his third grade class. Later, he wrote for various user group magazines, culminating in a near-career ending incident at his employer when a humor-impaired senior manager took exception at one of his more flippant efforts. In 1994, Loyd took on the task of writing the first roundup of PC graphics cards for Computer Gaming World -- the first ever written specifically for computer gamers. A year later, Mike Weksler, then tech editor at Computer Gaming World, twisted his arm and forced him to start writing CGW's tech column. The gaming world -- and Loyd -- has never quite recovered despite repeated efforts to find a normal job. Now he's busy with the whole fatherhood thing, working hard to turn his two daughters into avid gamers. When he doesn't have his head buried inside a PC, he dabbles in downhill skiing, military history and home theater.

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