Which Apple is Right for You? 2003-2004 Mac mini, eMac, and iMac G5 Desktops

by Noah Kravitz

The one month old Mac mini has captured the computer-buying nation's attention by bringing Apple's signature good looks and virus-free ease of use to the masses. Or has it? While the low-end mini lists for less than $500, as we all know it lacks a monitor, keyboard, and mouse and isn't really meant to be user upgradable. I'm as guilty of anyone of being enamored by the mini's high style and diminutive size, wondering how I can scrape up five hundred extra bucks and where I might "need" another computer. However, I think it's fair to say that the mini was designed with the seasoned computer user foremost in mind but also with a keen eye towards everyone else who'd quickly get sucked in by its sense of style.

$499 basically gets you an iBook minus the screen and keyboard/trackpad stuffed into a tiny little square. Most people who'll buy one will either already have a keyboard/mouse/monitor setup at home or be so thrilled with mini's looks that they'll ingore the fact that once you add those essential input/output peripherals your total cost will run well over that original $500 (particularly if you shop solely at the Apple store). That being said, the hobbyist, the style maven, the tinkerer interested in home theater/automotive media/cluster computing/ISP-in-a-box applications, the space-conscious school/institution, and lots of other folks will buy minis.

Is the mini for you? If you're buying a Mac to compliment your Windows box and can use your existing monitor/keyboard/mouse, then yes, it's the ideal entree into the greener grass of OS X. $499 plus a RAM upgrade gets you plenty of computer to try out virus-free Internet services, iLife '05, and OS X itself. If you're upgrading from an older Mac system with a still-servicable monitor and don't need all the latest, greatest power of the G5 processor, then yes again. If you need an application-specific second Mac, or can swing a shared monitor/headless setup (for a server, perhaps) -- or remote control your mini from an old Newton, then yes again. The mini has lots of applications.

However, if you're in the market for a brand new computer and want a Mac that will last you awhile, you actually might want to think twice before ordering up that mini. I was expecting the workhorse eMac to be the clear-cut specs winner when put next to the mini, but I was wrong. The eMac sports a faster hard drive, which Glen from Apple History taught me is important (along with RAM) for efficiently juggling multiple applications as people today are wont to do. The mini, on the other hand, offers DVI video-out while the eMac has only a VGA output. However, the rest of the specs on the two machines more or less measure up against one another. Same 1.25 GHz G4, same system bus, same RAM, same graphics card, same Combo Drive... The main difference comes down to price and form/function. The base eMac with it's built-in 17" CRT monitor, stereo speakers, and keyboard/mouse sells for $799. A similarly-equipped mini bought from the Apple Store with a NEC 17" CRT monitor, Apple wired keyboard/mouse kit, and JBL Duet speakers (the lowest-priced of the suggested options that appeared after I added the mini to my shopping cart) comes out to $765.95. In either case you'll want to at least double that stock 256 MB of RAM, but still I was surprised to see that the mini actually came out less expensive than the eMac.

Of course if you want an Apple flat-panel display, the minimum buy-in is $999 for the 20" Cinema Display. A quick surf across the Web, however, reveals that the MacMall family is offering the base-level mini for $494 with a free keyboard/mouse combo after rebate. They also have several 17" LCD panels for $250 or less, one as low as $169 a/r (though I can't vouch for its quality). Point being that if you really wanted it, you could have a mini/flat-panel setup for under $700 -- or one with a decent monitor around the eMac's $799 price point -- once you dealt with those rebates. Remember, though, that you will want more than 256 MB of RAM to run Panther (and Tiger when she comes) and upgrading RAM on a mini is more costly and difficult than doing it on an eMac once they're out of Apple's hands. So add another $75 or so to that initial price for extra memory straight from the factory.

For the budget-minded or entry-level Mac user, the mini really is a nice way to go. However, if you're looking for something that will last you a little longer, look even more stylish, and perform noticeably better, the iMac G5 is what you're looking for. I got one of these babies at work a few months ago, and it changed my daily life right off the bat by giving me back half of my desk space while dramatically improving the quality of the screen I stare at most of the day.

The G5 processor is built for the future, the 17" widescreen is gorgeous (the 20" even moreso), the built-in speakers are surprisingly good, and the machine is suprisingly quiet and easy to access for RAM and other available upgrades. At $1,299 the iMac will run you a good $500 more than a mini/monitor package. However, you're stepping up from what's basically a generation-old laptop to a state of the art prosumer-level machine that can literally be hung on your wall.

There's not much you can do on an iMac G5 that you can't do on a mini right now, but you can do all of it better on the iMac. Processor speed, system bus, graphics subsystem, audio I/O -- it's all better on the iMac, and that difference should only become more apparent as time goes on. So if your budget extends into the $1,300+ range and you value performance, an iMac will make you much happier than a mini. And it's no less cool to look at, believe me -- just cool in a different way.

Refurbs and Closeouts

The mini is too new to qualify for any special deals just yet, but there are refurbished eMacs and iMac G5s to be had at some really nice prices. Mac Prices has seen eMacs for $649 lately, which is really a great way to get into Mac computing or stock a school lab with durable, easy to maintain machines. And at only $1,099, the refurbished iMac G5 is truly a steal in today's marketplace. At that price, unless you've got a nice flat-panel monitor collecting dust at home I'd be hard-pressed to recommend a mini to you over an iMac. Sure, $1,099 is still $300 more than the $799 I came up with for a full-on mini bundle, but that extra $300 will get you a lot of extra juice (including the iMac's widescreen display, which is far nicer than any $250 LCD you're going to find right now). And again, so long as you're getting the full one-year warranty I wouldn't feel nervous about buying a refurbished machine from Apple.

PowerMac G5

PowerMac G5s are now in a pretty different class of machine than the rest of Apple's offerings, much more so than the PM G4's were when they first came out. Back then, the original G4 tower offered a path to digital video and other multimedia content creation not easily found anywhere else in the Mac family. Nowadays, firewire and USB 2.0 are standard on all machines and external hard drives are big, cheap, and fast. Combine that with the iLife '05 suite and you can bascially pick up any Mac laptop or desktop and dive right into digital audio, photo, video, and even DVD creation.

This means that the current G5 towers (and servers) are more specialized machines built to appeal to the power user in search of ultimate performance, flexibility, and expandability. The entry-level tower is a $1,499 box sporting a 1.8 GHz G5 with a 600 MHz front side bus and slots for 4 gigs of RAM. Five hundred dollars more gets you a second processor; for two grand you can have a dual-processor "supercomputer" in your den, if you want to think of it that way. Gigabit Ethernet, firewire 800, digital audio I/O -- standard features across the board.

The PowerMac line appeals to a different kind of user than the iMac or mini. Think graphics professionals, music/video production houses, and hardcore gamers who are more likely than not to spend another grand tricking their $1,500 boxes out to perform just so. Basically, if you're considering a PowerMac for your next computer, you either know exactly why you need it or you'll probably be fine with an iMac instead.

Apple Audio: The iPod Family

Giving buying advice on an iPod is a bit trickier than doing so for a computer; you'd be suprised how esoteric people can be when it comes to picking their pod. I guess that's why the iPod has become so successful -- it's a fashion statement as much as it is a walkman.

The price and thickness of small hard drives have dropped enough since the original 5 GB iPod was announced back in October of 2001 that the entry level model now gives you four times the storage capacity for $100 less than its forefather. The difference in storage relative to music is actually even more than that if you consider the advances in compression technology since 2001.

Where I once would have said "buy the cheapest iPod, anything else is too expensive and overkill to boot," I have to admit that when thinking of spending $299 on the low-end 20-gig model, the 40-gig version for just $100 more looks awfully appealing. Sure, $400 is a lot for a walkman, but if you're at all concerned about 20 gigs not being enough space for your music collection, what's another hundred bucks, right? Once you own an iPod, you'll come to understand what a luxury it really is to have all of your music everywhere you go.

iPod mini is a boutique product to me, and all the people I know who own one love it. I don't find my "full size" iPod particularly cumbersome to carry around, take to the gym, use in the car, etc., and so I couldn't imagine sacrificing precious disc space for a smaller unit. But hey, some people just love their pink and green, I guess. Rumor has it that a new, 5-gig mini should be hitting the streets in a few months' time.

The U2 iPod is just kind of silly, and as much as I'll always love Under a Blood Red Sky, I'm pretty sure all those laser-etched autographs on the back actually spell "Loser" if viewed under the right light. If you really want a non-white iPod, buy a standard model and look into an aftermarket modification service -- I bet you'll come up with something cooler than black and red. As for iPod Photo? I've played with a few, and they're pretty neat but really not worth the extra $100, I don't think. I've heard the argument that the 60 GB version is worth the price because it's the biggest iPod you can get. Sure. But it's still $600. Of course a whole lot of people disagree with me, including one friend who just picked one up and emailed: "Yeah, I'm a sucker. But once I saw the color LCD screen I couldn't pass it up." Such is the magnetic pull of Steve Jobs' Reality Distortion Field, iPod Version.

Then there's the shuffle. I don't want 200+ songs without a display. My life is random enough, thanks -- I really like having control over what I'm listening to. I also fully believe that these things are pre-disposed to play Steely Dan and post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd more often than any other artists. That being said, a lot of people are snapping these up, and off the top of my head there are three good reasons why: 1: It's got "iPod" in the name and sells for under a hundred bucks. 2: It's small and cute and sounds good. 3: It's got "iPod" in the name and sells for under a hundred bucks. People want iPods, and $99 is a lot less than $299 if you're talking about a second one for the gym or one for each of the kids or money that you really should be spending on healthier food and a trip to the dentist. Apple knows how to market, and consumers know how to get sucked into trend-fueled frenzies.

Of course, if you're really looking for the cheapest way to an iPod this side of all those "Free iPod" websites, there's always the HP iPod on sale somewhere (as long as they're still around, anyway). There's something about an iPod with an HP logo that's just not right, though. Sure, you'll probably never look at that logo and it's easy to hide inside of a case or skin, but you'll always know it's there -- HP where there should only be an Apple. Silly as it sounds, it's worth the extra change to pick up the real thing.

Besides, if you were really concerned about saving money you wouldn't be buying an iPod in the first place -- you'd just listen to the radio since, like broadcast HDTV, it's still free for the plucking right out of thin air.