Sitting here looking at our Windows-based desktop and, next to it, the Mac Mini, we're starting to wonder if the full-sized desktop is running toward the end of its lifespan. Sure, gamers want a big powerful machine with loads of cooling and a super-powerful graphics card, but businesses, casual users and internet cafes want small machines, and preferably ones that are secure, stable and a little less susceptible to viruses.
Now we don't subscribe to the idea that Mac is inherently more secure than Windows machines. For a start, in any virus outbreak, it's usually a human that opens the thing and infects the computer. Even Apple hasn't managed to totally avoid such problems. But in terms of a more hassle-free life, the Mac Mini has some advantages. Although, at times, there are some clear issues too.
What we wanted to know, was how the Mac stood up as a desktop PC, and how it worked as a replacement for our Windows 8 media centre.
Lovely to look at
Argue if you want, but Jony Ive always manages to produce something that will impress the most hard-hearted of Apple sceptics. The Mini is no exception. It's a lump of aluminium that has been shaped into an impressively small case, into which goes a computer that's powerful enough to compete with most desktops. The difference is, it's a fraction of the size.
Our review sample is a 2.3GHz Core i7 - quad-core - with 4GB of RAM with a 1TB hard drive. It's possible to order a Mini with up to 16GB of RAM, but adding your own third-party memory is really easy, and a lot cheaper. Most people, therefore, should stick to getting the base memory package and upgrading if they need to. Our system costs £679, the i5 with 500GB hard drive and 4GB of ram is £499, and for a lot of people is more than powerful enough.
Connectivity is good, although everything is located on the back of the computer. You get Ethernet, for super-fast networking, Firewire, HDMI and a thunderbolt port for Apple monitors, or hard drives and four USB 3 sockets. There are also headphone, microphone and a full-sized SD card slot.
We've written, at length, about Mountain Lion - and most other releases of OS X for that matter - so we won't go on about it here. But the thing we will say is that as a home OS, it's everything you need and a very pleasant experience.
The Mac app store is a solid addition to the platform, it gives access to a good selection of software, and makes it easy to buy. You get access to a decent amount of apps, they tend to be a little bit higher in quality than if you just Googled for what sort of thing you need to do, and they are managed centrally. Perhaps best of all though, you can install apps purchased on the Mac store on all of your authorised machines. That means, both your Mac Mini and Air can have Photoshop installed.
In terms of slickness, it has to be said that Apple has beaten everyone else at their own game. What makes OS X so usable has to be the incredible speed with which the OS is able to switch between tasks. To give you an example, with this Mac Mini being used as a media centre, you can be playing video through Plex, and use the wireless trackpad to swipe between different desktops. This is something that might be incredibly helpful, if you're watching something, but want to have a quick flick to see another app.
Apple's use of the Mac's graphics hardware means that such whizzy visuals are responsive and don't seem to delay anything else from happening. We were able to play 720p HD video on one "desktop" while switching between other apps, and found it amazing how solid everything looks. Video keeps playing during the transition, and the machine handles it as if you were just typing into a word document.
Trackpad is a must
With all the fuss about Windows 8 being a touchscreen-focused OS, people forget how good OS X is at "touch" gestures. When using OS X you'll very quickly start using the three finger swipe to move between open full screen windows, the desktop and dashboard - although the dashboard has limited value to us, we can see some people loving it.
Three fingers up shows you all the running applications, which is by far the best method for task switching, and Windows 8 users will likely be aware of what a massive mess Microsoft has made of this functionality recently. How we'd love to see something like Apple's system appear to replace the misery of Windows switching - which used to be brilliant.
Obviously, two fingers is a standard scroll. Up and down allows you to scroll webpages, but two fingers to the right will also move you back through your history. Some people made a fuss about the tablet-style reversal for this stuff, but honestly we didn't find it much of a problem. It takes a few seconds, at most, to get used to this system.
Slight graphics issues
We tested our review sample with two monitors, both Samsung, and both had an issue with washed out colours via HDMI. A look around online shows that this is a widespread problem, but is related to the Intel graphics. From what we can tell, it's a problem with the way the graphics card is detecting the monitors, and the RGB signal it is then sending.
Make no mistake, it's annoying, but we don't know how widespread the problem is, and how many monitors are affected. We are told that this issue is fixed in 10.8.3, but the current version is still 10.8.2 so we can't test. The likelihood is, by the time you read this the issue will have been resolved and we'll look like murmuring idiots.
Expensive when you factor in the extras
We are of the opinion that all PCs and Macs should have the maximum possible amount of RAM installed. We don't suggest upgrading the 4GB via Apple, but do consider shoving some third-party stuff in there. Apple charges a mind-bending £240 to jump up to 16GB, Crucial.com wants a more reasonable £76.
You'll also want a keyboard and mouse. You might have your own, which will work fine. But we do really think you should go for the Apple Trackpad, it makes the whole experience a lot better. It might be expensive, but we think it's worth the money. The Apple Wireless keyboard is good, and matches the design ethic, but we didn't find it as nice to type on as our Microsoft Natural keyboard. If you type a lot, consider something more set-up for typing, if you use the keyboard for typing web addresses, then stick with the stylish Apple keyboard.
With the keyboard and trackpad, you'll be paying £795 though, which is quite a bump up in price.
Cable cutter's favourite
Perhaps the best bit about the mini is the options you have to ditch your expensive cable and satellite system.
Apple is well known for being the king of purchased media. With iTunes you have an easy route to every TV show, piece of music or film you might want. Obviously, there are exceptions, but factor in Netflix, Lovefilm subscriptions, and the obvious services like iPlayer, 4oD and the like online, and you suddenly have a machine that can supply you entertainment from various sources.
We installed Plex, the most impressive media center app we've used - XBMC is more powerful, but harder to configure we've found. Plex needs another machine with a server running on it - some NAS drives can do this - but once you've got that, it's the most incredible way to handle movies and TV shows.
All of this, with the Mac mini's HDMI output means that, if you can afford it, it will become a centerpiece of your home cinema. It's only missing a Blu-ray player, but to be honest, if your broadband can cope, iTunes 1080p downloads are very nearly as good.
Intel graphics issue aside, we've enjoyed our time with the Mini. It really is powerful enough for most computer use. You could use this as your work PC all day, and never struggle with slowdowns or crashes. It's also prettier and smaller than almost any Windows-based PC you can buy, and for those corporates that need Windows, it can happily run Microsoft's OS.
As a media centre, there are all sorts of options. The iPhone app means that you don't need a trackpad or keyboard to operate the Mini from your sofa, and third-party apps like Plex deliver HD streaming to your TV with style and beauty. There are lots of ways to get your Mac into your TV world, although of course there are some advantages to just getting a cheaper Apple TV and using your Mini to keep your media and be your desktop computer.
We would love to see Apple move towards using a mobile nVidia GPU in the Mini, as this would turn it into something that could even be used for gaming, although the Intel Graphics solution does have some gaming ability, it's not as good as a dedicated GPU.
Our only real reservation is the price. For this kind of money, you're almost at MacBook Air prices, and that's a slightly more tempting offer. If the mini was £100 less, it would have another half star in its score.