Practical Technology

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The affordable Mac

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The conventional wisdom is that Macs are expensive. Microsoft ads make a big deal about how much more computer you can get for the money. Nonsense. Actually, you can get a perfectly good Mac for cheap: the Mac mini, which can do everything its bigger, more expensive brothers do for a lot less.

The bottom of the line Mac mini comes with a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a gigabyte of RAM, a 120GB hard drive, and NVIDIA GeForce 940DM graphics. The price? $599.

That may not sound like much of a machine, but that’s only because most of you have been using Windows. On Windows, this would make for a pathetic Vista or Windows 7 PC, or an okay Windows XP system. With Mac OS X Leopard, and the soon-to-arrive Snow Leopard, that’s more than enough hardware for a great computing experience.

That’s not just theory. I’ve been running a Mac mini with these stats for the last few months, and I like it a lot. While I prefer desktop Linux for most purposes, I’m a software pragmatist. I like programs that do their job and do them well. For what I want from a Mac, the mini is great.

To be precise, I use my mini for video transcoding work and to manage my video library. For video transcoding — converting videos from a variety of formats to MP4 for my Apple TV media extenders — I use the open-source program Handbrake 0.9.3. To decrypt DVDs so that Handbrake can move their video into my library, I use the open-source VLC Media Player.

Both these programs are also available on Linux and Windows, but I find that they work best and fastest on my Mac. There are dozens of other programs that claim they can move videos from DVDs and other files to a format that works for you. Most of them cost money and fail at the job. Others programs, like FFmpeg can do the job, but they require a lot of manual tweaking to do the job right. Handbrake and VLC on the Mac is really the best way to go. Trust me: I learned that the hard way.

Video transcoding is not easy work for a computer. Nonetheless, my little mini does a better job of it than does my desktop Linux and Windows 7 systems using the exact same programs and with faster processors and 2-6 gigabytes of RAM. I don’t know about you, but I impressed.

I also use that same mini to manage my approximately one terabyte video and half-terabyte music libraries. These, of course, aren’t on my mini. Instead they’re on my gigabit Ethernet network. With NAS (network attached storage) and USB external drives, I don’t find that it matters much anymore how much storage comes with a PC; you can always and easily add more.

For video and audio management, I’m using iTunes 8.2. Yes, it’s proprietary. Yes, it can be a pain at time. But, again, like the mini in general, it’s fast and it does this job better than any of its competitors does. And, yes, in particular, it does this job better too than iTunes does on a ‘faster’ Windows PC.

On top of that, there are the oft-hidden costs of Windows. For example, when you buy a Windows PC, you must buy security software with it. If you don’t, your Windows PC will be toast sooner rather than later.

Of course, if you shop smart, a Linux desktop is always your cheapest desktop choice. But if you have particular needs for video and audio as I do, then a Mac isn’t just your best choice: it’s your most affordable choice. Or, if you just a good, general purpose PC and you want Apple’s great belt-and-suspenders support, then the Mac mini is also for you.

A Windows PC only looks like the cheap choice. Your best choice, even for people on a tight budget, may very well be the Mac mini. Check it out. I think you’ll be glad you did.

A version of this story first appeared in ComputerWorld.