And For Steve Jobs's Next Trick...

The Mac Mini offers flexibility and style at just $499

By far the world's most popular design for a personal computer is a box for the processing unit with a separate monitor and keyboard. Strangely enough, it has been seven long years since Apple Computer (AAPL ) offered such a computer aimed at consumer and educational markets. But having finally done so, Apple has come up with a product worth the wait.

The new Mac Mini, starting at an impressively low $499, brings Apple into the consumer mainstream. As you would expect for a product from Steven Jobs's Apple, it is utterly unlike anything else on the market. Most desktops, even high-end ones, are metal boxes with the style and grace of a gym locker. The Mini is a square box, 6 1/2 inches on a side and 2 inches high, with brushed aluminum sides and a white plastic top. (There is a substantial external power brick that can be hidden away on the floor.) The front is marked only by a tiny power-on light and a slot for CDs or DVDs. The PowerPC G4 processor is a lot slower than the G5 in current Power Macs and iMacs, but it's speedy enough for most typical uses.

APPLE ALSO MAKES a virtue out of the fact that the new machine comes with no monitor, keyboard, or mouse. You can use the Mini with any of the hundreds of displays available from about $100 and up. If you are replacing something other than an all-in-one eMac or iMac, you can use your old display. The lack of a keyboard and mouse strikes me mostly as a packaging gimmick that lets Apple sell the Mini in a box not much bigger than the one an iPod comes in. I used the new Mac with Microsoft (MSFT ) and Logitech (LOGI ) keyboards and mice with no problems; the alt key corresponds to the Mac's "option" key and the Windows key to Mac's "command." Mice, including wheel mice, work without additional software.

The Mini has few options and limited upgrade potential and, unlike other Macs, the Mini cannot be upgraded by the user. So consider the options before you buy. Choices include Wi-Fi wireless networking ($79) and Bluetooth short-range wireless ($50, or $99 for both). The 256 megabytes of memory can go to 1 gigabyte; I recommend at least 512 megabytes, which will cost you $75. A DVD recorder will set you back another $100.

The real importance of the Mini is that it overcomes the twin barriers that have kept Apple out of many homes: cost and lack of design flexibility. Yes, you can buy a serviceable Windows PC for even less -- for example, a Dell (DELL ) Dimension 2400 with no monitor for $319 after rebate -- but you'll get a box that's big, ugly, and a lot noisier.

Lovely as the Mini is, software is the more compelling reason to buy it. Mac OS X offers the best combination of elegance and stability of any operating system. And Apple bundles some very good software, including the iPhoto picture-management program, iMovie video editing, and GarageBand music-creation software.

Mac fans usually overrate OS X's security advantage over Windows. A big part of its edge is that it has not been challenged seriously by hackers, and Apple sends out -- very quietly -- about as many security patches as Microsoft. That said, the Mac does have inherent security advantages, and it is much less prone to the sort of mysterious glitches that often make Windows a challenge.

Unless you are dependent on a program that is available only for Windows, software compatibility isn't much of a concern. Apple's $79 iWork package includes a new word processor called Pages, and Keynote, a PowerPoint competitor. But if file compatibility is at all an issue, I would recommend Microsoft's Office:mac. A student and teacher edition for home use costs just $149.

I don't know if the Mini will increase Apple's market share, but it should. It is all the computer most homes, schools, and small businesses need in a tiny, elegant package. The only wonder is that it took so long.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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