I’ve had my share of Macs over the years, most of them good (fortunately). I’ve never been stung by any of the more serious problems that have resulted from poor design, such as the iBook logic board problems or others. But today I’m writing about what I think is truly a lemon: the Mac mini.The Mac mini is a great idea: for $500, you get a relatively fast computer, one that is, above all, tiny and quiet. Designed probably to attract switchers from the Windows world, the Mac mini offers a limited feature set, but one that is largely sufficient for most users.
The Mac mini, as you know, comes naked in its box: no screen, no mouse, and no keyboard. This, again, allows switchers to simply hook up their existing equipment, or even use a KVM to switch between a PC and a Mac. This means that you have to make sure your existing peripherals work with the Mac mini. For a mouse and keyboard, this is no problem; the Mac mini will work with just about any USB devices (I haven’t heard about any incompatibilities, but it’s likely that any devices, especially mice or trackballs, that require drivers, will only offer basic functions unless there are Mac OS X versions of their drivers.
However, the real problem comes from the display. I guess that, in most cases, your display will work. You probably have a better chance of it working if you have a DVI display, as opposed to a VGA display. In my experience, however, the Mac mini is just not up to par for VGA displays. I have two Sony CRTs, about 2 and 3 years old. The first Mac mini I got gave a very dim display on one of them, and a green display on the other. No amount of adjustments, to either the monitors or the Mac mini’s Display preferences, changed these display problems. (Both these displays work perfectly well on other computers, one connected to an old iMac and PC, and another to a PC.) I was disappointed, especially when I saw all the problems on Apple’s discussions boards about display issues.
At this point, I was ready to just send it back for a refund – which was possible, since I bought it from an on-line dealer here in France who provides a no-questions-asked guarantee. But friends suggested that I try again, thinking that it could be just a bad unit, or a bad DVI-VGA adapter. Alas, when the second unit came, I connected it, and the same problems were present. Not it is entirely possible that my monitors are not “compatible” with the Mac mini; however, they are name-brand CRTs, with no special features that would prevent them from working with other computers (as I see daily at home). It seems that this is not an isolated problem: here’s a page on xlr8yourmac.com showing how common the problem is, and pointing out that the Mac mini simply does not put out enough power to drive many VGA monitors.
So, Apple’s got another lemon, and they’re clearly aware of it, but they don’t seem to be reacting to this widespread problem. Shame on you, Apple; at least you could set up a page saying which monitors you’ve tested the mini with so users can save all these hassles. You do this for some other devices, such as printers that are compatible with the AirPort Express, or CD/DVD drives compatible with iTunes.
Update, February, 2011: It’s worth noting that, since I first wrote this article in 2005, the Mac mini has changed quite a bit. And I also have a DVI display. In fact, as I wrote in this Macworld article, the Mac mini is now my Mac of choice. So the problems I highlight in this article, regarding video display, are no longer an issue.