The [2005] Mac mini is a Lemon

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 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.

Tagging Classical Music for iTunes and the iPod

Another article of mine has just been published on Playlist. This one, about Tagging Classical Music, tells you everything you need to know to tag and label your music so you can best organize and play it with iTunes or your iPod. If you’re a classical music fan, this is a must-read!

Classical Music on the iPod and iTunes

Are you a classical music fan? Then this new article is a must-read for you. I’ve written the first of a short series for Playlist, the website of Playlist Magazine. Find out about compressing and importing classical music, joining tracks and more here.

On My Wish List: A Voice-Controlled iPod

A friend gave me an idea the other day. What if you could control your iPod by voice, in the same way that you can dial numbers on a cellphone? What if you had a small hands-free mic on the headphone cable that you could use to issue commands: Play, Pause, Back, Forward, Next, Previous, Louder, Softer… ?

An interesting idea indeed. But let’s go a step further. What if you could record, through this mic, the names of playlists, albums or songs, the way you record names on a cellphone, and start them playing as well? Let’s face it – when the iPod’s in your pocket, it’s a hassle to take it out and change what’s playing. Sure, with the wired remote (in my opinion, an indispensable accessory) you can perform the same actions as with the click wheel or the buttons on the front of your iPod. But you can’t access specific playlists, albums or songs.

This would be great for lots of people. Imagine when you’re walking home in the freezing cold and you don’t want to take your gloves off and get your iPod out of your pocket or its case? Or when you’re jogging, biking, hang-gliding or even driving and can’t take the time to look at the iPod’s screen? Or when you’re in an intimite situation and just have to get that Barry White music on – you don’t want to have to stop, find the iPod (which is plugged into speakers in this type of situation) and change the playlist.

The technology is there. Is the need real though? I think it is, for many people. What do you think?

Update: Les Posen pointed out that he has already suggested this. Thanks for pointing this out, Les.

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On My Wish List: iTunes Music Store Radio Stations

So, you know that iTunes lets you listen to Internet radio. That’s great, and it lets you discover lots of music you’ve never heard before. It’s especially good if, like me, you live in the country and don’t have many FM radio stations.

But there should be more. Apple should introduce iTunes Music Store radio stations, to play selected tracks available from the iTunes Music Store. Why? Well, when you go into a bricks-and-mortar store, you can see thousands of CDs. When you go into the iTunes Music Store, you only see a few dozen for each genre. Okay, up that to at least 100 for each, since you can look at the list of top albums or top songs. But that’s not much. Especially if you aren’t interested in the best-sellers.The iTunes Music Store is great when you know what you are looking for – you can search by song, artist, album or composer, and listen to previews. But what about all the other music you’ll never hear because you’ve never heard of it? If Apple were to create one Internet radio station for each genre, listeners could discover much more music. I can imagine that a simple double-click on the song name in the iTunes display would take you to that song on the music store.

The reason behind this idea goes beyond simple commercialism. Sure, Apple would sell more music, but it would also allow more artists to get their music heard. Listen to any FM radio station today and you’ll hear about 30 songs in rotation, over and over. We need variety; musicians need exposure; and Apple would get sales. Everyone would be happy.

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