The Mac mini has arrived. Here’s what you need to know about the machine that’s tipped to propel Apple into mainstream computing.

The Mac mini promises much, with its ultra-compact look and sleek styling. But can it really challenge Microsoft’s dominance of the personal computer market? The two base Mac mini models vary in only three ways – processor speed, hard drive size, and price. For £288 plus VAT you get a 1.25GHz G4 processor and a 40GB drive, while £339 plus VAT gets you a 1.42GHz G4 processor and an 80GB drive.

However, if you order the Mac mini directly from Apple's online store, you may find yourself loading the unit up with extra features that take it far beyond the realm of that bargain price.

That means that a £339 computer can become a £650 computer very quickly – and that’s still without a keyboard, mouse, or display.

Sweet dreams

There’s no denying the unit’s cuteness. It’s so small that you would have to stack five of them to equal the volume of the Power Mac G4 Cube, a system that seemed amazingly small at the time. The Mac mini could be smaller, but only if you did away with the optical drive. Since there seems to be no end to the reign of five-inch CD and DVD platters, this will probably be the smallest Mac for a long time.

The Mac mini’s diminutive motherboard is exactly the width of its RAM slot. That’s because the Mac mini uses full-size PC2700 RAM. Apple could have saved some space by using laptop RAM, but it wouldn't have helped much, given the size of that pesky optical drive. However, the Mac mini’s hard drive is the same kind you’d find in a laptop – it's a 2.5-inch, 4,200rpm drive.

The most widely criticized aspect of the Mac mini is its meager base 256MB of RAM. However, the RAM slot on the Mac mini seems to be pretty accessible – if it turns out to be fairly easy to crack a Mac mini open, it seems that more RAM would be the easiest thing to install. Keep in mind there's only a single RAM slot, so if you want to upgrade your RAM after buying a Mac mini, you'll need to yank out the pre-installed module first.

Wireless for sound

Despite Steve Jobs' lack of discussion of the Mac mini's wireless capabilities at the Macworld Expo Keynote, the Mac mini can do wireless. Due to the tight spaces within the Mac mini, both the AirPort Extreme card and Bluetooth module attach to the Mac mini's motherboard via a special connector.

In previous Mac models, internal Bluetooth support has been an option that’s available only when you order the machine – if you don't opt for internal Bluetooth, you can never add it later. But that's not the case with the Mac mini. The Bluetooth module attaches to the same special connector coming off the motherboard. According to Apple, this means you can have an authorized dealer install the internal Bluetooth module later if you don't feel that you need it right away.
Feel the noise

True to Apple's recent hardware-design history, the Mac mini has an independently controlled fan that turns on and off and adjusts its speed based on the Mac mini's cooling needs. According to Apple, the fan runs at 22 decibels – essentially whisper-quiet.

There’s a DVI connector on the back of the Mac mini. If you need to use a VGA display, the computer comes with a small plastic DVI-to-VGA adaptor block. If you want to connect to a TV via RCA or S-Video cables, you'll need to buy an adaptor. There is also a 10/100 Base-T Ethernet jack, a 56K modem, two USB 2.0 ports, a single FireWire 400 port, and an audio-out jack that can handle both line-out and headphone-out levels. The unit even boasts an internal speaker. Above the ports are a series of air vents, straddled by the power button and a Kensington-style security slot.

Apple's Challenge

In the coming weeks we'll no doubt be seeing an avalanche of Mac mini-related products. If the industriousness of the Mac market is any indication, it won’t be long before a manufacturer announces a mini-styled external FireWire hard drive that’s designed to sit right beneath the Mac mini.