It may still represent a fraction of the PC market, but Apple is one of the hot, hip companies right now. Could the Mac teach the Windows crowd a thing or two?

These days Apple is generating a huge buzz in the industry and beyond. Of course, PC users can sit back and watch the hoopla about the Mac Mini and its brethren with detached interest. But is there anything the PC user should take notice of?

The fact is, Apple gets a lot of things right. For starters, the new Mac Mini is a sleek, pared-down little number that has a trim price tag to match. For Mac fans, the Mini is an affordable, well-designed, digital media machine that gets along simply with other peripherals. The Mini will let you store and play music, manage photos, watch movies, and go online.

Plus, it’s relatively quiet compared with a typical PC, so it might be a good fit for your living room. It’s stylish, too.

That’s not to say the PC universe is all bad. If you’re a cost-conscious buyer, you may find that a PC is a better deal than a Mac. And, if you’re shopping for peripherals or internal components, you can choose from a huge range of PC brands. PCs are perfect for tinkerers – opening the hood is usually relatively straightforward. In Mac land, most systems’ cases are harder to open, and components are designed more as cohesive units than as a collection of parts.

We’re not suggesting the PC user should necessarily switch. But here’s a few things that Apple does extremely well. PC vendors, are you listening?

Apple of your eye

Obviously, looks don’t make the computer. On the other hand, where is it written that systems have to be boxy and boring? Or black and predictable?

To be fair, not all PCs fit that description these days. They’re smaller and more streamlined than they used to be – they have snazzy flat-screen monitors, and thanks to Apple’s rollout of candy-hued boxes a few years ago, some PCs even come dressed in hip new colors. But when it comes to design innovation in the computer industry, Apple still leads the way with its classy components and solid focus on simplicity and ease-of-use.

Granted, you might not care about details like translucent turquoise trim on the monitor and curvaceous cases when you are trying to pull together a last-minute presentation. But if you’re looking for a system to power your home media centre, which would you rather buy: a sleek device that you could design your living room around or a clunky box that’s more about spreadsheets than The Strokes?

Speaking of good-looking, Apple’s operating system has raced past Windows in innovative design and functionality. The current OS X is both pleasing to the eye and intuitive. Plus, its integration of hardware and software is far more cohesive.

Plug and play? Not today

You have to give Microsoft some credit. The company’s Windows XP Media Center operating system has made some strides in the past year, adding features like streaming live TV.

But all the media bells and whistles in the world amount to little more than a taunting reminder of What Could Be if you can’t get your system hub to talk to the other members of your entertainment committee. And setting up a Windows-based home digital media system still seems to be about as simple as cobbling together a map of your own genetic code.

Apple doesn’t take all the pain out of setting up a digital media system. But, unlike Microsoft and all its hardware counterparts, Apple has a long history of making products that work right out of the box, mostly because it is the only company involved. In addition, Apple products typically work with a smaller group of peripherals and programs, so the company can quash more bugs and offer fixes in timelier fashion.

Living the iLife

How many media programs must we PC users arduously sort through before we can figure out which one will do the job easily? It’s like trying to piece together a single recognizable image from ten different jigsaw puzzles.

Apple’s iLife digital media suite minimizes hardware and software incompatibility problems and other headaches, and serves up a comprehensive package that permits you to do almost anything you want with music, photo, and video files, assuming that you have the necessary hardware and enough system memory.

Shopping serenity

If you’ve ever shopped for a PC in an electronics superstore, you know all about stress. The noise is head-pounding, the lighting is harsh, and you never know whether you’ll find a salesperson who can answer your questions.

Now take that superstore experience and turn everything around: Think spacious, light, and inviting. Imagine computer stations where you can play freely with fully configured systems. Top it all off with helpful, knowledgeable salespeople who encourage you to try out the computers, and ask questions. This is what those spangly Apple Stores are like, and they’re great fun.

There are times when you might want to headbutt the unbridled enthusiasm for little white boxes out of the Apple Store assistant, but at least they make an effort. You can enjoy the products and imagine how you might use them – it’s a fantastic model for successful retail if nothing else.

There’s no doubt that Apple has a lot going for it. From the company’s product design to hardware and software compatibilities to the pleasant shopping options, there’s an awful lot to like.

So come on, PC vendors: It’s time to take a hard look at Apple’s successes. We could all use less stress in our world.