Jun 022011

CNET Cheapskate writer Rick Broida recently posted a question which computer to buy for $600, and his two options were a refurbished Mac Mini or Gateway DX4850-45u desktop with Sandy Bridge core i5 CPU. I was first going to comment at the site but as usual, my first attempt at a comment grew into a blog post and that belongs here.

Really?! This was the first question that popped into my mind. Why would someone ever try to compare the two – the refurbished Mac Mini has a two generations older CPU (Core 2 Duo vs Clarkdale vs Sandy Bridge), only 2 GB of RAM, 320 GB laptop HDD and an integrated on-board video card (factory soldered-on, with no upgrade options) while the Gateway is a full blown desktop with 6 GB RAM, USB 3, 1 TB HDD, and the latest Sandy Bridge Core i5 CPU which is more than two times faster than the Core 2 Duo on the Mac Mini. Then it dawned on me that this is one of those perfect “comment bates” which due to the obvious disparity of the compared systems produced an avalanche of comments.

Aside from attracting visitors and comments, I don’t understand why people like to compare apples to lemons (pun intended). For example, many like to compare high end MacBooks to cheapo PC laptops and naturally, they say that Macs just work and PCs break often. Well, if you bought a $1200+ PC laptop, it would have far more to offer than a MacBook Pro – it would probably come with an anti-glare screen (available only on $2,000+ 15+” MacBook Pro), a much faster discrete video card, possibly a blazing fast SSD and it might even serve you breakfast! OK, maybe not the last thing. Same with this comparison – the refurb Mac Mini is a dinosaur while the Sandy Bridge Core i5 desktop is the latest technology with speed, technical specs, flexibility and upgrade options beyond comparison.

Nevertheless, my system of choice at $600 would be neither of the two, but a laptop. I gave up on desktops long time ago when I got married and dismantled my “home space station” due to the inevitable need for more room and less cables, finally ditching the last one when our first child was born, and replacing all of them with virtual machines on a laptop. Even if you have enough room for desktops, I believe that laptops are much cheaper while the better ones are getting close to performance of the desktops and docking stations or much cheaper port replicators do miracles nowadays. If I had a $600 and a failed desktop or two (and chose not to fix them which should be a much cheaper option), with some very patient hunt for store and online specials I’d be able to buy a powerful Windows 7 laptop from a reputable manufacturer with more than double the speed and hardware specs of the refurbished Mac Mini. At this price a good laptop will have serious CPU and graphics power, USB 3, HDMI port and it can be used as a desktop or media center PC at home and as a laptop when mobile. Another green side effect of this choice would be that laptops save a great deal of power when you put them on balanced power plan, which still doesn’t noticeably impair their processing power because it speeds up to the full CPU and bus speed when needed. Moreover, today’s laptops are quite close to desktops and if you install an SSD in one, you may be surprised how quick they are. If you were a gamer, perhaps you’d want a much more expensive core i7 desktop with superfast GPU, but when your alternative is a Mac Mini, this definitely must not be an issue, so a fast Windows 7 laptop would be more than enough.

As far as reliability of Windows systems, Windows 7 has come the long way and since it works on so many systems and models, it’s often bad hardware that gives it worse reputation than it deserves. First, you need to look for manufacturers with good consumer reports, but what also matters, try not to put tons of made in the-middle-of-nowhere by God-knows-who screensavers and other junk software average Windows users put on their machines. Another reason why Mac users have better perception of their machines is that they can’t install as much third party software applications on them, simply because there’s not much available and they also treat their Macs with far more care because they paid a lot more for them.

If all you need is a nettop or even a media center PC, you may consider using a cheap laptop instead. Most of consumer laptops and even some recent netbooks nowadays come equipped with an HDMI port and have sufficient processing and video power to either stream media or drive a large HDTV screen.

To answer the question from the beginning, a refurbished Mac Mini may be worth $600, but only to Mac enthusiasts. I wouldn’t mind having one, but I wouldn’t pay more than $500 for a new one, considering that you can get a good laptop with better specs (and a screen) for that money. Mac Minis have outdated hardware and as such, a refurbished one is not worth a penny over $400 to me. I love Apple systems, but I’m not yet willing to pay the “Apple tax” in exchange for old hardware with good OS (Ubuntu seems to be a much cheaper option for that purpose). That’s why I don’t have any Macs yet. If you think I do need one, donate a recent model to me :-).

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