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Mac mini Shrinks to micro, nano, and pico

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Apple’s huge success with the Mac mini’s small form factor and low price has caused the company to look more closely at making computers in a variety of small sizes. That push was reflected in a long segment of today’s press conference, with Steve Jobs laying out the reception the Mac mini has received with users and the press. He then jumped into the product announcements, and oh, what announcements! Just as the iPod broke from the pack of MP3 players and took over that market, these diminutive new Macs – the micro, nano, and pico – promise to change expectations of what computers are and how we use them. Steve Jobs said that Apple anticipates shipping all three models in the second half of 2005, in time for the holiday shopping season.

Mac micro — Leading off the new line is the $250 Mac micro, which Apple says will be about the size of a thick paperback book and will weigh less than 3 pounds (1.4 kg). The Mac micro will come with a 450 MHz G4 processor, 256 MB of RAM, and either a 30 or 60 GB 1.8-inch hard disk (the same as is used in the iPod). Standard ports include mini-DVI (supporting VGA and composite/S-Video via an adapter), modem, 10/100 Mbps Ethernet, and FireWire, which will hopefully put to rest the rampant speculation about Apple’s commitment to the high-speed bus.

The company expects the Mac micro to be used by people who need to carry their work with them, but who have access to keyboards, mice, and large monitors wherever they are. Also missing is an optical drive; Jobs said that Apple expects many Mac micro users will have access to other Macs (such that they can install by putting the Mac micro into FireWire Target Disk Mode) and in questioning afterwards, noted that the lack of the optical drive was also “a third-party opportunity.”

Mac nano — If the Mac micro is just too large for you, or if you want something that includes a built-in screen, the Mac nano may be the answer. Surprisingly, the $150 Mac nano uses the incredibly cheap PowerPC G3 processor, which is still in wide production, combined with a 30 GB hard disk. With just 256 MB of memory, the Mac nano uses a “nano-kernel,” a highly stripped-down version of Mac OS X that might make some full-scale Mac users jealous of its speed, which is also improved by losing the Aqua interface. Aqua wouldn’t make sense on the Mac nano anyway, since it has been fitted out to look like an iPod photo, complete with a 2-inch color screen (160 x 128 pixels). Input is via stylus on the touch-sensitive screen, and the Mac nano relies on an iPod-like click-wheel for navigation. Like an iPod, the Mac nano uses FireWire to charge its battery (10 hours of battery life) and sync with a full-fledged Mac. Other features include integral Bluetooth and a composite/S-Video output along with audio out.

Clearly, the Mac nano is Apple’s long-awaited PDA, and Jobs said that developers could retrofit Cocoa-based Mac OS X applications to run on the Mac nano merely by using Xcode to create a small-screen interface. As an example, he showed a version of iPhoto that offered all the power of the full program in miniature (well, except for the Adjust panel, which works only on PowerPC G4- and G5-based Macs).

With Apple getting into the PDA game at last, the primary question that remains is if a future version will build in cell phone capabilities.

Mac pico — Finally we come to the $50 Mac pico, a 3 ounce (85 gram) recording and display device that represents Apple’s foray into the world of ubiquitous computing. The entire point of the Mac pico is that it’s so small and cheap that you can have a number of them scattered around your house and office. It will sport a 2-inch color LCD display, 256 MB of static RAM, and accept input via a finger or stylus on the touch-screen or a built-in microphone. A mount on the back uses adhesion technology derived from studies of gecko feet to stick to any surface without suffering reduced stickiness over time.

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The Mac pico runs off battery power, of course, and can charge either from an induction-based plate to which you can stick drained units, or via solar power generated from a group of solar cells that service as the bezel around the LCD screen. Battery life scales inversely with usage, but power-saving technology enables the Mac pico to consume virtually no power when not in use.

Apple anticipates the Mac pico being used to record data, either via the touchscreen or through the microphone. Once entered, the data can be transmitted to a more full-featured Mac via Bluetooth or simply recalled and displayed on the internal screen; the Mac pico uses a HyperCard-like metaphor and provides forward and back buttons for navigation through the screens.

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