New Mac Minis: Apple TV or new classroom tool?

More expensive, but quite a bit prettier...Any use for these little guys in the classroom?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

I'm typing this post on an old Mac Mini.  Of course, it's running Lubuntu, but still, they're pretty slick little machines.  This one is woefully underpowered and at half a gig of RAM wasn't a particularly smart buy even 3 years ago.  Will Apple's latest generation of Mini change all that? And are these just glorified Apple TVs or could we find some cool uses for them in the classroom?

The Mac Mini concept is actually a pretty good one: Macs are wicked expensive, so let's make a cheap one and make it really small while we're at it. About the newly refreshed Mini, though, ZDNet's Adrian Kingsley Hughes pointed out what a lot of us were thinking:

"It’s a nice upgrade, and one that places the Mac mini in the position of now being able to pretty much take over the role of the Apple TV device."

And it's more expensive.  The base model, with academic discount, is $649.  A keyboard and mouse will run you another $98 (no, that's not a misprint). You can, of course, use any USB keyboard and mouse instead and this always struck me as a fine idea. After all, how many keyboards and mice do you have sitting in a closet somewhere? However, it would seem that $650 should buy me a keyboard.

I could envision some educational applications for this, though, despite the price. The first comes at an even higher price.  For around $1000, you can get a Mac Mini configured with Snow Leopard Server and 1TB of storage.  In smaller settings, all of the podcast-creating, wiki-hosting, workgroup-managing goodness of OS Server can sit on a small corner of your desk for the low, low price of $949 academic. It's not as scalable as their XServe solutions, but the XServes are complete overkill for many smaller applications.

The second use would come mighty close to the consumer vision for this little computer.  Hook it up to a projector and you have a pretty tasty machine for use with everything from PowerPoint to interactive whiteboards to science demos, all at a size that is much smaller than most projectors. The built-in iLife suite means that you could even edit videos together in class and the built-in SD card reader makes it easy to immediately display pictures and video.  However, you're going to have to weigh whether the tiny size, elegant design, and slick included software can justify the cost of the computer when a $400 budget notebook would handle everything except the video editing almost as well (including DVD playback).

A bit of looking, in fact, would turn up small form factor desktops that could sit underneath a projector, handle Blu-Ray, and undercut the Mini's price.

To be honest, I wouldn't even put one of these in my living room.  Sure, my wife would like it because it's shiny, pretty, tiny, and wireless, but for almost $700, I could build myself something that would function as well or better as a media center PC.

I'm not seeing these headed into the classroom and I'm not seeing them headed into many living rooms.  By the time you buy the Mini, a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor, you could have a MacBook with the same hardware and OS as the Mini that also happens to be a full, portable computing solution.  The one exception is the updated Mini Server.  In fact, I just might write out a PO for a couple of those now and deploy them in neighborhood schools with minimal IT support, plenty of Macs, and an unmet need to authenticate and manage the Macs in the school.

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