Change is difficult. The older we get, the worse we become about accepting change. Some people always shop at the same store, order the same thing at a restaurant, buy the same brand of car... and yes, they even insist on running the same OS and web browser, year after year. Some day, your choice of operating system may not matter. To some extent, the Internet has already broken down a lot of barriers. Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they stay the same - there are still a few web sites that only display properly in Internet Explorer, for example.

As difficult as it is to change, it comes as little surprise that many people reacted to the launch of the Mac Mini with, "It looks interesting; too bad it's an Apple." I'm as bad as the next person, and while I bear no ill will towards Apple or their users, I'm pretty comfortable with my "Wintel" computer network. We still don't have a universal cyberspace, so for now, the software and applications for a platform play a critical role. For many people and businesses, all of the software that they own runs on Windows PCs, and thus, people continue to stick with the Microsoft OSes.

Give credit where credit is due: when it comes to aesthetics, Apple is one of the best. Small form factor PCs - didn't Apple start that segment with their Mac cube? How about the iPod? Let's not even get into the discussion of MacOS, Windows, and Xerox PARC.... There are many examples of Apple launching a new product with an interesting design, only to see many people avoid it simply because they want to run Windows. (We're not trying to start a debate over which is better, though, and there are many other topics that could be addressed in the PC vs. Mac wars.)

Maybe this will all change with Apple starting to ship x86 systems, but for now, Apple's creative design has once again been "borrowed" - or at least, copied in many areas. If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, Steve Jobs must be feeling pretty good about himself right now. From the consumer's perspective, however, it generally doesn't matter if one company copies another company's design; if it brings competition and price wars so much the better.

It seems that AOpen has been working towards the creation of the MiniPC over the past year or so. First, we had their Pentium M desktop motherboards, followed by some Pentium M small form factor systems, and then they made the MZ855/MZ915 really small form factor design. These were all decent efforts, but I, at least, continued to think, "Can't anyone make a Windows-compatible computer that will compete with the Mac Mini?" Now, the answer is finally "yes", but there's more to it than that.

Not everyone needs a super powerful desktop system, and a super small, super quiet, super portable computer is an interesting idea. The problem is that we already have those: laptops. If you're going to compete with a laptop, only without a keyboard, touchpad, or display, you had better get the remaining features and the price right! Did AOpen succeed? Let's find out.

Appearance and System Specifications
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  • davecason - Friday, March 17, 2006 - link

    Just an FYI for the reviewer: use tweezers. The plastic inner shell is designed for tweezers with an angled grip point. There are both cut-outs and spaceous slotting to accomodate tweezers on every screw installation.

    Did anyone pick up one of these and have trouble with the IDE PCB? I have two problems: 1) DMA turns itself off and the drive resorts to PIO mode when I attach it through to the PCB. I have tested the drive elsewhere and on the USB bus and it runs at normal speeds but when it is attached internally it slows down to about 1/10 of the speed. Removing the optical drive from the PCB has no affect on the problem.
    2) The system hiccups when I boot it. The optical drive goes into a long series of IDE bus restarts and if I remove it, the IDE drive simply takes forever to boot (probably because of some bus error and the speed is being backed down to almost nothing).

    Any suggestions for that?
  • davecason - Tuesday, March 28, 2006 - link

    The IDE bus was restarting itself due to a power problem. I had the following plugged into the USB bus:
    1) USB Keyboard with USB hub with a USB mouse plugged into it.
    2) USB bus-powered hub with a self-powered PDA base and a UPS plugged into it.

    I removed #2 and the IDE bus began functioning normally. I guess four/six items on the USB bus was too much power draw from the system. If you experience this, get a self-powered USB hub.
  • Plugers - Saturday, March 4, 2006 - link

    On the next revision.

    Add a upgradable laptop video card slot. If laptops can get a nice small Nvidia / ATI solution, why not this? Also add the other audio port, or just add a toslink for HTPC use and I think most of the high end PC sound systems have a digital input option anyway.

    throw in another sodimm slot while your at it....
  • bldckstark - Saturday, March 4, 2006 - link

    I am glad to see that for once there are not many whiny posts about the comparison systems. Thanks for the inclusion of the Sempron system.
  • Kishkumen - Saturday, March 4, 2006 - link

    Actually my interest with these Mini PCs whether Aopen or Apple is to use them as a lightweight frontend to a Linux/MythTV HTPC with storage and encoding duties relegated to a master backend and better yet no need to whine about the additional cost of an OS. The mini is small enough that it can be easily attached to the back of a plasma or LCD for a very clean look. That said, Aopen's audio solution is absolutely tragic. I really don't understand how they thought they could skimp in this area even if they were completely unaware of it's potential as a HTPC solution. At the very least a digital optical connector should have been included. Thus I'm inclined to go with the Apple solution on the audio issue alone, but in general it seems like the better hardware and I have no reason to believe I can't run Linux on it just fine. I'll be paying for an OS I don't need but maybe I can just pawn it off on ebay or I'll just keep it around for the halibut. Something to gape at once in a while like a two headed snake in a jar at the circus.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, March 4, 2006 - link

    Does Linux run on EFI okay? I don't have any idea. It's certainly a lot more likely than XP on EFI. Anyway, the MP945 is supposed to go with at least 5.1 audio I think.
  • mindless1 - Saturday, March 4, 2006 - link

    PLEASE, quite trying to pretend Apple is some kind of leader in form factor. no, it was not the MAC cube that started SFF. This AOPEN is not imitation anything either. Did you really think the entire computer world was NOT moving towards high integration and as-small-as-possible systems?

    It had absolutely nothing to do with Apple. Apple merely did the same as everyone else, sometimes coming up with a particular niche product sooner than others, and sometimes later than others. The one most noteworthy thing apple did was advertising.

    How about the ipod? It wasn't first either. Good grief, why in the world do you have an arbitrary false conclusion that apple was first at much of anything?

    That's not to downplay Apple's influence, they did add a certain esthetic appeal, more artistic cases on many products. That's not what was implied in the article though...
  • JAS - Monday, March 6, 2006 - link

    Just a general comment:

    MAC = Media Access Control, as in a computer's Ethernet address

    Mac = shorthand for Macintosh
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, March 4, 2006 - link

    By your reasoning, Apple was first at nothing, and the only first was probably the ENIAC. After all, we've just been moving to smaller computers for over 60 years now.... Seriously, there is no way you can convince me that the AOpen MiniPC wasn't an attempt at copying the Mac Mini design. Was the Mac Mini completely original? Maybe someone had something like that before, but they're the ones that really put the "Mini" computers on the map.

    Anyway, how about some comparisons from AOpen - nice pictures, and they clearly show that any resemblance to the Mac Mini is likely more than coincidence.">MiniPC vs. Mac Mini #1">MiniPC vs. Mac Mini #2">MiniPC vs. Mac Mini #3">MiniPC vs. Mac Mini #4">MiniPC vs. Mac Mini #5
  • psychobriggsy - Saturday, March 4, 2006 - link

    The Mac Mini looks better, both in terms of looks and design (e.g., the back panel looks so much better). If you're gonna copy a design, at least try and make it look even better if you're not going to compete on price...

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