Rightly or wrongly, Apple has always suffered from the perception that its equipment is more expensive than comparable PCs from big-name manufacturers such as Dell or Hewlett-Packard. Apple hasn't helped its own cause either, by insisting on building "all-in-one" systems like the iMac, which has an expensive flat-panel monitor built into it. The iMac may be a marvel of elegant engineering, but it denies cash-strapped schools the option of using a less expensive CRT monitor or of re-using any spare monitors that they may already have available.
At long last, Apple has come up with an impressive solution to this problem -the Mac Mini. As its name implies, it is extremely compact, measuring just 2 inches tall and 6.5 inches wide and deep. I've seen mouse mats that took up more desk space. And it's so light that you can pick it up with one hand and carry it from desk to desk.
Inside this compact case is a pretty respectable computer. The basic model costs pound;339 (or pound;314.90 through Apple's Education Store) and has a 1.25GHz G4 processor, 256Mb of memory, 40Gb hard disk and a CD-RWDVD-Rom "combo" drive. There's a second model available for pound;398.99 (Pounds 371.30 through the Education Store) with a faster (1.4GHz) processor and 80Gb hard disk.
Tucked away at the back of the unit are two USB ports, a FireWire port for connecting digital camcorders, a 56k modem and an Ethernet port for networking or broadband internet connection. An audio output connector allows you to plug in a set of speakers or headphones, but there's no audio line in, so you'll need to use some sort of USB recording device or microphone if you want to record your own music.
To keep the price low, Apple sells the Mac Mini all by itself, without monitor, mouse or keyboard. That's unlikely to be a problem for schools though, since many will have old monitors that can be dusted down and used with the Mac Mini.
You may need to buy a USB keyboard and mouse, though, as the Mac Mini can't be used with old PC mice and keyboards that have a PS2 connector.
The only serious signs of cost-cutting compromise are the small amount of memory (RAM) and the use of the "combo" drive. Macs excel at digital audio and video work, and the Mac Mini comes bundled with the latest version of Apple's iLife suite, which includes excellent software, such as GarageBand and iMovie. But, to make the most of this software, you'll probably need to upgrade the memory to 512Mb (an extra pound;50) and opt for a more versatile SuperDrive that can burn DVDs (pound;70). There's no Bluetooth or wireless networking support built into the Mini either, although you can add both features for a single extra payment of pound;70.
Those are the only "hidden" costs, though, and even then the Mac Mini still compares well with rival PC systems. David Baugh, LEA adviser to Denbighshire in North Wales, is impressed with the Mini's value for money.
"For the first time Apple's got a product that competes directly with the bargain-basement PCs that go into schools," he says. "I 'specced' it against a comparable PC from companies like Hewlett-Packard, and it came in a good Pounds 70 cheaper."
Baugh is also impressed by the quality of the Mini's design, pointing to its low noise and heat output, which will be welcome in classrooms that are packed with dozens of computer systems.
The lack of noise reflects the high-quality engineering that has long been one of Apple's trademarks. But, in the past, you've always had to pay a premium for that quality, and less expensive PC systems have often seemed like better value for money.
At long last, though, Apple has come up with a system that is both well-designed and cheap, and which also includes an impressive bundle of creative software at no extra charge. That combination of affordable hardware and versatile software makes the Mac Mini a very attractive option for any school or college.