The Quick Version
The Key Points
1. The cheapest way to get a Mac.
2. Excellent security.
3. Cheap for what it is, but still more expensive than its competitors like the Chromebox.
The Mac Mini is the cheapest way to get a Mac (starts at US $494 - UK £399). It's not as tidy as an iMac (because you will have leads connecting the different bits), but it's good value. It keeps the costs down by assuming you will be supplying your own keyboard, mouse and screen, which you may well have from an older computer.
The Mac Minis principal advantage is that it is a full function computer, meaning you can run just about anything on it. The only type of machine that is more full functional would be Windows computer, which has attracted more support from people writing software and making hardware, simply because it has a much much larger market share. However, Windows has an enormous disadvantage in terms of security (see Windows or Not?). Although Mac security is not perfect, it's vastly better than Windows in this regard.
Security on the Mac is good. Probably the only downside is people think it is invisible and that's not true of any type of computer. The reason that's a problem is people will ignore precautions that would be automatic elsewhere. Read The Security Hierarchy for more details. The short answer is Mac security is good, probably good enough for most people most of the time, just not quite as good as systems that were designed much more recently like iOS and Chrome OS. Should you worry about the difference? Probably not.
Macs don't come with automatic backups built in (unlike an iPad or iPhone, which automatically backup to iCloud unless you tell them not to). It looks like Apple are moving towards having the same sort of automatic backup to iCloud on the Macs, but it's just not quite there yet. There are pieces of the puzzle in place, but not the whole jigsaw, so although there are some iCloud functions on the Mac, you will need to take some extra steps in the meantime if your files are to be kept safe.
Ask in the Apple store and they will tell you to buy an Apple Time Capsule (US $277 - UK £215). Although this is a good piece of kit, I have one huge problem with it: it is a backup device that is in the same building as the computers it is backing up. That's never a good idea. I get calls from people who have had a burglary and the thief has stolen their computer and their backup drive. At least one copy of your backups needs to live somewhere else entirely to the computer.
That's where automatic online backups come in. You put some software on your computer. Pay a fee to the supplier and it will encrypt and send your files to a remote server a long way away. So if bad things happen to your computer (hard drive failure, house fire, burglar, alien abduction etc) all your files can be recovered from the remote service. One day Apple's own iCloud service will do that for you. Until then, get www.carbonite.com. It's a great backup service, they have been around for years and I personally have recovered data from them for numerous customers. They always get the data back.
Very good. You can do almost anything on it.
This does not crop up much in the home market, but sometimes people find they have to run programs that only run on Windows. If that's your situation there is a cunning way around it: you buy some software called Parallels (US $70 - UK £65) that will enable Windows to run inside the Mac. You need to get Windows as well (US $97 - UK £70). With that you can run any Windows software you like.
Even more unusual (in the home market at least) is hardware that will only run on Windows, but it does happen. For example I just saw a musician who has special hardware boards in his PC to do musical things that are beyond my non musical comprehension (but they keep him happy). He is stuck with Windows because that's the only type of computer that will talk to his boards. If you have any wacky hardware, make sure it runs on the Mac before purchasing.
None of this is normally an issue. Most folks have everything they need in a Mac. But then most folks have everything they need in a Chromebase.
What's wrong with choosing a Mac Mini?
Although the price is good, there are even cheaper alternatives (like the Chromebox) which are fine for most people.
It might be worth checking any software or specialist hardware you want does run with a Mac, just in case it's Windows only, although for most people this won't be an issue.
Portability might be an issue, but remember, you don't have to have one device to rule them all. You can have a nice big screen on your desk and a cute dinky one for traveling (like an iPad or a MacBook Air). Apple have done some great work to make all your files synchronize up between your different machines.
Here are a few things that might want to add on to a Mac Mini purchase:
Wireless keyboard and mouse
But this is all nonsense!
There's a staggering amount of misinformation and urban myth doing the rounds on the subject of home computers, often nonsense that is most definitely against your best interests. So let's prepare you for when someone "who knows about computers" comes knocking by covering the popular hogwash in advance.
I won't be able to use a Mac, it's all different!
Probably less different than you think. I changed the main screen on my desk over to Mac about a year ago because I wanted to become very familiar with all of its ins and outs (having had Windows on the main screen since the pyramids were being built, but I have always had lots of other operating systems on the other screens on my desk, still do). Most of the time I forget which operating system I am using. Right now I am typing these words into the Squarespace website on my Mac Mini, later I might be on a Windows laptop doing the same thing. It's the same experience, I will still be typing stuff into a website, regardless of what kind of computer it's on. It also pretty much the same in Word, Excel and lots of other things. I do find lots of little things irritating about the Mac, not because they are wrong, but because they are different to what I am used to. Like the scroll wheel on the mouse going the opposite way to Windows. I switch between machines a lot and now I am never sure which way it's going to go when I scroll.
However, the irritations are worth it for the ability to climb out of the cesspit of security problems that is Windows (see Viruses and Junk Software).
Just remember, whatever type of computer you choose, it will be different to the one you are using now. Even if you have used Windows forever, the latest version of Windows will be different and it will take some getting used to.
I don't want to be a "Mac" person!
This will come as a big shock to Mac people, but Macs have an image problem. When I suggest a Mac to normal people a surprisingly large number of them complain about the arrogance, religious fervour, camping out in front of the Apple Store for 3 days, Macs can do no wrong, you know that sort of thing. Normal people don't like it and don't want to be associated with it (to be fair Apple have done well to avoid this problem with iPhones, iPads & iPods, those are objects of desire and everyone wants them).
It can take a little while to talk people down off of this and get them to the point where they just buy what is right for them. If that happens to be a Mac, get a Mac. The badge on the front does not make you a fanboy. You don't have to subscribe to their religion, it's just a computer. You will have had computers before it and you will have computers after it. Buy what's best for you and laugh at the fanboys (we all do).
Don't be shy, say what you think. The comment system below is there for anyone to ask a question or make a point. Especially don't hold back if you are a normal person just trying to make sense of it all. It's easy to get the opinions of geeks on geeky matters. Much more interesting to hear how this works out for you or what bits need more explanation. No such thing as a silly question, jump in.