SAN FRANCISCO

AS A LONG-TIME PC user, I've always held a secret suspicion that life might be better with a Mac. There's no denying Apple's machines are sleeker and sexier than their bulky PC brethren, but they've typically been more expensive too.

Apple fans, like Ferrari owners, have always paid a premium for the cachet of an Apple logo on the box. But with last month's introduction of the new Mac mini computer, the cost of owning a Mac may finally have dropped low enough to entice many PC users away from the Microsoft monopoly.

At a retail price of just $499, the Mac mini is one of the most affordable systems ever to come out of Apple's engineering labs in Cupertino. Palatable price aside, it's also incredibly stylish — the system is far more enticing to the eye then any other low-cost PC you're likely to find. It's not much larger than a short stack of CDs, making it easy to slip the computer into a backpack or a briefcase.

Apple doesn't include a monitor, a keyboard or a mouse with the Mac mini, but most PC users have these already. The mini works just fine with PC-style three-button mice and regular analog or digital flat-panel monitors — your keyboard though must support USB, as the older and the more common PS/2 keyboards won't work with the Mac mini.

Taking the Mac mini for a test drive last week turned out to be a relatively painless procedure. The hardest part was not losing the lunch box-sized package as I carried the computer around with me. Once I had the system safe at home, plugging it in took less than five minutes.

My first test was a DVD movie — Forbidden Planet in case you're wondering. The Mac mini ran like a champ while it played the DVD, better in fact than my Dell notebook sitting just beside it.

I haven't spent much time with an Apple since the old Mac LC I owned more than a decade ago, but I had few problems getting comfortable with Apple OS-X operating system.

The Mac mini comes with all of the typical software most computer users expect to have these days, plus a few extra goodies you probably wouldn't see on a low-cost PC.

Apple's iPhoto in particular is a joy to use; why couldn't it be this simple in Windows to move pictures off of a digital camera? The iDVD application allows Mac mini owners to burn DVD movies, provided you purchase the higher-priced unit with the SuperDrive option.

I'm no music expert, but I've heard good things about GarageBand, Apple's music creation software. I imagine most Mac mini users will get more use out of iTunes, Apple's MP3 player and gateway to the on-line music store of the same name.

The iTunes interface is clean, powerful and versatile, but the software does have an annoying tendency to skip during playback when the machine is under heavy use.

Networking on the Mac is both simple and complicated. To get the mini connected to the Internet was easy, getting it to share files with my PC wasn't. Once I figured out how to make the two systems talk, I had no problems opening all my PC documents on the Mac.

The Mac mini though is not without its flaws. The machine sports only two USB ports — enough to plug in a keyboard and a mouse, but nothing else. Of course, if you buy an Apple keyboard, this won't be a problem since Apple's own keyboard comes with extra USB ports, but most PC keyboards don't have that feature.

Adding a USB hub will boost the number of available ports, but that option also adds extra clutter to the desktop and increases the overall cost.

The base version of the Mac mini also comes with just 256 MB of RAM, which probably isn't enough for running more than a few applications at any one time. The system I tested dragged on occasion, which isn't surprising on a low-cost model.

More memory would probably fix that problem, but it would also bump up the price.

So is life any better on a Mac? I'm still undecided. But I will miss this little beast after I return it to Apple. If you're in the market for high-powered number crunching, the Mac mini isn't going to cut it. If you're interested in dabbling in Mac land, though, it's hard to beat the price. The Mac mini might well convince PC geeks like me to switch, and it sure looks a lot better on my dining room table than any PC ever has.

Richard McKeethen can be reached at richard@mckeethen.com.