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Apple offers Mac Mini 'test drive'

Online promotion lets customers return the Mini after 30 days. Is it a sign the company's foray into low-cost computing has fizzled?

Apple Computer has launched a promotion for its no-frills Mac Mini computer, allowing customers to return the machine for a full refund after a 30-day "test-drive."

The deal, which began Wednesday and ends Oct. 31, is available only through Apple's online store. Customers normally have 14 days to return Apple merchandise. The company usually only gives full refunds for unused machines in unopened boxes unless the product is defective.

"We're so confident you'll love your new Mac Mini, we'll let you test-drive it for 30 days with no risk," Apple's site states. "If you decide you don't want it, we'll take it back."

Customers are on the hook, however, for return-shipping costs.

The promotion signals that Apple may not be thrilled with the pace of Mac Mini sales after the initial excitement over its January launch wore off, technology analyst Roger Kay said. It also smacks of late-night TV advertising, he said. Kay, the president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, has heard anecdotally that Mini sales have slowed.

"I think the issue now is that growth may have stalled, and a campaign like this may be designed to reinvigorate it," Kay said.

Apple declined to comment on the test-drive campaign or the state of its Mac Mini business, but when the company introduced a new version of the machine last month, executives sounded upbeat. "Our overall Mac business is very strong," Apple Vice President David Moody said in an interview.

The company introduced the Mini, a budget version of the Macintosh, with a $499 price tag in January. The product, which does not come with a keyboard, mouse or monitor, was hailed at the time as the company's big foray into mass-market desktop computers after focusing exclusively on luxury goods. The eMac, Apple's next cheapest computer, starts at $799.

Many viewed the introduction of the Mac Mini as a shrewd way to parlay the huge success of the iPod into greater Macintosh adoption. To some degree, it appears to be working. Apple's global share of the desktop computer market hit 2.1 percent in the second quarter, nearly double its share from a year ago, according to Kay.

Yet the jury is still out on the appeal of the Mini. For one thing, the product may be geared toward budget shoppers, but it still costs about $100 more than similarly configured PCs from Gateway, Hewlett-Packard and others.

And while the Mini may be smaller and more stylish than the competition, its insides are very similar. Just how many budget shoppers let style trump price remains to be seen.