Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Whither (or Wither?) Mac Mini?

It's been over three years since the Mac Mini was introduced. At the time it had a clear mission and was built to fit its goals. Apple was pushing hard to convert Windows switchers. The Mini filled the niche of an entry-level PC replacement priced to compete with the beige commodities. After several revisions and a price increase, it seems to me the Mini has lost its way.

In early 2005 a person could become a Mac user for $499 if they already had peripherals. A full system with 17" CRT could be had for $799 in the form of the eMac. Since the transition to Intel processors, however, Apple seems to have been sapped of its desire to compete for the low-end market. The eMac was discontinued and now the Mac Mini comes in $599 and $799 models.

The extra $100 for the modern Mini would not be so bad if it purchased a full-powered system. Unfortunately, the base model includes only an 80 GB hard drive, a combo optical drive (no DVD writer), and a graphics card using 64 MB of shared main memory (no dedicated video RAM). Even the one gigabyte of main memory is problematic in that it fills both memory slots, so upgrading means discarding the old memory.

The design of the Mac Mini is very nice; too nice in my opinion. In order to fit the components into the miniscule 6.5 x 6.5 x 2" case, more expensive laptop components have to be used. Is extreme smallness really so important? Why does anyone need a desktop system that weighs less than 3 pounds?

If Apple continues the Tuesday updates it has been releasing every week, I would like to see a Mac Mini update. The AppleTV, now priced starting at just $229, is very similar to a Mac Mini internally. Teardowns show a one GHz Intel processor, 64 MB NVidia video card, 256 MB of RAM, and a Fujitsu laptop hard drive. Obviously the Mini could have improved specs and/or a lower price.

The desktop PC market is no longer as explosive as the laptop market, but Apple could be a much larger contender by answering the wishes of many users and making a Mac Mini "Maxi". It would necessarily come in a bigger case. It would have a desktop hard drive, a full video card in a real PCI or AGP slot, and open memory slots. Ideally the case would even swing open easily like the Mac Pro, encouraging people to upgrade it. With a larger hard drive and better video card than currently offered and otherwise similar specs, the base model could still be priced back at the $499 level.

My imagined Mac Mini Maxi

Whether this would be a new product or a redo of the Mac Mini would be up to marketing, but such a formulation would demonstrate a commitment on Apple's part to continue to court Switchers. Without such a model in their arsenal, the Hackintosh becomes much more appealing to potential Mac users. Better to have a low-margin customer than no customer at all.

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