At one time, Apple had to endure the accusation that they were overcharging for their products. You had to pay the alleged "Apple Tax" if you went Mac, whereas the PC was clearly a whole lot cheaper.
Well, these days that's not quite true. When you compare a Mac with name-brand PCs with similar hardware and software configurations, matched as closely as possible, the Mac is highly competitive. What I mean is that sometimes the PC will be a little cheaper, and sometimes the Mac comes out ahead.
Just so there's no further confusion, I'm not about to argue the point of whether all features in a Mac are actually needed or not. That's not the point. What you get is what you get, and customization choices are kept very limited, although there are more possibilities at the high end, for the Mac Pro.
What's more, I'm definitely not talking about the so-called "white box" PCs that you buy at discount stores or assemble yourself. Sure you can save money, but you might be out of luck when you need tech support, unless you prefer to do every little thing yourself.
I do think the Mac mini was simply meant to be a product to get people in the door, particularly those who felt they couldn't afford a Mac. Consider the way auto dealers operate. They will advertise an uber-cheap model for an exceptionally low price to entice you to check them out.
Once you get to the showroom, they probably even have a few of those vehicles available. Usually, though, the colors are all wrong, and they are so bereft of the really cool options, such as power windows, iPod jacks and even a decent radio, that you really wouldn't want to take one home unless you were totally desperate for basic transportation.
The plan is, of course, to upsell you to something from which the dealer can exact a real profit. Of course these days that's not so easy. Assuming you can even get financed -- and that's by no means a given anymore -- you may not qualify for the model you want. You may have to compromise, and the dealer will only be too happy to put you into something, anything, to help clear the overcrowded lots.
Now I realize some of you own a Mac mini, and you're quite ready to dispute my contention that Apple doesn't really care if they sell any or not, that it's just a promotional gimmick, particularly for the converted PC user who is accustomed to cheap hardware. Indeed, with a full complement of memory, the mini is quite a decent computer. It's a worthy product for offices, schools and they even serve duty as Web servers. Yes, I'm quite serious about that, though you have to wonder how long a mini can sustain 24/7 use before self-destructing.
But when you consider the way it was packaged, you see that maybe Apple didn't quite sweat the details, as they do with other hardware. Take the intimidating process of adding RAM or replacing a hard drive. For that chore, you need to be handy with a putty knife or similar implement to pry open the case without inflicting damage. The Intel-based mini is worse than the original, designed so you also have to remove the hard drive before getting at the RAM slots. Explain that to me, anyone, other than to keep the product as user-hostile as possible, in hopes you'll buy a MacBook or iMac instead.
There are indeed easier solutions, such as placing four recessed screws at the bottom of the mini's sleek case. You should be able to remove them in two minutes, and they wouldn't detract from the product's looks at all. Who looks at the bottom of the mini anyway other than to take it to a different location (and maybe not even then) or to perform the upgrade?
Or maybe, just maybe, members of the Apple engineering team who designed the equally inappropriate chassis layouts for some of those 1990's Macs, such as the infamous Quadra 800, had a hand in creating the mini. I don't know for sure; I'm just speculating here.
Of course, a highly-anticipated requiem for the Mac mini might very well arrive at Macworld Expo 2009. Perhaps Apple VP Philip Schiller -- replacing Steve Jobs for the keynote -- will proudly unveil a totally redesigned mini, perhaps with a slimmer case more reminiscent of Time Machine or the Apple TV. Maybe it'll contain the innards of a MacBook, replete with that NVIDIA GeForce 9400M chip that's gotten rave reviews as a real solution for great integrated graphics.
Apple may not even have wanted to approach the Mac mini seriously, and it may have even been on the chopping block for a while. But fears of an ongoing economic collapse are forcing people to lower their expectations when it comes to buying a new personal computer. A revitalized Mac mini, perhaps for an entry-level price of $499, might be just the ticket to keep Apple's sales moving in the right direction.
A bait and switch scheme? Maybe at one time, but things have changed, and I trust Apple will do the right thing for this long-neglected product.
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