• The Mac mini Version 2.0 Wish List

    March 26th, 2005

    It’s a known fact that new computers from Apple are often riddled with irritating defects of one sort or another that require trips to the repair shop. You can’t forget the noisy fans found on some of the Mirror Drive Doors or “Wind Tunnel” Power Macs or the iBook logic board repair “extension program,” which addresses problems with models sold between 2001 and 2003.

    Understand that Apple still has the best product reliability rating in that Consumer Reports reader survey, which means Dell, Gateway, HP and all the rest are worse; sometimes much worse. Are we immersed in a sea of product defects?

    No, I won’t go there. I’m encouraged, though, by the fact that there haven’t been too many reports of issues with the Mac mini. This is the computer that Apple can’t afford to get wrong, because it will serve as the initial introduction to the Mac for many people. First impressions mean a lot. Fortunately, issues reported with the Mac mini, except for an occasional problem involving clicking hard drives, have been relatively few. Of course it’s only two months since the first products hit the store shelves. It’s always possible that some unexpected defects will rear their ugly heads in the near future, but I prefer to take an optimistic approach.

    But this is only the beginning, Apple’s first foray into a low-priced headless computer market since the days of the LC (which stood for Low Cost to most of us way back when). And Apple had a far bigger share of the PC market in those days.

    There will be an inevitable upgrade to the Mac mini. Whether it comes this summer, this fall or next year, Apple will learn from the experience and will consider what needs to be changed. In addition, as production levels increase, there will be more opportunity to add features without bumping up the retail price.

    First and foremost, I think, despite words to the contrary from some folks, that the process of opening the case is all too clumsy. Yes, I realize that, once you become adept at handling putty knives, you can crack open the case in five minutes with little or no damage. Yes, I realize that you might have to redesign the logic board to allow for making it possible to use screws, at the bottom of the case, to take things apart. But that doesn’t matter. The fact that Apple could put the guts of a personal computer in a box just two inches high, six-and-a-half inches square, weighing less than three pounds, would have seemed unheard of even three months ago. The rumor sites, or at least some of them, had it right that Apple would release a sub-$500 computer. But nobody predicted how small and light it would be; or at least nobody I know about.

    So it makes sense that Apple’s clever engineers will find a way to put more stuff into the same case, and that would make it possible to use screws instead of plastic tabs.

    Then there’s the memory slot. Yes, I know you have to allow space for a second slot, and additional circuitry, if that’s the choice you make. But it isn’t fair to stick you with an unused memory chip when you want to add memory (except, of course, if you buy it from Apple that way). So putting more stuff in the same case means an extra memory slot. Don’t say there’s no room. Apple will find a way to do it, no doubt about it. That, and the easier method to open the case, would simply make it far more user friendly. Till then, I suppose dealers could set up a rebate program, allowing you to get a discount if you let them keep your old RAM.

    The mainstream technology press also suggests that two USB slots isn’t enough. If you’re using an Apple keyboard, or a keyboard designed by a third party company for Macs, there will usually be an extra USB port or two on the keyboard itself. But not on the Dell keyboard or many other PC keyboards. There isn’t even a port on those keyboards for a mouse. So you are stuck if you want to add a printer. It will help sales of USB hubs, but Apple needs to find a way to squeeze three or four into the tight rear surroundings. It may seem things are too close together now, but a little redesigning will certainly allow for an extra USB port or two. Remember: Think small, think less space between the ports.

    Anything else? Yes, the time has come for Apple to find a way to stuff 512MB into every box. The trend has begun with the current PowerBooks, and it ought to spread. Sure, the extra memory, the extra USB slots and all will increase Apple’s costs, but higher production rates will take care of that, not to mention ways to combine components and other efficiencies to reduce the price of raw materials.

    While I realize that it is possible to get adequate performance with 256MB, there’s not much headroom in case you want to open a large document or launch some extra programs.

    Finally, there’s the hard drive. Apple doesn’t make a big deal in its specs that the Mac mini has 4200 rpm drives, same as the iBook. But as the PowerBook moves to 5400 rpm devices, and the cost of raw drives continues to decrease, I think Apple would do well to consider a speed upgrade. A faster hard drive can make a huge difference in perceived performance. Not that the Mac mini is bad now, and it probably see,s mighty fast for folks who are upgrading from computers that are two or three years old. But you can get faster drives on the low-end PC boxes, and Apple has to stay competitive, especially since it’s now going for the mass market.

    Anything else? Well, a graphics chip with 64MB RAM, a faster processor perhaps. But I don’t expect we’ll see a Mac mini G5 for at least a year or two. We’ll probably have to wait for the iBook to lead the way.

    Past the internal workings, Apple might do well to consider a low-cost mini inspired line of LCD displays, with 15-inch and 17-inch widescreens. Why give the profits away to other companies? Why indeed!

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