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  • Why is Mac mini RAM Installation So Difficult?

    March 18th, 2006

    Last year, when the Mac mini first appeared, putty knives became both jokes and essential ingredients for new owners of the tiny desktop computer. Revisiting the problems one encountered adding memory to the first generation iMac and older Macs, Apple designed the mini to make RAM updates a chore.

    Unlike other Macs of recent vintage, there were no screws and pop-out latches to get inside. You had to pry the case apart, being careful not to damage anything. Now, I understand that Apple might have felt that there was a design advantage to such a scheme, but why not have a simple-to-remove bottom cover, perhaps reminiscent of the lamp shade generation of the iMac?

    Of course, that didn’t stop many Mac users from developing proper putty knife skills and, and I gather, doing the job without causing any serious damage. From time to time, however, I wondered aloud why Apple felt the need to inflict such torture on Mac users. Maybe the second generation mini would be better, or at least that’s what I hoped.

    Well, now that the mini has joined the MacIntel generation, just what has changed? Well, on the surface, not much. You still need a putty knife to pry open the case. However, once you get inside, the RAM slots are not easily accessed. Assuming you’ve managed to come through this major step without inflicting visible damage, although minor scratches are apparently difficult to avoid, you’ve only come part way on your journey to boost the thing’s memory.

    You now find yourself having to remove the AirPort card, the upper chassis, and fiddle with delicate cables to get to those precious RAM slots. Just what was Apple thinking?

    Now don’t get me wrong. I understand that engineering considerations may have dictated where parts are placed. Proper placement and proper cooling in such close quarters are difficult problems to solve, and it may very well be that, at least for now, doing the right thing for do-it-yourself Mac users may not have a priority. I do not feel it’s necessarily a plot to force you to pay your favorite Apple dealer an installation fee to handle the chore, although that is probably your best resource, unless you are very comfortable in close quarters and quite brave. And don’t forget the consequences if you damage something, because Apple won’t cover the bill to repair the results of your clumsiness.

    Now I can understand why it must be difficult to pry open your iPod, but that’s something you may only have to do once during its lifetime, usually to replace the battery and not to fix anything else. I can also understand that the RAM upgrade on your Mac mini may also be a once-in-a-lifetime step, and that once you’ve had it done, by yourself or another, the experience should not have to be repeated.

    On the other hand, I think Apple’s product designers are smart enough to figure ways around this dilemma, even if time to market for the new mini was relatively short. Although this may be considered an attack on the design sensibilities of Jonathan Ive and his team, there are practical considerations that sometimes work against a seamless looking case. If you can’t enter from the bottom, what about the rear, in the vicinity of the connection ports? I mean you do have connection ports, even though they surely interrupt the smooth surface. And it’s not as if you’re going to look back there very often after the system is set up, right? Would it be a serious problem to have there’s a thin, almost invisible crease where the entrance to the internal workings pops off?

    Of course, the new Mac mini is not the only current model where RAM installation and other journeys to the internal workings have become more difficult. Take the Power PC and Intel versions of the latest iMac. In the original iMac G5, the parts were intended to be easy-to-replace modules, so even the Mac user with only modest screwdriver skills could replace key components without having to take special training courses. At the time, I felt this was an encouraging trend.

    The updated case design, however, clearly intended as a step towards the Intel transition when it debuted last fall, did away with all that. Yes, RAM installation remains simple, but the rest of the parts are strictly for service people. Here I suppose I can understand the logic behind abandoning the original parts placement scheme. Maybe building such a modular setup somehow increased production costs beyond a few dollars worth of plastic or metal, or presented other engineering hassles that I, of course, probably know nothing about. At least the memory is readily accessed.

    This isn’t to say the Intel-based Mac mini is necessarily a bad computer. In most other respects, it seems a worthy successor to the original. But I, for one, have no intention to perfecting my non-existent putty knife skills anytime soon. Surely the brilliant product designers at Apple can find a better way.



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