The Great Hardware Pitch: The Midrange Tower Revisited

March 4th, 2008

Do you remember the Mac IIci? Well, that compact and ultra-efficient box (which first premiered as the IIcx) had sufficient space for three peripheral expansion slots, a cache card slot and room for 8 RAM sticks; the latter is the same as today’s Mac Pro, by the way.

Of course, you can substitute an optical drive for the floppy port of yesteryear, and certainly swap the ports for today’s equivalents if you want to place this product in a 21st century perspective. But bear in mind that all of this was packed in a thick plastic case weighing 13.6 pounds.

Now the rectangular IIci case, basic beige in color, would look decidedly unassuming, and surely retro in today’s marketplace, particularly since Apple has become the benchmark for PCs with high style. But let’s take the argument a little further, though I rather suspect you have a good idea of where I’m going.

Let’s say you take an aluminum box of similar, if perhaps repurposed, dimensions. Within it, you put the basic electronics of an iMac, including the latest Core 2 Duo Intel processor, add space for a second hard drive, two peripheral slots, one of which is occupied by a discrete graphics card, and just four RAM slots. External ports can be identical to the iMac, including both FireWire 400 and FireWire 800. And let’s not forget standard Bluetooth and AirPort, of course.

Now take this relatively small personal computer and sell it for, say, $999 for the base model. You can probably outfit it with additional stuff, such as the second hard drive, more memory and so on and so forth, and top it off at, say, $1,599. All right, I’m guessing.

The point is that you would end up with a perfect expandable computer packing plenty of power; the perfect desktop for both Mac and converted Windows users.

Today, if you want something that vaguely resembles this capability, you end up with an iMac and the built-in display you just don’t need, and, other than RAM, a total lack of internal expansion capability. Certainly the Mac mini doesn’t make it, because it’s underpowered and even adding RAM is painful.

I suppose you could argue that a custom-configured Mac Pro, with a single processor and as few frills as possible, might be a suitable substitute, except that it will still tip the scales at $2,299, and offer far more bulk than you need.

Forget about grabbing sales from existing models? Isn’t a sale a sale?

On a practical level, Apple has, in recent years, kept its model lines distinct, with few overlaps. The MacBook Air is an exception, since it will perhaps cannibalize some MacBook and MacBook Pro sales, although it will likely generate sales from people who merely want a note-book computer strictly for travel, and they’re willing to forego internal wireless networking and the built-in optical drive — and some performance and storage capacity too.

Now certainly the thin and light note-book has traditionally been somewhat of a niche product. Apple made the MacBook Air more mainstream by giving it a full-sized keyboard and the same screen size as the regular MacBook. Perhaps this was the right marketing decision, witness the fact that they are finding it real hard to keep the Airs in stock. Unless you’re lucky enough to find one at your dealer of choice, expect to wait a week or two for one to be delivered to your home or office.

Sure, some of that might be hype, with Apple keeping tight reigns on supplies in order to give the product the semblance of high-demand it might otherwise not deserve. Or maybe they’re doing the best they can, and seriously underestimated the Air’s demand.

But where does that leave the so-called “headless” iMac, the compact expandable desktop? Is there a market for such a product, today, where two-thirds of all Macs sold are note-book models?

That’s a question I am not prepared to answer, but I’ll do a little guesswork. Today, you’re forced into buying a desktop that doesn’t meet your needs, the iMac or Mac Pro, to gain more than entry-level processing power.

On the PC side of the ledger, there are, of course, lots of desktops that meet these basic requirements, being several steps above the low-end and delivering adequate expandability and power.

I find it difficult to believe that Apple, now that it has fleshed out its note-book line, couldn’t find a healthy environment for mid-range expandable desktop. Other than the case design which, in the end, could look like half a Mac Pro to be perfectly simple — though it would look ungainly I suppose — I can’t imagine development costs would be all that high, since all the basic components are already in use in other Macs.

Of course, if Apple can’t sell sufficient quantities, it won’t matter what I say. Would you buy one?

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21 Responses to “The Great Hardware Pitch: The Midrange Tower Revisited”

  1. Micheal says:

    please give me a machine i can use Mr Jobs.

    Im a 3d sketchup and 3dMax user.
    I dont want 40 kgs of designer heaven on my table.
    I love the OS…I hate your range of products.

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