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. NormanB says:

    If one had been available a few months ago when I bought my Intel Mac mini, I would have gone for the headless iMac. Now I’m set for the next few years. Perhaps the next time I’m ready to buy, if one is on the market by then. I definitely want something smaller (and cheaper) than a Mac Pro that will let me use any monitor of my choice.

  2. Andrew says:

    Personally I wouldn’t go for it. I think Apple’s sales split between desktops and notebooks tells the answer, and that is that people who need ultimate power buy desktops, and everyone else buys portables, even if just to use at their desk.

    Why spend $1100 on a headless iMac when you can spend that same $1100 on a MacBook unless you need that high-end video card or some esoteric device that fits in a PCI slot, and that user is probably looking at a Mac Pro anyway.

    While I’ve purchased a few cheap desktops for my employees I’ve chosen a laptop for my own computer since my PowerBook 5300c in 1996 and a MacBook now. They are contagious, with my wife and daughter both also using MacBooks as their only computers.

  3. Dana Sutton says:

    The MacPro doesn’t ship with Air Port and Bluetooth, doesn’t handle Front Row, and doesn’t come bundled with iLife. These missing consumer-oriented features go to show that the Mac Pro has morphed into a specialized workstation for content-producers and other professionals and that Apple has stopped thinking of it as a mainstream consumer oriented product with the usual bias towards marketing the Mac as an entertainment device (although the absence of the SATA port so many professionals require is mysterious). The fact that they are letting the price of the Mac Pro creep upwards suggests the same thing. That leaves the iMac as their top-of-the-line desktop for the general consumer, and, as cool as it looks, it does a very questionable job of filling that role. Yes, plenty of folks have perfectly good large flat-screen displays already (and, money to the side, plenty of folks would think long and hard before swapping what they have for a glossy-screen display, why oh why doesn’t Apple offer the option of a matte one?). The iMac has too limited expansion abilities, and what expansion is available involves the cost and down-time of having a technician do the work for you. These days 4GB is not exactly a huge amount of RAM. Perhaps worst of all, the iMac has no video card upgrade option, which makes it a weak competitor in the gaming market, although the availability of Boot Camp might otherwise make the Mac much more appealing for gamers than it has been in the past, and gamers make up a category of potential purchasers Apple has a history of ignoring. So, yes, there is a crying need in the lineup for a headless, top-of-the line consumer-oriented desktop that offers more power and flexibility than the iMac.

  4. Just a technical point: Both Bluetooth and iLife ’08 are standard on the latest Mac Pro.


    Sent from my iPhone.

  5. Tim says:

    I like the idea of a latter day IICi, imagine, upgradeable without a gasket scraper. A mini variant, 6.5″ x 10.5″ footprint might also do nicely. Your idea would be more expandable and easier for the end user, so I don’t expect it, but I’d buy it.

  6. Malcolm says:

    We recently opted to purchase the 2.4Ghz iMac Core2 Duo maxed out to 4Gb of RAM. The biggest factor for us was which machine had the lowest decibel output. It is surprising that there isn’t more discussion of the need for quiet of late. With the iMac recording within the vicinity of the machine is possible, along with the additional benefit of not being annoyed by overly loud fan noise that can occur in the Mac Pros. If there had been a quiet Mac Pro (tall or medium in height) we likely would have opted for it. But the modern iMac with the ATI Radeon HD2600 Pro with 256MB of VRAM suffices for our needs (since we are light duty in terms of gaming). We are happy with the strength of the machine while being aware that we may be compelled to trade it in down the road more quickly than would have been necessary with a Mac Pro.

  7. stwf says:

    YES! I completely agree. Users toting MacBooks or MacBook Pros are missing the point.

    I want the 30″ Cinema Display, so that rules out everything except the MBP. But I want a blazingly fast machine, with tons of RAM (10 gig or so), and a giant fast hard drive.

    What I don’t want/need/desire to pay for is room for 4 extra slots, 3 extra hard drives and a second optical drive bay. Those are great machines for graphics professionals, but totally out of place for what the advanced home user wants or needs.

    I’d also love to see something amazingly small and cool, as nice as the MacPro’s are they are not meant to fit in with home decor. Something the height of a couple of mac minis, awesome graphics card and 6 or 8 RAM slots. Man I’d buy that in a heartbeat!

    As it is I’ll probably hold off until Apple gives us new 30″ monitors, and hope against hope for a miracle and Apple providing us with a minitower at the same time.

  8. Dan Knight says:

    I agree completely. Give us a “midrange” Mac, either in a traditional flat desktop or minitower configuration (shoot, Mr. Jobs, how about a cube?) with built-in video for those who don’t need the best, two expansion slots (for those who want better video, etc.), and three drive bays – hard drive, optical drive, and a bay that can support either. Sell it cheap with a Combo drive, 1 GB of RAM, and a 160 GB hard drive for maybe $799 at 2.0 GHz. Sell a $999 version with a SuperDrive, 2 GB of RAM, and a 250 GB hard drive at 2.2 GHz. Then add a power user model with a 2.4 GHz CPU, a 500 MB hard drive, and a dedicated video card for $1,199. And add lots of BTO options – 2.6 GHz, quad core, a second SuperDrive, several optional video cards, etc.

    With 2 slots, 3 drive bays, and slower CPUs, this would hardly impact Mac Pro sales at all. It would, however, cannabilize Mac mini sales – and be worth a $200 premium. Best of all, by using standard hard drives, etc., Apple could make a better profit from this than from the mini.

  9. Kayners says:

    I’d buy Mac mid-towers by the dozen for the office. I won’t buy anything with an integrated screen, and the Mac Pro is way too expensive to justify (not to mention too large for the cubicle hardware). Right now I’m buying Minis, but they’re under-performing, mostly due to the slow hard drive.

  10. John Fallon says:

    A great idea, which probably has no real chance of coming to pass. There are so many people saying the same thing that Apple surely knows how we feel.

    I hate the screens on the new iMacs, and they always seem to run hotter than I like. I really hate the notion that if I have hard drive problems, I have to carry the huge fragile thing, screen and all, to an Apple store, with all my data sitting on the hard drive, and leaving it there. When I had a problem with my old G5, putting in a new drive and re-cloning was a matter of an hour, at home.

    Even if I wanted a 40 pound block of aluminum for a computer, I’ve seen so many reports of sleep or graphics issues with the new Mac Pro’s I’d be reluctant to get one at the moment.

  11. John B says:

    I want a miniProâ„¢ and have wanted one for some time. I have been holding off replacing my dual G4, mainly because I’ve been waiting for Adobe to release an Intel-native version of Director. But that release is imminent, and I need to make a decision. Actually, there is no decision to be made other than when to give up on waiting for Apple to release what I need. I have a perfectly good 24″ monitor, so no iMac for me. I don’t really need 8 or even 4 CPUs, nor do I need expansion beyond an additional hard drive or 2. But I can’t get such a configuration. So my only choice if I want a Mac is a MacPro. It looks like Apple has me right where they want me — I will eventually spend the extra $$ and buy a MacPro. For a customer like me, I guess it’s in Apple’s best interest to ignore what I want and make more money by selling me what they want.

  12. Brett says:

    I find it infuriating that Apple doesn’t offer an upgradable/configurable budget Mac. Many Windows users have mentioned to me that if only Apple made such a machine, they would be willing to switch.

    Apple could really boost their market-share if they sold such a machine.

  13. Adam says:

    The MacPro doesn’t ship with Air Port and Bluetooth, doesn’t handle Front Row, and doesn’t come bundled with iLife.

    Dana, I enjoy and respect your comments on these posts but 60 seconds of web research shows (for maybe the first time) some woeful factual errors:
    For the record, I own a Mac Pro and it came with iLife (still does – check the Apple store online).
    It can and does “handle” Front Row which ships as part of Leopard (Cmd-esc invokes it). You may recall that when he introduced Leopard Steve Jobs made a point of announcing “Front Row for everyone”. What it doesn’t have is an IR remote, but there is one available from Keyspan for about $30.00.
    Airport is a $50 option, although slowing down your network access with inherently less secure connection technology seems a dubious prospect to me. After all, WiFi is originally meant for portability. Trust me, there ain’t nothing portable about this sucker! I know not everyone has their computer where there modem is but it’s not hard to run ethernet cabling and most ISP’s will install your connection to the room of your choice. For the target market this is not usually a needed feature.
    Bluetooth was an option on last year’s model (mine) but the current specs clearly list is as built in for the current model.

    Having said all that, I have been saying for years that Apple needed a mid range tower or “headless” iMac. I had high hopes for the Mac Mini, but that machine was a let-down for me. This is a gap in the product line that needs to be filled.


  14. Dana Sutton says:

    Okay, the new Mac Pro comes with iLife and Bluetooth (my mistake — my first-generation Pro came with neither). As for things like Airport and Front Row, sure I know you can retrofit a Pro with this stuff. The point I was trying to make is that Apple didn’t include them in the base unit, as it does with the iMac, because it is envisioning a different kind of purchaser for the Pro, who has other fish to fry and isn’t necessarily interested in using his computer as an entertainment center. In other words, not what Apple likes to think of as your average consumer.

  15. Jim says:

    I am working fulltime and running a small business with my wife. I made the decision to acquire a MacBook Pro to get the features that we needed. The Mini Tower is badly needed for Mac Business users and for gamers. I am sitting next to a Dell here at work in an engineering group. Probably 95% of the employees in my firm have either a mini tower or 5% laptops at my full-time job. That is something that someone at Apple should understand if their marketing team are on top of their business. Rather than ME TOO, there is a real hole in the Apple product line and it is the Mini Tower with some expansion capability, and lower cost growth for business and home users without going to the Mac Pro. Unfortunately being an engineer requires logical rather than emotional thought. That changes though when I see shiny new tech items like this. If Apple goes for it, we’ll eat beans and rice for a month to pay for one.

  16. Nate says:

    I was discussing this matter with a colleague at work only a few days before I came across this article that outlines nearly everything we had identified as desirable in a similar product. As an enthusiast photographer running programs such as Photoshop, Lightroom etc, I would go for this headless iMac (vote for: miniPro) in a heartbeat, especially if it had eSATA too. Can I add a suggestion, include and upgrade option for a quad core processor too. A little bit more processing power adds a little more useable life to my Macs.

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  18. Mike says:

    I am a PC user, and have been wanting to buy a Mac for over a year now. The Mac Pro costs more than I am willing to spend on a computer. I do not need or want another display like the one built into the iMac. I would buy Mid-Range Mac like this, and it would be a new sale to Apple.

  19. Jules says:

    If Mac offered a mid-range tower I would be first in line. Like many others, the MacPro is more machine than I need, the Mini isn’t enough, and I really don’t need another 20″ screen (iMac) on my already crowded desktop to go with the perfectly good LCD monitor I already have. I think Apple is making a mistake by ceding the “mid-range” market to Windows/PC. There are a lot of people like me who would love to have the reliability and simplicity of the Mac OS in a mid-range form factor and who don’t have the technical skills to build a “Hackintosh.” Never mind the possible legality of installing the Mac OS on such a machine. So how about it, Apple? Goldilocks is still looking for the one that’s just right!

  20. You are preaching to the choir here. 🙂

    Will Apple listen? WIth them, you never know.


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