Memo to Apple: Please Update the Mac mini

October 28th, 2008

Appearing only a few months after Apple claimed it wouldn’t enter the low-cost PC segment, the Mac mini has been an unheralded hero to many of you. It is used for everything from serving up Web pages to point-of-sale and front office applications, but Apple continues to pretend it doesn’t exist.

The visual appeal is striking. Some call it half a cube, since its square shape is reminiscent of the failed, overpriced Mac that appeared with great flourish some years back. Debuting at $499 for the entry-level model (it’s now $599), it was a perfectly afforddable way for Windows switchers to move to the Mac and keep their existing monitors and input devices.

All right, a Mac mini isn’t terribly powerful at computing tasks. Today’s version features an older-generation Intel Core 2 Duo processor rated at either 1.83 or 2GHz. Graphics are provided by the pokey Intel GMA 950 graphics processor, which shares 64MB of system RAM. To be fair, that’s enough for display of the high definition movies you download from iTunes, but when it comes to games, don’t even think about it.

Then again, it’s no worse than the cheap PC boxes that are still available at discount stores, such as Wal-Mart, and it’s fine for routine computing tasks, such as email, Internet browsing and word processing. Indeed, if you’re upgrading from an older Power Mac G4, you might see a significant performance boost. That happens to be true for a long-time client who bought a Mac mini a while back. He uses it for the simple stuff, and he was simply delighted.

It’s not certain just how many minis are sold nowadays. Apple conceals the numbers in its overall desktop sales figures. I would guess that revenue is high enough to keep the product in production, but not enough to warrant any special promotional campaign. And that’s unfortunate.

Now I don’t think Apple is necessarily insensitive to economic concerns, and the fact that lots of potential customers simply don’t have the spare cash to buy an iMac or new MacBook, even the white version of the latter at $999. It also makes perfect sense to me that many of you don’t want to pay for a display, keyboard and mouse when the ones you have at hand are perfectly serviceable.

Besides, I don’t think it would cost a whole lot to upgrade the internal workings on the Mac mini, particularly since it uses mostly note-book parts similar to those in the MacBook. So I wouldn’t think it would present a difficult problem to incorporate the new NVIDIA-based parts, which includes the sparkling NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics chip.

At the same time, maybe it would be a good opportunity for Apple to address a significant design shortcoming of the Mac mini. You see, you need a putty knife or similar implement to open the case when you want to upgrade RAM or replace the hard drive. The people who devised that absurd scheme ought to be tarred and feathered, and go down in infamy in the same fashion as the folks who conceived the RAM upgrade technique for the Quadra 800 and similar models back in the 1990s.

While I realize Apple has a penchant for closed designs on the iPod and iPhone, such a strategy makes no sense whatever on a personal computer. More to the point, putting, say, four tiny screws at the bottom of the Mac mini’s case, the better to remove the cover for internal expansion, shouldn’t seriously hamper its elegant looks. Apple has already considered easy upgrade possibilities for the new MacBooks, so why not the mini?

It might also make sense to see just how far they can take this product, and spend a few dollars to let people know that it really exists. Yes, you might see them at an Apple Store, or online, but how many third-party dealers get much mini traffic?

Just recently, for example, I had a client’s computer under repair at a nearby shop. The dealer has refashioned his operation to more closely resemble an Apple Store, and he had a fairly decent stock of the current models. Except for the mini.

When the repair estimate turned out to be somewhat prohibitive, I suggest the client get a mini, since he was on the budget. The dealer, however, had none in stock, and the expected shipment of new stock from Apple had been unfortunately delayed, and delayed yet again.

Now if published reports are correct, Apple may be running out of supplies of the mini in anticipation of a forthcoming upgrade. Maybe it’ll come by the time you read this article, along with the expected refresh for the iMac.

If, however, Apple chooses to bury the Mac mini, I would hope that they would, at the same time, release a suitable successor. It would be a huge mistake to just give up on the concept of an super-affordable Mac. At least that’s my not-so-humble opinion.

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9 Responses to “Memo to Apple: Please Update the Mac mini”

  1. AdamC says:

    I am with you on this, it is really a huge mistake to drop the mini.

  2. Jim says:

    On the difficulty of ‘getting into’ the mini: Probably most of these are sold to schools. If students today are anywhere near as, um,inquisitive as I was, they would have any design not built of bank vault grade steel and secured with battleship anchor chain open and internally probed in about half a nanosecond. Leave a RAM door available and the mini would be toast in a heartbeat.;-)

  3. Andrew A says:

    Agreed – the mini is a great form factor (I would probably tweak it some if it were up to me, but I can accept it as-is and for many situations it’s far preferable to the other Macs), is relatively affordable and easy to recommend to people who don’t need more power. I would love to have better graphics and more RAM (I do actually want to hook up a 30″ display and do light Aperture work on it), and I hope that Apple does upgrade it soon. I *really* hope it doesn’t get dropped – that would be a huge blow.

  4. kurien says:

    I agree very much
    Hope steve does something

  5. Alfiejr says:

    Why do so many blogs fail to check simple facts before expounding and speculating? Today the Mini is #2 and #13 on Amazon’s list of top selling desktop computers. (iMacs are #3, #5, and #6). it has been in the top 5 consistently, often at #1. This is obviously a genuine business success, because the Mini fills many roles at home and in business where an all-in-one desktop, the iMac, makes no sense. Apple ain’t gonna kill it – why, to give up an entire market segment permanently?

    Apple may very well rework it now with a new form factor (same size as AppleTV/Time Capsule) and reengineered insides so it is ready for future technology like Snow Leopard. or maybe just do a speed bump on the current version like it did in 2007 and save the big changes until next year. well see …

  6. Because a product rates highly at Amazon doesn’t mean it rates highly elsewhere. It’s encouraging, however.


  7. David says:

    I still believe that the mini should be replaced by a Mac Nano that’s a MacBook minus the display, keyboard and battery. It would have relatively low production costs (thanks to the guts being identical to Apple’s best selling Mac), low energy use, low noise output, good performance and accessible RAM and HD.

    I agree with Jim that students are remarkably good at getting into things, but that doesn’t justify making computers sealed boxes. If a kid wants to steal the RAM from a computer he’ll do it regardless of whether it’s easy or not. It’s like DRM for music. Restrictions on when and where you can enjoy your music are only frustrating for the legitimate purchaser. Those who don’t want restrictions will always find another source for music that doesn’t impose limits.

    Way back in the 90’s I worked for an Apple dealer. We had anti-static mats at bench in the back of the store where the sales people could do their own upgrades. I could upgrade the RAM in a Power Macintosh 7500 in 30 seconds. Performa 5xxx/6xxx machines took 45 seconds. I admit a few models were more difficult to upgrade, but even the Quadra 800 wasn’t that bad. After getting off the main case it was a simple matter of taking out one screw, unplugging two cables and gently tilting the logic board backward until you could get your hand in.

    To upgrade the current iMac you have to first remove the glass panel from the front without putting so much as a fingerprint on the inside surface. Then the entire LCD panel needs to come out. If you’re trying to find the hard drive you’ll need to pull out even more components. It’s insane, but surprisingly it’s not the worst Mac of all time. That title belongs to the 12″ PowerBook G4. The designer of that one probably had to go into a witness protection program to avoid being killed by angry service technicians.

  8. Andrew says:

    removing the glass panel of an iMac is FAR FAR worse than the procedure to open a PowerBook G4 hard drive. Now a 12″ PB display is a serious operation, but the little Al’s hard drive, while requiring many screws, does not require any delicate disassembly. I know, I’ve done it three times to my own 12″ PowerBook, first to an 80GB drive in 2005 and again to a 120GB drive in 2007. I may even do it again, though I will have a shop do it as I’m having the CCFL backlight replaced anyway.

  9. Bill says:

    I agree that the Mini should conform to the new Macbook sans display, battery, keyboard – use the same MagSafe power adapter to keep things simple.

    Apple needs some form of the Mini or they will lose sales to the increasing ease of building “Hackintoshes”

    Right now you can take a $399 MSI Wind, swap in a $15 wireless card, and run both Leopard and the original WinXP on a decent little netbook with a 10″ screen.

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