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Memo to Apple: Please Update the Mac mini

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.