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  • Revisiting the Midrange Mac Minitower in a Down Economy

    May 20th, 2009

    All things being equal, you’d expect more and more Mac note-books to sell in the months and years to come, at the expense of desktops. Some day, not even the iMac would have any reason to exist, and might disappear in favor of a few portable models with larger screens — or at least that’s one possibility.

    The other has it that people are looking to save money in any way possible, and that may be one of the key reasons why Microsoft is squandering so much cash on its new ad campaign. Forgetting the obvious flaws in those annoying TV spots, they want to show people that you can get PCs real cheap if you shop around.

    In yesteday’s commentary, I suggested that any movement on Apple’s part towards a lower-cost Mac would probably involve a little cost-cutting and perhaps a MacBook and iMac with smaller screens, to knock $200 or so off the retail price. There is, however, another way.

    For a number of years, some of us have been urging Apple to deliver a desktop computer that sits between the Mac mini and Mac Pro but does not, as with the iMac, have a built-in display. Such a model would serve the purposes of folks who don’t want to pay extra for a screen when they already have one that’s perfectly serviceable, but for whom the Mac mini isn’t powerful or flexible enough and the Mac Pro is overkill.

    I have called it the headless iMac, since I envision a product that would possibly contain much of the same components, but are simply installed in a box that has a few expansion options. This case design would afford space for a second internal hard drive, a second graphics or other expansion card, and perhaps room for additional memory modules.

    Dan Frakes, of Macworld, refers to it as a Mythical Midrange Mac Minitower, but call it what you want. The question is whether Apple could sell enough of them to make sense. As far as R&D expenses are concerned, I don’t expect that it would involve a large figure, since the design elements would mostly involve the case and internal layout. Indeed, they could employ the same aluminum layout as the iMac, and give it sort of a family resemblance. It would be sleek and tiny, but surely larger than a Mac mini, so as to contain the additional parts.

    Looking back at the early Mac lineup, the Mac IIcx was probably the closest equivalent. This model — and its immediate successors, such as the IIci and Quadra 700 — were perfect for people for whom the IIx series was too expensive and offered more computer than they needed.

    On the PC side of the ledger, there are tons of desktops that exist above the entry-level, which afford good performance, reasonable expansion capability and are not super expensive. Apple could likely sell one of these babies for $899 and up and possibly move a fair number of units into homes and businesses that don’t find the existing Mac lineup to suit their needs.

    I understand Apple doesn’t want to enter too many product segments, because it engenders customer confusion and increases manufacturing costs. At the same time, the Mac versus PC wars have stepped up in recent months because Microsoft has decided it’s no longer going to sit back and simply take it. Although still making decent profits, their business is down and they are laying off thousands of employees. They can also see a slipping market share, and that has to cut to the bone.

    This doesn’t mean that Apple’s computer business is in danger. It’s quite possible that the worst of the economic crisis is over, and that the situation is stabilizing in most industries. Renewed growth is being predicted by the so-called financial experts during the last half of the year.

    So Apple could possibly rest on its laurels as far as the Mac lineup is concerned and perhaps do just fine. On the other hand, with increasing speculation that a netbook is in their future, I also have to wonder whether a fourth desktop model is also called for. Apple’s market research might possibly require looking at the profiles of people who buy iMacs, or don’t consider Macs at all.

    How many potential customers are removing Apple from their shopping list because there’s no model in the Mac lineup that meets their needs. Certainly Apple offers plenty of flexibility when it comes to iPods, with multiple models in various colors serving different price ranges and needs. Surely that level of flexibility ought to extend to Apple’s original business — personal computers. What’s more, if they could gain sales of several hundred thousand units per quarter by adding another desktop model to their arsenal, then it makes quite a bit of sense to move in that direction. It would also provide another affordable point of entry for people who find that the Mac mini doesn’t fit their needs.

    Of course, I might be wrong about all this. After all, I’m just a tech journalist. What do I know? But I do believe that Apple ought to consider more than just netbooks as it continues to consider changes to the Mac lineup.



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    9 Responses to “Revisiting the Midrange Mac Minitower in a Down Economy”

    1. Steve W says:

      I agree that the Macintosh IIci is the best example of an Apple “mini-tower” even though it wasn’t a tower at all. The real questions are: was it a runaway success back then, and would you have bought one?

      For extra credit: extrapolate the features and price of the IIci to 2010 and ask yourself: Would I run out and buy one, or would I bitch about the price?

    2. Andrew says:

      “For a number of years, some of us have been urging Apple to deliver a desktop computer that sits between the Mac mini and Mac Pro but does not, as with the iMac, have a built-in display. Such a model would serve the purposes of folks who don’t want to pay extra for a screen when they already have one that’s perfectly serviceable, but for whom the Mac mini isn’t powerful or flexible enough and the Mac Pro is overkill.

      I have called it the headless iMac, since I envision a product that would possibly contain much of the same components, but are simply installed in a box that has a few expansion options. This case design would afford space for a second internal hard drive, a second graphics or other expansion card, and perhaps room for additional memory modules.”

      Gene,

      I think the fact is that for a long time you and a number of other commentators have been urging Apple to deliver a “headless iMac”. This is what Apple did eventually deliver as the Mac Mini. Your wish was granted. So what is it that you want now?

      Internal hard drives? 4 on MacPro, 1 on Mac Mini. So plug in another, via USB or FireWire. Second graphics or other expansion card? In case you haven’t noticed, both Mac Pro and Mac Mini now have output for 2 HD displays. What other kind of “other expansion card” are you thinking about, and why would anyone who wanted one not be professional enough to get a Mac Pro?

      And what do you mean by “perhaps room for additional memory modules”? The Mac Mini supports up to 4GB memory. How many people need this who do not need a Mac Pro?

    3. Andrew says:

      More important is how many people looking for something in that range will buy such a thing instead of a MacBook Pro or iMac? Desktops are fading, why would Apple invest in a new one?

    4. @ Andrew: I’m thinking of product that begins under $1,000. Apple has few options in that arena.

      Peace,
      Gene

    5. Brett says:

      @andrew

      The midrange tower would allow a gamer or graphics professional to upgrade the video card as technology improves, something not possible with the mini.

      A tower could support a full form factor hard disk instead of one designed for a laptop, allowing significantly larger storage capacity.

      A tower would be a “cleaner” solution with fewer wires and boxes strewn about. An extra disk, or perhaps a second optical drive, could fit inside a tower as opposed to hanging off the mini, and there would be no honking big outboard AC supply to contend with.

      The larger form factor of a tower could allow more memory expansion, easier access to internals, and more room for additional ports.

      Finally, a tower makes better use of its desktop footprint. The mini (with it’s flat form factor) takes up a lot of room and is not supposed to have anything stacked on it.

      If the mini really filled the need of a mid-sized tower, there wouldn’t be a continued cry for one.

    6. hmurchison says:

      We don’t really need a new computer we need a redesigned Mac Pro that’s smaller.

      We need an entry level Mac Pro that starts at $1999 not 2499.

      People wouldn’t be asking for a mid tower if they didn’t have to spend a quarter of 10 thousand
      dollars to get an expandable Mac.

      The G4 PowerMacs used to do quite well in the $1499 and up space. Now you have some laptop bolted
      to a screen masquerading around like a true desktop and it’s pathetic.

      The iMac needs to be two models by summer 2010

      20″ Model – $999
      24″ model -$1399

      Mac Pro 6-core $1599

      It’s not rocket science here. Microsoft wouldn’t be slamming Apple if their lineup made more sense.

    7. David says:

      I’ve been waiting for just such a tower since the G4 days and believe Apple would sell a lot of them, but I don’t think it will ever happen for the following reasons. Figuring out which ones matter most to Apple management is left as an exercise for the reader.

      Design costs would be low, but not negligible.
      Any computer an end-user can modify is a support nightmare compared with a sealed box.
      It would cannibalize sales of the “iconic” iMac.
      A desktop computer can cope with the heat generated by faster components. Faster computers don’t need to be replaced as frequently, reducing revenue for Apple.
      Any computer that can have a major component like the video card upgraded doesn’t need to be replaced as frequently, reducing revenue for Apple.
      Nobody would buy expensive Apple Store RAM/HD/Video/etc. upgrades if they were as easy to install as they are with the Mac Pro.
      Apple doesn’t want consumers to have the option of buying a 3rd party display. It hurts revenue and offends their aesthetic sensibilities.
      Apple doesn’t want consumers to hide their “beautiful” Macs under their desks where most towers end up. The cables on the new 24″ Cinema display are so short that you can’t use it with a Mac Pro that’s on the floor.

      Here’s a real world example that gives support to one of the above.

      One of my friends built a hackintosh using the finest components he could buy in September 2007. It has an Intel Core 2 Quad processor and nVidia 8800GT driving a pair of 30″ displays. Not counting the displays it cost the same as an entry level iMac.

      When Snow Leopard ships it will unlock the potential of that quad core processor and fast GPU and leave the current iMac in the dust. A two year old consumer priced tower outperforming a brand new iMac. Apple doesn’t want that sort of “problem” in their lineup.

    8. Al says:

      Nope, here’s why the midrange tower will never happen:

      Such a machine will be at just the right price range for the tinkerers– the kind of people who now buy PCs because they like to play around with internal upgrades. Apple doesn’t want those customers because:

      1.) they will take up a disproportionate share of Apple’s technical support resources, and

      2.) they squawk really loud and would soon fill cyberspace with blogs and forum postings complaining that “I installed this so-and-so upgrade card on my Mac midrange tower and my system is now crashing every two minutes! So much for ‘it just works’!”

      3.) Pretty soon everyone will be saying “Oh I read somewhere that Macs crash every two minutes. And it’s probably true because my neighbor told me the same thing.” (Of course the neighbor was reading the same posting passed around 27 times.)

      No, catering to the tinkerer-geek demographic is no longer in Apple’s interest.

    9. Actually, Apple has had expandable Macs in the product lineup since the 1980s. The current model is the Mac Pro. All we’ve been doing in these columns is suggesting that Apple had a second expandable Mac, a lower priced one.

      That shouldn’t significantly change the percentage of product complaints, compared to the number of Macs out there.

      Peace,
      Gene

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