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Dreaming of an iMac Pro

Some years back, a few of us made the pitch for a “Mythical Midrange Mac Minitower,” to use the term coined by Macworld Senior Editor Dan Frakes. I preferred to call it a “headless iMac,” since I envisioned something with the guts of the iMac, but without the display. I was thinking of a 21st century equivalent of the fabled Mac IIcx/IIci. These were powerful (for their time) relatively lightweight Macs with a room for expansion cards and other goodies.

Well, Apple has their own concept of what a mid-priced Macintosh should be, at least so far as Steve Jobs is concerned. Don’t forget that, under his tutelage, a Mac is primarily an all-in-one computer with minimal expansion possibilities. That tradition was first restored with the original iMac, and let’s not forget the various portable Macs over the years. Today’s MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air families sell far more units that any of the traditional desktop models.

Where the original iMac was a relatively inexpensive entry-level computer, today’s iMac, when it comes to performance benchmarks, plays a very close second to the humongous Mac Pro; that is, unless your app diet consists of software that has been specially tuned to sing when extra processor cores are available. For most of you, the difference won’t be perceptible, though you will perceive the serious lack of internal expansion.

Yes, Apple does sell some iMacs with a second drive, solid state, in its build-to-order section. This is not something offered by Apple aftermarket, although MacSales, a Mac accessory and memory supplier, will take your 2010 iMac and do the upgrade for you in their own facility, if you care to live without your computer for a few days. And, of course, spend lots of extra money for the convenience of that extra drive.

Now since Apple is offering an iMac with two drives, would it take very much engineering to provide easy rear access to a second drive slot? That way you could buy your own internal expansion drive, mechanical or solid state, whenever you want, and simply pop it in. Understand I realize that retrofitting the current model is a chore, but surely Apple’s brilliant designers can devise a user-friendly alternative.

Consider the possibilities.

Now remember that most people who buy a Mac Pro do it because of the ability to add up to four internal drives, plus expansion cards. But let’s not go there, because a second expansion card isn’t really practical in an iMac, unless Apple somehow achieves much greater feats of miniaturization. The solution is Thunderbolt, with essentially gives you a two-way external PCI Express port for up to six devices. You can add a second display, hard drives, and whatever accessory makers design in the months to come.

Suddenly, the iMac becomes a worthy replacement for the Mac Pro for many power users and content creators. Yes, I realize that, as consumer-grade processors become faster and gain extra cores, the workstation parts, such as the Intel Xeon, will also gain in CPU horsepower. Depending on Intel’s design goals, there probably won’t be a convergence, where a single product line serves both consumers and professional users.

Regardless, it’s clear to me that the iMac, though a descendant of the original compact Mac, can serve a variety of customers with different needs, at a pretty affordable price. Yes, I grant there are loads of PC boxes that sell for hundreds less. But when it comes to all-in-ones, the iMac is extremely competitive.

As I said before, I realize there are many Mac users, although the number continues to diminish, for whom an iMac is a poor substitute for a digital audio or video workstation. Although the form factor is wrong, Apple also expects Mac Pros to also serve as high-end replacements for the now-departed Xserve. The low-end is occupied by a special Mac mini, and that actually may be enough server in certain environments. Indeed, a Mac mini with Thunderbolt port (and I expect one to arrive in the near future) will mean that you can hook up high-performance RAID drives. Maybe it won’t offer the redundancy of a real server, meaning the second power supply. But the mini is cheap enough that, if it fails, the techs at the data center can quickly unplug the external drives and move them to another box.

As far as the iMac Pro is concerned, actually you don’t have to call it a “Pro,” or offer any special model designation. Since Apple already gives you a two-drive option, the only real change involves making the expansion process easy for customers. Again, it probably won’t cost a lot for Apple’s engineering team to devise a solution.

Unfortunately, Apple continues to make far too many products that are hostile to internal changes, except in a very limited way. I realize it’ll probably never happen on an iPhone or an iPad, though I suppose an SD card and/or Thunderbolt port might be practical some day for the latter.

As with the “Mythical Midrange Mac Minitower,” this is probably all a pipe dream. Apple no doubt has other priorities.