The Price of a Computing Appliance

November 15th, 2011

The very first Mac arrived in 1984 without the ability to upgrade anything. Even opening the case was a chore best left to service technicians when troubles arose. Although the Macs that arrived in the years after Steve Jobs left Appleoften sported relatively easy upgrading, it wasn’t always a cake walk.

I remember, for example, the Quadra 800, a precursor to the similarly designed Power Mac 8100. If you wanted to add or replace RAM, you had to separate the chassis from the case, which involved removing lots of screws and separating cable assemblies. The process, while theoretically not difficult, presented the potential hazard of damaging delicate cables and wreaking havoc. Understand that this model, and some of its successors, were minitowers designed for professional content creators who required smooth internal expansion, and Apple fell down on the job big time.

It required several generations of Power Macs to right the wrongs. When one of those models featuring simple RAM upgrades was demonstrated by Apple to an audience of Mac users, there was a round of applause as the simple disassembly process was exhibited.

But it’s not as if the return of Steve Jobs signaled the arrival of simpler upgrade schemes. The original iMac, for example, also required extensive internal disassembly to add or replace RAM. It was a monstrosity. And please don’t remind me about the original Mac mini form factor. You needed a putty knife or a similar tool in order to take apart the case, and perform internal upgrades or part swaps. Some versions even put the memory slots below the hard drive, requiring you to remove the latter to expand the former. All under this happened under the micromanagement of Steve Jobs.

Today’s Mac mini is not so user hostile. Memory upgrades are simple, because the bottom cover is easily opened without the need of tools. This is, by the way, the sort of feature I had suggested Apple adopt for quite some time, but I wouldn’t suggest that my urgings influenced their decision. Certainly lots of Mac mini owners voiced similar complaints.

Nowadays, RAM upgrades are fairly simple on all current Mac desktops and portables. Things get dicey if you choose to expand or replace a hard drive, and I won’t even consider what you have to do on today’s iMac. Only the Mac Pro is suited for simple upgrades beyond basic RAM. Apple clearly doesn’t want you to open the cases of their consumer models.

When it comes to an iOS gadget, it’s a no person’s land inside. Yes, repair people will take them apart, but regular people aren’t expected to change anything. When it comes to major repairs, it’s often better to just buy a new one, assuming that you’re not locked into a wireless carrier contract and face potential high early termination fees. That’s why extended warranties make lots of sense for an iPhone, though having one for an iPad isn’t a bad idea.

For Mac users, the situation creates problems when the computer seems long in the tooth, can no longer run the apps you want, and OS upgrades are out of the question.

Take the case of a friend, a semi-retired book author whose first-generation Mac mini has recently become less useful. He found that he couldn’t ryb some of the apps that he wanted, particularly a version of Flip4Mac, essentially a QuickTime add-on that lets you view a fair amount of Windows Media content, which requires Mac OS 10.5 (Leopard); he has 10.4 (Tiger). In theory his Mac mini can upgrade to Leopard, but in practice, finding a copy and paying someone (me) to help him through potential pitfalls didn’t make a lot of sense financially for a six-year-old computer.

I suggested he buy an entry-level 2011 Mac mini. He isn’t saddled with software that will only run on a PowerPC processor (it appears his third-part apps are Universal), and the performance advantage would be tremendous. I haven’t told him that the latest mini comes without an optical drive, but I’m not at all certain he really needs one. He can always back up to a USB stick.

His kids suggested he consider upgrading his old computer, since he doesn’t have a whole lot of excess cash, which is understandable. But the Mac mini is essentially a closed box when it comes to any upgrades that would make a difference to him. You can’t replace the processor, installing a bigger, faster hard drive is a costly process because of the hostile internal expansion process. When it comes to a personal computer, the mini is closer in concept to your TV. You’re not about to change anything inside your TV unless something breaks and, even then, you’ll want a repair person unless you enjoy tinkering with consumer electronics of that sort and have the ability and ready access to spare parts. Besides, when the display panel dies, it becomes much cheaper to replace the whole widget.

In the scheme of things, the Mac mini adheres to the original concept of a Mac as a pure computing appliance, though it lacks an internal display and even some input devices. You use it, and, when it can no longer suit your needs in terms of performance and the ability to run current software, you hand it off to a family member or hope for a modest return if you sell it. And based on the current listings on eBay, a clean 2005 Mac mini can be sold for over $230. Not such a bad deal.

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