The Case (Sort of) for a Modular iMac

December 20th, 2013

If you want to spend as much as $10,000 and more for a personal computing workstation, Apple has a solution for you. Orders for the new Mac Pro were first accepted on December 19, and, within hours, you had to wait until February to get one. And that even applied to the standard configurations. Either Apple misjudged the response, or simply hasn’t had time to ramp up to full production at the Austin factory that’s churning them out.

Now, in a comment from one of our regular readers, it was mentioned how the Mac Pro might be a better value for many of you than an iMac, even if performance wasn’t altogether different. The main reason is that, if you want to upgrade your iMac, you have to get the whole widget, including the display, despite the fact that the display you have works perfectly fine. It’s an all or nothing proposition.

With the Mac Pro, once you’ve acquired the display, you can keep it through multiple generations of Mac Pros.

The theory sounds fine, as theories go, except for the fact that a Mac Pro can become quite an expensive beast. The entry-level model and the higher-end configuration both offer a paltry 256GB of solid state storage, and more RAM would be welcomed. But all these parts, plus more powerful graphics, are costly options. At the end of the day, you could buy three or four top-of-the-line iMacs for the price of one fully outfitted Mac Pro. Do you really get four times the value?

Now an all-in-one gadget is Apple’s thing, and it has been since the very first Mac arrived in 1984. Even though Apple has produced a variety of expandable Macs, they kept returning to all-in-one. With the late 2009 upgrade, the iMac morphed from a speedy consumer level box to something that even professional users might choose even over a Mac Pro. That is precisely what I did, and I haven’t felt the urge to buy Apple’s new workstation, assuming I had the credit lines to handle the price.

The advantage of going modular, with a separate computer and a separate display, is obvious. If your iMac’s logic board dies, it’s a brick until replaced. The display is useless. But what if Apple considered a different option, which is to allow you to easily replace the guts of an iMac whenever new models came out?

Clearly, Apple would have to design a rear case that was easily opened, with the seams virtually invisible when shut. The computer module would be a pull-out or slide-out affair built on a chassis. It wouldn’t matter what components were on that board, so long as it easily mated with the existing chassis and display. The cost of building such a docking system would probably be negligible; there may be enough profit to absorb most of the added expense. Or perhaps Apple could sell the upgradeable model for an extra $100 or so.

The advantage to the customer is obvious. You wouldn’t have to sacrifice the everything to get more computing power, so maybe you’ll be tempted to upgrade more often. Even if Apple changed the case design for a future iMac, the upgrade layout would be the same. That way, you’d have the opportunity to buy the computer module rather than the entire computer to remain current with the technology.

Of course, being able to remove the computer module from the display might even present the possibility of easily replacing drives, something that’s a chore-and-a-half to do right now with the current iMac form factor.

The upgrade procedure can be made as foolproof as adding RAM. It might also extend the lifecycle of the iMac as demand for personal computers continues to wane, and it would answer the major shortcoming of an integrated system.

This isn’t to say that such a scheme is on Apple’s plate, though I expect lots of different Mac form factors have been tested in prototype form. I wouldn’t presume to consider the engineering implications, since Apple clearly wants to miniaturize internal workings as much as possible. I could also see the possibility of constraint in future redesigns, because of the need to continue to make modules for older iMacs. I suppose Apple could guarantee a four-year compatibility cycle, for example. That way, the customer would realize that upgrades won’t be produced forever, and that older technology would have to be abandoned.

The real question, however, is how many iMac owners would upgrade more often if they only had to pay for the computer rather than the display and the case. What sort of discount would they get? $500 perhaps? $750? Just saying.

I would not even presume to think that many of my readers or listeners would care about such a thing and would buy a modular iMac, although keeping the price about the same or only slightly higher would be a plus. But I have full confidence that Apple could provide a seamless design that would not, to external eyes, betray the ability to pop open the rear of the case and replace the guts.

Will it ever come to be? I doubt it, but I can dream, right?

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5 Responses to “The Case (Sort of) for a Modular iMac”

  1. Kaleberg says:

    “Or perhaps Apple could sell the upgradeable model for an extra $100 or so.” – My guess is it would cost them more like $150-$300 which would turn into $250-$500 on the final machine. Sockets, plugs, daughter-boards, case doors and other ease of layout design features cost money. They entail all sorts of design compromises since they cannot optimize for a small set of known components. There’s also the issue of this being a niche item. It would be maybe 3-5% of the market, so it would get less efficiency of scale.

    “But what if Apple considered a different option, which is to allow you to easily replace the guts of an iMac whenever new models came out?” – That’s serious design lock in. If Apple goes for that model, they are going to be stuck in a corner with a serious design problem within 3 years. By 10 years, they are going to be unable to keep their hardware up to date. It makes more sense to move as much stuff as they can out of the central unit and let the user hook up to it with as fast a bus as they can provide.

    I grew up on a gasoline strip, so I know there are guys, and it is usually guys, who drop in new engines, redo their transmission gearing, upgrade their exhaust system, add after market turbo chargers, redo their suspensions systems and so on. After all, they don’t want to be stuck with an out of date engine when they stomp on it at 2AM on the boulevard. As a guy who keeps a car for ten years and downgrades computers from current to server to hobby fodder to door stop, I always find their approach puzzling. I like being surprised by all the progress when I go car shopping every decade or so.

  2. David says:

    Your idea is not only more cost effective for end users, but is far better for the environment. No recycling program can possibly compete with making something last twice as long in the first place. My son is using a 10 year old display and my nephew who prefers CRTs over LCDs for games is using one much older than that. It’s a real shame that so many iMacs have gone to their grave with a perfectly good display. It’s a terrible waste of money and resources.

    An upgradable iMac would be awesome and I’d pop an i7 into mine in place of its older generation i5 in a heartbeat if Apple would allow it. When my internal HD died (we suspect from too much heat, thank you Steve Jobs for wanting silence rather than reliability) it was major surgery to replace it and I was left with fans running at full speed all the time until I found software to get them under control. In any of my previous Macs it would have been a 5-10 minute job with no ill side effects.

    An upgradable iMac doesn’t make sense for Apple. It would have to be bigger, heavier and more complex. Sure it would be easier for them to repair, but computers are designed for the 98% of the time they’re not being repaired. It would also encourage users to hang onto machines long after Apple wants to get a new sale.

    I remember the Mac clone era. The machines cost less and every part could be swapped. I know because I did it. After 4 years the only original parts left in my SuperMac were the case, power supply and motherboard. Some of the parts had been replaced three times and I’d even ripped the safety cage off the cooling fan because it improved efficiency and reduced noise. I also remember that Apple nearly went bankrupt because they couldn’t compete.

    Today far fewer people buy upgrades and sealed boxes like tablets are replacing older style computers. Outside the Mac Pro and PC gamer niches the modular computer is gone, never to return.

  3. hirandy says:

    All I ask is for the current iMacs to have the same changeability my 1998 performa 5300 had. The ability to easily add ram or change out the hard drive without having to remove the front glass.

  4. dfs says:

    What this all boils down to is that the Mac Mini needs to be repurposed: Apple should stop thinking of it as a necessarily entry-level product. I think that they would discover that there’s considerable purchaser interest for a MacMini capable of matching the performance of its top-of-the-line iMac.

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