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The Why Did Apple Do That Report

Just the other day, I read a report that Apple had added some more hard drive options to the Mac mini, including a 2TB Fusion Drive. You can even have Apple install a 1TB solid state drive if you’re ready and willing to waste an extra $800 on a computer that starts at $499. If you throw everything in there, including 16GB RAM, the total comes to $2,199. That’s just $300 less than the entry-level 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display.

Now I happen to be a fan of the Mac mini. I think it’s just a great computer for regular people who are ready to give up on Windows and want something relatively inexpensive, but pretty fast and reliable. Of course, it works best if they already have a mouse and display around that they can hook up to their new box. Otherwise, there are loads of cheap peripherals around that’ll suit.

The Mac mini arrived in 2005 only weeks after Apple said they’d never enter the cheap PC arena. That statement was made at one of the quarterly conference calls with financial analysts in response to a question about a low-cost Mac.

At $499, the first version may have seemed cheap for a Mac, but not so cheap compared to some of those PCs you buy at a discount store. When Apple switched to Intel, the Mac mini went to $599 for the basic model, and stayed there until this past fall, when a slightly updated version appeared for the original $499 price.

But Apple has taken a hit-and-miss approach to allowing you to upgrade a Mac mini. The first model couldn’t be disassembled without a putty knife or a similar implement. In later design revisions, Apple made it simple to remove the bottom cover to add or replace RAM. Installing a new drive was rather more difficult, but still possible. More than likely, most people who’d buy a Mac mini, other than those setting them up in a datacenter, would only care about RAM upgrades anyway unless the hard drive failed.

In the process of knocking $100 off the purchase price for the late 2014 model, Apple decided you didn’t need to change RAM, so it was soldered onto the logic board, same as most MacBooks. The quad-core processor options were dropped in place of dual-core. Well, that might be adequate for people who don’t run apps that tax multiple cores, but otherwise it’s no longer a pocket rocket.

But my biggest problem with the new design is removing the ability to change RAM. Maybe that makes some sense on a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro with Retina display, where everything has to be teeny tiny to make them as small and light as possible. Maybe it saves a few dollars to discard those RAM slots and removable covers, but it’s a matter of a few dollars at most. Cleary the decision, unfortunate as it is, was very much about design.

It seems to make less sense on the 21.5-inch iMac, since it’s still large enough to contain RAM upgrade parts without seriously detracting from the form factor.

I am not disputing the fact that replacing parts on an iPhone or iPad isn’t terribly user friendly, though there are plenty of online instructions as to how, and which tools to use. Some do it successfully, others make do with a trip to an Apple Store or another dealer, so they are off the hook if something goes wrong. So it makes sense for these to be closed box designs.

But I wonder to what degree Apple’s designers consider the question of upgrading and servicing a piece of hardware during the design process. Certainly Apple is famous for creating exclusive and highly sophisticated assembly/fabrication schemes. The manufactured product is almost always slim, light and smooth, without cracks or seams. But that also means that taking it apart is not a priority, although Apple service people do it all the time.

So other than a legacy MacBook Pro, the 27-inch iMac and the Mac Pro, Apple’s products do not have user serviceable parts. It’s all the responsibility of a service technician, or the power user who is willing to take a chance with a voided warranty.

In the scheme of things, I realize you don’t expect your TV set or refrigerator to be user serviceable, although they are usually not all that hard to take apart. You just want to use them, and expect them to be as trouble free as possible. If repairs are needed, you call in an expert to handle the chore. Both, then, are appliances, and you don’t expect to perform any upgrades. Well, there are some Samsung TV sets with user-serviceable electronics to keep them up to date, but that’s a rarity.

Could Apple do better? With Macs, yes. I understand the choices about mobile gear, with expensive tiny parts that are easily damaged. Yes, there are Android phones that allow you to remove the battery, but are they as solid and reliable?

Now I’m just coming off a particularly irritating upgrade process, where I replaced the hard drive of my late 2009 iMac with a 1TB SSD. As readers recall from my articles and radio commentaries on the subject, it starts with using suction cups to pry the front glass from the chassis. On newer iMacs, the price of having a thinner case forces you to separate adhesive tape to pull off the front glass. I wouldn’t even think of trying that sort of upgrade.

Do I really have to continue?