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  • What About a Mac mini Pro?

    May 12th, 2017

    The Mac mini arrived in 2005, several months after its potential existence was basically denied by Apple. So at a conference call with financial analysts, Apple was asked if they planned to build a low-cost Mac. The answer was no.

    At $499, the Mac mini was strictly no frills, without a keyboard, mouse or display. If you wanted to upgrade memory or change out the hard drive or other parts, you had to use a putty knife or a similar tool to open the case. I wonder, in passing, what the designers were thinking.

    Evidently the  message got through, for a time. A major revision to the form factor, priced at $599, included an easy-access slot at the bottom for RAM upgrades. But it went away in 2014, when Apple released a tepid refresh at $499 that followed through on the approach taken with notebooks. RAM was soldered to the logic board.

    There it stood until Apple marketing VP Philip Schiller was asked about the mini during that roundtable with a handful of tech reporters in early April. Although it was largely focused on Apple’s failure to deliver an upgrade to the Mac Pro since 2013 — and the promise that a redesigned model was under development — Schiller did make a notable comment about Apple’s cheapest Mac, saying, “the Mac Mini is an important product in our lineup and we weren’t bringing it up because it’s more of a mix of consumer with some pro use.”

    By “some pro use,” Schiller was no doubt referring to the fact that a Mac mini is not only used as an entry-level personal computer, and a home media server, but as a web server in the back office or in datacenters. In fact, I ran a test with one hosting company that equipped cabinets with Mac minis. I moved all our sites to one for several weeks.

    Understand that I normally manage these sites on a fairly powerful Linux server, so I wasn’t expecting much. But the Mac mini was outfitted with a quad-core processor and an SSD, and the latter meant that performance barely changed. I wouldn’t recommend one for heavy-duty use over a prolonged period, but for less severe use, it is perfectly all right.

    Regardless, the Mac mini has fallen through large cracks of seemingly abandoned Macs. So is there a clue in what Schiller said that points to its future direction?

    If Apple were to release a new Mac mini, would it retain the existing design, or perhaps expand its horizons? I’ve wondered about this in several ways over the years. So some years back, former Macworld writer/editor Dan Frakes and I separately conceived a new Mac design. He called it a “mythical midrange Mac minitower,” which I envisioned as a “headless” iMac, containing its guts without a display, plus some added expansion capability.

    Now you might also regard such a design as a souped up Mac mini, something to be placed in Apple’s product lineup between the mini and the iMac.

    But as the sales mix moved away from desktops and towards notebooks, I can see where such a product probably didn’t stand a chance of being green lit by Apple.

    That was then. These days, Mac notebooks have hit 80% of sales, so you can see where Apple might not be so inclined to invest much into desktops. But with the assurance that they have great plans for future Mac desktops, particularly the Mac Pro, I just wonder about the Mac mini.

    Did Schiller throw out the “some pro use” phrase to raise a few possibilities, or just as casual conversation in deflecting the questioning away from the Mac mini?

    It’s not that there aren’t possibilities out there that Apple might explore. Take one computer I’ve mentioned a few times in recent columns, HP’s Z2 Mini Workstation. Yes, I said workstation!

    If you look at the promotional material for this computer, you’ll see that HP has taken a far more aggressive approach to its design. It’s not simple and elegant by any means. It’s dark, imposing, and seems larger than it really is. But when you check the physical measurements, you’ll see it’s not a whole lot wider or higher than a Mac mini, although it weighs two pounds more.

    Designed for CAD and other professional uses, the Z2 Mini starts at $679. It’s obviously not a Mac mini alternative, and it can be optioned to several times that price with more powerful graphics, big SSDs, and even a low-end Intel Xeon processor. Typical of any PC box, HP offers loads of configurations, plus the promise of easy upgrading. In other words, the polar opposite of how Apple approaches a Mac design.

    Now Apple will only admit to designing a new Mac Pro, and plans to offer professional options for the iMac. But what about the Mac mini? Does Apple plan to cater to those pro users? Could Apple truly build one with more powerful parts and not detract from the basic simplicity and compact design of the original?

    So many possibilities. Regardless of how it turns out, I do not think for a moment that the Mac mini will go away so long as it remains “important” to Apple.



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    5 Responses to “What About a Mac mini Pro?”

    1. Pat Philpott says:

      I’ve been waiting for Apple to recognize the market for a mid-range desktop model. Even better would be to have stackable components, like the HP Elite Slice, to save space. My visualization would include a small monitor that could also serve as a dock to minimize cables and provide additional connections. I must admit that my 17″ Intel iMac was perfect in terms of size in a limited workspace. Even a 20″ monitor would appeal to the number of folks who want a smaller form factor.

    2. Anthony A says:

      Two years ago when my iMac suffered video card and hard drive issues at the same time, it really bothered me that I had a beautiful working screen that would just be wasted (this was the last run with no hdmi input). To keep that from happening again, I got the 2014 edition mac mini with all up upgrades maxed (and a Thunderbolt display), since upgrading after the fact isn’t an option. It has worked really well for me.

      They should base off of a bigger mini, stop soldiering it all together, and make it so we can get into it for upgrades.

    3. Robert M says:

      Hi Gene,

      Great article! I recently posted an “article” of sorts to a Mac forum about how I would refresh the Mac product line. Here is a slightly revised version.

      Enjoy!

      Robert

      Consumer laptop and desktop

      Macbook

      Two sizes. Reasonably good specs that are appropriate for the consumer market. They don’t have to be powerhouses. They do need good battery life, USB-C, an SD card slot and upgradeable storage. The storage should be a standard SSD. I can understand it taking some effort to open the case for upgrading the storage but it shouldn’t be that difficult. Make it a handful of screws like the old 13″ Macbook and and non-retina Macbook Pro. Less concerned about upgradeable RAM than I am upgradeable storage. Just make the base RAM appropriate for the market and add the option to upgrade it at purchase. They’re consumer models, not pro models. In my experience, most consumers never upgrade the RAM in their machines but they often complain about running out of space.

      Mac Mini

      One size. Reasonably good specs that are appropriate for the target market. It doesn’t have to be a powerhouse but it should be competitive with the iMac. It ought to have ample USB-C ports. It’d be nice for it to have ethernet and a SD card slot. Thunderbolt would be nice but it isn’t necessary for the consumer market. It should have upgradeable RAM and an upgradeable drive. The storage should be a standard SSD. A user should be able to perform the upgrades with minimal effort. It’s a desktop machine, not a laptop. Keep the price low since it doesn’t include a display.

      iMac

      Two sizes. The current sizes and display specs are dandy. The rest of the specs should be good and appropriate for the consumer market. If the consumer wants a bigger display, get a Mac Mini or Mac Mini Pro and buy an even larger display to use with it. USB-C, Ethernet, Thunderbolt. SD card slot. Upgradeable RAM. Upgradeable drive. The storage should be a standard SSD. A user should be able to perform the upgrades with minimal effort. It’s a desktop after all.

      Professional Laptop and desktop

      Macbook Mobile

      One size. Think in terms of the 12” Macbook but more capable and with appropriate specs for the professional traveler; kinda like a powerful Macbook Air in a 12″ body. Great battery life. While upgradability is nice, I don’t think it’s critical in this machine. Just make sure it has a reasonable amount of speed, RAM and storage from day one with solid optional choices available at the time of purchase. Ports are tough to determine since it has to be a very light, thin, mobile machine. I’d say two USB-C (one for charging and one for connectivity) and an SD card slot. Although not critical, I’d consider including a headphone jack but only because this machine is will no doubt be used in locations where people want headphones, i.e. on an airplane, train, in a hotel room, etc.

      Macbook Pro

      Three sizes. 13″, 15″ and 17″. Very good to excellent specs that are appropriate for the professional market. Great battery life. USB-C. Thunderbolt. HDMI would be nice though not critical. An SD card slot. Upgradeable storage. Use an off-the-shelf design and connector so the drive can be replaced with a high speed model from a place like OWC or a manufacturer like Samsung. Upgradeable RAM. Although not critical, I’d consider including a headphone jack but only because this machine is will likely be used in locations where people want headphones, i.e. on an airplane, train, in a hotel room, etc. And, it’s a pro machine, after all.

      Special bonus:

      Macbook Pro Extreme. Two sizes. 13″ and 15″. Give it the specs of a Macbook Pro 13″ and 15″ and design it to take a beating. It’ll be the Mac you can run over with your car and then use to post a video of you doing it on YouTube.

      Mac Mini Pro

      One size. Very good to excellent specs that are appropriate for the prosumer and professional markets. USB-C, Thunderbolt. an SD card slot. Upgradeable RAM. Upgradeable drive. Use an off-the-shelf design and connector so the drive can be replaced with a high speed model from a place like OWC or a manufacturer like Samsung. One empty internal 3.5” drive bay. 1 standard slot for an expansion card of some kind. This machine would make for a nice basic prosumer machine for those who want a Mac Pro but don’t need as much expandability or horsepower. Six or seven months ago, my office was in the market for a desktop machine and we wanted more than a Mac Mini but didn’t need a Mac Pro and didn’t want an all-in-one like an iMac. I wanted a Mac Mini Pro that I could pair with the 27″ or 32″ display of my choice. Apple didn’t have one. I settled for a 2014 iMac refurb from OWC since it offered the best bang for the buck at the time I bought the machine. Great machine but not the prosumer box I really wanted in a desktop.

      Mac Pro

      Excellent specs that are appropriate for the professional market. Make it modular so key components can be upgraded, i.e. CPU, video card, etc. It should be easy to upgrade with off-the-shelf parts. Definitely needs multiple drive bays and slots and an ample variety of ports. The base model must be superbly capable with the option(s) to make it powerful enough to cause a supercomputer @#$%& processors. I want the Mac Pro to be a machine that is so good pros will camp out for it.

      • Clearly you’ve thought about this a lot.

        Apple has obviously simplified its product lineup compared to what it did over 20 years ago. That said, I suppose there’d be room for more customization in its existing configurations. That would address some of these needs. But I don’t see a 17-inch MacBook Pro ever. I still key mine from 2010, and I’ll run it till it drops.

        Peace,
        Gene

    4. Joe S says:

      I and a friend, both long time mac users (Mac II) want a revived Mac Mini.

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