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What About a Mac mini Pro?

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.