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  • The Forgotten Mac

    June 16th, 2017

    Apple spent a surprising amount of time talking about Macs at last week’s WWDC. No, not just macOS High Sierra, but in introducing new hardware, and talking about forthcoming products. While Apple normally doesn’t say much about future gear, this time they couldn’t stop talking; well, mostly.

    But that doesn’t mean we have the full roadmap.

    Yes, we know that an iMac Pro — an iMac with workstation features that starts at $4,999 — will ship in December. Well, perhaps it’ll be like the 2013 Mac Pro, in which a few will leave the factory, but most won’t show up in your hands until early in 2018.

    There will be a new Mac Pro in our future. Apple continues to promise something modular that will probably arrive next year, along with a replacement for the now-departed Thunderbolt display. You can certainly speculate heavily about what will be done. More than likely, the parts used in the 2018 Mac Pro will resemble the iMac Pro, but maybe it’ll offer the 22-core Intel Xeon as an option along with other enhancements. No doubt it’ll be easy to add and remove stuff inside, and perhaps Apple will demonstrate the ease of upgrading at a media event. Since that has become such an important issue, I suspect Apple won’t let down its remaining pro users.

    The display? Well, they could have delivered a 5K monitor last year. Instead, they ceded that opportunity to LG. So where does Apple go next? 8K to support the new generation of high-resolution digital movie cameras, or 10K to allow you to view such fare at full resolution, with space to edit in a new version of Final Cut Pro X?

    But the last two paragraphs are mostly speculation. Lots of products were upgraded, and we have a few basics on what’s to come. With one exception.

    What’s going to happen to the Mac mini?

    The Mac mini arrived early in 2005. At $499, it was the cheapest Mac ever, although input devices and monitors were optional. By the time the Intel version arrived the following year, I suspect lots of Mac users — or Windows switchers — bought them as a great way to run macOS on the cheap.

    Over the next few years, the Mac mini even found a home in datacenters for use as cheap servers. For a time, purely as an experiment, I used one to run all of my sites. It did a pretty good job of it, but it is not built for heavy-duty 24/7 use, so I went back to a Linux blade server. Indeed, that’s how I set up the Mac mini, with a virtual machine that ran Linux and a web app known as cPanel.

    Originally upgrades were possible but difficult. You needed a putty knife or a similar implement to open the case, and if you wanted to replace the drive, it required lots of fiddling with the delicate innards. Apple delivered a $599 version that allowed you to quickly remove the bottom cover to replace RAM. Other parts were sort of accessible.

    With the 2014 revision, the Mac mini’s price returned to its original level, at $499. In exchange for paying $100 less, Apple removed the ability to replace RAM. As with Mac notebooks, it was soldered onto the logic board. Worse, there were no more configurations with quad-core Intel silicon. It was all dual-core. Even the top-of-the-line, and Apple never explained why they delivered a refresh that made a product worse.

    Indeed, I checked the choices still being offered by one web host, and I see that they are still offering 2012 Mac minis with quad-core CPUs in addition to a few dual-core 2014 models.

    Today, the Mac mini is a forgotten Mac even though it remains on the price lists. We are assured that the Mac Pro will receive a major upgrade, but Apple’s cheapest Mac remains untouched.

    Apple marketing VP Philip Schiller, when asked about the fate of the Mac mini during that early April roundtable with a handful of tech reporters, said, “On that I’ll say 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. So we’re focusing today specifically on the things that are important to pros. While there are some pro usage, there’s also a lot of consumer uses so we aren’t covering it today. The Mac mini remains a product in our lineup, but nothing more to say about it today.”

    If it’s an “important product,” surely that means Apple wants to satisfy customers who have been waiting patiently (or not-so-patiently) for an upgrade, right? So where does Apple take it? Don’t forget that the current design was intended, originally, to include an optical drive and was sized accordingly. Without that constraint, now, all bets are off on future design directions.

    If the form factor doesn’t change, though a basic parts refresh could have happened by now. Add Kaby Lake processors, restore a quad-core option, and perhaps allow you to upgrade RAM again.

    Or does Apple have something more in mind? Well, if it was going to inherit some more professional options, in the spirit of the HP Z2 Mini workstation, wouldn’t that have been announced at the WWDC? What’s Apple’s game plan anyway? Or is there something in the works for this fall to give the Mac mini a new lease on life?

    So maybe Apple will include it at the end of a media event for the HomePod — and perhaps a Mac Pro preview — this fall, demonstrating how the Mac mini can function as a home media server. Or something. But that statement from Schiller certainly conveys the impression that Apple isn’t going to give it up, or maybe he was just putting us off, and hoping we won’t notice if it quietly disappears from the price lists. For now, I’ll take Schiller at his word, however, that the Mac mini remains an “important product.”

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