The launch of the first Mac mini in 2005 came in response to the question of whether Apple would ever build a cheap Macintosh computer. During a quarterly conference call with financial analysts the previous October, Apple executives, asked that question, said that Apple doesn’t build junk.
At $499, the first Mac mini, with a PowerPC, was decidedly minimalist, and surely not a junk computer. It sported the guts of the cheapest PowerBook of the time, and was shipped without keyboard, mouse or display. The assumption was that you might just use what you had with your PC, since this was a neat way to switch. Or just buy some low-cost accessories.
The Mac mini was redesigned for Intel processors, and went through other changes. The original configuration was user hostile if you wanted to upgrade RAM. You needed a putty knife or some other tool to open it, and there was the ever-present risk of damage to the case. Some folks designed custom versions of this tool that may or may not have been easier to use.
Later generations of Mac mini were trimmer and actually had an easy-to-open bottom cover that made RAM replacement simple. It was trickier to swap a hard drive, but it was possible.
Until 2014, the last or most recent version.
Apple cut the price by $100, restored to the original $499 level. It was a case of severe cost-cutting, however, because you could no longer swap RAM, since it was, as with more and more Macs, soldered to the logic board. Apple also stopped offering a Mac mini with quad-core processors, even as options.
Indeed, the Mac mini had become popular for use as a low-cost home server, or even for hosting web sites. Some were installed in datacenters, but when it was essentially made slower by the lack of quad-core CPUs, the older ones were generally kept in service.
So it stands. After over 1,000 days, the future of the Mac mini is murky. The 2014 model is still being sold. But Apple made a positive comment or two about it at the April tech reporter roundtable. It was mentioned that some users of the cheapest Mac were pros, and Apple made the point of emphasizing the fact that they just loved pros.
That was the last we heard of the Mac mini.
But if Apple likes it so much, why not invest a small sum in outfitting it with more recent processors and other components? Why let it stagnate?
Some weeks back, columnist and podcaster Kirk McElhearn decided to replace his Mac mini with a Hackintosh as a home server. As most of you know, a Hackintosh is a home-brewed macOS clone, using off-the-shelf PC components. As Kirk and others have learned, however, you may be able to install macOS with some simple hoop-jumping, but the rest of the process requires lots of babysitting if you want to activate features that are taken for granted on a regular Mac. Even messaging may be a problem.
In June, Apple updated most Macs. Even the neglected MacBook Air, the 13-inch model, received a very slight processor update. Apple demonstrated an iMac Pro, a $4,999 workstation-class version of the regular iMac, scheduled to arrive in December. A new Mac Pro was promised for 2018, along with a brand new display.
The Mac mini? Good question.
There has certainly been speculation about what Apple might do. As I said, a simple refresh could have been released by now. What is Apple waiting for? If the mini is going away, would Apple have even bothered to make positive comments about it at that roundtable, or was that just a holding pattern until they decided what to do next?
While some Apple journalists continue to praise the mini, it’s hard to know how many are still being sold. The Mac Pro may sell in the tens of thousands, but it’s an expensive, high-profit prestige product that reaches an audience that Apple finds important, even though that audience was neglected for a while.
Now it may be that the Mac mini will be overhauled, with something that caters to the entry level and maybe to higher-end needs. Don’t forget that HP has a Mac mini knockoff of sorts, the Z2 Mini workstation, which is a little larger and heavier than the smallest Mac, but the influences are clear.
However, the HP can be optioned to become a budget workstation with the right parts. Would that at all be a possible solution for Apple? Remember, a portion of mini users are pros. Apple said so, and made a point of it. So I suppose it’s possible that Apple is rejiggering the internals of the Mac mini to accommodate more powerful — and hotter running — components. If that’s the case, maybe it has a future, and we’ll see the result this fall.
Now I actually spent a couple of months running all of my sites on a Mac mini, hosted by a company that installs bunches of them in datacenter cabinets. I had to use a “hypervisor” to allow me to run Linux as a virtual machine, along with a Linux control panel used for web sites, known as cPanel. I was able to transfer all of my sites in hours, and performance was virtually indistinguishable from the standard Supermicro server our host uses. I didn’t keep that setup, because our sustained demands, particularly on the days when our shows are broadcast, would probably overwhelm the Mac mini.
It was a worthwhile experiment, however, and I wonder if Apple has any interest in seeing the Mac mini continue to serve duty as an entry-level computer, a home server, a small office server, and perhaps some basic datacenter needs. Or maybe even a low-cost solution for people who cannot afford a Mac Pro.
Regardless of the solution, I do hope we’ll have Apple’s answer before the end of 2017.
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