Does the Mac Mini Have a Future?

July 21st, 2017

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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3 Responses to “Does the Mac Mini Have a Future?”

  1. Bob Forsberg says:

    Unfortunately, HP’s Z2 is the MacMini Apple will never build, unable to make the next generation thinner. Apple’s competitors realized the way Macs are developed is pure genius, but quickly loose their luster when ignored for years beyond obsolescence. They copy and make it better.

    I use a Hackintosh Z2 with a non-reflective 4K curved 34″ display, my first PC since the IIGS and multiple Macs for decades as my primary hardware. Apple will find as Hackintosh cracks become easier or Windows gets closer to MacOS, their neglected hardware will become paperweights.

  2. Steve says:

    The Mac mini is misunderstood by Apple.
    I believe they see it in terms of a low-cost switcher entry level Mac.
    This leads to thinking of it solely in terms of margins along with other Macs..
    So they don’t want it to ‘steal’ sales from other Mac..
    So they deliberately underpowered it…

    In 2017, the mini (revisited for this century) is Apple entry into pervasive computing…
    Think pervasive wireless AND pervasive local compute resources (mini running OS X server, geo-fencing; bluetooth).
    An inspired Z2 Apple competitive product with a state of the art processor, customizable RAM & storage and a strip of connectors – hand that over to developers and let the magic begin…. Customizable solutions of all kinds that enlarge eco-system and do NOT represent a lost sale of some other Mac

    Its the ECO-SYSTEM – it is NOT the short term margins of the sale of one box…..

  3. dfs says:

    Yeah, the MIni could be used as a kind of hub for Smart Home gear or as kind an Apple TV on steroids, replete with recording and storage capacity. But here’s the killer use. In the not-very-distant future the phone companies are going to discontinue landline service because providing it to an ever-shrinking user base is getting to be too uneconomical (and, no doubt, they’d love to harvest and reemploy all the phone numbers tied up in landline equipment). This is going to create a huge vacuum, at once a crisis and a huge business opportunity. Every household and every business that currently relies on landlines is going to need a new phone system, and the easiest way to address this issue is to build on something many households and business already have, a wireless LAN.

    So let’s look at how this will affect Mac owners and the Apple Corp. There is at least one piece of software, PhoneAmego, that does a great job of addressing many telephony needs, but it has the fatal flaw of relying on Bluetooth connectivity. Bluetooth is lousy for this purpose (I can’t even use Bluetooth to link my iPhone when it’s on my bedside table with the Mac in my office two rooms away) and some folks complain about static issues as well. Apple does a great job of solving the range problem by letting you use your iPhone over a wireless LAN via FaceTime, but the telephony part of FT is simply a rather crude addition slapped onto a videoconferencing app. And of course you’re limited to using it with iPhones, PhoneAmego works with a wide range of devices, both smart phones and traditional handsets. An ideal situation would be for Apple to develop a telephony app that would match Phone Amego’s sophistication and versatility and would break out of that damned walled garden philosophy so that it could handle a wide variety of devices. But of course such a system would require a hub, and that hub would not necessarily be a Mac since not every home and business is or necessarily wants to be 100% Mac-oriented. So okay, take the Mini out of the Mac lineup and repurpose it as a home communications hub that would work not only for home entertainment and Smart Home purposes but also service a wide spectrum of telephonic gear (this is not necessarily as idealistic an expectation as it sounds, it would strike us as silly and perverse for Apple to market an Apple TV which only worked with a single specially favored brand of TV set — what money Apple lost by opening up the system would be far outweiged by the new profits it would reap).

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