The Fate of the Mac mini: Is There Now Hope?

October 20th, 2017

Apple’s cheapest Mac arrived in 2005, only weeks after Apple claimed, during a quarterly conference call with financial analysts, that it would never produce a cheap Mac. Well, they actually labeled cheap PCs as “junk,” but the Mac mini was definitely not junk, even though it was, at $499, fairly cheap.

It was no frills in another respect since it didn’t come with a keyboard, mouse or display. No doubt Apple wanted users to make do with the accessories from a PC, since it was a perfect way to switch to the Mac without paying for that stuff all over again. Someone with an older Mac might also find it an inexpensive upgrade path, and I know a few people who made that choice.

The low-profile design, however, wasn’t user friendly when it came to upgrades. The tech media quickly realized you could pry it open with a putty knife or something similar, and, once you had it open, you didn’t have a huge problem upgrading RAM or replacing the hard drive.

When Apple switched to Intel, the Mac mini was updated with a slimmer case and, finally, the ability to easily remove the bottom cover and replace RAM. The price was raised to $599.

The Mac mini was sometimes deployed as a cheap home media server, and some datacenters put banks of them in cabinets for use as low-end web servers. Equipped with an SSD, and maxed out with RAM and the speediest Intel i7 quad-core processor offered by Apple, it actually did a pretty decent job.

As a test, once, I actually switched my sites to a Mac mini for a few months. Our traffic in those days was less than it is now, but still fairly high. The mini handled it with aplomb, and I never received any warnings that the server was overloaded. But remember that a regular web server, such as the Super Micro used by many businesses including web hosts, can be configured with redundant power supplies and extra drives for the reliability required to run 24/7 at full bore.

The Mac mini, good as it was, was meant to be cheap. The best configuration was an external drive, in case your server malfunctioned, so you could easily move the drive to another mini and get on with your business.

With the 2014 upgrade, some of the charms of this low-end Mac were lost. Apple restored the price to $499, but cheapened it otherwise, by soldering the RAM, and removing the quad-core CPU option.

There it stood until now. It was fair to speculate that it was going to be discontinued. Yet during that April roundtable with several tech media reps, marketing VP Philip Schiller was positive about the Mac mini, saying it was”an important product in our lineup.” But he also set it aside with the comment, “We weren’t bringing it up because it’s more of a mix of consumer with some pro use.”

The “pro use” no doubt refers to its deployment as a low-cost server.

Although Apple has upgraded all other Macs since that meeting, the mini appeared to be destined for the closeout bin. Well, until a MacRumors reader wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook about its fate.

Clearly Cook knew his comments would be quoted, and he more or less repeated what Schiller said earlier this year, with perhaps a few more wrinkles. He repeated that the Mac mini was “an important part of the product line going forward,” but refused to “share any details” about Apple’s plans.

Of course, that’s Apple’s usual posture about future products. Nothing is said, or admitted, except for an occasional hint, until there’s something to announce or ship.

Since that comment comes so late in the year, it would also be highly unlikely to see a new Mac mini in 2017, or maybe not. I suppose it’s possible one might be announced when the iMac Pro is released in December (assuming it arrives on schedule). That is, if it’s just going to be based on the current model.

It seems more likely that there will be a new Mac mini in 2018, around the time the next Mac Pro arrives. I suppose there’s a slight possibility that Apple might be working on a more robust redesign that could be configured as a low-cost workstation, a cheaper alternative to the Mac Pro for those who can’t afford the latter. Maybe it’ll be closer to an headless iMac.

If that’s the case, the new Mac mini might be designed to reflect older generations that could be easily upgraded in some respects. The $599 price may be restored, but there would be options, such as more powerful CPUs, more RAM and bigger SSDs, that would make it top out at two or three times that price. With a more robust design, it would be a safer bet for the datacenter.

I’ve made various predictions about headless iMacs before, and even suggested Apple look to the HP Z2 Mini Workstation as a possible inspiration for a Mac alternative.

But this is just speculation. I do not have any inside information, but obviously Apple wouldn’t drop hints about the Mac mini’s future unless there was something under development. Otherwise, why even mention it?

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