Mac Musings

The Mac mini Is Dead: Why It Missed the Target

Dan Knight - 2007.07.26 - Tip Jar

We hate to say it, but it appears that the Mac mini is dead.

The Lilliputian Mac mini was introduced in January 2005, toward the end of the G4 era. It was available for as little as US$499 with a 1.25 GHz G4 and a Combo drive. An industry immediately sprang up making hubs and hard drives and a few other peripherals designed to match the mini's 6.5" square footprint and curved aluminum enclosure.

There was an unofficial speed bump to 1.33 and 1.5 GHz around September 2005, and the Mac mini made the transition to Intel Core processors in February 2006. This was coupled with a US$100 increase in price, so the entry level 1.5 GHz Core Solo model with a Combo drive sold for US$599.

That last revision of the Mac mini took place in September 2006 when Apple abandoned the Core Solo and put a 1.66 GHz Core Duo in the entry level model.

And that's where it's remained for almost 11 months. At this point, the entire Mac product line has moved to Intel's cooler running, more energy efficient, more powerful Core 2 processor - except for the Mac mini.

No, it's not unheard of for Apple not to upgrade a model for a year or more. The eMac, for instance, was upgraded like clockwork every 12 months or so. But for the most part Apple has been offering improved versions of Macs every 6-9 months.

And it's not like it's rocket science to create an improved Mac mini. All Apple has to do it put in a faster CPU. A certain subset of Mac mini owners has been doing that since the first Intel model shipped, deliberately buying the less costly 1.5 GHz Core Solo model and popping in a 1.83 GHz Core Duo then, and these days they're putting in Core 2 CPUs.

If Apple still considered the Mac mini a viable model, at the very least they would have upgraded it to 1.66 and 1.83 GHz Core 2 CPUs or 1.83 and 2.0 GHz Core Duos by now. The fact that they have allowed the Mac mini to languish when an upgrade requires nothing more than plugging in a better CPU tells us that the Mac mini really has reached the end of its road.

As sad as we are to see a decent, low cost Mac bit the dust, we understand why the Mac mini drew raves for its small design while never selling to expectation. We can sum it up in two words: Limited expandability.

The Mac mini was aimed at two audiences:

  1. Mac owners who already had a mouse, monitor, and keyboard and wanted a more powerful computer. With a 1.25 GHz or faster G4, it was a lot more powerful than any Power Mac G3 and most Power Mac G4 models.
  2. Windows users who wanted to make the switch to Mac as inexpensively as possible. They could continue to use their monitor, and if their keyboard and mouse were USB, the Mac mini would accept them as well.

Problem is, both of these groups of users were used to something the Mac mini never had: Room for expansion. It's a rare computer that has no PCI or PCIe expansion slots. It's a rare computer that doesn't have room for two internal hard drives and two optical drives. It's a very rare desktop computer that doesn't use 3.5" hard drives. It's a very, very rare desktop that doesn't have at least two banks of memory sockets.

The Mac mini was that rare computer. Even though most Mac users never add a second hard drive or optical drive, and even though most Mac users never add in a single PCI card, having the ability to do so should they need to or want to is important. So a lot of them stuck with their Power Macs, perhaps upgrading the CPU, perhaps buying a faster Power Mac G4 on the used market.

Windows users are the same way. They want to be able to put in a high-end video card for gaming, a faster and/or higher capacity hard drive, a second optical drive, lots of RAM, etc. While the Intel Mac mini would allow them to have 2 GB of RAM and a fast or relatively high capacity hard drive (by notebook drive standards), it didn't allow a second hard drive, more than 2 GB of RAM, or adding a decent video card to override the pedestrian built-in Intel graphics.

All the Mac mini really had going for it was offering a decent amount of power in a very compact package. It wasn't enough.

Beating a Dead Horse

We've said it before, and here we go again. The Mac mini was not a realistic solution to Apple's problem of expanding into the consumer market. The ideal computer for that market would look at the wants and needs of end users, and for most consumers having as small and pretty a computer as possible wasn't a priority.

The Mac mini languished because it didn't have a single expansion slot. Thus there was no way to add a better video card - and its built-in GMA 950 graphics sucked in comparison to even the low-end video cards on the market.

The Mac mini missed its price point because AppleDesigned it to be small and quiet, using a notebook hard drive instead of less costly, higher capacity, and generally faster 3.5" hard drives. It also missed its price point because it used a unique, external power supply. And because it used an expensive, slim, slot-loading optical drive.

The Mac mini missed the mark by offering only a single bank for memory. There was no way to increase its memory and continue to use the RAM that came with the computer.

A Not-so-Mini Mac

The Windows world has always had expansion slots, making it easy to add better video, an internal TV tuner, more I/O ports, a faster drive controller, etc. And it's always had extra drive bays so you can add a second hard drive or optical drive instead of replacing the one you already had. And it's always had plenty of RAM slots so you could boost memory without tossing your old modules.

A true modular consumer desktop Mac would be designed to attract Windows users and Power Mac users, who are also accustomed to this kind of expandability. At an absolute minimum, it would have:

  • At least one 3.5" hard drive bays and two 5.25" bays that could be used for optical drives or hard drives. This would allow adding a drive without removing an existing one.
  • At least two banks for memory expansion to 4 GB or more. This would allow boosting memory without having to remove whatever RAM the computer came with.
  • At least one PCIe expansion slot. This would make it possible to add a better video card, a TV tuner, or a combo card with both.

I don't care if it has pedestrian, built-in graphics - as long as you can add a better graphics card. I don't care if it comes with a slow, lower capacity hard drive - as long as I can add a faster, higher capacity one. I don't care if it only comes with 512 MB of RAM - as long as I can add another bank of memory without having to remove what's already there.

I don't care if it has a goofy external power supply, although I'd prefer a built-in one. I don't care if it has one of those 150-in-1 memory card readers, although they seem to be quite popular in the Windows world. I don't care if it's not quite as small, pretty, and minimalist as the Mac mini, although I would expect great design from Apple.

Most of all, I don't expect it to be any more expensive than the Mac mini, since it will be using less costly desktop components instead of the notebook components found in the mini.

And I fully expect it would sell like hot cakes. It would be the perfect replacement for my Power Mac - and there's no way I'm ever going to pay the price for a Mac Pro or be happy with a Mac mini. LEM


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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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