Mac Musings

Apple Needs to Offer Less Mac for Less Money

Daniel Knight - 2006.06.07

Apple makes some great computers, a remarkable operating systems, and some pretty incredible apps, but they don't seem particularly interested in the low end of the computing market. Perhaps Macs with a few less features could have a low enough price to attract budget buyers.

Sure, we had the entry-level Mac mini at US$499 for a year - before Apple decided it needed AirPort, Bluetooth, and a wireless remote control in addition to an Intel Core processor, boosting the retail price to US$599.

And we've had US$999 12" G4 iBooks since October 2004 - but Apple decided the Intel-based MacBook needed a widescreen display and a built-in iSight webcam, boosting its price to US$1,099.

As Gene Steinberg ably points out today in The Case for an Educational Mac, Apple's current low-end models offer several features that aren't needed in the classroom, among other settings.

Steinberg suggests eliminating the remote control as one way to reduce prices. After all, if you're not using your Mac as a media center, it's unnecessary. It's certainly unneeded in the classroom or office. The same goes for built-in iSight.

I'd like to see Apple release Macs that are price competitive with Dells, HPs, Gateways, and Compaqs.

By that I don't mean name brand Windows PCs decked out to feature parity with the Mac's standard features. After all, how many low-end Windows users need FireWire, Bluetooth, built-in WiFi, and a webcam?

Low End Mac mini

I have two suggestions for new Mac mini models. One would be designed to be US$200 cheaper than the current 1.5 GHz Core Solo model. There would be three changes that would make it more secure for use in the classroom and workplace:

  1. Eliminate the optical drive completely. No slot. No room for a CD-ROM. You'd need an external drive (flash drive, hard drive, Combo drive, or SuperDrive) to install software and move files.
  2. Get rid of the remote control. In these situations, there's no need for it, and it's just one more piece of hardware to track (or probably stick in a drawer in the IT office).
  3. Since there's no optical drive, use a 3.5" hard drive. It can fit, although Apple might have to pay more attention to cooling if they use 7200 rpm drives (which should at least be an option).

Finally, dump the Intel Core Solo. The chip costs as much as the low-end Core Duo, and dual cores provide a lot more power even if the clock speed is 10% lower. A lot more power.

How many US$399 Mac minis could be deployed in the classroom or office? A lot!

Between this model and the current Mac mini Apple could offer a 1/2" taller Mac mini with a 3.5" hard drive and an optical drive at US$499. Include the receiver for the wireless remote, but sell the remote itself separately.

Low End MacBook

I think the MacBook design is brilliant, and the glossy screen is vibrant (although I'd still like to see a matte option), but there are a couple of real issues that argue against the MacBook in education setting.

  1. Anyone with a screwdriver can remove the RAM, although there's not much of a market for low-end memory modules.
  2. Anyone with a screwdriver can remove the hard drive, and there's definitely a market for notebook hard drives.

For the average consumer or businessman, easy access to RAM and the hard drive is a great idea. For applications where security is crucial, the ability to pull the old hard drive before selling the used MacBook is a real winner. But in the classroom, where mouse balls have been endangered for decades, that easy access is a liability.

There are two options here: an education-only 12" MacBook or a slightly modified 13" MacBook for schools. A 12" MacBook would sacrifice the widescreen display for a slightly less costly screen and a smaller computer. It could be designed to hard drive and RAM access are not so easy.

But then there's the cost of tooling up yet another model, so I think it would make more sense for Apple to create an entry-level 13" MacBook that would better meet the needs of education. Strip the iSight webcam, eliminate the wireless remote, and devise a cover for the memory slots and hard drive bay that can only be removed with a special tool.

That should cut the MacBook to US$899 for consumers - and even less for education buyers.

eMac 2006?

Steinberg proposes that Apple revive the eMac idea with a flat panel display. I have mixed feelings about it. Not because I dislike all-in-one computers, but because of economics. While CPUs keep getting faster, hard drives keep getting bigger, and RAM keeps getting cheaper - creating the "more computer for less money" syndrome that keeps us addicted to upgrades - monitors seem to have much longer lives.

With an iMac or eMac, you can't replace the computer and keep the display; it's all or nothing. In my mind, a Mac mini plus a 15" or 17" flat panel display makes a lot more sense than a new eMac.

That said, there are some advantages to the all-in-one design - mostly the reduced number of cables and smaller footprint.

But maybe there's another solution. What if Apple were to market a line of flat panel displays that included a dock for the Mac mini? Mount the computer vertically behind the screen, and offer a locking system for the education markets and other places where you don't want the computer walking off on its own.

Instead of building another all-in-one computer for education, build a set of monitors that can be used as all-in-one Macs simply by sliding a Mac mini into a dock. And when it's time to buy a new computer, the 2009 Mac mini will simply slide in to replace the 2006 one.

Maybe Apple's already thought of these things, because it needs to increase the Mac's presence in education. The education market is extremely price conscious, and with a few simple changes, Apple could target that market and grow its share.

Today's school children should be able to benefit from Apple's hardware, operating system, and software. That means prices your average public school can afford, and with just a few tweaks to existing models Apple could be there.

Less Mac. Less money. More sales.