Mac Musings

The Case for a Macintel Minitower

Daniel Knight - 2006.08.01

I've been using desktop Macs since 1986, when I designed a booklet for my church on a friend's Mac Plus with PageMaker. Five years later, my first Mac was also a Mac Plus - a computer later upgraded to 4 MB of RAM and a 16 MHz 68000 CPU.

My second Mac was the short-lived Centris 610, and I bought the low-end model with no ethernet. Who needed networking at home? That was 1993, and things have sure changed since then.

Next round I bought a Umax SuperMac J700 after Apple declined to renew Umax' license to clone in 1997. Upgrades included lots of additional RAM, a 250 MHz G3 upgrade, a better video card, and later an even faster G3 upgrade.

My next Mac was the 400 MHz PowerBook G4, a computer that has been beat up a fair bit over the past 5+ years. I upgraded from 128 MB to 512 MB, then 768 MB, and finally 1 GB. I replaced the 10 GB hard drive with a 20 GB 5400 rpm drive, and later with a 40 GB drive.

My next three desktop Macs were eMacs, starting with a refurbished 700 MHz Combo drive model purchased shortly after the faster 2003 eMac came to market. I think I ended up with 768 MB of RAM in that one.

If bought a pair of 1.25 GHz eMacs in 2004, one as my primary work machine when I was home with the boys, the other for use in my apartment during weeks I didn't have custody. ("Bird's nest" custody sounded like a great idea at first, but don't get me started on that topic....)

Late last year I bought a dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4 Mirrored Drive Doors from a friend at church who had gone G5. My first project was dropping in a 250 GB hard drive (three 80 GB partitions plus a small one for Mac OS 9.2.2), and I later bumped memory from 768 MB to 1.75 GB.

Common Themes

In every Mac I've ever owned, I put in more RAM. And, with the exception of the Mac Plus, I also upgraded my hard drive once or twice. (With the Plus, I added a SyQuest drive to supplement my 40 MB drive.)

On the Centris, I also upgraded video memory, and on the SuperMacs (I also owned an S900), I picked up better video cards.

I did fiddle around with UltraATA cards and an ixMicro TV tuner PCI card a bit, but for the most part I was content to upgrade RAM, put in a bigger/faster hard drive, and sometimes upgrade video.

When I worked as an IS Manager supporting 80+ Macs, RAM and hard drive upgrades were the norm, some machines got CPU upgrades, and the only thing we generally used NuBus or PCI slots for was third-party ethernet cards that were less flaky than Apple's built-in ethernet on our network.

A few designers ended up with UltraATA cards, but that was the exception - and even then, we only used two expansion slots.

The Mac minitower

A lot of people are content with what comes in the box, perhaps with some additional memory or a larger hard drive. A few people need maximum flexibility, so 4-slot Power Macs meet their needs.

Between the masses and the power users, some of us want more flexibility than the Mac mini and iMac offer, yet we don't need as much as the Power Mac has. For those in the middle, Apple should consider a Mac minitower.

In terms of power, Intel's Core Duo processors have plenty. There should be room for at least 2 GB of RAM on the system board. Build in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth, just as on the other Macintels.

For video, I'd suggest a video card rather than onboard video. Include one 16-lane PCI Express slot for that, and an 8-lane slot for other expansion. That gives us a 2-slot computer. (As an alternative, put Intel GMA 950 video on the system board and allow the user to disable it if/when they buy a video card.)

Include 1 GB of RAM with two open slots for memory expansion. The stock hard drive should be in the 160-250 GB range. And a 16x dual-layer SuperDrive should be standard. In my dream, there's also room for a second internal hard drive.

How Apple lays things out isn't a big deal for me. They could resurrect the Cube design, come up with a slim minitower case, or even build it into a traditional desktop enclosure that can support a monitor.

The base model should have as much power as the Mac mini, but because it uses less costly and generally faster 3.5" hard drives (where 7200 rpm is not uncommon), the price premium would be minimal - especially if Apple uses onboard video.

When I replace this Power Mac G4, it will undoubtedly be for an Intel-based Mac. I already have a nice monitor, and from all I hear it's a real bear to get inside the iMac to replace its hard drive. I definitely don't need all a "pro" Mac offers, but the Mac mini, with its stock 5400 rpm drive and frustrating case design (as far as upgrades go - it looks great), probably wouldn't satisfy me.

Something between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro would fit the bill. With Apple sales growing by leaps and bounds, perhaps the time is ripe to add a third modular desktop design the the product line.

Maybe my next desktop Mac will be smaller than my old Mac Plus and Centris 610....