Mac Musings

Dreaming Up a Mac More Expandable than the Mac mini, More Affordable than the Mac Pro

Daniel Knight - 2007.01.31

"Think Different" was Apple's corporate mantra long before it became an advertising slogan. Back in the Apple II era, the Woz came up with a clever design to support color, and not much later he developed an innovative, low cost floppy drive controller.

Apple brought the mouse and graphical user interface to the world with the US$10,000 Lisa in 1983 - also Apple's first "all-in-one" computer design. The 1990 Macintosh LC was one of the smallest desktop computers ever brought to market (12.2" wide, 15.4" deep, and just 2.9" tall), at least until the Mac mini arrived 15 years later.

The SuperMac C500

One of my favorite desktop Mac designs didn't come from Apple. It came from Umax during the clone era. The SuperMac C500 may have been the most compact desktop Mac with built-in floppy and CD-ROM drives at 13.75" wide, 16" deep, and 4" tall. It managed this by putting its two PCI expansion slots on a riser card, so they were sideways inside the computer rather than upright.

We know that Apple can design small (the Mac mini) and very expandable (the Mac Pro). What could they do in the middle?


Let's come up with specs for a midrange Mac that's affordable and expandable enough for most users. Then we'll conceptualize how we could squeeze everything into a compact package.

We'll power it with an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and give it 4 memory slots, allowing expansion to 4 GB total RAM. That should be plenty for the intended audience.

We'll stick with Intel GMA 950 onboard video, even though we realize that "vampire video" is a compromise. That said, it's good enough for most users most of the time - and since we'll be designing an expandable Mac, adding a video card will solve all of those problems for those who need better graphics.

We need room for an internal optical drive and hard drive. A second optical drive? I think not. A second hard drive? I'd like to see it, but I don't think it's necessary. But if we can make room for it, we'll include a second hard drive bay.

Two PCI Express (PCIe) expansion slots should be plenty, making it easy to add a better video card and leaving room for some future expansion option (or another video card).

Sizing Things Up

The Mac mini is so small because it's built around notebook components - a 2.5" hard drive and a slot-loading Combo drive or SuperDrive. To keep costs down, let's stick with the more traditional 3.5" SATA hard drives and a tray-loading Combo drive or SuperDrive. In fact, let's use the same drives found in the Mac Pro.

Too keep the midrange Mac from being too big, let's use the SuperMac C500's trick of placing the expansion cards in the computer sideways. (The C500 had so-so onboard video that could be supplemented or replaced with a better graphics card.)

We should be able to get away with the 6.5" width of the Mac mini. Here's how I'd envision components arrayed inside the computer:

  1. Top: two 3.5" hard drive bays, sideways, one behind the other. This will facilitate heat dissipation, as 7200 rpm drives can run hot.
  2. Tray-loading Combo drive or SuperDrive.
  3. Riser card supporting two PCIe expansion cards. Heat from a powerful graphics card can vent behind the optical drive.
  4. System board with 4 RAM slots.
  5. Bottom: flat, slim power supply with fans to circulate air, vent computer, keep it from being top-heavy.

I envision something about 9" tall, 6.5" wide, and 12" deep that would be styled to complement the Mac mini and look good with peripherals designed for the mini. (Or match the Mac Pro styling....) Be sure to put some ports on the front - two USB and one FireWire minimum. And include Bluetooth for keyboards, mice, headphones, cell phone sync, and more.

If Apple can sell the Mac mini, which is built around more costly notebook components, at US$599, they should have no trouble at all offering this computer for the same price. While it is more expandable, which would increase some costs, it also uses less costly optical drives and hard drives.

For the education market, Apple could sell a stripped version with a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive and a lower capacity hard drive.

Give me a computer like this, Apple, and I'll replace my dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4. Give me the right price on expansion options, and I'll order it with 2 GB of RAM (often way overpriced from Apple - currently a US$250 option for the Mac mini and a US$300 option for the Mac Pro!) and a dedicated video card (Apple lets you add an Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT to the Mac Pro for US$149).

Price it right, and Apple could see a huge upsurge in the home market. One compact, affordable, expandable enough computer that can run Mac OS X, all the iApps, Microsoft Windows XP or Vista, those Windows apps that can't be duplicated on the Mac, and Linux (if they so choose).