Mac Musings

If the Mac mini Is Dead, What Will Replace It?

Daniel Knight - 2007.05.29

If you've followed the Mac Web over the past week, you'd think that Apple had announced it was discontinuing the Mac mini. It hasn't.

Unnamed sources, not always the most reliable people, have claimed that Apple will be phasing out the Mac mini, sometimes comparing it with the poorly received Power Mac G4 Cube. Nothing could be further from the case.

The Cube

The Cube was introduced at the July 2000 Macworld Expo in New York, widely praised for it's beautiful design, and roundly condemned for offering less expandability for more money than the far more expandable Power Mac G4/400. Apple was charging a premium for a less capable computer that looked pretty - not unlike the "black tax" on today's MacBook.

The Cube was a competent computer with some failings. The power button on top of the computer was too sensitive; simply having your finger near it could trip it. There were no PCI expansion slots at all. And despite its elegance, a Cube setup resulted in one Cube, two speakers, and several wires on your desk - and a power supply on the floor.

The Cube never sold well. It was discontinued after a year on the market. Today it has an enthusiastic following, but Apple's initial pricing was probably the biggest factor in killing it.

The Mac mini

The Cube was never the least expensive Mac ever. The original Mac mini was. Introduced in January 2005, the $499 Mac mini has a 1.25 GHz G4 CPU, Radeon 9200 graphics, room for 1 GB of RAM, a 40 GB notebook hard drive, and a Combo drive. All in all, it was a decent entry level Mac selling for $300 less than the least costly iMac ever produced.

From the get go, we all realized that the Mac mini was a bit compromised because it had been designed to be small first, then affordable - not vice versa. This mean it used a more costly 2.5" hard drive, had no expansion slots, used an external power supply (like the Cube), and only had a single memory slot.

When Apple went Intel, the Mac mini took two steps forward, three steps back. It gained a second memory expansion slot and the new Intel architecture. It lost dedicated video memory, was the only Mac ever to use Intel's Core Solo CPU, and saw a $100 increase in its price.

The G4 Mac mini had fought hard enough to be considered by low-end buyers, as it sold for $499 with no keyboard, mouse, or monitor while many a Dell, Gateway, etc. sold for $399 with those peripherals. As cheap PCs dropped to $299, the Mac mini went Intel and rose to $599.

Beyond the Mac mini

We've long maintained that Apple missed the boat with the Mac mini. Apple could have produced a more affordable computer using a 3.5" hard drive, which would have made the computer a bit larger. This would have left room for more memory sockets and perhaps one or two expansion slots.

But Apple was more concerned with aesthetics. The mini had to be as small as possible, look gorgeous, and use less conspicuous, more attrractive slot-loading optical drives. And more expensive, generally slower notebook hard drives.

If Apple is phasing out the Mac mini after 2-1/2 years, it will be discontinuing a very successful machine that many loved. If Apple is phasing out the Mac mini, we can only hope that it is because the company plans to replace it with something better - less expensive, more expandable, easier to market against Windows PCs.

The New Macintosh

I'd like to see Apple simply call the replacment model "The Macintosh" - nothing more. Perhaps design it with the same 6.5" footprint as the Mac mini so all of those peripherals designed to complement the mini will work with it. Perhaps come up with a whole new design, such as a cube.

Whatever the outside design, the new Macintosh should have at least one and possibly two PCI Express slots. This would allow Apple to continue shipping a less costly Mac with integrated video while allowing the user to upgrade to better video if they need to. This would solve one of the biggest drawbacks to buying a Mac mini.

The new Mac should use a 3.5" hard drive, as they are less costly, available in higher capacity, and tend to be more responsive than 2.5" notebook drives. Apple might also want to consider a standard tray-loading optical drive rather than the more visually attractive and more costly slot-loading drive found in MacBooks and the mini.

But most of all, Apple should design a new Macintosh that can be perceived as competing with the $299 (usually after rebate) PCs found in the Windows world. This is the low profit end of the market, and Apple is historically a high profit company - and they'll make it up in OS X and iLife upgrades, sales of iWork, .mac contracts, and build-to-order options.

If Apple could retail such a Mac at $499, it would sell well. And if they could do so at $399, it would sell like hotcakes.

The question is, will Apple pursue the market or try to make the market pursue it?