Mac Musings

Beyond the Mac mini

Daniel Knight - 2008.05.16 -

What if Apple decided to give the Mac mini the MacBook Air treatment? You know, leave out the optical drive and reduce the number of ports. Do you think it would become an even better seller?

Let's think about it: The Mac mini can't get much smaller because it has nicely rounded corners and has a built-in optical drive. You can only make the footprint so small with those design constraints, but the SuperDrive for the MacBook Air has an even smaller footprint, just under 5.5" square, by dispensing with rounded corners.

How much do you want to bet that Apple could make a Mac mini (or micro or nano) with the same small footprint? And by doing that, they could build it without an optical drive, offering the same SuperDrive designed for the MacBook Air.

We could easily see a modular desktop Mac under 1.5" tall, although perhaps not as slim as the 1.1" height of Apple TV. With no internal optical drive, there'd be less heat to vent. This sounds promising. Or maybe even give it the same 7.7" square footprint as Time Capsule and Apple TV - as long as it's under 1.5" tall.

The Mac mini is Apple's most out-of-date computer, the only one still using a 667 MHz system bus, the only one still using Intel GMA 950 graphics, the only one with 802.11g wireless. It's due for an overhaul to the 800 MHz system bus, the Santa Rosa chipset, the Penryn CPU, 802.11n WiFi, and the less than exciting Intel X3100 graphics processor (at least it's better than GMA 950).

Maybe run the CPUs as 2.0 GHz on the low end and 2.4 GHz at the top. Include 2 GB of RAM with support for up to 4 GB (this is still an entry-level system). Redesign it so at least one of the USB 2.0 ports is accessible from the front, perhaps one on each side toward the front for flash drives, iPods, and other devices you take from computer to computer.

Price the wee beastie at $499 for the base model, $599 for the faster one, and sell the external SuperDrive for $99 - as Apple already does with the MacBook Air. Yes, it would require a high-power USB 2.0 port, but that's not a big deal on a desktop computer.

Can you imagine how hot this would be? It wouldn't have the graphics for high-end gaming LAN parties, but it would be incredibly transportable - grab the computer and power supply, and you're ready to go anywhere that has a monitor/TV, mouse, and keyboard. The whole computer would be smaller than those external hard drives designed to complement the Mac mini.

New Features

Apple could add a button or switch on the back so users could boot into Target Disk Mode without needing a keyboard, and that mode should work using either FireWire or USB. It would be a real coup if it could run off bus power in Target Disk Mode when used with FireWire, which can provide up to 1.25A of 12V power. One less thing to carry if you just want to tote your data to another Mac with FireWire.

Of course you'd build in support for Remote Disc. That way if this isn't someone's only computer, they may be able to avoid the expense of the external SuperDrive.

It would be small enough that you could stack it on your Time Capsule backup system/WiFi router, and it should just sip energy, making it perhaps the greenest desktop PC on the market.

If Apple were to go with the 7.7" footprint, they could even offer an expansion chassis ($100-150) to turn it into a taller version with a bigger power supply for those who want to use a 3.5" hard drive. That could make for one very expandable, very compact server.

With a little foresight, there might even be a slot on the motherboard for a riser card in the expansion chassis that supports a PCIe card, giving users an easy way to upgrade video - in which case the expanded model could be a favorite for those LAN parties after all.

It still wouldn't quite be the prosumer Mac a lot of us have been dreaming of, but it would be a big step up from the current Mac mini.

Good Enough

They say that the good is the enemy of the best, but sometimes good enough is good enough. How many people need the power of the Mac Pro? How many users need powerful graphics? How many people need 8 GB of RAM and 1 TB hard drives?

Then there are all those Power Mac users. Our G4 or G5 Power Macs are good enough, but the power of Intel Core Duo is attractive - especially for anyone working with video. Apple needs a machine to tempt them into the Intel Era, and a Mac mini with an expansion chassis option might do it. We already have the keyboard, mouse, and monitor, but we'd like an Intel Mac that really has the power to unleash Leopard.

And for those of us wed to Classic Mode, maybe someone could offer a very compact, very affordable KVM for our USB keyboard and mouse and our DVI monitor.

That would get me into the Intel world, and the iMac is due for an update in coming months....