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Article: Are the Mac mini’s Days Numbered?

by on May 24, 2007

Before everyone starts running around like a chicken iMac with its head cut off, the always-accurate AppleInsider is reporting that the Mac mini could be the next thing to disappear from Apple’s lineup. As Mac mini sympathizers, we feel the need to ask, “Why?” and ponder why this would even make sense (obviously, this is just a rumor, so it could go either way).

Since then, the Mac mini has been treated to a rather mundane life-cycle. It has seen just four updates since inception, one of which was so insignificant in Apple’s own eyes that the company didn’t even bother to draft a press release. Even now, the current minis’ 1.66GHz and 1.83GHz Core Duo processors are a far cry from the silicon offered in the rest of Apple’s PC offerings. And rightfully so, as the company has seen lower margins from the units, which never gained the sales traction of its more fully equipped iMacs and MacBooks.

I’ll be the first to agree that the Intel Mac minis aren’t all that great if you look at specs. Besides being raised by $100 in price on the base model (although it does come with Bluetooth and AirPort Extreme, which was an option on the previous models), the minis could use some more processing power or at least some more RAM to start with. I don’t care about the idea of laptop hard drives or integrated graphics—the MacBook has both of those and nobody seems to mind. Yes, it is a laptop, but the Mac mini was never designed to be a computer for computer people. It was the computer you set up for your parents (or grandparents), used as a spare computer, or replaced that somewhat aging computer with, while keeping your perfectly acceptable screen, keyboard, and mouse.

What should be done? Well, Apple needs to market the mini. Even if they don’t sell many, it’s still saying, “Hey, we have an offering that’s somewhat cheap!” which will get people in the door. I had a friend who was looking to buy a Mac mini, then realized that what they wanted ended up being only a couple hundred less than an iMac. Apple still made a sale, and it can’t cost too much to keep the mini in production—the R&D has already been spent.

Also, the mini should be beefed up to sell competitively. Apple could sell the mini differently than they do now. How about a “base” unit if you want to provide all your own extra hardware, but then offer a model with a keyboard, mouse, and anything else for a little more, but with a discount—$78 is a rip for a wired keyboard and mouse, and most likely one of the reasons people would be turned away. Another option is to throw in a USB-to-PS/2 adapter so that people can use their existing Windows keyboard. These are cheap, and there is no reason Apple couldn’t toss one in, especially with so many PS/2 keyboards floating around.

Then there’s the idea of the Apple TV being a replacement for a Mac mini. This makes little, if no, sense. Sure, the Apple TV is a stripped-down Mac, and some have made it boot into the Finder, but you couldn’t realistically use it for anything serious. I’ve used a G4 Mac mini for video editing, graphics work, running web sites, and watching TV. Although it isn’t as fast as a G5 (or Mac Pro), it still managed to hold its own and I didn’t feel like I was waiting around for too long (and trust me, the G5s we have are the 4GB of RAM variety just to give you an idea of their power). No, I’m not saying that the Mac mini would even be comparable to them for really intensive stuff, but I was still impressed by its power as a “budget” Mac.

The Apple TV as a replacement for the “entertainment center” Mac mini makes sense, however, as it is designed from the start as an accessory to your TV and existing computer. Two things—it can’t do the DVR stuff that many Mac minis are being used for, nor can it work with non-Apple file formats for video without hacks.

People talk about the Mac mini being underpowered, requiring additional equipment, and not being as competitive as the Apple TV. What they fail to realize is that it’s not intended for them, but rather people who want a cheap, basic computer. Sure the iMac could fill this gap, too, but not everyone is crazy about having everything in one box. The Mac mini gives people the freedom to use whatever screen they want, is much more portable than many other desktop Macs, and it’s cheap.

When I originally bought my G4 Mac mini a few years ago, I saw it as a great opportunity to have a small desktop that would be great for the occasional presentation, but still give me lots of screen real-estate and some expandability (external peripherals). Down the road, I saw that I could just replace the computer itself, and keep all the peripherals, thus keeping the costs down for me, and not cluttering up my place with old computers. The analogy of the computer as a stereo receiver and each peripheral as the other components really rings true here.

So, if Apple is deciding to ditch the Mac mini, they had better think about replacing it with something that isn’t just an entertainment device at the current price-point. All-in-one computers still have the tendency to scare PC users away (think of how many you see in the PC world—barely any. Besides that, some users want choice of what they use with their computer, but don’t need the power of the Mac Pro.

The QuickFix™ for the Mac mini? Hardware-wise, Apple won’t need to do much—bump it to a Core 2 Duo architecture, maybe change the graphics “card”, and maybe offer 802.11n as an option—remember, it’s a “budget” computer. Mentality-wise, Apple needs to start marketing it like crazy. It’s a cheap Mac that is still plenty capable. If people don’t find it to be enough computer for them, might we suggest the iMac? Either way, it gives Apple the image as caring about the entire computer market.

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