This week, Apple updated its Mac mini desktop, and even the "low end" ($599!) model features the latest in Intel dual-core processor technology for snappy processing. It also measures 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4", weighs 2.7 lbs., and includes an HDMI port for connecting to your TV with a single cable. The one, probably-necessary update they didn't give this 'lil computer? A reason to exist. Seriously, off the top of your head, tell us what this computer is for! Because Apple doesn't seem too concerned about making that clear.
I'm guessing you couldn't come up with anything, either. Well, here's a list of three things we think this computer was created to be, and why it actually falls short in every case.
A Desktop Replacement
With such a fast CPU, one might assume that the mini is mighty enough to tackle all but the most intensive tasks. And you're probably right — for now. The problem is, software will begin to bloat it. A Premier update here, an OS X update there and before you know it, your computer is starting to chug along. When you have a desktop, how do you handle this situation? You crack open the case and replace all or some of the following: CPU, RAM, video card, or hard drive. When you want to upgrade your Mac mini, you can conveniently crack open the case and ... replace just the RAM. If that wasn't your problem, well, then you're out of luck.
As an added bonus, this "desktop replacement" has dropped the optical drive completely. It uses a work-around that enables you to wirelessly sync your Mac mini to the DVD drive of another computer. So ... wait. What? In order to fully use this computer, you have to have another computer? Hilarious!
A Convenient Portable Computer
With the promo material proudly boasting its 2.7-lb. weight, you might think that Apple is positioning the mini as something portable. Maybe you're thinking this means you can throw it into your bag and head out the door, ready for at-a-moment's-notice computing.
But to us, it means having to lug around a useless tiny box until we can find a screen, keyboard, and mouse to connect it to. We say that portability is already covered sufficiently by a laptop, thanyouverymuch! OK, OK, a laptop is heavier, but being able to fire it up in a coffee shop outweighs the ... well, the weight. Want to use your less-than-three-pound "portable" desktop in Starbucks? You're going to have carry your way-more-than-three-pound LCD with you, too.
Oh, and since the cheapest mini is almost $600, we're pretty sure you can easily find a laptop for that price. Or, you know, 80 of them.
A Media Center
Apple's claim that it can "connect ... to your HDTV with a single HDMI cable" might lead you to believe that it's the best option for a home theater PC. Well, I do hate to keep banging the Price Drum, but it's a rather expensive way to get movies onto your television when there are $99 options available — including the highest-end Roku, and even Apple's own AppleTV!
Maybe what it comes down to is that even Apple doesn't seem to know who should be using this thing. By highlighting the features as they do, maybe they're hoping you'll be convinced it can successfully do everything. But when you think about it, it looks more like a jack of all trades, trying too hard to appeal to too many groups, without doing any one thing particularly well.
But I'm sure Apple could spin this to say that, since it can't be pigeon-holed, they've succeeded in creating a new category of computing!
I already have multiple PCs, of course I already have keyboard/mouse/monitor. I wanted to write iPhone apps, but I'm a complete newb programmer -- non-Mac OS software isn't going to work well for me because there's less support and they've thrown all sorts of obstacles to this. I could (and did) put Mac OS on a spare PC, but it just became a pain to troubleshoot all the random problems caused by using VM or installing on generally incompatible hardware (sure it can work, but I wasted too much time trying to fix small problems). Is it stupid they won't make it simpler to write apps in Windows? Absolutely! But Hackint0sh solutions are more trouble than they're worth. Plus, Windows software for this isn't cheap while xcode is free.
So, as a cheap way to stable Mac OS ($650 with student discount) was the Mac Mini (previous gen), which saves me $300 vs any other Apple computer. Plus I wouldn't even want an iMac because I already have a nice monitor that I want to use with my other computer with a switch and it would just get in the way -- and resell value is crap. So I'd need either a Pro (expensive) or a laptop.
The machine is plenty strong to run anything I need it to even with the previous gen -- xcode, light Photoshop/GIMP, browser, media -- or all of these at one time. And it still works well for these tasks with an OS upgrade. Now what is a typical computer user even doing that this isn't strong enough? I'm not considering gaming it's certainly not ideal for that at the price point.
$599 I could buy a branded HTPC (Lenovo, Acer…), plus there will enough money
left to buy at least a cheaper 32” TV, which I could connect it with the HTPC
using a “single HDMI cable” too. :)
But what you are missing to address in your article is that
Apple has a perfectly covered its demographic niche of the mid-upper class and above. Apple’s
brand loyalty is amazing, which you can see from the comments on this article. “Cheap”
small footprint computer, which does not need to be upgraded (so a PC
needs to be upgraded, just because you have the option to do it?), et cetera.
To summarize, given the brand loyalty, Apple could have come
out with a $799 mark for the base model and it would not hurt their sales at all.
-In other words... you better have a second MAC! haha
The Mac Mini has always been an entry level option aimed at those Windows (and old Mac) users that already have a keyboard, mouse, and monitor but want to go with the cheapest Mac possible.
It came in handy for me when I was upgrading the computers at a business that had all old macs. They didn't want to pay much, wanted to stay with the Mac, and get rid of there old G4 towers. The keyboards, mice, and monitors could all be used off the old Macs.
For me, a Mac users from way back, I think the best use for it would be as part of my home theater. Yes, there are less expensive options including the Apple TV but I personally find the Apple TV too limiting and having a full blown computer would be a much better option. Since it would be on my home network, I could easily burn to one of my other computers if I needed to. I prefer an OSX machine over a Windows 7 machine any day.
As far as portability, I would not use it as a portable although if I needed to, it would be much easier to take around for presentations then a full blown desktop machine. I have my laptop for that kind of thing though.
Keep up the good work.
You also dismissed an important use case as "hilarious": households with multiple active computer users. My parents, now around age 60, spend an increasing amount of time around the house. If they were still competing for time at the same iMac, I think divorce papers might have been filed. About a year ago, I passed down a 2008 MacBook Pro to my dad to keep the peace, and while it's borderline ridiculous to me that he's using a 15" laptop as a pure desktop replacement, it does serve the intended purpose. I have many other friends who have a similar story. The Mac Mini is a great second Mac for a household, and the only reason I hadn't pulled the trigger on one before now was that it seemed woefully underpowered given the price, even by Mac standards. That's an argument I can't make anymore. Is the hardware still weak for $700+, after you factor in a cheap 20" monitor? Sure. But that's been the story of the Mac for a long time, and the total cost premium is less with the Mini than it is with other products.
1. Casual, unobtrusive personal desktop computer (if you're a power user, invest in a Pro)
2. Small server for personal websites/blogs
3. Those who want Mac OSX without investing in the iMac screen
4. Businesses looking for a Mac-based desktop
It's these kind of articles like on Yahoo, Byte, and sometimes even Engadget (post-AOL) that appeal to the extravagant and extreme to get more page views. They're only meant to inflame and have no merit, analysis, or basis. A shame to see so many sites fall this way instead of real journalism.
That being said, I will look elsewhere for a replacement for my 2006 Mini. I need an optical drive (as appealing as I find the $99 LaCie firewire external), and its omission forces users like me to either pay extra or go back to the days of SneakerNet. I should not have to wander from one computer to another just to read/write to media. Nor should a media read/write require a network connection. It may be quite acceptable for some folks but for me (at least until flash media is as ubiquitously inexpensive as optical disks) that's a ridiculously giant step backwards.
The problem computer is the mid-line one - it has dedicated graphics,more ram and a faster processor - but is it really worth the price difference?
The loss of optical drive makes sense due to Apple's App store. *EVERYTHING* Apple does now will be cloud based. This may be the last OS that Apple ships on any physical media.
For the hardware, any USB Blu-ray drive can be used.
Given the low cost of standalone Blu-ray players, however, I don't really see this as a big issue, however. I suspect most of those that would be playing back DVDs on a Mac Mini would be ripping them to a NAS, and thus only need an optical drive for the process, not for playback.
First of all, the machine's RAM can be replaced easily and its hard drive with only slightly more difficulty -- nothing outside the capabilities of the average user. (Check out the recent iFixit teardown for details). In fact, with an extra cable that you will undoubtedly be able to find from OWC and other Mac-centric retailers soon, you should be able to install a second hard drive where the optical drive used to sit. Also, if I'm not mistaken, the i5 chip is not soldered in. The only thing the machine lacks in expandability is PCI-E, but in many cases a USB peripheral will serve the same purpose, and for those cases when speed is paramount, Apple has introduced Thunderbolt (which may someday actually be useful).
Secondly, the mini is not really designed to be portable (although its size is a godsend if you actually do need to take it with you). Why the small size then? What's the advantage? ENERGY EFFICIENCY. Much of the expense of owning a computer comes from the cost of operating it, and the mini, with its laptop-inspired design, sips power compared to some of the power hungry, hot, and wasteful desktop computers on the market. Think of the cost over years of running the computer, especially if you use it in a place where you end up cooling the room -- it makes a huge difference in the total cost of ownership. Anandtech ran an article a few years back pegging the cost between an efficient system and non-efficient one between $75 and $250 a year, and that's on idle! The mini could easily bridge the cost gap with a PC tower if you keep it for 5 years or so.
As far as the optical drive, buy a $20-$30 external USB drive advertised on Dealnews. It's really not a big deal. The bottleneck on these things is the Disc read speed, so it's not like the fact its USB will be slowing you down. Maybe it was a little easy to drop the drive, but so many things are being distributed digitally these days that an optical drive won't be necessary for the average consumer in a few years.
Something the author didn't say: since there isn't any Blu-ray option, Apple or third-party, a Mac mini can't be used as a HTPC (unless you think it's OK for an HTPC to be incompatible with all new release movies in 1080p).
I would love to have one to use as a media center. It has everything I need and it gives you the easiest way to stream internet video directly to the television ala hulu instead of hulu plus or //tv.com[/url. The big problem, which you hit on, is the actual price. I haven't been able to justify the price based on that need.
As for the upgrade concerns, the only Mac that is user-upgradeable beyond RAM is the Mac Pro (although in portable Macs, the hard drive is also fairly easy to upgrade for the end user), so the mini isn't unique in that aspect.
I don't recommend the mini as the sole computer for one's needs, but as a extra/convenience Mac, or an inexpensive Mac to fill moderate needs, it really can't be beat.
And don't forget you have to buy it from the company that has replaced IBM in those old ads about corporate big brother. You know, the one that makes its Chinese junk by the same sad suicide-seeking employees as Dell and HP.
I could also see this computer as an excellent choice for retired 'snowbirds' who can leave a keyboard, mouse, and monitor at each house, and just travel with the mac mini.
It's great that Apple has a more affordable option for people who want a mac, but don't want to spend a ton of cash, and don't need to do anything too complicated on their computer.