The next mini

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Next mini

Prompted by a MacRumors reader on the future of the Mac mini, Tim Cook replied that the mini will be “an important part of the company’s product lineup in the future.” Remember the mini? It was last updated in October 2014, which in tech years is a long time ago. That last refresh was a bit controversial, too, because the 2014 Mac mini was a step back in terms of upgradability and versatility when compared with its 2012 predecessor (take a look at this comparison review published by Macworld UK three years ago to have an idea of the differences).

It’s a true pity that Apple has been neglecting this Mac. I still think there’s a market for a compact, affordable Mac such as the mini, though I presume the dream of Apple’s current executives is that people would all choose an iPad over a Mac mini in that price range. I think Bob Burrough (who previously worked at Apple) has best articulated Apple’s lack of interest in the mini when he tweeted: In my opinion, the Mac mini is supremely damning, because the minimum effort is just updating the CPU, RAM, storage each year. They didn’t. Like how would they answer “Why didn’t you update the Mac mini?” “We’re undergoing a difficult and sophisticated redesign.” I don’t think so.

I don’t think so, either. Still, Cook says they’re not leaving the Mac mini behind. What’s next for this machine, then? I’ve been thinking about a few possible scenarios:

  1. The first scenario is the laziest: the mini basically maintains the same design and simply receives a speed bump with hopefully up-to-date, decent specifications. This could be ‘good enough’ from a pragmatic standpoint, but it would certainly create another round of criticism towards Apple (e.g., We waited more than three years to get a new mini that has the same design as the 2010 model, come on!).
  2. The mini gets worse. By worse, I’m thinking of a physically smaller machine, something resembling an Apple TV, available in two configurations — ‘underpowered’ and ‘okay’ — with soldered RAM, SSD, USB-C ports (2 or 3), and that’s it. ‘Worse’ is obviously subjective here. It would be for me, because I prefer expandable, versatile machines; but perhaps such a Mac might be a good option for people who just want something small and powerful enough on their desks.
  3. The mini gets better. I’m thinking of a sort of ‘poor man’s Mac Pro’, a rather expandable yet compact desktop Mac, something in the spirit of the Mac mini from 2011–2012 (or even of its glorious predecessor the Power Mac G4 Cube); a machine that would be cheaper than an iMac, but not much less powerful. It could be the choice for those who don’t want a big all-in-one computer, or have already a good standalone display. And when I say ‘poor man’s Mac Pro’, I mean it from a design standpoint, too. Just like the upcoming iMac Pro shares the same design as the iMac, the next Mac mini could have a similar design as the next Mac Pro, but in a more compact package, and with less power/expandability to avoid cannibalising Mac Pro sales.

I’m not sure which of these three options is the most likely. When it comes to the Mac, Apple has been getting increasingly inscrutable in recent years. The company so far seems particularly averse to expandable, serviceable machines, so scenario №2 could be what eventually materialises. I might even be okay with a locked-down Mac mini equipped with immutable internals, but in such case I think the smart move would be to make this new mini a truly affordable Mac, something like the iPad 5 in the iPad product line. An entry-level model at $329 and a more powerful model at $429 — I believe they could be appealing to a lot of people, especially non-pro users with a limited budget.

Of course, I’d love if something like scenario №3 could come true. Imagine a Mac Pro Mini that is a bit narrower and taller than the current mini, with a hot swappable drive bay, easy access to RAM slots (and RAM expandable to 32 GB), plus one PCI expansion slot, just to give it a bit of expandability. This kind of mini would command slightly higher prices than scenario №2 above, but I’d say that keeping the current price tags ($499, $699, and $999, with the $499 model offered without the expansion slot, for example) would be quite fair.

Who knows, maybe Apple will end up surprising everybody by introducing some unexpected feature or design. Maybe the next mini will be the first Mac sporting an ARM chip. Maybe it’ll be cheap and it will come in colours. Maybe it’ll have the array of sensors and cameras of the iPhone X and come with FaceID technology. But really, the Mac mini doesn’t necessarily have to be a playground for innovation. The basic formula is still a winner — a powerful-enough, general-purpose, truly affordable desktop Mac. It’s just waiting to be refreshed to be more up-to-date. There’s really no wheel to reinvent here, Apple.

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