Thoughts on a Theoretical Future Mac mini

With an iPhone announcement less than a week away, I thought it would be fun to take a break from thinking about iOS devices and consider Apple’s cheap desktop computer — the Mac mini.

Here’s the insides of the current model, courtesy of iFixit:

Mac mini (Late 2012) - iFixit

And here’s the always-cool exploded view:

Mac mini (Late 2012) Exploded View

The original Mac mini from 2005 was 6.5 inches wide and 6.5 inches deep. While the Mid–2012 model is .6 inches shorter, it’s actually deeper and wider, with a footprint of 7.7 inches by 7.7 inches.

Looking at the tear downs (and having taken apart a ton of these things over the years), it’s easy to understand what drove the shape and layout of the early Mac minis: the optical drive.

You don’t even have to see the inside of the machine to understand why:

Mac mini - Optical drive

Even though Apple removed the optical drive from the Mac mini two years ago, the machine continues to retain the same shape and external dimensions. The logic board and 2.5-inch hard drives are now the largest components in the machine.

Looking at what Apple has done with the MacBook Air, it’s easy to imagine what the company could do with the Mac mini.

I can imagine a Mac mini the size of an eyeglass case or even the AppleTV, powered by the same low-voltage chipset, SSD module and soldered-on RAM as the MacBook Air.

Apple has sold a “Mac mini with OS X Server” product for several years. A smaller, cooler and more efficient machine could open the door to new and interesting uses in the home and enterprise alike.

(And just think what it could do for the guys at macminicolo.)

There are, of course, reasons Apple may leave the Mac mini as-is for now. The Mac mini boasts far many more I/O options than the Air, meaning its logic board is more complex and there is more space needed for ports. The Mac mini sports an internal power supply, which takes space as well.

Then there’s the storage question. Currently, the standard Mac mini comes with a 500GB (5400 RPM) hard drive, but can be upgraded to support two 1TB hard drives. Apple will add a 256GB SSD from the factory to enable its Fusion Drive technology. With two 2.5-inch bays available, custom options are basically endless.

If Apple were to equip the Mac mini with MacBook Air-like SSD modules to help shrink the chassis, this flexibility would be lost.

The biggest problem I see is that of pricing. The Mac mini has always been cheap. While it no longer sits at the $499 price point as it once did, the base model is still incredibly affordable at just $599. While modern Mac minis can be quite powerful, the entry-level machine isn’t all that great.

In the past, Apple has cut corners to keep the mini cheap. Low RAM configurations are par for the course. A Core Solo configuration was for sale for a while, making the Mac mini the only machine to ship from Apple with that chipset.

My guess is that migrating the Mac mini to a more modern architecture would limit the company’s flexibility when it comes to pricing.

While I would love to see a faster, smaller Mac mini on the market, it’s clear to me that there are some roadblocks Apple will need to deal with. While none of them are deal-breakers, we may be dreaming of a new mini for a while.

Mac mini (Late 2012)