Apple refreshes desktop lineup: Is the Mac mini irrelevant?

Apple refreshes desktop lineup: Is the Mac mini irrelevant?

Summary: Apple on Tuesday outlined a refresh of its iMac, Mac Pro and Mac mini lineups and the headliners are the Intel Nehalem-based Mac Pro and the iMac 24-inch update. However, perusing the updates you have to wonder if the Mac mini is irrelevant.

TOPICS: Apple, Hardware

Apple on Tuesday outlined a refresh of its iMac, Mac Pro and Mac mini lineups and the headliners are the Intel Nehalem-based Mac Pro and the iMac 24-inch update. However, perusing the updates you have to wonder if the Mac mini is irrelevant. 

First, the highlights, which are outlined by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Jason O'Grady, Techmeme and Apple's statements on its Mac Pro and consumer desktops. The Mac Pro starts at $2,499, uses Intel's Nehalem Xeon processors and features the latest graphic chips from Nvidia and ATI. 

In the statement, Apple seems to be pushing price for value hard--a fact that isn't surprising given the economy. Philip Schiller, Apple's marketing chief, calls the Mac Pro a significant upgrade that starts at $300 cheaper than before. 

Gallery: Apple iMac, Mac Pro and Mac mini Feb '09 refresh

It's a similar story on Apple's consumer lineup where Apple touts its 24-inch iMac starting at the same price as its 20-inch predecessor.

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster also notes Apple's nod to pricing, but adds that the product refresh/pricing is consistent with historical standards at the company. However, Munster also adds that Apple's desktop refresh comes amid what's likely to be weak Mac unit sales for February. Munster writes in a research note:

Next Datapoint On Apple: Expect Feb NPD To Be Relatively Weak On 3/16. Month of February NPD is scheduled to be released on 3/16. Through the first month of March quarter (January), the Mac unit NPD data was tracking down 6% y/y. We expect month of February Mac unit data will be down ~12% y/y, given Feb-09 is a tough comp vs. Feb-08, due to Macbook Air launch. Street is modeling for Mac units down ~4% y/y for the March quarter.

The afterthought in this equation is the Mac mini, which doesn't line up with better performance and seems priced out of its niche. The specs for the Mac mini are certainly better than before, but Adrian Kingsley-Hughes notes:

The Mac mini update really is little more than the bare minimum Apple could have done.

Good point indeed. And then you consider the price. The Mac mini has two prices--$599 or $799 depending on the memory you get. Now let's acknowledge that the Mac mini has a neat design. It's also green. But the value proposition of a Mac mini is questionable. Why?

  • Netbooks are much cheaper and have screens.
  • Non-Apple laptops will cost about the same as the Mac mini. 
  • You still have to account for a monitor (Apple's store suggests the $899 24-inch Apple LED Cinema Display.
  • And it's unclear what niche the Mac mini fills. It's not quite a living room PC--think Apple TV and Sony Playstation--and it's not an iMac. 

In other words, I have no idea what would convince me to buy a Mac mini even if I loved Apple. There are too many options that offer better value--even on Apple's own store. If I really wanted a Mac I'd buy something other than the Mac mini. Hell, I'd even get an Apple TV over a Mac mini.

Add it up and it's quite possible that a Mac mini buyer could eye the $799 version and go either two ways: A person spend another $400 and get an iMac or walk away for more value somewhere else. Apple obviously bets on the former, but you have to wonder why the company needs the Mac mini in its lineup at all. It's a tweener that just doesn't make a lot of sense these days.

Update: There are a lot of folks giving me Mac mini use cases now. A few use cases via email and the Talkbacks below:

  • Mini clusters as a cheap server set-up;
  • Rack them as computing power for audiophiles;
  • Cheap Mac desktops for those loaded with monitors and accessories.

Here are a few use cases:

Email 1: The music lover

You posed the question "I have no idea what would convince me to buy a Mac mini even if I loved Apple."

May I share with you the general adoption of the Mac mini among audiophiles deploying digital music servers?

We all have our own interests, our own hobbies. One of mine is audio of the classical music flavor.

It's impossible to pick up a serious audio magazine ("stereo" or "hifi" for us oldsters) and not come upon various discussions of digital music using the Mac mini as a server device.

In a classic "chicken and egg" situation, many serious digital music software systems are written only for the Apple OS.

Want to use a particular piece of software as your key ingredient? Buy an Apple PC--any Apple PC---because you've got no choice.

As you can appreciate, the cheapest and easiest Apple to deploy in a living room or on an audio equipment rack is the Mac mini.

Hey, happy to answer your question for you.

Email 2: Stack em club

For me, the MacMini is a valuable addition to my computer inventory. I use them for web servers.

  • They're cheap, for a Mac.
  • The software I use is Mac-only.
  • I don't need keyboards and screens.
  • I stack 'em up.
  • Bottom line: The Mac mini fills a valuable  niche.

Email 3: Replacement for PCs

Interesting question about the Mac Mini.  I suspect I may be a good representative of the target market. Had a legacy XP system in my small office.  Bought a MacBook Pro a few years back for personal use.  Decided to swap my office over to Mac OS X, but didn't want to lose my investment in five good monitors, keyboards, mice, etc., so I bought all minis.  Worked very well for me - fully Mac OS X now, and happy with the setup.

Email 4: Web TV redux

Wouldn't it be nice to connect a Mac Mini to your wireless router and your big screen HDTV and sit back in your lounger with a wireless keyboard and mouse and surf the web?

My take: Good points made by all, but these end markets still sound nichey. In any case, the Mac mini wouldn't be my first choice as a buyer--I'm not looking to stack minis, am not a huge music collector and don't have a bunch of monitors to spare. Thanks for the education though.

Topics: Apple, Hardware

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  • Mac Mini ...

    ... is perfect for a KVM situation - small foot print when considering it's sharing the KVM with a PC based machine ...

    • Price Point!

      Neat little box, but it seems to me a $399 price tag would get them flying off the shelves!
      • You can't even get a PC for that

        If you said $600 instead of $400 I'd agree.

        I've been looking at PC prices lately. Namebrand $399 PC's are still Core
        Duo. with cruddy graphic cards. To get a Mac down to that level the Mini
        would have to lose the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M, the Core 2 Duo 2Ghz, and
        the Firewire port. I'd gladly pay an extra $200 for those features.

        The jump from 2 to 2.26GHz and an extra 128MB Video RAM and and
        extra 200GB in the hard drive for $220 is the part I have trouble
        • I don't know where you're living

          But here my dad bought a Fujitsu Siemens computer with a Core 2 Quad CPU + 22" display, 2GB of RAM and a lower range graphics card with 256MB of VRAM for ?600,- about half a year ago. Looking at value for money that is a greatly better deal. Only the small form factor would make the Mac Mini worth buying. But placing the Fujitsu midi tower under the desk gave a clean desktop look as well ;-)
    • This is a very specialized scenario though ...

      M Wagner
    • very true but still to expensive

      I've considered the mini many times but for the little bit I'd use it, it should be no more than $399.
      • Small form factor tax

        I'm no Mac apologist, but SFF machines aren't cheap. The best you can do with a mini ITX is an Atom machine with Intel graphics for about $350. If you want to compare the Mini to Via machines, the prices will be virtually identical, and the graphics aren't even as good.

        Most people don't need to pay for the small form factor. For them, the Mini is just wasted money. It's like buying a Miata.

        Larry's e-mails have shown clearly what most of us have known for a long time -- that dedicated Mac users will justify any cost.
        * Minis as real servers? Get real. You need RAID, hot-swap, etc. At least price a blade system. Geez. If you're going bottom end on your servers, you can get something for half the price and stick it in a closet.
        * Replacing all the computers in your shop with Minis? That only makes convoluted sense if, as the business owner said, you've decided to become an OS X shop.

        The Mini is a niche product, but Apple continues to sell them because many wannabe Macheads get one because it's the only thing Apple sells under $1000 and they have the peripherals (however ugly and un-Apple they are) already. It comes out of niche status only when filtered through the Kool-Aid colored Apple glasses.

        Flame away, Mac-oids. I'm ready.
        • You'll never get it...

          You guys all seem to think Windows is a viable platform. Wrong, it's
          not, and if you had ever used a better one, you would not go back. Or
          perhaps, like some of my friends, you have used a better OS, Linux, but
          you can't stay there because there is no commercial viability.

          Mac OS has it all. Always has, don't see it changing anytime soon.

          Have fun in Windows-land, and keep the $50 and the ugly, el-cheapo
          hardware while. You should be happy with this, I actually hope you are.
          • Thanks

            Thanks for emphasizing my point.

            Windows-free since 1997
  • The Mini serves valuable markets

    People that have predicting the death (or uselessness) of
    the Mini for years don't get it. They only compare its use
    to other desktops. Instead they serve a valuable niche.
    Many corporations run minis as small non-critical headless
    servers, we have three and are buying more. Some
    corporations have hundreds.
    In education and kiosks, they serve as the ideal CPU that
    can be connected to a variety of separate displays, fits in
    almost any space, and boots into either OSX or Win. Don't
    measure them against the typical home computer metric,
    they are in a different class.
    • This is very interesting

      I hadn't actually thought of this use for the mini, and was more or less about to agree that it had outlived its usefulness in all areas but one: It's still a relatively powerful <b>silent</b> machine that makes it perfect, for example, for music performances and in other applications (acoustic testing, for example) where even low noise is unacceptable.

      Lots of musicians use minis on the road (though they now also use mac book pros), but the use in kiosks and as non-critical servers strikes me as an extremely efficient and cost-effective reason to keep the mini in the lineup.

      Question: Does Apple market it this way? If not, they're crazy.
    • But they are not marketed ...

      ... to a niche audience. They are marketed to mainstream desktop users.
      M Wagner
      • Are the minis marketed..

        at all? I've never seen a mini ad from Apple.
    • They're awesome as car computers as well. [nt]

  • Uh, the Mac Pro is *more* expensive than before.

    The "$300 lower priced" Mac Pro is a single processor (4 core) system ($2,500). The reference system, from which Apple obtained the "$300 lower price" point was a dual processor (8 core) system ($2,800). To obtain an 8 core Mac Pro with this new generation release will set you back $3,300. That's a $500 increase over the previous generation dual core.

    Likewise the "$300 lower priced" Mac Pro is crippled. Sporting a maximum of 8GB of RAM compared to the dual processors 32GB maximum (for some reason the single processor system supports 1 and 2GB modules where the dual processor system supports 1, 2, and 4GB modules. Whereas I believe the previous generation single processor system could support 16GB (though I'm not positive on this).

    In the end you're paying more for these new systems. Gotta love the Apple RDF.
    • RDF?

      RDF? Resource Description Framework?
      • It's same thing that caused

        VDF--the Vista Distortion Field (VD for short) that lasted for years.
        Victims wouldn't shut up about how great and misunderstood Vista was.
        • Still confused about RDF

          Good point. But I'm still wondering ... what does RDF stand for in this context?
          • Reality Distortion Field (NT)

      • Reality Distortion Field. (nt)