Apple refreshes desktop lineup: Is the Mac mini irrelevant?

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.

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. 


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.