The Next Mac mini: The Wish List Grows

February 17, 2009 | Mel Beckman | Comments 2

by Mel Beckmanmacmini-300x250

More than 18 months after the previous Mac mini refresh, Apple lovers are getting testy. The Mac mini you can buy today is a shadow of the computing power available in competing Intel small platforms, although the Mac mini still holds the tiny footprint high ground. Today’s entry-level machine is a sluggish 1.83 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with an 80 GB disk and just 1 GB of RAM. OK for the garage, but I wouldn’t want it in the living room.

The Mac mini’s original role as a “switcher” machine isn’t keeping up with the competition. The mini’s versatility in other roles — as a home theater server, telephone PBX, small-footprint network server, to name just a few popular applications — is constrained by its dated specifications. Today I can buy a Shuttle X2700 Linux Edition with a 1.6 GHz Intel atom dual core processor, 1 GB RAM, and an 80 GB hard drive for $450. Throw in $129 for Mac OS X (which it will run with prodding) and I’m still $20 cheaper than the mini. And if I’m willing to upsize from the almost-mini XPC form factor, I can spend less for an even more powerful system.

I’ve used Mac minis for all kinds of applications, including Web, DNS and mail hosting, Windows network file serving, as an IP telephony media server, and, of course, I’ve used it in its original role as a PC escape hatch. In fact, I’ve been pleased to see perhaps 100 people buy the mini on my recommendation, cheerfully leaving their PC behind (usually right on the floor, holding up the mini).

Best OS Ever

Much of the value of the Mac mini is that it runs Mac OS X — probably the best all-purpose OS ever invented. And I say that as an old-hand Unix guy (remember the AT&T 3b2?). I’m still an avid user of Linux as a virtual machine guest OS, one role OS X can’t yet fill. But OS X wins on every other front: features, communications, user interface, and an array of server-class capabilities. Although Apple does a good job of hiding OS X’s superstructure, its undercarriage is BSD Unix with a very solid Mach kernel, Apple’s phenomenal display Postscript graphics engine, a fully IPv6-ready network stack, and a slew of handy Unix staples, such as Apache, DHCP, DNS, PHP, and mySQL.

But eighteen months. Come on, Apple! You’re killing me here.

I have a theory that Apple’s main recipe for the Mac mini is to pour all the parts from a low-end notebook into a pan and bake quickly. Following that logic, here’s what the Mac mini should look like right now, based on Apple’s current entry-level 13-inch MacBook:

  • 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, with a 2.4 GHz option
  • 2 GB RAM, with a 4 GB option
  • 160 GB hard drive, with a 320 GB option
  • 8x SuperDrive (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor
  • 2560×1600 display resolution supported
  • Built-in AirPort Extreme (802.11n) and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR

With these ports:

  • Mini DisplayPort video output (DVI, dual-link DVI, and VGA via adapters)
  • 10/100/1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-45 connector)
  • Four USB 2.0 ports
  • Combined optical digital/headphone out
  • Combined optical digital/audio line in

Rising Expectationsf

I really thought we’d see one of these in January, and I’m mystified at Apple’s delayed release — or abandonment — of a new Mac mini. Apple missed its chance to merely satisfy Mac mini users with the rebaked notebook metaphor. Now I — we — want more. Apple has taken so long to deliver a mini remix that I think we’re justified in expecting exceptional improvements.

Here’s what I’m personally looking for:


First, some aesthetic suggestions. Lose the white panel on top and make the new case an all-aluminimum unibody shell, adapted from the new Apple MacBooks. This should be easier to machine than a notebook case, since the myriad keyboard holes need not be cut, and the shape is a basic box. Heck, I’d be happy with a cast aluminum case — the Mac mini doesn’t really need the fillet-machined structural strength of a notebook. I’d also put a door in the bottom of the case for upgrading memory. Maybe that’s a design impossibility, but if it’s doable, do it. Mac mini users are always maxing out memory.

All of this leads me to the first real feature stretch: an 8 GB memory architecture. Memory prices have plummeted — I just bought 1 GB SODIMMs for $14 each. We should be able to splurge and stuff in 8 GB of RAM as two 4 GB SODIMMs. You know we’ll need it, as application memory requirements continue to balloon. One memory chewer is virtual machine software like Parallels and VMWare. For Mac minis serving as servers, virtual machines are a powerful management paradigm that simplifies deployment, failover, and backup.

The 8 GB memory request should be easy — just some paths on the circuit board somewhere. Mac OS X’s 64-bit architecture can go much higher, so software compatibility is not an issue. I’d also like to see some serious big disk options: 500 GB and 1 TB. A no brainer, really, with SATA interfaces. Drives are a commodity, and terabyte 3.5″ drives cost about $100 to OEMs today. Add to that an eSATA port for expandability. Also a no-brainer — this is just a cable to the backplane, after all.

Where’s the Video In?

The Mac mini would be a killer home theater server but for one thing: no video in. That should be an option on a higher-end model, with an integrated digital TV tuner. Analog TV is history, so the parts count and cost for this feature should be very low. With video in — you’d want both standard def and HD — the Mac mini could become a PVR, as well as a killer network movie box and home media center. Apple loves to stir the licensing pot, and this would do that nicely, since a mini with video in could theoretically time shift anything, including Internet-delivered movies. As a concession to complexity, I’d let Apple deliver video-in with just two ports, S-Video for standard def and HDMI for HD. The video aftermarket is chock full of conversion cables for these two interfaces.

Did I mention BD-ROM? BD-ROM — Blu-ray disc reading — will let the Mac mini serve as a full-function replacement for disc playing and video switching boxes. My living room “bargain footprint” would go from several square feet to just 42.25 square inches. That would amaze my wife, cut my power bill, and solve global warming (hoax or not).

If Apple Were a Wishing Well

Now for the real wishing. I wish, I wish, for a quad core processor. Space? Doesn’t need any! Cooling? The mini can handle it! Cost? $170 for the Intel Q8200 from (I suspect Apple could qualify for a Newegg preferred account). Seriously, for some applications I’d happily pay a $150 premium for a quad-core Mac mini.

I also wish for FireWire 800. The current mini has only FireWire 400. I know Apple dropped FireWire altogether from its new MacBooks, but that was a port space issue. The mini has nothing but port space, since DVI and FW400 would go away. Also, as long as I’m wishing, I’d like an ExpressCard/34 slot, like notebooks have — I want to plug in wireless WAN cards, solid-state drive cards, TV tuner cards, Gigabit Ethernet cards, and graphics cards. I want. I need.

The draw of the Mac mini, of course, is its low price, without which one would just buy a notebook and be done with it. Today’s low-end mini is $599. I miss the original $499 price, though, and would love to see Apple hit that mark again, especially given today’s economic conditions. Considering that Apple saves money on the Mac mini by eliminating the keyboard, trackpad, LED screen, speakers, mic, and video cam, I think the $499 price is achievable.

Imagine a $499 2.0 GHz, 2 GB, unibody Mac mini with a 160 GB hard drive, wireless everything, ExpressCard/34 slot, NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics, Gigabit Ethernet, eSATA, FireWire 800, MiniDisplay port, optical audio in/out, SuperDrive, and a memory door . . . that I can trick out to a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Quad with 8 GB RAM, 1 TB disk, SV/HDMI in, and BD-ROM.

Is that too much to ask? Hover Links:

Filed Under: Apple ActionConnected HomeMac


About the Author: Mel Beckman is an editor at large for WickedCoolTech, a freelance technology writer, and a network engineering consultant based in Santa Barbara, CA. An unrepentant gadget addict, Mel's personal interests include playing classical and flamenco guitar, flying helicopters, and marine biology -- but not all at the same time.

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  1. [...] couple of weeks ago I posted my Mac mini wish list. I posited a predictable set of specs and my fantasy wish list. Today Apple announced a new Mac [...]

  2. [...] couple of weeks ago I posted my Mac mini wish list. I posited a predictable set of specs and my fantasy wish list. Today Apple announced a new Mac [...]

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