On why the new Mac mini signifies a depressing new trend for Apple – the path to commodity hardware.

I like to think that I am generally quite kind to Apple. Despite five logic board failures over two iBooks and a few too many bad experiences at the Genius Bar in Regent Street, I still use Macs and enthusiastically recommend them to others. But unquestioning fanboy I am not, and whilst I think the Intel transition is a good thing in principle, I am slightly perturbed by the current course it seems to be taking. It started with the MacBook Pro1 PowerBook Core and at first I thought it might just be something of a temporary aberration. But on looking through the specifications for the new Mac mini announced today, I realise that this is, alas, the shape of things to come.2

My beef with Apple can be summed up in one word: commoditisation.3 This is not a new thing for Apple – over the years, one thing after another – NuBus, internal SCSI4, ADB, to name but three – has given way to a generally cheaper alternative. The switch to IDE hard disks is perhaps the best example of this, sacrificing performance and reliability for the low-cost option that has been the mainstay of IBM-compatible PCs almost since the beginning.

Now, though, there is a new contender. Rather than designing the whole logic board itself, and the chipset to go with that – as it has done until the Intel switch – Apple seems to have handed that whole task to Intel. They simply slap an Intel motherboard in a PowerBook enclosure and the hardware magic ends there. Whither “Think Different”.

And with the Mac mini the situation appears to be even worse – rather than a decent (or at least semi-decent) ATI or NVIDIA chip, the Mac mini sports “integrated graphics” in the form of the Intel GMA950. My initial reaction was not positive, as I have an almost innate aversion to Intel’s onboard graphics chips – to put it bluntly, they really suck. But before mouthing off about it here, I thought that I ought to do a little research into this…this thing, at the very least for the sake of some kind of journalistic integrity.

My conclusion – after reading this ExtremeTech review – is that it does indeed really suck, which leaves me feeling rather pleased as it is always nice to have one’s prejudices validated. I mean, it uses shared memory, synonymous for so long with budget PCs running spyware-laden installs of Windows XP Home Edition. *sigh*

To be fair, it is clear that even Apple don’t think much of it – they describe it, in that diminutive side panel, as “an incredible value proposition“, which is perhaps the scariest bit. Once Apple start talking about incredible value propositions, you know something is seriously wrong with the universe. This is the marketing talk of the Dells of this world, certainly not of a premier brand like Apple. What on earth is going on?

I must confess that I am confused. As suggested above, I had hoped that the initial PowerBook Core configuration, lacking as it did a FireWire 800 port, was simply something of an aberration, that Apple wished to get a machine out as quickly as possible and was therefore content to leave the hardware to Intel. This of course made no sense, because there is no reason why they could not have waited a little longer to launch the first Intel-based PowerBook and make something which didn’t seem so half-arsed, but I was desperate to rationalise the move and try and find the cloud’s silver lining. As far as I can tell, there is none.

In the Mac mini we see the confirmation of a trend, confirmation of the emergence of a new era of Apple hardware, made by Intel and packaged up by Apple. It works, and it may mean that we have fewer iBook-logic-board-failure-like issues, because Intel’s hardware is generally pretty good, if not adventurous. But we are left with the realisation that there is now so little that differentiates the Mac from a soulless black box from the likes of Dell, and – for me at least – that leaves a rather bitter taste in the mouth. All in all I can’t help but feel that yet another little bit of the Apple difference has died this week.

A sad day indeed.

1. Over my dead body. See this article on c|net for more. Go Back
2. And perhaps in light of today’s announcement, the rumour sites will give up the idea that Jobs is going to turn the Mac mini into a DVR. It isn’t going to happen. Go Back
3. I realise that I may be playing a little fast and loose with English here, but the meaning of the term should become clear from what follows. Go Back
4. I stress the internal, as External SCSI is still with us, in the form of FireWire, although of course even that may now be under attack. Go Back

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  1. Solid article Gareth…and I totally agree. Each step Apple takes seems to be in the wrong direction. I hope that maybe we just can’t see the big picture here.

  2. I will be the voice of differing opinion here. Perhaps the move to commodoty hardware will prove to be a bad choice, perhaps not. If that commodity hardware is reliable and performs acceptably, then it is not a concern to me. We will see benchmarks over the next couple of weeks and then have a better idea.

    The Mac Mini was never intended to be a gaming machine. Let’s keep this in mind throughout all of this. It is not a 3d gaming monster or a graphics workstation. That is not the target market nor is it in the price tag. It is meant to be a relatively low cost entry point into the world of Apple. If the new mini performs well wihin that scope then that is all that matters to me. Second this chipset is very well suited for HDTV in that it natively supports the correct resolutions and has internal MPEG decoders. It remains to be seen whether the mini has the horsepower to decode HDTV, but if it does then I would consider the new mini to be a grossly underestimated computer at this stage, not a mistake.

    Second for pure CPU based operations the upper end mini is a powerhouse for the price. This makes it well suited for alternative uses such as ripping video or as a server with the use of an external HD array.

    Is Apple going to commodity hardware? It seems so. I never considered the hardware, outside of reliability, to be the main selling point though. The Operating System (OS X) and supporting apps are what sold the Mac for me, not the sleek aluminum exterior.

  3. I could not agree more. I switched to a mac cold-turkey about a year ago after my PC died suddenly. (I still keep the carcas under my desk to ward off evil spirits!) I bought an iMac G5 after seeing one on the inside at a local Apple Dealer. It was an absolute work of art. I wish it came in clear instead of white.

    When I first saw some disassembly photos of the second generation iMac G5 (with iSight) the first word that popped into my head was “commoditisation”. They took a beautiful case and stuffed the cheapest crap they could get away with inside and then sealed it up so we could not see it.

  4. Yes. The major benefit they seem to have opted for is price/performance. Putting the Core Duo in a machine of this kind will be pretty unique.

    I have to agree with you though, Gareth. Where’s the magic?

  5. u are so oldschool … scsi1 days are over …

  6. Have you considered the possibility that Apple is leaning on Intel-designed motherboards just to help them through the transition period? They can’t possibly afford the human engineering resources to completely redesign the entire product line in the timeframe they’ve committed to. Still, it won’t make sense for them to return to designing their own motherboards completly from scratch. IMHO the biggest value in Apple’s products is the top-to-bottom integration. Combine that with the possibility that quality might improve due to the broader exposure of the underlying Intel platform – and perhaps we’ll be better off.

  7. Apparently, this was a previous quote from the Apple website about the original Mac mini:

    “Get Your Game On

    Go ahead, just try to play Halo on a budget PC. Most say they’re good for 2D games only. That’s because an “integrated Intel graphics” chip steals power from the CPU and siphons off memory from system-level RAM. You’d have to buy an extra card to get the graphics performance of Mac mini, and some cheaper PCs don’t even have an open slot to let you add one.”

  8. i’m still trying to figure out why these are $100 US more expensive than the previous Mac Mini, despite having the horrible integrated graphics; for more money, I kind of expect better EVERYTHING, given the way hardware prices fall…

  9. I’ve got to disagree that commodity hardware is a bad idea. I think Chris Herron, above, had the right idea in saying that Apple just doesn’t have the resources to completely re-engineer everything on the transition time line. I’ll go further, and say that by letting Intel do the majority of the hardware guts, Apple can focus more resources on great industrial design and software. Who cares if an entry level Mac Mini has crappy video performance? Even crappy video today is pretty darm good!

    Lets also go a step further: were Apple users really better off with NuBus, internal SCSI and ADB? Limited options and high prices helped Apple users? With 5% of the market, it just wasn’t worth the development and support expense to deal with Apple, for most companies. Today, companies can develop to USB and get Apple for free. (That’s not 100% true, but close enough for my point.)

    Let’s focus not on the commodity hardware but the truly differentiated user experience. That’s the real value and that’s where Apple should focus its energy.

  10. I’ve been a Mac user since the iMac G3 days. I’ve got an iMac G5 1.8 and I just ordered a 15″ PowerBook. To me, Apple was always something special – the counter culture of the computer industry. Now, Apple is becoming more like an expensive Dell – using intel chips and intel designed components. Perhaps I am old school; I prefer the term purist. I know Uncle Steve is making good on his commitment to transition to intel based macs by the end of the year, but please – they just aren’t the same.

    I keep thinking there must be something BIG on the horizon for all these speed enhancements such as on the fly decompression of feature lenght films delivered through itunes. I don’t think I want to use my computer that way. Maybe I’m wrong.

    So for me, the Powerbook is a way to hang on to the Apple I know and love. I know I won’t be able to use the powerbook forever, but it is a true powerbook. It is true Apple. May she rest in peace.

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