Will Small Become Beautiful?

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Hot Box It Is Not

It’s easy for performance geeks to poke fun at the Mini Mac.

The CPU might be considered a wee bit underpowered, and that’s the most powerful part of the system. The video system is an onboard Radeon 9200 with 32Mb of RAM, no other options, no upgradability so forget about serious gaming. Looks like there’s just one RAM slot, and if you decide you need more RAM (1Gb now, maybe 2Gb later); Apple will either charge you an arm and a leg upfront, or demands that they do the upgrade or bye-bye warranty. For that matter, DIYing anything inside a Mini Mac looks to be verboten.

Apple doesn’t mention the speed of the hard drives they are using, and when you dig up what it is, you can hardly blame them. They’re only 4200 rpm drives. That’s awful even for Joe Sixpack activities.

No power supply inside, it uses a power brick. Keyboard and mice are optional, and if you want wireless ones, add another $50 for Bluetooth support.

A DVD burner is optional, and for an extra $100, you get a burner that doesn’t handle dual-layer and is slow compared to the $65 wonders you can buy today, much less six months from now. However, given the 4200 rpm drives, this may be a blessing in disguise; I wouldn’t want to try 16X burning off such a hard drive.

All the above is intended to make anybody reading this think twice about buying one. But then again, anybody who would normally be reading this is not the kind of person even Apple wants to buy this.

The mini Mac has three things going for it:

  • It’s small.
  • It’s cool-looking.
  • It’s $500.

    (Actually, it’s four, but we’ll get to that later.)

    Now PCers can quibble endlessly about how good and/or important those traits are, but when push comes to shove, does the PC world even have a mini Mac match, much less a mini Mac killer?

    Frankly, the answer is “No,” especially where it counts.

    Potential Contenders

    The only PC computer these days that matches the mini Mac in the ways that anyone interested in one that has any real traction yet is Via’s EPIA series. Sadly, while they are small and cheap, and folks are getting more and more inventive with them (see here for upcoming “PC Bots,”) a mini Mac ought to be able to blow them away when it comes to performance. http://www.whiteboxrobotics.com/

    The EPIAs suffer from an even greater disadvantage, though, one that has nothing to do with technology. That disadvantage is that EPIAs (and any other mini-ITX or equivalent) are basically a cottage industry out of the mainstream. You don’t find them in CompUSA or Best Buy. You don’t find them in magazine ads. For the people likely to buy mini Macs, if they aren’t found in places like that, they don’t exist.

    What About AMD and Intel?

    This is a question of “can” vs “will.”

    Can they? Of course they can. They not only can, they do. AMD and Intel along with their friends make millions of functional equivalents right now.

    They’re called notebooks, and a mini Mac really is a notebook computer without a screen or built-in keyboard.

    Just rip the screen off a typical notebook these days, and you have a mini PC that is just as good or better than a mini Mac. Reconfigure the notebook package a little bit as a desktop, and that $500 price tag ought not be too big a deal.

    Indeed, there’s a few folks doing just that these days. The first desktop Dothan systems are available, and more will show up along with the Alviso chipset. No doubt we’ll eventually see AMD equivalents. However, with the price of a Dothan CPU and motherboard currently about the same as an entire mini Mac, there haven’t been all that many takers, yet.

    One problem is any really small design these days is that you end up giving up things. The run-of-the-mill desktop 3.5″ 7200 rpm drive gets a bit exotically priced when you shrink it to 2.5,” video cards even more so (if you even get a choice in the matter, and then, if you can find one).

    Yes, one could have a design that took standard video cards, but then your thin machine stops being so thin. It’s hard to stick a four-inch high video card into a two-inch high box.

    None of these represent killer problems, though. The real problem, just like with the Epias isn’t “Can it be done?” but “Who’s doing it?” For the mini Mac buyers, if Dell and HP aren’t doing (and marketing) it on the PC side; it isn’t being done.

    While the notion of a Home Theatre PC is beginning to attract attention, or at least buzzwords, it’s not really ready for primetime yet, and the goal so far there is to make MORE money from a PC, not less.

    The Future?

    Mini Macs represents a big marketing test: will a lot of average Joes (and Janes) buy something small and cute just because it’s small and cute? Will the Age of Speed begin to be succeeded by the Age of Small?

    This question cuts two ways. No doubt some will like small and cute so much that they’ll buy a mini Mac, certainly enough for it to be considered a roaring success by Apple’s (admittedly low) standards. I suspect more will see small and cute and will want a PC like it.

    Initially, the PC makers are going to be left flat-footed, which will mean rather more mini Macs sales than otherwise, but I think this is going to give a big push to not only HTPCs, but (comparatively) little PC boxes, too.

    All different kinds of little boxes. Eventually, as they come online, the mini Mac will fade, for just that reason. Since the PC world isn’t a top-to-bottom monopoly like the Mac world, we’ll eventually see all different kinds of little boxes meeting all kinds of needs: smaller small boxes for those with small needs, bigger small boxes for those with bigger needs, and most will be a lot more configurable than Apple’s.

    That’s the killer advantage the PC world will always have over the Mac world: diversity and flexibility.

    So the real question isn’t how many mini Macs will get sold, but whether small PCs will become mainstream sooner rather than later.

    Ed

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