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The time is (finally) right for a Mac minitower

There's been quite a bit of recent speculation about potential upcoming Apple products: TVs, watches, less-expensive iPhones, Retina iPad minis, Retina MacBook Airs, new full-size iPads ... almost every Apple product line is apparently being updated, and a number of new products are supposedly on the way.

But the poor Mac Pro--the one product that hasn't seen a significant update in years--hasn't really received its fair share of rumor mongering. It's almost as if we've given up on the old fella. (Sometimes it seems as though Apple has, too: The Mac Pro still doesn't have Thunderbolt--a feature that's been on the Mac mini since 2011--or USB 3.0. A 2012 update to the Mac Pro offered only minor speed and memory changes.)

What's surprising about this is that we actually have fodder for Mac Pro gossip: Back in June 2012, Tim Cook himself all but confirmed that we'll be seeing a new Mac Pro in 2013. Yet the only Mac Pro speculation I've seen recently is that the next Mac Pro might be assembled in the U.S.

Well, I'm here to say, "Let's talk about the new Mac Pro that we know nothing about." Because it's been far too long since we've aired our pipe dreams and unreasonable expectations for what was once Apple's flagship machine.

Except that instead of talking about an updated version of the massive Mac Pro we have today, I'm going to make a case--no pun intended--for a smaller version.

Exercises in compromises

When it comes to non-portable computing, I've long been a tower guy. Prior to my current Mac, my desk--or, more specifically, the floor under my desk--hosted a string of Mac towers: a Power Mac 8100, a series of Power Mac G3 and G4 models, a Power Mac G5, and then a Mac Pro. I liked that I could easily add (a lot of) RAM, that I could swap out the video card for a better one, and that I could install another hard drive--or, in the case of my old Mac Pro, three extra hard drives and a second optical drive. (Yes, I really did that.) I could even add functionality through expansion cards."

At the same time, as a power user but not a true professional user, a good amount of those towers' expandability went unused. I upgraded my video card only a couple times over the years, and only once did I ever install an expansion card in a PCI slot.

And such expandability didn't come without compromises. By the time of the Power Mac G5 and Mac Pro, Apple's tower computers were huge, hot, and power hungry: With the Mac Pro, I literally didn't need to heat my office in the winter, and our monthly electric bill jumped noticeably.

To be fair, I kept my computer on 24/7 because it also served as the household media server and performed other late-night tasks. But I do the same today with an iMac and Mac mini, and together they use much less electricity, and produce much less heat, than the Mac Pro did. And I remember well the noise that thing made once its fans kicked in.

So when it came time to upgrade my desktop Mac a few years back, I opted for a 27-inch Core i7 iMac with 12GB of RAM. To make up for the lost drive bays, I purchased a couple OWC Mercury Elite Pro dual-drive enclosures for my Mac Pro's drives and connected the enclosures via FireWire 800.

My iMac setup has worked pretty well for me, but I still miss the Mac Pro's performance and expandability. For example, while my iMac's processor is plenty fast, its drive performance (I/O) can be frustratingly slow, and I don't like having a bunch of external drive enclosures on my desk. (The performance of those external drives is also noticeably slower than if they were internal.)

Wishing for more by hoping for less

But what other option did I have? Apple has long had a gaping hole in its product lineup between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro. There's also a price gap: The Mac mini is $599 or $799, while the Mac Pro starts at $2499. Sure, the iMac, with base prices ranging from $1299 to $1999, fits in that price gap, but the iMac is in many ways just a Mac mini with a built-in display--it's not really filling that hole in terms of expandability and flexibility, and its all-in-one design isn't an option for everyone.

Which is why I'm not the only person who continues to wish Apple made a desktop computer somewhere between the iMac and the current Mac Pro--an idea I've been advocating for the better part of a decade. I first wrote about such a Mac back in 2006, dubbing it the Mythical Midrange Mac Minitower, but I've wished for it since long before that article.

The gist of the idea is that there are a good number of people for whom neither the Mac Pro nor the Mac mini is the right fit: They don't need all the bays, slots, and other geek-wish-list features of the Mac Pro, but the Mac mini doesn't offer enough storage or internal expandability. Similarly, some people won't buy an all-in-one computer like the iMac because a problem with the screen means the computer is useless, and vice versa; plus, if you need a new computer, you must buy a new display, as well. (Not to mention that the latest iMacs offer essentially no internal expandability.)

What I've long wished for is a screenless desktop that offers power-user performance and moderate expandability. Here's how I described such a computer six years ago:

What I'd like to see is a minitower design with--and this is just one possible configuration that would fulfill my wish--a reasonably powerful processor (perhaps a higher-end Core 2 Duo or a single Xeon); a good graphics card in an upgradeable slot; a decent amount of RAM and hard-drive space; a single free PCI Express slot; and room for one additional hard drive. The ability to swap out the optical drive would be a nice touch...And in my ongoing daydream, the MMMM would sell for a relatively reasonable $1499 to $1599.

The 2013 version of that wish list would be something like this: a smaller-than-a-Mac-Pro enclosure with the latest high-end desktop CPU (or maybe even just a high-end Core i7); 8GB of RAM, upgradeable to at least 16GB; two drive bays that could accept either traditional hard drives or SSDs; and an upgradeable graphics card. It might also have a free expansion-card slot, but I'm not sure that's as vital these days (more on that in a moment). If this fantasy Mac was priced somewhere between, say, $1199 and $1799, I think it would be quite popular.

My argument for why such a computer would be good for both me and Apple hasn't changed much since that 2006 article. The short version: The potential market--current Mac owners looking for more power (but not $2500+ worth of it), current pro customers who would purchase multiple minitowers, and new Mac converts who currently don't see the computer they want in Apple's lineup--is big enough to make this computer worth making.

Not just a Mac Pro, but the Mac Pro?

Of course, I've been hoping for this computer for many years, and I've been disappointed every time. However, there are a number of reasons why I think this year we really, truly--finally--may see a smaller, but still performance-focused, Mac tower.

But before I get to those reasons, here's something else to think about. What if that Mac minitower isn't just a new Mac Pro, but the new Mac Pro? It sounds crazy, but thanks to both technological advances and shifts in the pro market, Apple could conceivably offer a "pro" minitower and drop the full-size Mac Pro completely. I wouldn't bet my paycheck on such a move, but for the first time, the technology is there--and Apple has a penchant for making bold, "We know better than you--trust us" moves.

Won't high-end pro users abandon the Mac platform without a "true" Mac Pro? Some will, there's no doubt. But many already have, arguing that it's Apple that has been slowly abandoning the high-end market over the past half decade. (There's some evidence for this position: token updates to the Mac Pro, dropping the Xserve and Xserve RAID, major updates to pro apps that make them seem more consumer- than pro-focused, and so on.) And other pro users may find that they no longer need a monster tower as much as they think they do. Which leads me to ...

Making the case (smaller)

In the past, one of the biggest challenges that Apple would have had in designing a Mac minitower was making it powerful enough to satisfy power-user consumers and those pros who would be the most interested in such a computer--and, at the same time, keeping it reasonably priced. But technology has evolved to the point where a Mac minitower could handle all but the most-demanding pro workload. Consider:

Expansion cards A big hurdle for pro users trying to cope with non-pro Macs (and even Pro laptops) is the lack of PCI-expansion-card slots. PCI cards can be used for faster RAID performance and transcoding of video, high-end networking, complex audio/video connections, and many other things the average consumer will never need. And, of course, for high-end video cards. The lack of a PCI-card slot--or, for some people, multiple slots--has long been a deal killer for everything but the Mac Pro. And that will remain the case for some people. But many folks who in the past required PCI slots can these days make due with other solutions, thanks in no small part to ...

Thunderbolt Apple's high-speed peripheral interface hasn't yet taken the pro market by storm, but I'd argue that one big reason for that is the shameful lack of Thunderbolt in the Mac Pro line. (Chicken? Egg?) Now that Thunderbolt has been around for a few years, and has long come standard on many Macs, high-end Thunderbolt peripherals are finally becoming widely available. For example, you can get super-fast RAID drives with Thunderbolt connections. And if you need specific PCI cards, a Thunderbolt PCI chassis will let you use many kinds of PCI cards (other than video cards) over a Thunderbolt connection. Any new Mac Pro will obviously have multiple Thunderbolt ports.

Processor speed It used to be that the small, efficient, cool-running processors used in laptops and consumer-level desktop computers just weren't very powerful. If you wanted real performance, you needed a big tower with a huge, power-hungry processor that required a heat sink or other cooling system that was itself bigger than some laptops. But that's not the case any more: Today's best consumer-level processors, such as the Intel Core i7, are small, efficient, and cool enough to fit inside a MacBook Pro or Mac mini while outperforming the current Mac Pro for many tasks. (Noteworthy: Many of the "pros" I know are using Apple laptops, not desktops.) And Intel and other vendors are working on making higher-end workstation processors use less power and run cooler. In other words, a Mac minitower could be plenty fast enough for many users.

Storage For some pro users, the biggest appeal of the Mac Pro's enclosure is that it can accommodate multiple drives. After all, many people using Mac Pros need lots of space to store huge video, audio, and image files, or other large data sets--and they want fast access to that data. But those who need the most storage and the fastest performance often end up using external solutions, such as fibre-channel storage, anyway. And the performance of Thunderbolt means you can add multiple external drives without the same performance hit you took with FireWire. (There are even Thunderbolt-fibre-channel adapters.) So it's not hard to imagine Apple making a smaller Mac Pro and suggesting that those who need more storage instead take advantage of Thunderbolt. And thanks to Apple's Fusion Drive technology, outfitting this theoretical Mac with an SSD and a large-capacity internal hard drive will mean better I/O performance for many tasks, right out of the box, than with the current Mac Pro.

Put all this together--Apple's relentless efforts over the past few years to make everything smaller, cooler, and less power-hungry; the fact that you don't need massive components to get good performance; and an apparent trend towards conceding the highest-end market--and it seems like a Mac minitower is a logical next step for the Mac Pro line.

Why not?

A common argument against a reasonably priced Mac minitower was always that it would cannibalize the iMac. I addressed those concerns in my 2006 article, but I also think the iMac's current design is different enough from a minitower--and appealing enough to the typical consumer--that the iMac's status as the best-selling desktop Mac would be safe. And nowadays, few would opt for a Mac minitower over an iMac solely for performance reasons: The current iMac has more than enough power for many people. (Keep in mind that Apple's best-selling computer is rumored to be the MacBook Air, with its relatively slow processor but speedy storage.)

Today, the few people talking about this topic seem to be worried that a Mac minitower would instead cannibalize the Mac Pro. While that position might have had some merit in the mid--2000s, that's now a harder sell than the current base-configuration Mac Pro. Yes, Apple might sell fewer Mac Pros, but is that really a huge deal? The proportion of Apple's revenue that comes from the Mac Pro line has been steadily declining as iOS devices and MacBook sales have surged, and as the iMac has become one of the most popular desktop computers on the market. If anything, I think the number of additional Macs that would be sold would more than make up for any reduction in Mac Pro sales. (And, of course, if a minitower Mac Pro is the only Mac Pro, then the whole issue of cannibalization is moot.)

Hoping against hope?

I concede that this theoretical minitower wouldn't satisfy all pro users--particularly the ones who need the absolute best performance and the most expandability (and, it should be said, who were once Apple's bread and butter). Maybe Apple simply abandons these people, letting them go to specialized workstations from other vendors. Or maybe the Mac Pro lives on in a new model (or two), further relegated to an ultimate-performance niche. In any case, I'd argue that the market for my mythical minitower is big enough that it's worth doing, and the technology is there to make it doable.

Think of it this way: Steve Jobs once said that traditional computers are becoming the equivalent of trucks, while most people will eventually need only a car. He was equating the latter with the iPad and other "post-PC" devices, but the analogy works just as well when talking about traditional computers on their own: A MacBook or iMac is a car, with the Mac Pro akin to a Ford F--350 or Dodge RAM 3500. Like many families, our family needs more space and utility than a car, but we don't need a huge, trailer-towing, gas-guzzling truck. A midsize SUV or crossover is a near-perfect compromise--it's plenty of "truck" for us. I'm hoping that this is the year Apple finally makes a midsize SUV.


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