Apple's most affordable Mac mini is 18 years old
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For 18 years, the Mac mini has bounced between adored and abandoned, even by Apple, but so far it has always come back — and it remains a remarkable workhorse.
According to Apple's playbook, you don't ever say "cheapest," you must say "most affordable." It's like the risible way the company started saying things like "half an inch thin" instead of thick.
But someone forgot to tell Steve Jobs this, because at the unveiling of the very first Mac mini on January 10, 2005, he doubled down on that exact and seemingly dreaded line.
"This is the most affordable Mac ever," he began. "In fact it's the cheapest computer Apple's ever offered."
Note that some sources say the announcement was on January 11, 2005. But that is because Apple's official press release about it wasn't issued until the 11th.
"Cheap" has connotations of corners being cut, of the price even being the only good thing about something. In this case, though, no one could criticize Apple of trimming features or build quality to save some cash.
"Weighing in at just shy of 3 pounds and only 6.5 inches square by 2 inches high," said AppleInsider at the time, " the Mac mini has the smallest form factor of any Macintosh ever produced. Its footprint is similar to the Power Mac G4 Cube, but about 1/3 the height and 1/10th the weight."
But there's no question that price was foremost in Apple's mind when Jobs stepped out onto the stage at Macworld in January 2005.
It's also been at the center of most buyers' thoughts ever since. The Mac mini's small size and, especially most recently, performance have also been a factor, but the cost introduced it to more people.
And they loved it — just sometimes a lot more than Apple did.
Launching the original Mac mini
"I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me, 'why doesn't Apple offer a stripped-down Mac that is more affordable?'" said Jobs at that launch.
He did then point out Apple already offered a stripped-down Mac, as he showed an image of Virginia Tech's XServe Mac servers.
"But this is not what [such people have] in mind," he continued. "They want a Mac bit stripped down, no display, no keyboard and mouse. And so today, we think we know what they have in mind and we're introducing it. It's called the Mac mini."
Remember that this was 2005, so it was before the iPhone and still well within the reign of the iPod. "We think people understood the iPod mini and we think they're gonna understand the Mac mini just as well."
They certainly understood that the Mac mini was small — Jobs showed an image of one with an iPod mini in front of it. "It's very, very tiny," he said.
It was also BYOKDM. "What does that mean?" said Jobs. "Bring Your Own Display, Keyboard, and Mouse."
"We supply the computer, you supply the rest," he continued. "So, you can take Mac Mini and you can hook it up to let's say our... Cinema Display right and our keyboard and mouse."
After launch, some users would find that the new Mac mini wouldn't always work with a 22-inch Apple Cinema Display. In a display, in a different sense, of Apple's sometimes disconnected view of reality, AppleInsider reported that the official response was that "Apple suggests using an alternative display."
But Jobs was right about how the Mac mini "will hook up to almost any industry standard display keyboard or mouse and it connects to almost anything on the back."
That original Mac mini offered FireWire, USB 2, DVI & VGA video out, Ethernet, and a slot-loading optical drive. The base model came with a 1.25 GHz PowerPC G4 processor, 256MB RAM, 40GB hard drive, and it cost $499.
For an extra hundred dollars, the hard drive was bumped to 80GB, and the processor came in at 1.42 GHz.
"We want to price this Mac so the people that are you know thinking of switching [from PCs] will have no more excuses," said Jobs. "People that want a second Mac in their household or a third or fourth, [it's] really going to be easy."
In today's money, that $499 from 2005 is the equivalent of about $760. Currently Apple sells the Mac mini from $699, so it's even a little cheaper now — and gigantically more powerful.
Back in 2005, the performance it had then, the small design, and especially that price, made an impact.
How the Mac mini was received
PC Magazine (original text no longer online) gave the Mac mini four out of five stars, and said it was an "attractive entry point for the Windows-to-Mac switcher." It did note that if you had to buy a keyboard, display, and mouse, then the bargain price was no longer quite such a bargain.
However, "an additional system for a Mac-centric household," it said, "or as a cheap way for Windows-based PC users to introduce a Mac into their lives, the Mac mini succeeds, stylishly."
The New York Times said that the launch signalled Apple's "bet that most consumers now see computers as simply another appliance in the modern house."
"The new Apple strategy, which moves the company deeply into the consumer electronics market, positions the new Macintosh as an entertainment and communication device," continued the newspaper. "It also promises to intensify Apple's battle with Microsoft in the personal computer market dominated by machines using Windows software."
As ever, the New York Times asked industry experts their opinion, and one notable quote came from David Yoffie, listed as a professor at Harvard Business School.
"This is not going to return Apple to a high level of profitability," said Yoffie. "The margins on these new machines will be trivial. And I think they will add no more than one or two points of market share."
The New York Times later corrected a little omission from the original article, adding in the detail that Yoffie was also on the board at Intel.
Mac mini takes on a life of its own
A year later, at the launch of an updated Mac mini, Jobs talked briefly about how the machine had "been received really well" — and also received really unexpectedly.
"People are doing all sorts of things with it that we never dreamed of when we introduced it," he said.
While he wasn't specific, two of the unexpected uses he was thinking of must surely have been the creation of a Mac mini server farm — and of a Windows version.
The New York Times reported on that one. "Kevin Rose of TV's 'The Screen Savers' has figured out how to turn it into a Windows PC."
"Or should I say, how to take out all the Mac components and cram tiny PC components into their place," continued the paper. "As you'll see, the effort isn't really successful. He doesn't wind up with enough room for a CD drive, and he winds up having to saw off a chunk of the heat sink!"
"But it's a hilarious excursion for the imagination, and yet another example of how this little machine's potential is taking on a life of its own," concludes the publication.
The server farm was just a tad more successful — created two days after the original 2005 announcement, one such farm is still running today. Originally launched as Macminicolo, with the "colo" being short for "colocation," that firm merged with MacStadium in 2016.
First updates to the Mac mini
Presumably making Professor Yoffie happier, the 2006 main focus of the Mac mini's first revision in 2006 was to move it to Intel. One model had a single Intel Core Solo processor in, while another had an Intel Core Duo.
"And now the performance just goes into the stratosphere compared to the prior product," said Jobs, "I think we can say we've got a product that's five times faster in exactly the same form factor. So we're thrilled with this."
This first revision also upgraded to Gigabit Ethernet and two USB 2 ports. "So it's pretty great product," said Jobs.
Curiously, much of the 2006 presentation was the same as the original 2005 one, down to the same graphic representing plugging an industry-standard keyboard, display, and mouse into the device. But there was one difference.
"[You] can also hook it up to televisions," reported Jobs. "Doesn't plug into cell phones."
In fact, one now-AppleInsider staffer had done exactly that. He had hooked it up to his television with a mish-mash of DisplayPort to HDMI and a then hard-to-find HDMI audio injector.
Into the wilderness years
So that was a brand-new Mac in 2005, with a major update in 2006, which meant that things were looking great for the Mac mini. At first.
But a product can be beloved and still not sell in high numbers. See the iPhone 13 mini.
By only May 2007, there were rumors that the Mac mini was dead. "It has seen just four updates since inception," said AppleInsider at the time, "one of which was so insignificant in Apple's own eyes that the company didn't even bother to draft a press release."
"Even now, the current minis' 1.66GHz and 1.83GHz Core Duo processors are a far cry from the silicon offered in the rest of Apple's PC offerings," continued AppleInsider. "And rightfully so, as the company has seen lower margins from the units, which never gained the sales traction of its more fully equipped iMacs and MacBooks."
There was another minor spec bump a few months later in October 2007. But then by late 2008, that Mac mini server farm company, Macminicolo, felt the need to make a case that the device was still doing well.
If you include Apple's own Mac mini server, and if you counted every single tiny specification improvement, the device did get a new version most years from 2005 to 2014, but some years were more significant than others.
After the 2005 launch and the 2006 Intel refresh, the next most notable update came in 2010. The already small Mac mini became the even smaller one, with a redesign that saw the casing now made out of aluminum.
"The sleek, aluminum Mac mini packs great features, versatility and value into an elegant, amazingly compact design," said Phil Schiller at the time. "With twice the graphics performance, HDMI support and industry-leading energy efficiency, customers are going to love the new Mac mini."
That redesign made the Mac mini even smaller than it seemed, too. Every model up to then had required a separate power brick, but the 2010 one no longer did.
That tiny aluminum chassis was also what Apple calls a "unibody" one, meaning the whole case is formed out of a single piece of metal. Apart from the ports and the slot for the CD, it was whole — and the CD drive went away shortly after.
This 2010 redesign featured a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor 2GB RAM, an SD card slot, and four USB 2 ports. It cost from $699, which at the time was seen as Apple breaking away from the idea of making an affordable Mac.
Today that seems even clearer, as $699 in 2010 is approximately $950 in 2023. Or just about $200 more than the current base Mac mini.
Overall you were now paying more for the Mac mini, yet getting less. On the good side, you were getting a smaller device, but on the bad side, you were never getting inside it.
Back to basics
Fast forward to 2014 — although at the time it seemed like very slow-forward with no significant Mac mini news — and there was a change. With an event whose invitation read "it's been way too long," Apple dropped the price back to the original $499 ($627.53 in today's money.)
But that was it.
There was nothing to see in 2015. Or 2016. Or 2017.
However, 2017 did bring the smallest glimmer of hope for Mac mini fans. Late in that year, Tim Cook replied to a user's enthusiastic email about the device.
"I'm glad you love Mac mini," wrote Cook in October 2017. "We love it too. Our customers have found so many creative and interesting uses for Mac mini."
"While it is not time to share any details," he continued, "we do plan for Mac mini to be an important part of our product line going forward."
Come on, Apple, do something
Still, by early 2018, AppleInsider was near-ready to call the Mac mini dead, though this time because it was routinely being trounced by PC rivals.
"Intel has clearly and powerfully demonstrated what can be done with the space that Apple pioneered," wrote AppleInsider. "We don't know for certain why Apple has let the mini atrophy when it didn't have to."
"It could very easily have cemented the lock it had on the segment in the early days given the scale that it operates on," it continued, "[but] almost four years since the last half-baked refresh isn't a great look."
The Mac mini was firmly back by the end of 2018. AppleInsider called the November 2018 refresh "Apple's mightiest mini yet."
"The new 2018 Mac mini is impressively powerful, even for the entry-level model," said the review. "It is encouraging to see Apple deliver such a well-thought-out upgrade that was desperately needed."
If only we had known what was coming. Back then, what was — correctly — so impressive and so welcome included how that Mac mini was based on an Intel i3 quad-core processor with a base speed of 3.6GHz, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of PCI-E flash storage.
"[And] if you're so inclined, there are i5 and i7 versions with six cores," continued the review, "RAM options up to 64GB, and storage up to 2TB of flash storage."
The price rose again, this time to $799, but for what you got at the time, the Mac mini was a hero product again.
For about two years.
Everything really changes
By 2020, Mac mini followers were used to the peaks and toughs, and they did wonder if we were in for another long desert. But then came WWDC 2020 — and the reveal of Apple Silicon.
The only machine Apple actually launched at that WWDC was the Developer Transition Kit — but it was a Mac mini. The very first ARM-based Mac was a special developer version of the Mac mini.
And then one of the very first commercial releases of Apple's radically improved processors was in the November 2020 launch of the M1 Mac mini.
True, that model cut down on the number of ports we were used to with the Mac mini. This is solvable at additional expense, of course, with a Thunderbolt dock.
What is not fixable after the fact, is there is nothing else internally at all about it that can be upgraded by the user after purchase. Get what RAM and internal storage you need from the start.
"[But the] 2020 Apple Silicon M1 Mac mini is an impressively powerful machine," concluded AppleInsider. "It will only get more powerful as software is optimized for the new architecture."
More peaks and troughs
Since those first M1 Macs, we've had M2 ones as well, just not an M2 Mac mini. It's now about two years and two months since that Mac mini was launched and there's been nothing since.
There have been rumors, in fact many rumors of an ever-impending M2 refresh of the Mac mini.
But as much as that is awaited, as much as it's hoped for, no one is predicting that the Mac mini is dead anymore.