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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

20 Macs for 2020: #14 – Mac mini

Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.

Most evidence suggests that birds, as unlikely as it seems, are the only surviving descendants of the dinosaurs. I’d argue that the Mac has its own analog to this unlikely relationship, a famous-in-death ancestor who ultimately inspired a common, almost boring descendant that’s with us to this day.

Because it’s hard not to look at the Mac mini and consider it the rightful heir of the famous, beloved failure that was the Power Mac G4 Cube.

Less than five years after the Cube left the scene, Steve Jobs took another crack at creating a Mac that defied the narrow definitions of the PC industry. The Mac mini fit in 85 cubic inches, at 6.5 inches square and two inches high—one-fifth the height of the Cube.

Apple’s hardware designers learned their lesson, however—the Mac mini wasn’t floating in a clear, easy-to-crack outer shell. It was just a solid lump of densely-packed computer. Like the iPod, the Mac mini was a product that was engineered to fit in as small a space as possible. (Constrained, of course, by the physical size of its CD/DVD drive.)

If you popped a Mac mini open and looked inside, you could marvel at the internal design. I must’ve opened one up at least 50 times, whether to upgrade hardware or to shoot photos. (The March and April 2005 issues of Macworld both feature multiple photos of a Mac mini I opened using the official method of inserting a putty knife into the bottom edges of the case until all the retaining clips gave way and allowed the top cover to slide off.)

With a meager base RAM configuration of 256MB, a lot of people ended up buying third-party RAM, finding or buying a putty knife, and doing their own memory upgrades. The rest of the Mac mini was harder to take apart, since it was a series of layers of intertwined ribbon cables and interconnect boards. If you weren’t careful, you’d fail to reconnect the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi antenna and have to get the putty knife out again.

The Mac mini wasn’t just smaller than the G4 Cube, though—it was also cheaper. The Cube’s original base price was $1,799—and people complained mightily that it was overpriced for what it offered in terms of specs and performance. The Mac mini, on the other hand, was offered for a groundbreaking price: $499.

Of course, in true Apple fashion, it only started at $499. If you wanted a decent amount of RAM, that was a $75 or $425 upgrade. A larger hard drive was $50 extra. Not even Bluetooth ($50) and Wi-Fi ($79) were standard. A DVD-writing SuperDrive was $100. As Macworld’s story said at the time, “Throw in some of those upgrades, and a $499 computer can become a $1,203 computer very quickly.”

And Apple’s sights weren’t on the Mac market. Steve Jobs made it clear that this was also a play to appeal to PC users. Keep in mind, this was the height of the iPod’s dominance—the Mac mini was introduced at the same Macworld Expo keynote as the original iPod Shuffle—and Apple’s retail stores were receiving a surge of PC users. Apple wanted to sell Macs to as many of those PC users as possible.

The original concept was that Apple might not be able to convince those potential Mac buyers to walk out with an iMac or a laptop… but what about a $499 Mac that could work with their existing PC keyboard, mouse, and display? That’s one of the reasons Steve Jobs sold the Mac mini with “Bring Your Own Display, Keyboard, and Mouse” as a feature. Apple really did expect PC users to switch to Mac by disconnecting their Dell and popping a Mac mini into its place. Apple even included a DVI-to-VGA adapter in the box, so you could quickly attach it to a PC-standard monitor.

I’m sure some PC buyers did, but it turned out that most of them didn’t. The iMac, iBook, and PowerBook were more appealing systems. I think most PC users in the market for a new computer were happy to get rid of their old PC, display, keyboard, and mouse included, and replace it with something better.

While the Mac mini never became the ultimate vehicle for PC switchers, Mac users immediately recognized the appeal of a tiny, cheap Mac. My editorial in Macworld that month specifically mentioned that I was planning on using a Mac mini as a replacement for a Power Mac server, and I’m here to report that I’ve had a Mac mini running as a server in my house ever since.

Mac mini
Today’s Mac mini.

Fifteen years later, the Mac mini is still with us. Over the years it’s grown flatter, wider, and more expensive. Today’s Mac mini starts at $799 (that $499 price, which only lasted a year, would be about $650 in today’s dollars)—and people are still quibbling over its base specs and complaining that you can spec it up into a much more expensive configuration. Some things never change.

But the Mac mini soldiers on. It hasn’t been a priority at Apple in more than a decade, but it has enough dedicated users, and unique use cases, that Apple hasn’t been able to quit it. I hope it never does.

I’ll be back next week with number 13.

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