By Dan Moren
March 9, 2022 1:27 PM PT
The missing mid-range desktop Mac
One takeaway from Apple’s Peek Performance event this week: the Mac is increasingly a platform for pros.
After years of pros feeling ignored by the company, that’s a heck of an about-face. But Apple’s delivered a slew of impressively powerful Macs: the iMac Pro, the new Mac Pro, redesigned MacBook Pros, and so on.
But when the dust from this week’s event cleared, I found myself wondering about the space between the low-end consumer offerings and those computers aimed at professionals1—or rather, the lack thereof, especially on the desktop.
If you’re someone looking to pick up an affordable desktop Mac just for some basic tasks—browsing, email, light media creation—you’ve got two pretty solid options: the M1-powered Mac mini, which starts at $699, and the M1-powered iMac starting at $1299 (or, to get one with a comparable GPU as the mini, the $1499 model).
Meanwhile, those looking for more power now have the option of the $1999 or $3999 Mac Studio models, or the $5999 Intel Mac Pro—none of which, of course, include a display. The Mac Studio packs a punch with the M1 Max chip that was, until this week, the most powerful chip ever put in a Mac. (Not to mention the 13-inch, 14-inch, and 16-inch MacBook Pros on the laptop side.)
But what if you’re someone who falls in the middle, what once was called the “prosumer” market? There’s actually a surprising dearth of options on the desktop side. The Mac mini and iMac offer only the 8-core CPU/8-core GPU M1 processor—even in the top of the line iMac, starting at $1699. To get anything more than that, you’d have to jump to a $1999 Mac Studio, and then add a display like Apple’s new $1599 Studio Display.2 That’s $2000 more than that top of the line iMac.
Moreover, because of the limitations of the M1 chip, the iMac and the Mac mini offer only a maximum of 16GB of RAM and two Thunderbolt ports—the same as an M1 MacBook Air.
As someone who falls squarely in that gap—and I’ve talked to more than a few other people in the same situation over the past 24 hours—I’ve been scratching my head. What exactly is the option for someone who needs more power than an M1 Mac mini or 24-inch iMac—or for that matter, a larger display—but doesn’t have an extra couple grand in the budget?
Previously, that gap was filled by the 27-inch iMac, but as that’s now been discontinued, there’s now a gaping hole in Apple’s line-up.
It sure feels like there’s another shoe to drop here. The most obvious option would be to offer better chips in the iMac and Mac mini, and fortunately, Apple’s already got a template for that over on the laptop side: namely, the M1 Pro.
Currently, the M1 Pro exists in only two products: the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro. That’s a little peculiar when you think about it. The M1 has been spread through a variety of computers, the M1 Max exists on both the laptop and desktop, and the new M1 Ultra is bound to the desktop mainly because the included thermal system would be way too big and heavy for laptops.
But there doesn’t seem to be any reason that the M1 Pro, with its 10-core CPU, 16-core GPU, support for 32GB of memory, and more than two Thunderbolt ports, couldn’t make an appearance in the iMac and Mac mini. That would provide some desktop options comfortably in the $2500 range (including an M1 Pro mini paired with a Studio Display), which is a price point that Apple’s desktops don’t really hit at the moment.
I’d be shocked if those chips weren’t available as a build-to-order option3 at some point, perhaps even around WWDC, though it’s also possible that Apple is waiting to skip those models directly to the M2.
As someone who is personally looking to replace a 2017 27-inch Intel iMac, I’m a little at loose ends right now. I’ve got an M1 Air, so an M1 mini or M1 iMac is mostly just a lateral move from that. And buying a Studio Display to pair with that Air means both getting everything off of my iMac, as well as locking myself in to probably a Mac mini.
Apple’s focus on the pro markets is definitely commendable: with the Mac Studio, MacBook Pro, and forthcoming Mac Pro, it’s clear that they take that audience seriously. But I’m hoping the prosumer story has more to it than just “M1 or bust.”
- On the Mac, anyway, “pro” seems to have a bit more meaning behind it than on the iOS/iPadOS side. ↩
- And while, sure, you could connect a lower-cost monitor, there’s a reason Apple fans have been clamoring for a display that’s comparable to the one found in the iMac line. ↩
- Not that I’d say no to an M1 Max option either, though on the mini side, that has the potential to cannibalize Studio sales. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @email@example.com or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is out now.]
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