Imagining a new Mac mini: What would you like to see?

Mac mini
Mac mini

Apple's diminutive Mac mini is long overdue for a refresh. Will Apple just give it a speed bump or is it due for an overhaul? What would you like to see in the new Mac mini?

The Mac mini is overdue for a major refresh. It's been well more than a year, and it's been several years since the Mac mini had any significant work done to it. That's got me thinking about what Apple could do it and probably should do to it, but I also want to hear from you - how would you like to see the Mac mini evolve?

Where we are today: Two year old circuitry, four year old design

Apple's least expensive desktop computer and the 13-inch standard MacBook Pro that it shares many common components with weren't touched along with the rest of the Mac product line in 2013. While every Mac except the Mac Pro (which uses workstation-quality parts instead) has switched over the Intel's more power-efficient Haswell processor, the Mac mini (and its MacBook Pro cousin) lags behind, using a 2012-era Intel Ivy Bridge processor instead.

In 2011 Apple removed the optical drive from the Mac mini and shortened it about a half an inch. The Mac mini's footprint is a bit larger than it used to be, but it's fundamentally the same square box it's been since the Mac mini debuted nine years ago.

On the backside is a Gigabit Ethernet port, handy for connecting to high-speed wired networks, FireWire 800, HDMI, Thunderbolt, four USB 3.0 ports and an SDXC card slot. It's remarkably well-equipped for expansion for such a tiny machine - you can even pop the bottom cover off with a twist of the wrist to upgrade the RAM.

The Mac mini's $599 standard configuration comprises a 2.5 GHz processor, 4 GB RAM and a 500 GB hard drive. There's a higher-tier $799 model available with a quad-core processor; you can also pimp it out with dual internal hard drives in a server model. Apple's Fusion drive - a modest flash drive paired with a hard drive - gives you better storage performance, and you can also go entirely flash-based, though you'll sacrifice capacity and it'll cost you more.

Imagining the next Mac mini

It's fun to think that Apple may be headed in the same direction with the Mac mini as it took for the Mac Pro - building a tiny desktop turbine designed from the motherboard board up for parallel processing. Maybe make it black and round in the process too - a hockey puck to accompany the high-end trash can.

But that's not going to happen. The Mac mini's strength is that it's Apple's most affordable machine. It costs almost half the price of a MacBook Air, which means that Apple has to make some compromises along the way.

The next big jump for Intel chips isn't expected until later this year, and I anticipate that Apple will push out a new Mac mini before then, so I'm assuming the next Mac mini will have a Haswell chip inside. If past is prologue, the Mac mini's performance will probably be pretty consistent with the low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Presuming that Apple shifts the Mac mini to Retina MacBook Pro territory, it'd be reasonable to expect a 2.4 GHz processor - slower clock speed than the current model, but more efficient, with faster graphics to boot.

The Mac mini can't go flash-only for storage, at least not right now: it'd send the cost of the Mac mini upwards, and the mini is still popular as a server for workgroups and small businesses. But it's entirely reasonable to expect the next Mac mini to include PCI Express-based flash storage, which will dramatically improve the performance of both Fusion Drive-equipped Mac minis and Mac minis that go flash-only. The system would need to retain a Serial ATA (SATA) hard drive interface too, to accomodate old-fashioned spinning drives.

Along the way, Apple will bring the Mac mini in line with other Macs, adding 802.11ac Wi-Fi networking, which can be up to three times faster than the 802.11n Wi-Fi in current models.

On the backplane, the only major change I see is the disappearance of Firewire 800. That interface is doomed for the dustbin. You can attach a FireWire drive if you need to using Thunderbolt, which Apple would surely like to see more people using. That'll free up a bit of space, so don't be surprised to see the Mac mini gain a second Thunderbolt port. And if Apple borrows from the same parts bin as the Retina MacBook Pro, don't be surprised to see Thunderbolt 2 on the next Mac mini.

Gradual evolution

So I don't see the actual shape of the Mac mini changing dramatically, nor do I see its feature set changing radically. Form tends to follow function with Apple devices, and the Mac mini's particular strengths require a certain amount of space inside to accomodate the hardware that it needs to work. And let's face it - Apple's largest desktop machine went a decade between major redesigns. The Mac Pro's chassis first saw life as the Power Mac G5, before Apple even transitioned to Intel hardware.

The Mac mini serves different functions: it's a great first Mac. It's economical and environmentally conscious, enabling you to reuse existing monitors, mice and keyboards. It's a fully equipped Mac, just with a lower cost and a smaller footprint than other models. To that end, Apple doesn't have to do a lot to keep it modern and relevant. But it is starting to lag behind other Macs in both feature and performance, which makes it a target for some tweaking to bring it in line with current models.

That's enough bloviation from me. I'm interested in hearing from you - what do you think the next Mac mini will look like, and more importantly, what do you think will be inside? Please sound off in the comments. And for more Mac mini talk, make sure to visit our Mac mini forum.

Peter Cohen