Hoping for a small Mac mini revival

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A funny thing happened to the Mac mini last week. The single Mac model that’s the most long in the tooth surpassed 1,000 days without an update. But this shouldn’t be too surprising to Mac mini fans: that update, in October 2014, was 723 days after the previous Mac mini update, in October 2012. The quad-core Mac mini released in 2012 (and discontinued in 2014) still stands as the fastest Mac mini ever made, since the 2014 models maxed out at two processor cores.

What I’m saying is, the Mac mini hasn’t been loved by Apple for a long time. And yet it lingers as an active Apple product, with no promise of a future update like the one Apple gave the Mac Pro in April. (“The Mac mini remains a product in our lineup,” said Apple SVP Phil Schiller that day, thereby confirming its existence and nothing more.)

So why does the Mac mini remain a product in Apple’s lineup?

Proof of life?

I like to be an optimist when I can muster up the energy for it. The Mac mini serves a useful purpose for Apple as an all-purpose Mac that can be dropped into just about any scenario. It’s never going to be a huge seller like a MacBook or an iMac, but there are hundreds of different niches for which the Mac mini is suited. I have used Mac minis as servers and as home-theater boxes. I’ve seen them attached to computers in libraries and schools. And, yes, for $499 you can still plug one in to any old keyboard and monitor and get someone to make the switch from Windows to Mac, just the same way Steve Jobs described it when he launched the original model.

Mac mini Apple

The Mac mini isn’t Apple’s most powerful Mac, but it may be its most versatile.

So I’d like to believe that Apple keeps the Mac mini around—on a two- or three-year update cycle—because it’s useful to have it around, but not particularly essential. I’d certainly be sad if it went away, since I’ve had a mid-2011 model running as a home server for the last six years.

(For the record, because people inevitably ask: Originally my Mac mini was an email and web server, but I offloaded those functions to dedicated servers outside of my home network many years ago. The current model hosts a huge disk array that I use for backup and archiving of big files, connects to my home weather station and outputs webpages with my weather data, serves as my definitive local iCloud Photo Library repository, and acts as a helpful emergency Mac—via a remote-desktop app such as Screens—in case I’m traveling with only an iPad and get stuck not being able to do something without a Mac handy.)

But I don’t think the Mac mini is going away. I suspect that at some point we will see a new model based on an updated Intel chipset and supporting Apple’s latest connection technologies—and that model will probably also sit without an update for a few years. This seems to be the Mac mini’s lot in life.

The future is NUC

I suppose it’s possible that Apple will release a new Mac mini one day in a version of its familiar aluminum enclosure, the same general look it’s had since it was first released in 2005. But once I got a look at an Intel NUC (short for Next Unit of Computing), my belief in a next-generation Mac mini got a lot stronger.

Intel NUCs with Kaby Lake Intel

Intel’s NUC mini-desktops with 7th Generation chips code-named Kaby Lake will have 4K capabilities.

The Intel NUC is a miniature PC created by Intel and powered by a tiny 4x4-inch board. Intel sells them in customizable kits. These things are tiny, but powerful—you can get an Intel NUC powered by a modern Intel Core i5 processor, with multiple USB ports, HDMI, ethernet, and even Thunderbolt 3. They’re not particularly attractive to look at—as my friend Russell noted after he bought one, it’s got colored ports on the front, which is very un-Apple.

But leaving aside the ports for a second... these things are complete Intel-based PCs, with solid-state storage and plenty of RAM, and they’re the size of an Apple TV. The first time I looked at one, I just knew that this would be the way for Apple to make a new Mac mini that advanced the promise embedded in the name of the product. An entire Mac in the palm of your hand, to do with however you see fit. What a great way to launch a revised Mac mini, allowing Apple to do something more exciting than simply improve the specs on the same old Mac mini enclosure.

Do I need my next Mac mini to be the size of an Apple TV? Well, no, but I kind of want it to be that. (Other people want it too—which is why they’ve managed to install macOS on them.)

The Mac mini is never going to be Apple’s top seller. It’s never going to be the center of a major ad campaign. At best, it’s going to be a versatile team player that helps fill out Apple’s lineup of devices, so that the Mac can go anywhere users envision—while the iMac, MacBook, and MacBook Pro serve the vast majority of uses.

I still have hope that Apple is planning something small, but great, for the Mac mini. Having a PC that fits in the palm of your hand is great. Having a Mac that does would be even better.

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