The Mini has always been a compromised machine. With very limited expansion capabilities, it was designed to allow addition of memory and external storage, but little else. The lack of upgrade path made it a limited machine by design. It was designed to be hedged in at the bottom end to be attractive as a switcher’s machine and low cost mac desktop. Speed wasn’t a prime design consideration.

At first glance, the Atom/Ion Mini rumor doesn’t make much sense. Why would Apple put a hole in their line-up by making such a large gap between a Mini and a Mac Pro?

The landscape now is very different to six months ago. There’s a recession in full swing. Desktop and laptop sales are sliding across the board, and we can anticipate some sour notes when Apple’s Q4 results come out on January 21st. Combine this with the market trend toward laptops, and you can predict some big changes as Apple reacts to the marketplace and the recession.

PCs reached commodity status many years ago, and Macs are there now – anyone who would buy a Mac as a first computer probably already has. The main reason to buy a new Mac is designed obsolescence – a style change to make us want to trade up. It works – I recently bought a 2.33 C2D MacBook Pro for $1,015 because someone wanted a unibody version. They paid $2,000 for a 2.4GHz C2D with better graphics. With the loss they took on their MBP, they paid about $3,000 for appearance. Designed obsolescence works.

Many Mac Mini switchers buy laptops, but few go on to buy the iMac or the Mac Pro. Some people like the traditional display, keyboard and CPU 3-box set-up. Apple is looking to do well in a bad economy by gaining more switchers, but they also need these switchers to trade up to a more expensive machine. I believe Apple is going to target these switchers now.

In light of this, what does this rumor mean if it’s true?

If the Mini is getting an Atom 330, it is going down market. It could not sell for $599 and up. Even allowing the Apple premium we’re looking at a $399 device with 2GB and a DVD burner, miniDVI and DisplayPort out, ethernet and WiFi. This would make a good switcher, kid’s room or office machine, but it does leave Apple with a very large hole in their product lineup. Apple could make the Mac Pro more affordable, but it does not make sense to compromise their flagship product. This isn’t a Mac Mini, it’s a Mac Nano.

What makes sense to me is a new Mac Mini – not too big, not too small, but just right. This would be a Core 2 Duo or i7-powered machine with integrated graphics and a single 16x PCIe slot for upgraded graphics, or other PCIe card. It might have a couple of 3.5" drive bays. Suddenly, it’s an expandable machine that’s worth $999, and doesn’t really compete in the Mac Pro space.

Some have speculated this Atom/Ion combo might be used in a netbook, but if you look at the size of the heatsink on that thing – I don’t think so. Some have also speculated that this may be for AppleTV, but why would Apple use such a short-life design in one of their embedded products when they have a fantastic new embedded device coming?

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but I hope it happens this way, and we get a cheaper low end Mac Nano and a more capable Mac Mini.

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