The middle way is always wrong

Apropos of my buying a high-end Mac, I note a little dustup in the comments to an Apple Matters article on The Non Existent Glaring Hole in the Mac Lineup. The article basically attempts to puncture the argument for the mythical midrange Mac minitower, arguing that the market not served by the mini, iMac, and Mac Pro is too small to matter, if it exists at all.

By and large, I agree, and note that author Chris Seibold completely overlooked the argument that more than half of Macs sold are laptops (this was at least true of Q2 2007, and is in-line with a consumer preference for the flexibility of laptops). Continuing the argument, the demand for an expandable Mac that’s not quite a Mac Pro has to prove that you can divide the Mac market in half, take the smaller half, divide that in four (mini, iMac, MMMM, Mac Pro), and still have a viable product. Given that the mini’s been marginal for a while, I’m not sure I buy this.

The other thing is that expandability may be better in theory than in reality. When it comes to putting cards in your Mac, you take a chance that drivers will continue to be updated for your card as future versions of Mac OS X come out… not a safe bet in the small Mac market. Being able to swap out drives isn’t a huge deal, as external FireWire or USB is an easy option for most (but not all, since I don’t think you can boot into Windows via Boot Camp on an external device).

I had figured the PowerMac (dual 1.8 G5) that I just replaced was going to be a 4-5 year machine, since I’d be able to expand it at any point. I did upgrade the drives (from 80 to 350 and 500), but there was never an option to upgrade the CPU, as the Intel switch rendered PowerPC irrelevant. Really, this is something of a special case. Apple tends to use odd requirements for OS releases (“must have internal FireWire”, “must be 833 MHz or higher”) to drop old Macs when they’re about 3-4 years for consumer Macs, 4-5 years with pro Macs. But the Intel switch is pushing both pro and consumer PPC Macs out the door at the same time. So, atypical case.

Still, some of the best advice I’ve ever heard on computer shopping came from a Computer Science lecture I happened to see on campus TV at Michigan State years ago. Instead of the usual approach of “analyze your needs and figure out what hardware suits you”, the prof said “buy the most you can afford, or the cheapest thing they’ll sell you.” The reasoning being that the highest-end system will have the longest viability, whereas the cheap box obviously doesn’t cost much, so when it falls behind the curve, you’re not surprised, disappointed, or out a lot of money. Obviously, in the Mac world, these extremes are the mini and the Mac Pro. Actually, the mini may be a bit too extreme of an example, as it seems designed to give switchers a cheap way to try the Mac, bringing with them their existing monitor and possibly (if USB) keyboard and mouse.

So then, there’s the no-hassle iMac. No expandability, but the company’s bread-and-butter product, meaning you’re not going to suddenly find its video card not supported when OS X 10.6 comes out in 2010. Is there really a market between that and the big-ass Mac Pro? Are there enough gamers who want to dick around with graphic card upgrades? Probably not — there aren’t enough Mac games to matter, and those that exist have to target the last few iMac models anyways.

There are a few people who long for the MMMM, but I doubt there are truly enough real buyers to bother casting molds or making new packaging for.

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Comment (1)

  1. Probably not — there aren’t enough Mac games to matter, and those that exist have to target the last few iMac models anyways.

    Chicken, meet egg. You know the proliferation of consoles has really expanded the support for gaming on the mac, since more companies are using X-platform toolkits for development. However, go by the local Apple store and look at Guitar Hero III for the Mac. It is only playable on the Mac Pro or the ABSOLUTE latest 24″ iMac.

    In my old age, I care less about monkeying with my computer than I did. At the same time, I want a gamer-class Mac that costs less than $4000. Even the Mac Pro comes with what I would call a piece of shit video card. Now, if they would sell me an iMac with a GF8800-something, sure I would buy it. Barring that, your damn skippy I want another tower option.

    As to the size of the market for gamer machines in general, I would note Dell sees enough business in that market to support two whole brands (XPS and Alienware). Moreover, as Alienware, Falcon Northwest and VooDoo PC show, the gamer market is one of the markets you would think Apple would want — they will pay more for sexy and they appreciate quality all the way down to the chipset. Even if I still had to run windows, I would be perfectly happy having a BootCamped single machine, rather than trying to maintain two computers at my desk.

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