The Non Existent Glaring Hole in the Mac Lineup

by Chris Seibold Apr 18, 2008

If there is one constant refrain among the Mac elite it is that there exists a hole in the Mac line. Where, these people wonder, is the upgradable Mac? The Mac Pro is too much for the average guy, the Mac mini isn't enough and there is nothing in the middle. What these people would like to see is a mid level Mac. Two cores, a dedicated (and swappable) video card, and room for another hard drive. The cost isn't generally specified except to say that it should be less than the Mac Pro and iMac but more than the Mac mini.


Before getting into the nuts and bolts (or chips and cards) of such an offering it is important to realize that when people say there is a "glaring hole" in the Mac lineup what they are really saying is that Apple has missed a legitimate marketing chance without a good reason. They probably imagine that executive meetings go something like this:


Steve: Everything is great. Macs are growing, the iPhone is strong, that AppleTV thing is getting better and the iPod is paying off like a busted slot machine in Vegas!

JoeUser: I know how we could sell more Macs.

Steve: More Macs?

JoeUser: Well, here’s my idea: People won't spend $2800 on a Mac Pro but if we offered a computer that they could upgrade for $1500 they'd buy that.

Steve: Wait a second. Are you telling me that people actually factor price into the buying decision? Are you seriously saying that not everyone is a millionaire?

JoeUser: Yeah. It turns out, and I've looked into this Steve, that some people don't actually make more they can spend.

Steve: Well I'll be damned. Who knew? I get by on a dollar a year and all… Still, selling more Macs is a lot of trouble. That is one more model for the stores to carry and Jonny Ives is pretty busy. Plus we'd need a name. The Mac almost Maxi? It doesn't work. Thanks for the input JoeUser, it was interesting but we'll pass. By the way you're fired and anyone who brings up the cost thing gain can get the hell out of the room too.


Apple is, of course, aware of the "glaring hole" in the product lineup and the company doesn't see it as a problem.


Finding the Holes


The idea there is a void in Apple products line up is obvious, every other company has a cheapish expandable tower configuration therefore Apple should have a cheapish expandable tower configuration. Apple is more interested in price points and avoiding consumer confusion than having a me too product so taking a look at the current Apple line up will be revealing:


Mac mini: $599,

Mac Mini: $799

MacBook $1,099

iMac: $1,199

MacBook $1,299

MacBook, iMac: $1,499

MacBook Air, iMac: $1,799

MacBook Pro: $1,999

iMac: $2,249

MacPro: $2,299


With Apple pricing listed it is time to look for unserviced price points because price points are more important to most consumers (yes, you techies are an exception) than models. So where are the gaps in the price structure? There most obvious spot for the longed for Mac is between the mini and the MacBook, a $300 range where Apple could conceivably stick a new model.


Can $999 meet the Demands of Users?


Users generally ask for a PCI slot, two hard drive bays and a replaceable video card when whining, err, opining for the missing link of Macs. The idea being that they'll be able to upgrade the video card as time goes by thus keeping their Mac current. Those are the specs to hit and the processor should be something current, something iMacish. Say a 2.0 GHz core Duo. Put all that together for $999 and Apple will have a brand new winner bunch of inventory to store. While users say they want it, and demand the mythical machine when faced with the option of buying a machine that is basically a screenless iMac with a replaceable video card or buying an iMac for two hundred dollars more they'll opt for the iMac every time.


Those who don't go for the iMac are left in a puzzling predicament when it comes time to upgrade the video card. Two years from now iMacs will be cheaper but the video card they want will cost them $250. So they'll be faced with a new dilemna: Drop $250 into the Mac min maxi with an already out of date processor (these are techie folks who need power after all) or drop a grand on a computer with more cores, more memory and a screen. That is a big case of buyers remorse waiting to happen.


What Happened the Last Time Apple Caved?


The immediate objection will be, of course, "No people really want a computer they can get inside and fiddle with." Well, perhaps. Before allowing that what people are really after is a cheaper upgradeable Mac consider the case of the last time Apple caved in to user demands in the Mac arena. What people said they wanted, what they constantly pined for was a really cheap Mac. A complete solution that would get Macs on everyone's desk. Apple listened and introduced the Mac mini. As soon as the mini was revealed  everyone went from "We want a cheap Mac" to "That isn't what I meant."


Why didn't the Mac mini fly off the shelves? The Mac mini was considered by many to be underpowered . (It wasn't and isn't. When Steve jobs said the mini was enough computer for 90% of the people he lied, the number is closer 99%). The teeth gnashing and the complaints about the mini had less to do with the computers power than the perception of the Mac users. People buy Macs because they want that feeling of superiority, buying the cheapest Mac available, even though it will do everything you want, leaves you with the feeling that every time the machine bogs down that you bought a substandard machine. Surely Tower owners zip along at and amazing clip right? Not quite. If you use a Mac mini along side a Mac Pro you'll note the Mac Pro is faster but if you're honest with yourself you'll also note (unless you're into heavy video production or the like) that it worth the price premium.


There is also a good chance that Apple has already experimented with a cheapish expandable tower. Consider the single 1.8 GHz G5 PowerMac. Introduced in 2004 this machine retailed for $1499. If you bought one you got the chance to replace the video card, PCI slots and plenty of room for extra drives. The computer was more than adequate for the time and still useful even today. Word has it that The Big Book of Apple Hacks was written almost exclusively on 1.8 GHz G5! If there was really market for a mid powered, expandable Mac the 1.8 G5 should have been flying off the shelves but the reality is that that particular G5 proved to be about as popular as chewing on little balls of tin foil when you have lots of fillings in your mouth.


What Folks Really Want


The argument about the lack of a cheapish expandable server, that so called glaring whole in the Mac lineup, is fallacious an example of self fulfilling prophecy. People want a more powerful Mac for their hard earned money so they look at the Apple line up and say "Crikey, they should have something more powerful. I know a mid range tower!" The situation is like an archaeologist hunting for Atlantis, after a few years of reading side scanning sonar everything starts to look like the lost continent. So once you accept the current price structure of Macs every hole looks like the ideal place for the fabled mid priced tower, even when there is no gap at all. 





  • You couldn’t be more wrong. Most of my friends are either a) still running their G4 towers or b) have built hackintoshes. The reason why is that we already have large LCDs or are using HD TVs as monitors and don’t want an iMac. Some have large media collections and want to house multiple drives. Some want to play an occasional PC game. Some run KVM between their PC and Mac. Minis are unsuitable for storage or gaming. Out of 7, 3 have hackintoshes, 5 are still running G4 towers, and 3 have MacBooks in addition to their other machines. At least three of us would immediately purchase the “hole” machine. None of us feel we can afford a Mac Pro.

    VaPRRS had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 1
  • I bought a Quad G5 two years ago, and really screwed my bank account by adding a 7800GT to it (cost about £350, I think). Since then, only one high-end G5 compatible card has been replaced for me to upgrade with—a Radeon which managed + or - 10% compared to the existing card. I’d love to pop an 8800GT into my G5 and give it a real boost, but it was only made available for the very latest Mac Pros at launch. Since then, they’ve made it compatible with older Mac Pros. Something tells me there won’t be a G5 version.

    If Apple are unwilling to produce card drivers for a two-year old Mac which cost £3,500 (that $7,000 dollars, folks!), why on earth would they bother with someone who only forked out a grand?

    Face it, they want you to buy new kit, not upgrades.

    I just finished paying off my loan for the Mac, and intend to get at least three more years out of it, by going from 6 to 16 gig of RAM and adding a 30” screen. They can wait a while till I decide to pay over the odds for a Mac again.

    evilcat had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 66
  • What a load of crap. I have been an Apple user since my first computer an Apple IIe back in the early 80’s and I am still amazed that some Apple users can defend this irrational policy of not having a consumer desktop.

    In my case the Mac Mini is underpowered. It has a relatively slow CPU that is long overdue for an upgrade, dog slow integrated graphics, and a small and slow hard drive, and it is a huge PITA to even upgrade the ram. It is basically a Macbook in a box.

    The iMac is a little better, but there are huge tradeoffs. The graphics card is not only not upgradeable, it was already slow when it was new! And I have had enough hard drives die to know that it happens more than we would like. I have heard horror stories about trying to replace a hard drive in an iMac. I will NEVER buy an iMac because I do not like the glossy screen, already have a much nicer 28 inch monitor and a 22 inch. I also want a Mac that can play games well. I hate the one in all concept because I also know that my monitor will outlive the usefulness of the other parts. WIth the iMac you have to basically throw it away. It is really nothing more than a Macbook Pro with a faster and larger hard drive.

    So in reality every single Mac except for the Mac Pro are using laptop parts which means more expensive and slower. The Mac Pro is overkill for most people in terms of price and power. Intel have some amazing dual and quad core desktop CPU’s that would not only be much cheaper but also faster. We would also have access to faster and cheaper memory. Who cares how many people actually upgrade their GPU or add a PCI expansion card? You completely ignore the argument that true desktop components are much cheaper and faster. I am sick of form over function from Apple. I don’t even mind paying my Apple tax, but how hard is it to make dual or quad core computer with an upgrade path for under $2,000 when PC makers can do it for as little as $800? I for one got tired of waiting, I just built my own overclocked hackintosh for $1,400 and it blows away even a Mac Pro in games. So stop defending Apple no matter how insane their policies are and wake up to the reality that not all people will settle for a Mini or iMac or pay a small fortune for a Mac Pro. Whether you believe it or not, that gaping hole is there for all to see. Maybe you just need to open your eyes.

    gwmac had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 3
  • Count me in as another person still using a G4 minitower. As long as this nonexistent hole in the Mac lineup exists I will not be in the market for a new Mac. I will continue to use my G4 for as long as feasible and after that either a used Mac Pro or a hackintosh may be in my future.

    Sammer had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 3
  • One thing I didn’t mention in my post is that the machine I’m looking for doesn’t have to be a minitower. About the size and form of a standard home theater receiver would also work so there is no reason Apple has to make a “me too” product.

    Sammer had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 3
  • One thing I forgot to add is that posts like this from delusional “Apple can do no wrong” apologists does little to help Apple in the end. Why does Apple think that making their computers smaller or thinner is nearly as important as price and horsepower.

    Imagine if there were an iMac one or two inches thicker but had easy access to swapping out the hard drive, graphics card, CPU, and ram. Can anyone in their right mind not say that they would prefer this versus one that is thinner? The other problem as I see it is the lack of decent graphics card options, even on the Mac Pro. Apple finally released an upgrade kit for older models, but why is it that we are always one or two generations behind? You can’t tell me that AMD or Nvidia would not make versions of their latest and greatest cards if Apple requested it. We can’t even watch blu-ray movies on Macs because not even one Mac are HDCP compatible. Apple has a bad habit of purposefully leaving out essential components and not providing an upgrade path simply to force us to buy a brand new Mac to get those features. That is unacceptable. I struggled along on my upgraded Quiksilver dual G4 1.2 GHz for seven years before I gave up and built a machine that suits my needs and budget because Apple refused to do so. I guarantee you that I am not alone and by dismissing our legitimate concerns as “whining” you really lose any credibility. Also, a mid sized tower would finally give businesses an Apple computer that they could justify buying. The iMac and mini do not come close to meeting the needs of most businesses or even schools.

    gwmac had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 3
  • “Why does Apple think that making their computers smaller or thinner is nearly as important as price and horsepower.”-gwmac

    Because Apple is vain, and cares more about what the computer looks like than what is inside them.  They constantly cut corners on the guts of the machine. 

    It is a great irony that the “engineer” Steve Jobs who loves to tinker with computers, should think that others should not be allowed to tinker, too.  It’s like the old-school thinking of never asking a doctor a question, or perhaps Oliver asking for “more” is a better equivalent.  We have the best water-down soup there is, how dare consumers think they know what they want?  grin

    Has cheaper prices and more horsepower ever failed as a winning formula?  It seems to have worked well for the iPod.  The MacPro needs to start at $1299.  And Apple across the board should be cutting their prices.  Their excessive profits all stem from overcharging users.  They don’t necessarily need a new tower, just less expensive products.

    Other manufacturers have to pay Microsoft to build a box; Apple has a huge price advantage that they let go to waste by trying to double-dip and maximize profits.

    Steve Consilvio had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 47
  • I can easily see some validity on both sides of this debate.  I’ve had my Intel-based 24” iMac since late 2006—which I admittedly speced to nearly the max that I could* (see below)—and it very easily meets all of my needs—and even comfortably meets the majority of my *wants* as well:  I reboot into Windows XP to play video games like BioShock and to watch Netflix movies, and I use an EyeTV Hybrid to DVR high-def television… and while I wouldn’t mind being able to upgrade the video card for my video games, I have to say that this inability hasn’t *prevented* me from being able to thoroughly enjoy my experience with this computer.

    On the other hand… if there had been an option to buy a more moderately priced tower from Apple that was more comparable technologically with this iMac then to the tremendous overkill that is the Mac Pro, then I absolutely would have gone with that instead, (probably alongside the biggest Apple display I could afford) and of course I would have happily bought a new video card from the Apple Store by now, so that I could play BioShock at full native resolution, instead of having to step it back a notch to get good frame rates.

    Of the six Macs (and one PC) that I’ve owned, the only one which I have not upgraded at some point… was the iMac currently sitting in front of me.  In fact, three of those upgrades were video cards, and a couple of the upgrades were even purchased directly from Apple… such as the TV tuner card in my old Quadra 630.  (Yeah… I’m one of those weirdos who’s been watching TV on his computers since well before it was “in vogue”!)

    So is there a market for the “mythical midrange Mac minitower” (as coined b Dan Frakes at Macworld)?  Certainly.  Bu the real question is:  Is that market anywhere near as large as the vocal online complainers think it is…


    * My iMac: 2.33GHz Core2Duo / 2GB RAM / 500GB HD / 256MB nVidia GeForce 7600GT

    Zarmanto had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 4
  • “Is that market anywhere near as large as the vocal online complainers think it is…”

    Of course there is. Apple has never tried. The Cube in some ways almost fit the bill, even though it was hard to upgrade the CPU or GPU, it was at least possible. The reason it failed was nothing more than price. They tried to rape people on price and it failed, no big surprise there. The switch to intel means that for the very first time end users could easily and cheaply replace the CPU in a year or two for a MUCH faster one if they so choose. Graphics cards are another issue since the pickings are rather slim. But one reason AMD and Nvidia don’t bother is that only Mac Pro users can upgrade. Introduce a mid range and suddenly there are millions more potential Mac customers for them.

    gwmac had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 3
  • I’ve got to say, this article completely misses the mark. Just because you don’t see the need, good for you, but that doesn’t mean there’s no market for it. i’d say it could be a substantial market, too!

    Many users want/need a Half-MacPro… half the slots, half the bays, half the size or LESS. Something that would take a pro-level graphics card and more than 4GB of RAM. Something that can run TWO 23” monitors out of the box. Add one extra PCI slot to add an eSATA card, etc.. If an eSATA port were built-in, even that would be unnecessary.

    If it fell in the $1200 - $1500 that would be fine, since you’d need to add a monitor. And I want to be able to select my OWN monitor and do NOT want a glossy iMac screen, which is not appropriate for pro-level work.

    I could see something like a pizza-box form factor like a Mac IIci or Mac LC type of thing. These were great, extremely popular machines back in their day. This would be a great compact workstation and the perfect switcher machine.

    For me, it’s a space issue. I’ve resigned myself to using a Macbook Pro, which I LOVE, but I’d like some beefier machine for my office that I could do 3D rendering and such.

    jeffharris had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 11
  • Interesting comments, I appreciate them all and some good points. Oddly, know one addressed why the G5 1.8 sold so poorly at $1499.
    I think I wasn’t clear enough in the article, I’m not trying to necessarily defend Apple’s decisions on this issue but from Apple’s perspective every foray into this realm has been met with failure and adding any more machines would muddy the product line. Apple loves selling machines, if the company thought the return of the 660av style machine would sell more computers they would certainly introduce a machine.
    Here’s the weird thing: Every who wants this machine has a different idea about what they want. Some want a minitower (how the G4 Tower qualifies as a minitower I don’t know) some want it four $499, some say $1500 is fine. Some want half the slots, some want a replaceable video card.

    Add all of that up and what you get is a gaping hole in the product line that can never be satisfied. If the form factor is smallish Apple is using laptop parts, if it is large it will too big, if it is too expensive the company has missed the opportunity etc, etc.

    I think what is happening is that everyone who doesn’t like the current offerings comes up with their own should be computer and opines that Apple isn’t making it. Except there are a million different would be gap fillers! In other words: one persons gap filler Mac mac is the next guys complete waste of a computer! Like UFOs the mythical gap computer is always, always whatever isn’t in the product line!

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 354
  • Chris, you’re normally pretty good this is a travesty of an argument.  And I don’t just mean because it’s an apologist screed, but the points you make are weak.  I could come up with an almost identical list of reasons why the Macbook Air shouldn’t exist, and yet there it is, with virtually no compelling features beyond it’s thinness and priced at an awkward $100 less than the incredibly more powerful Macbook Pro.

    It’s hardly the “elite” who are demanding an expandable Mac that doesn’t cost $2000+.  It’s almost everyone other than the few “if-Apple-doesn’t-make-it-then-that’s-good-enough-for-me” fanboys.

    Look at the frenzy surrounding the (possibly fake) Open PC.  There are lots of potential customers out there who want to get a Mac but don’t like having to pay a substantial premium just to upgrade their own HDD or graphics card.

    So why don’t they do it?  The answer is, no one knows but Steve Jobs.  The price points you list conflate laptops with desktops.  Someone looking for an affordable, expandable desktop isn’t likely to get a Macbook.  They’re next bet beyond the Mac mini is the iMac, a very nice computer for the money but even less expandable than the Mac mini.  And you’re a few leaps and bounds from there to the Mac Pro, which STARTS at $2300.

    Count me among those who think that Apple can do better than that.  Heck, just license the OS.  And if there’s no market for this thing, as you suggest there isn’t, then what do they have to worry about?

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 2220
  • Beeb! Well my take on the MacBook Air isn’t germane. All I’ll say is that it isn’t the computer for me. Yet, Apple is selling those things like crazy. Color me befuddled.
    So far Apple’s forays into expandable towers has been met with a less than enthusiastic response. And I think licensing could work but the dollar a year guy is not a fan.
    With the realities being what they are expecting apple to introduce a machine like this is crazy talk.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Apr 18, 2008 Posts: 354
  • “Oddly, know one addressed why the G5 1.8 sold so poorly at $1499.”

    Timing, the $1499 G5 came just four months after Apple stopped making the $1299 G4 (not really a minitower but 3 inches shorter than the G5) and seven months before Steve Jobs announced the move to Intel processors.

    Sammer had this to say on Apr 19, 2008 Posts: 3
  • I currently use three (yes, three) Mac minis for fun along with the two G5 dual/quad revs for my work stuff. Although, the cheese-graters are speed demons when it comes to graphic rendering and MPEG video encoding/decoding, the minis can hold their own comes web surfing time, light apps, and serving videos to the HDTVs via DVI, of course.

    Still, I have to agree with SJ’s 90% projections then. The Mac mini does suffice much of the Mac’s entry-level audience. Just load it up with as much as you can afford since the damn things are a b1#ch to open, let alone upgrade later. wink

    OK, I have converted one of the minis into a Leopard Server with an external 1TB Firewire800 drive for the encoded HD movies. Although, again, it is adequate and sufficient in that role, I would not mind upgrading that baby if Apple comes out with a mini-server. Think of it like a double or triple stacked minis. This would be directed to home-based semi-pros (all techies consider themselves one anyways), the small business shops, and even the corporate desktops soon to be targeted this year.

    I think this is the “glaring hole” that CS is trying to hide with his articulated but flawed article premise. Apple has but filled the consumer, semi-pro, to pro hardware offerings but where are the home pro and semi-pro machines (SOHO)? Where are the small biz and corporate desktop machines? Mac minis? iMacs? iDon’t think so.

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 19, 2008 Posts: 846
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