Monday, June 23, 2008

The Mac I want

I want a Mac.

Not for any particular reason, I just want one, because I want one.

Of course I do have other reasons:
  • I want one, because I pride myself in being proficient and current in most common operating systems, and I have barely used OSX at all.

  • I want one because I want to play with various other Apple technologies (like the iPhone SDK, which might actually get me interested in writing code again for the first time in years), and in many ways a Mac is the best way to do that (or in some cases, the only way).

  • I want one, because they are very well designed, and have excellent support.

  • I want one, so I can teach the kids Mac, Linux, and Windows; so they know all the major computing platforms (if you learn Linux, the other UNIXen are an easy pickup).

  • I want one so that if I have Mac people over to the house, they'll have a comfortable environment to work and play on.

  • I want one for photo, video, and sound editing.

    Although Windows and Linux do a good job with it (now), Macs are still the standard platform for most professionals, and it's always useful to be able to do work on the same platform as the guy sending you files to review.

    Oh and I'd really like to be able to do BluRay authoring on it.

  • I want to be able to do recovery, analysis, forensics, and security work on Macs.

    Though I have Windows, Linux, BSD, and Solaris to do it with (and I do, mostly on Linux), I don't have any Macs to do that sort of work with. There's a lot you can (and should) do on a platform other than the one where the drive came from; but for some things, you really need to do the work on the native platform.
But mostly, I want one just because I want one.

The problem is though, Apple doesn't make the Mac I want; and I think there's a LOT of folks out there who could say the same.

For years, Apple followed the strategy of having three desktop Mac model lines; a low end home/kid/housewife/grandma model, a midrange model, and a high end model for power users and professionals.

When the iMac came out, Steve Jobs switched them over to a "Four Corners" model, where they had a low and high end lines for desktops and laptops. These positions were covered by the iMac and the PowerMac (now MacPro) on the desktop side; and the iBook (now MacBook), and PowerBook (now MacBook pro) on the laptop side.

At the same time, Apple experimented with bridging the gap with various products; but they did it kind of half heartedly.

First they put out the PowerMac cube, which although gorgeous, was mis-marketed and had heat problems. Those issues were solvable however, if Apple had been serious about it; or is Steve Jobs could ever once accept that he screwed up in product conception.

They weren't, and he wasn't.

The real problem with the cube, was that it was neither fish, nor fowl, nor good red meat. It mid-range computing power, but almost no expansion; and yet it was priced as an upper midrange machine (where people expect higher power, and expansion capabilities).

Yes, style sells computers, but it doesn't sell mid-range computers unless there is a fair bit of substance behind them. Basically, the people who wanted midrange machines, also wanted expansion. They wanted to be able to tinker, and they wanted to be able to extend the life of their machines with upgrades.

After the cube, Apple decided they'd figured out where they went wrong. Unfortunately, they were wrong there again.

By this time, iMac sales had slowed dramatically. In fact, with the "sunflower" iMacs (the iMac with the LCD on an upside down flowerpot base), they had started moving the features out of the low end, and the price had climbed to match. This basically took the bottom out of iMac sales entirely; because once again, you were buying a mid range priced machine, with just barely midrange specs, and no expandability.

Given this market situation, Apple did something which puzzles me to this day. Rather than refocus the iMac back to its low end roots, they they moved the iMac upmarket, turning it into a true midrange machine (at mid range prices) and a "lifestyle accessory".

To make up for the low end, they introduced the eMac (supposedly for educational sales, but they mostly went to former iMac buyers), which was basically an updated version of the 1998 iMac. This left Apple without a REAL system for the low end market position; because the eMac was never really a serious product, more of a placeholder.

Finally, in '06 Apple introduced the MacMini, with roughly similar specs to where the iMac would have been before the change to mid-range had it been release that year; except of course without a display, keyboard, mouse, or speakers. Most importantly though, they did it at the lowest price ever for a mac, at $499.

The only problem with that is, they went TOO low end. Not that the price wasn't great, but they shot very low on the specs; and they had spent the previous two years marketing Macs as midrange lifestyle accessories, and high end "supercomputers".

Honestly though Apple wasn't really interested in selling the MacMini. They barely marketed it at all, and when they did, they didn't know how to sell it. They didn't want to compete with the supercheap walmart PCs, though with their pricing and support and upsell opportunities, this would be ideal position to be in; "Look, you can buy that cheap piece of crap, or you can spend $100 more and get this beautiful tiny little box that's better, and has real support". They didn't want to try and sell it upmarket any either though, because that might hurt iMac sales.

The reason for targeting the mini this way puzzles me, because they don't want to sell to the super-low end; but yet they STILL don't have a real midrange machine, that has any expansion or tinkering capabilities.

If you're going to do a desktop Mac, why not just make the Mini 3 or 4 times the height (it would still be smaller and prettier than anything that sold with Windows on it), use cheaper but faster desktop components rather than the slower and more expensive laptop components, leave room for a PCIe slot or two, and an extra hard drive bay. It would actually cost LESS to make than the mini does currently, and you cuold sell it for more.

Or hell, if you're really committed to the mini, sell both; and rename them the Mini (for the medium sized one), and the Nano (for the current mini).

Even better, if you're REALLY committed to the Mini, put a faster processor and a bit more RAM in there, the biggest laptop hard drive they make, make the onboard sound decent (with an optical output), replace the cheezy integrated video with something that will do on board video compression and decompression, and add HDMI video input and output. You'd sell one to every home theater enthusiast in the world, and to half the videographers, SFX people, multimedia show presneters etc... (as a portable video workstation).

...Oh wait a sec, they already did half that with the Apple TV; why not just go all the way with the Mini and sell it as the natural big brother?

Seriously, once they've captured all the "lifestyle accessory" sales they're going to get for the iMac; they're still selling a midrange priced and powered machine, without the features that a midrange buyer wants (unless they specifically want an all in one machine). For the MacMini, they've pretty much marketed themselves out of the supposedly intended market position by making people think of the Mac as either a lifestyle thing, or a supercomputer.

So who bought the mini? Mostly PC users who wanted to mess around with Macs, and Mac laptop owners who wanted a desktop too.

So as far as I'm concerned, right now Apple is aiming too low with the Mini, too high with the iMac, and WAY too high with the MacPro.

As of right now, there are three basic Mac models in the product line:
  • The Mac Mini, with up to a 2ghz dual core processor (1.8 base), a max of 2 gb RAM (1gb base), integrated video, integrated DVD burner, and a max of 120gb hard drive. The only upgradeable or changeable component (in theory) is the memory; though people not concerned with Apple warranties have put in larger hard drives, and faster processors. Base price is $599, fully optioned up, it's about $950.

  • The iMac, with up to a 3ghz dual core processor (2.4 base), up to 4gb ram (1gb base), up to a 1tb hard drive, integrated DVD burner, decent discrete video; and of course a 20" or 24" LCD. Again, theoretically the only thing upgradeable is the ram, but actually you can upgrade everything but the video card pretty easily. Base price is $1199, fully optioned up, it's about $2700.

  • The Mac Pro, with up to 2, 3.2ghz quad core processors (yes, 8 cores. A single quad core 2.8 is base), up to 32gb of ram (2gb is base), up to 4, 1tb hard drives (a single 320gb is base), and a decent industry standard PCIe video card (or as many as 4). Expansion is virtually unlimited. Base price is $2299, up to about $20,000 fully optioned up ($9,100 of that is ram, and $2100 of that is to go to dual 3.2ghz processors).
The MacPro is a tremendous beast of a machine. With a 64 bit (mostly) UNIX based operating system behind it, the serious horsepower of the hardware, and the excellent expansion capabilities; it's a spectacular machine for any purpose you would want to put a Mac to... Of course it's also spectacularly expensive. The base price is $1000 more than the base price of the iMac (and that's without a display. Add one, and you're talking about another $600) and we won't even talk about the optioned up price.

Frankly, the MacPro is overkill. It's far more than anyone but the most hardcore users would need; and costs far more than anyone but a complete mac fanatic, or a professional working in sound, video, or graphics production could justify. They don't call it the "Mac Pro" for nothing.

The MacMini has been a market failure; but I think it's a good little box, and for an Apple, it's at a good price. It is a reasonably capable machine for what it is, which is basically a low-midrange laptop, crammed into a very tiny little case. It's gorgeous, and tiny; but it's only got a small hard drive, limited RAM capacity (the motherboard and processor could support 4gb but Apple deliberately limts it to 2), integrated video, and nothing can be upgraded. Your sum total expansion possibilites consist of 4 usb and a single firewire port.

At $499 and $599 for the two models, the Mini would still be a great deal actually, but at $599 base, and $950 optioned up, with no expansion or upgrade capability... and like the cube, it's neither fish, nor fowl, nor good red meat.

Clearly, the iMac is a midrange machine in terms of equipment specification; and it is an excellent system (though I think overpriced), but it's all integrated everything, including the display. No expansion, no upgrade, you get what you get.

This is a machine for people who want a sleek, and compact form factor (it's essentially a flat panel LCD with a thick case); and don't care about expansion. That makes it great for moms, and office workers, and students in non science/engineering fields etc... but once again, where's the true midrange offering.

Do you see the holes in market position?

Why can't Apple?

I go back to my previous statement; the people who want and need midrange machine also need expansion and upgrade capabilities; and they want to tinker.

Look back to what I want to use my Mac for and think about what I want and need.
  • A fast processor, but not high end server class, that I can upgrade
  • A fair bit of memory, that I can upgrade
  • A lot of storage, thats reasonable fast
  • Great video
  • Great audio
  • The ability to add and change hard drives
  • The ability to add and change optical drives
  • The ability to add and change primary video cards
  • The ability to add and change other PCI cards, like video capture cards, and HDTV tuners
Now, I can do all of that in the MacPro, but at a base price of $2300, it's just not worth it; especially given that all but the lowest end Wintel PCs let me do all of that.

Very specifically, here's what I want in my Mac:
  • 1x processor socket, with support for up to Core 2 Quad, and several processor options
  • 4x RAM slots, with support for 2gb dimms, and maximum of 8gb ram
  • 2x PCIe x16 slots, for hardcore video if I want it
  • 1x PCIe x8 or x4 slot for other PCIe cards
  • 2x PCI slots (because most IO cards are still PCI)
  • 2x 3.5" hard drive bays
  • 2x 5" external bays for optical drives
  • A good looking (or concealed) media card reader,; and front panel audio, USB, and firewire
  • Either the cheapest possible PCIe card, or cheap onboard video
  • Onboard surround sound, with analog and digital inputs and outputs
  • I'd love a BluRay option, but a DVD burner standard is a minimum
  • I'd love an HDTV tuner and video in/DVR option; and an HDMI output
  • Integrated bluetooth
  • Integrated 802.11n wireless
  • Integrated Gigabit ethernet
  • A really nice toolless case, with good cooling, and excellent sound insulation
You might note something with those specs... They're exactly what every other mid/high end PC on the market has. In fact, they're basically the same specs as my main desktop, and my wifes main desktop (we both have BluRay, but neither has wireless N, or Bluetooth built in)

Why isn't Apple doing this? It wouldn't cost them anything, except maybe a bit of pride.

Given the marketing position it wouldn't hurt MacMini sales, and I doubt it would cannibalize the bottom end of MacPro sales. You could sell them for $1000 to $2000, capture a huge market segment, and not lose a dime off the iMac or MacPro

Seriously, if Apple offered something like that, I'd buy it up in a heartbeat. In fact, as of today, I can buy a generic PC configured as above; and presuming I choose the right components (for driver support) put OSX Leopard on it with the help of the hackintosh community. I can even pay a company called Psystar to do it for me at a base price of $1000, and fully optioned up price with a quad core, and 8 gigs of RAM, at about $1500 (they also offer low end models starting at $399).

The only reason I don't do this, is because at any moment, Apple could decide to change their software to completely break all of these unsupported hacks, and then I'd be up the creek (of course I could still use the hardware for windows or Linux, I'd only be out the cash I ponied up for Mac software).

... Well, not quite the only reason. I also want a REAL MAC. I want the excellent support, and I want the well designed case, and I want the "EVERYTHING JUST WORKS" factor going for me.

Until Steve sees the light and gives me what I need though, at best I'm going to use a hackintosh to play with, or maybe ebay a cheap MacMini.