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ATPM 11.06
June 2005

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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by David Blumenstein, dblumenstein@atpm.com

Mac mini—The Modular Tower of Power

I want a Mac mini, and I want it now! Why now? Because what I really want is a low-power, low-price modular workstation that can be deconstructed and reconstructed at will. I have come across an aftermarket peripheral that made me not only revise my ideas about the Mac mini, but also contact peripheral manufacturers about building new products based on the platform.

Micronet has just introduced its line of external hard drives designed specifically with the Mac mini in mind. The miniMates range from 80 GB to 400 GB in storage capacity and sport an additional four USB and two FireWire ports. The beauty of these devices is in the design of their enclosures and how they mirror the Mac mini’s physical design and footprint.

Why it took so long for a vendor to come out with such an enclosure for an external hard drive is beyond me. I would have thought that within the first month of the Mac mini’s release a raft of storage-system vendors would have flooded the market with similar devices and at least one or two RAID systems for heavy-duty applications. The Mac mini does not get enough credit. It is more than adequate in its stock configurations to run business and consumer applications, and when the maximum RAM is added, it will be up to the user to determine its limitations.

A short time had passed since the introduction of the miniMate, and I started to receive notices about newer, faster, fully featured 8x DVD SuperDrive upgrades. An upgrade would mean replacing rather than adding a second drive. I did not like the sound of that. Rather than replace the existing SuperDrive, I contacted someone at MCE, who sent me a press release about its upgrade service and inquired as to whether or not MCE could design an enclosure matching the style and dimensions of the Mac mini and get the product on the market before the end of the year, hopefully sooner.

The MCE press representative was intrigued by my request, that a member of the public was suggesting a new design/product for the company. Apparently, it does not happen too often, and this is no doubt the reason that the peripheral marketplace is flooded with devices possessing very short life spans. He wrote me that he was going to share my concept with the appropriate people in engineering, but prior to doing so had some questions:

Before I do that, though, please help me understand why you would prefer to go the route you’ve indicated here versus, say, a Power Mac G5 or perhaps a refurbished Power Mac G4, which are designed with expandability in mind?

I responded (paraphrasing):

I want a modular workstation. I do not want a hulking Power Mac G5/G4 tower taking up so much physical space and not allowing for any true sense of portability. I am not a power user to the extent that I need and can make use of the raw processing speed of a Power Mac G5/G4 tower. I want a stackable system—where components can be easily swapped in and out—while still maintaining the sleek look and design of the overall system.

My ideal Mac mini configuration would have the most powerful processor, maximum amount of RAM, largest internal hard drive, and fastest SuperDrive, all from Apple. This would then be augmented with a 400 GB Micronet miniMate and an external 8x SuperDrive in an appropriate enclosure from whichever manufacturer gets one out there first, and then, of course, I would add Plasticsmith’s mini Skirt glo for visual effect. Plasticsmith recently announced the mini Shack, housing a seven-port USB 2.0 hub, which, in the case of my configuration, would be overkill.

As I await the external SuperDrive and its enclosure, I looked around my apartment and wondered what ports I would need on the Mac mini to make it the centerpiece of an audio/video entertainment center. To start, it would need to have optical audio in/out, HD (high definition) out, a game controller port, and support for the 7.1 audio format. It would be a challenge as Apple has not really focused on this area, and as such it will be up to the end user to make the necessary modifications to make this vision a reality.

Computers and technology are all about freedom and mobility today. The Mac mini, in the configuration outlined above, can be everything I need it to be. It should be up to me and not Apple as to how I decide to make use of technology. Vendors, instead of questioning the motivations of users, should be embracing them as opportunities to provide new products and services that are actually being requested by members of the public, the Macintosh user base.

Practically speaking, when a component becomes obsolete or simply stops working, it becomes a matter of upgrading or repairing. Work does not have to stop because the entire system has come to a halt and requires it be brought in for repair. I would like to think that by this time the concept of real-time backup and auto archiving has taken hold. And, when a new, more powerful Mac mini becomes available and I purchase one, it would be nice to think I could hold onto the original unit as a backup to be neatly slotted into the system, should the situation arise.

I envision the modular system much like the Lego building blocks of my youth. I can build the system up and take it down at will. Nothing in my design is fanciful; all of the parts and peripherals exist. Now that one company has started to design cases with the Mac mini in mind, the floodgates will be open. Recent history shows us that the peripherals market is strong, very strong, and now it is just a matter of making ones that make common sense. Enough of the frivolous hardware add-ons and countless iPod accessories; let’s get back to concentrating on the computers themselves and where they can take us—and we them.

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