What Would a Budget Mac Look Like?

by Chris Howard May 04, 2009

AppleInsider is reporting that Apple could be about to release a budget Mac. Rumor is it could be a budget Mac mini, iMac, or MacBook. Which raises questions about what to expect.

What price?
When Apple says (or implies) "never", you can pencil it in that it's working on said improbable device. In reference to cheap Macs, Apple has implied it's not possible, suggesting, for instance, that a $500 computer would be junk.

Yet are we about to see a Mac for $500 or less?

Apple's current cheapest desktop computer is the $599 Mac mini. Over at Dell, the cheapest dual core desktops without a monitor are $399 and over at HP, its start at $349.

That clearly gives Apple a lot of space to move, but does mean it will likely have to go below it's stated $500 junk-level.

Sidetracking briefly to talk in Aussie dollars (as it makes more sense to me), the cheaper Mac mini costs AU$1049. How much would a cheap Mac have to cost to consider it worthwhile? AU$700? AU$750? I think the latter would be fine. That's just a touchy-feely guesstimate; me as a budget shopper looking for a bargain Mac; what I'd be comfortable with; what I'd expect for a Mac that would still be half-decent.

At AU$750, that equates to 28.6%. And as a price difference, that would probably sit comfortably with Apple. For example, the difference between the cheaper aluminium MacBook, and the cheapest MacBook Pro is 35%. And if you go down to the budget MacBook, the difference is 50%.

Back in US dollars, that 28.6% means $171. So lets call it US$429 for a budget Mac.

How would you feel if Apple made a Mac for $429? And what would you expect of it?

If we knocked a similar percentage off the iMac, we get one for around US$859. And if we talked MacBooks, you're looking around US$719.

The laptop might be possible, but an $859 iMac would clearly threaten the upper Mac mini market, so it'd either be a no-go, or have to be a bit dearer, say $899.

What form?
Lets talk form before features, since that's easy to speculate.

Before anyone starts salivating at the prospect of a whole new form factor for a budget Mac, that is headless and with slots for card expansion, so something like a PC, it's not gonna happen unless Apple radically changes its philosophy.

Why is the MacPro the only Mac you can upgrade with add on cards? Because Apple knows two things:
1) Pro users aren't going to stick any old junk add-on hardware in their Macs
2) Consumers will.

Number one means Apple isn't risking having the Windows-like problem of a bajillion crap hardware add-ons and their drivers causing computer instability.

Number two would be the exact opposite. A cheap headless Mac with room for expansion cards would mean a flood of crap cheap-ass cards that would crash your Mac a lot more than you are used to.

If you notice, you actually can't get a Mac of any kind for under $1999 that takes expansion cards. So minis, iMacs, and MacBooks don't let you install expansion cards. It's only the pro Macs that allow that.

Clearly, a budget Mac is not going to be expandable except for memory and hard disk - and you can bet that that won't be easy. Look how hard it is with Mac minis.

And, more obviously, Apple is not going to spend money retooling for a different form factor. So whether a budget Mac mini, iMac or MacBook, it will still be the same form.

Oh - hang on. One exception: the MacBook. If Apple wants to dabble in the netbook market, it could make a 12" MacBook, which is a size that other manufacturers (although stretching the friendship) claim as netbooks. And as long as it doesn't skimp on CPU or graphics, it could still claim to be a laptop.

What features?
Features wise, lets start with the iMac, for reasons that will become apparent, because regards the iMac, I can be quite specific about its features:

Display: 20 inch
CPU: 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo 1066MHz frontside bus 3MB shared L2 cache
Hard drive: 160GB Serial ATA, 7200 rpm
Optical drive: 8x double-layer SuperDrive (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 9400M with 128MB of shared DDR3 memory

It's rather easy to make such a specific prediction as that machine already exists and is already sold by Apple at US$899. However, it's only available to educational institutions.

Just as Apple took the original eMac to the people, so it could do the same with that iMac. It would be so easy for Apple that it could do so before I even write my next piece in two days time (as there's a Tuesday inbetween, Apple's favorite day to make announcements).

When it comes to a budget Mac mini though, it's a little tougher. Those specs, - sans the display - are almost the same as the current cheap Mac mini, except it has a smaller, slower hard drive. So how can Apple cut back on that?

It could cut back the ports, the CPU speed, the hard drive, the graphics and use slower memory, but I'm not sure that it could get down to that $429 price without cutting margins. Instead, Apple might have to look at the $499 price point.

The skimping issues also applies to the MacBook, although it could also halve the memory. And the option of a 12" display could reduce the cost too.

You can probably bet on a budget iMac, it's siimply a matter of when. The budget MacBook and Mac mini though are less of a chance of happening, but still at least 50/50.

At the end of the day though, Apple only has one question: would you buy a budget Mac now, whether a cheap iMac, Mac mini, or cheaper-still MacBook, instead of putting off your next Mac until better times?


  • I guess it’s possible, but I can’t see Apple doing it.

    I mean you’re talking about the current MacBook white, but with smaller screen and no DVD (hence a bit cheaper). Since it would still be a similar size to the MB (to avoid cost increase), the smaller screen would look quite odd - cheap when compared to screens that go closer to the edges. Though I do get the focus on the external screen & agree that’s a useful idea for some people, the external screen adds considerable expense for those that do it that way.

    ie: It sounds more like an answer that would suit you, but not a lot of people.

    ps. I’m trying to balance the cost/size stuff. Many people seemed to think that the MBA shouldn’t have been more expensive (AND slower!)... but smaller sizes at the same speeds really do cost a lot more.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 228
  • Oops, sorry, Greg, the whole unit would be scaled down, not just the screen.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • By your preference, you’d be happy for a cost increase to get the size decrease while maintaining speed?

    That’s what I mean about trade offs.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 228
  • No, I was expecting Apple to sell such a unit for US$799 or so, that is $200 cheaper than the 13” MacBook.

    Is that not possible? Would the cost of design and retooling for a 9” MacBook drive the cost up from the 13” MacBook?

    I know you said “but smaller sizes at the same speeds really do cost a lot more”. That applies if Apple wants to get *show-offy* on design, as it did with the Air.

    But if applied otherwise, then MacBooks would be dearer than MacBook Pros, and Mac minis dearer than Mac Pros.

    Apple used to do a 12” iBook and a 12” PowerBook. The smaller ones weren’t dearer than than their larger sibilings.

    I know 9” is a big come down from 13”, but Apple already has a small enough motherboard with the right specs in the Mac mini. Yes, they’d have to cut some height, and it’d be a tight squeeze and probably wouldn’t be user upgradeable at all, but I can’t see why the price would have to go through the roof.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • It is a balance.
    If Apple can take the existing chips, hard disk, battery, & other components of the MacBook, and by changing the layout (and removing the DVD) fit it into a 9” form - then the price wouldn’t need to change. In fact, the smaller screen will be cheaper & draw a little less power.

    Lets do the maths actually… ignoring thickness.. MacBook, dimensions 115 square inches. Lets say the DVD is 5.5” square (which is being over generous). So we need to fit everything else into our reconfigured 85 square inches. The resulting smaller MacBook would be 11x7.7 inches (instead of 12.8x9).

    Keeping everything in proportion, that’s a 11.4” screen (instead of 13.3” screen). Of course that assumes the current parts just in a smaller casing (without the DVD). Just as thick too. You would save a little on removing the DVD, but I doubt the screen would be much cheaper. So overall, not a huge cost savings.

    If you want the pieces themselves to get smaller then the cost ramps up (like the MBA).

    ps. if there was much spare space in a MacBook already, then they would have made it thinner!

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 228
  • pps. Your comment about the MacBook Pro and MacBook having similar internals does make me curious. I’m really not sure what the internal differences are - besides the graphics card and larger battery, so you may have something there in that there are spaces in the design that can be exploited.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 228
  • ps. I’m trying to balance the cost/size stuff.

    That’s the rub.  With Apple, it seems like you get to pick from these three things:  cheap, powerful, small.  You can have one or two of these, but you never get all three.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • And I’d take powerful and small in this case.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • I personally prefer cheap over powerful.  And as far as Apple goes, I’d say powerful is much less likely anyway.  What you’re essentially talking about is a more powerful Macbook Air, but that would imply it costing way more than the MBA already does.  That’s the wrong direction for what we’re discussing here. 

    So you’d have to be looking at giving up power in exchange for scale and cost.  A budget Mac is therefore going to have to be minimal in terms of processor, but probably a respectable scale (8” or so) and higher than average netbook price, but less than a Macbook, probably in the Mac mini price range.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • the problem with Air, and what makes it expensive, is the design.

    Apple should be able to take a Mac mini and stick it in a 9” polycarbonate MacBook for US$799, or maybe a little more.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • You can’t just squash the internals of a MacMini down. You’re presuming the internals are all open space? Taking out the DVD does save some space. Remember the hard disk needs to go somewhere, it needs to have a battery, etc.

    By your logic, Apple should be using the MacMini internals in the MacBook now, so they can save some space and make the MacBook thinner for no increase in cost.

    I take it that means you disagree with my size calculations?

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 228
  • I did, but not convinced. The optimist in me says it can be done.

    So how do current 9” netbooks do it? Do the Atom processor and gma make that much difference?

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • But Chris, if you’re mostly interested in web and word processing, why sacrifice price for power?  Power in most netbooks is adequate for that stuff.  They run about $300. 

    For that matter, why not Linux or Windows and you’ll basically have the machine you want today without having to wait for Apple to figure out post facto ways of justifying doubling the price.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • Yes, if you can sacrifice some speed you can make things smaller (and cheaper). It makes a LOT of difference.

    The Atom processor is designed for tiny devices, it was its entire purpose. It’s not as powerful of course. If Intel could have squeezed the C2D into the same tiny devices then there’d be a few companies doing it.

    For years laptops have tried to get rid of any bulk they can. If they could simply be smaller they would be already.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 228
  • ah, Beeb, but I’m talking about *me*, not the populace. They can have their email/web/word processing netbooks. But I want one that can run Creative Suite whether attached to a large screen, or down the coffee shop. Hence I want powerful but small.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 1209
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