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?


  • And Greg, I will have to concede 9” probably wouldn’t accommodate my grunty requirements. Your maths is better than my optimism. smile

    Hopefully a C2D could/will be done in a 10” unit, even if it means conceding on thickness and therefore a little on weight too.

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

    Then you’re no longer talking about a budget Mac, and you’re not talking about a netbook either.  You’re basically talking about a more powerful Macbook Air, and like I said, that means it’s going to be more expensive than the MBA.  Which is not a budget Mac, not even by Apple standards.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • Beeb, it *does not* have to be a MacBook Air (tho apple would do that, wouldn’t they?). That’s got expensive, smart-ass design that is solely to show off Apple’s design and engineering.

    A 10” Core 2 Duo laptop in a block form like the MacBooks *should* be possible without being more expensive than the existing bottom of the range MacBook.

    Apple until a few years ago made 12” laptops in both the consumer and pro ranges. These were fully specced, including optical drives.

    The 12” Powerbook was 1.18 x 10.9 x 8.6 inches and 4.6lbs (2.1kg)

    The 12” iBook was 1.35 x 11.2 x 9.6 inches and 4.9lbs (2.2kg)

    Those are interesting when compared to a Dell mini 10: 1.1 x 10.3 x 7.2 inches and 2.6lbs (1.2kg) with 3-cell battery.

    Those numbers are not that much smaller than those 12” Apples.

    When you consider no optical drive, and that components have gotten smaller in the last few years… I reckon it can be done. We’re just being had.

    Why tho? Coz if say HP or Dell brought out a netbook with C2D, what would happen? It’d cannibalize their laptop and desktop sales.

    Keeping netbooks as underpowered niche/limited devices means vendors get to sell you two computers instead of one.

    And for that reason, I have to admit defeat. I can see now Apple will never give us a powerful netbook. Damn.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 05, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • I’m not sure they care that it cannibalizes their high-end products or that they care about that sort of thing.  I just think that more power while keeping costs low and battery life in tact is a pretty tall order.

    And on the Apple netbook, we’ll just have agree to disagree.  I think a powerful netbook simply isn’t in the cards - more speed for less money just isn’t their style whether it’s technically possible or not.  I’m just hoping for one that’s cheap and usable.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 06, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • “more speed for less money just isn’t their style”

    Quite true. I guess they’ve screwed up a bit with the Air then, because what envisage would be a (slightly) less powerful and cheaper MacBook.

    But because of the Air, everyone would compare it to that instead. And so you’d get the problem you present, i.e. a cheaper more powerful alternative to the Air.

    I suppose Apple could ditch the Air, wait a month or three, then release a 10” MacBook. Is the Air selling enough anyway?

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 06, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • There is one very good thing about having hundreds of PC companies (even if most people buy standard brands). If it’s possible, SOMEONE would have built the exact type of computer you are after (except it would run Windows). Have they?

    I’m starting to think your description is a little frankenstein-like. Don’t want the good looks of the MacBook Air, cobble something cheaper together, let it be thicker than normal… perhaps it’ll look like the original Mac Portable!?

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 06, 2009 Posts: 228
  • lol. No, it’d look exactly like a small (10”) white MacBook.

    Have searched and not yet found anyone making my ideal netbook. But as I say, I don’t think they want to sell one device when they can sell two.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 06, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • Greg, I was going to post almost exactly the same thing you did.  If you want it, and it’s possible, then it’s probably out there already running Linux or Windows.  The fact that it isn’t leads me to believe that it isn’t technically feasible yet.

    I don’t think there’s a grand conspiracy here.  Just because Dell might not want to cannibalize their own high-end line (a claim I find dubious wink) doesn’t mean that someone out there wouldn’t take advantage of the hole in the market.

    But right now I think a speedy netbook would mean a) less battery life, b) more heat/weight, and c) more expensive.  And all of those things take away from what makes the netbook so appealing to most consumers.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 06, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • Beeb and Greg, I am going to have to concede to you two. You are right and my ideal netbook is just a pipedream that I do need to let go of.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 06, 2009 Posts: 1209
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