Mac Studio is mythical

Apple’s announcement of Mac Studio on Tuesday may have fulfilled a dream that some Mac users have been clinging to for a few decades. Finally, there is a modular desktop Mac that is more powerful than the Mac mini without bearing the high price of the Mac Pro.

Back in the 90s and early 2000s, using a Power Mac meant being a Mac nerd. The arrival of the original iMac in 1998 was met with enthusiasm by Mac geeks because it meant that Steve Jobs might be able to restore Apple to greatness after it was founded in the mid-90s – but none of them would ever bow to using one themselves.

When Jobs returned to Apple, he oversaw a dramatic and necessary simplification of the product line. Desktop Power Mac, a go-to model for super users, disappeared in 1998. The options fell to the understated iMac (and later the Mac mini) at one end and the increasingly expensive Power Mac / Mac Pro tower at the other.

At times, at least for Mac power users, it was a desert. And rising out of the desert was a glorious mirage: a mythical middle-class Mac mini-tower like the old Power Macs. This legendary creature was known as the xMac.

Range anxiety about computers

It’s hard to pinpoint when and where the grumbling about Apple’s lack of a mid-range Mac desktop started, but they’re at least 20 years old. ONE 2005 Ars Technica post by John Siracusa suggests that it was invented in that site’s Mac forums in 2001 or earlier.

Either way, the abolition of the desktop Power Mac seemed to create a community of Mac users who felt trapped between the iMac and the larger and more expensive Power Mac tower. They appeared on Internet forums and in threads linked to stories of new Apple hardware.

The introduction of the Mac mini in 2005 provided a clearer focus on frustration. In his post, Siracusa dismissed the Mac mini as too limited to be a proper alternative to an expensive Power Mac, and expressed its desire for an affordable modular Mac with configurable specifications:

Here’s what I want. Start with a choice of two possible CPUs: the fastest single CPU Apple sells and the second fastest. In modern terms, these would both be dual core CPUs. The internal expansion buses should also be top-of-the-line, but with less capacity than the Power Mac …. Build-on-order options should span the entire range of each item that can be configured.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the xMac. My xMac. The Mac I want to buy. Reduced to one sentence it is one complete configurable, headless Mac that swaps expansion options for reduced size and price.

[…] but I would be happy for a compromise: a fully configurable headless Mac that swaps expansion options for reduced size and price. Call it Power Mac mini, make it cheaper and faster than at least one Power Mac model, and give the “deluxe” version the fastest available single CPU. It would still cannibalize some Power Mac sales, but it would also provide the opportunity to sell off iMac and (especially) Mac mini customers. It could still be a net victory.

Siracusa was happy to swap out expansion options, but for many users, it was impossible to detach the desire for the xMac from the desire for a modular PC-like Mac. In 2007 Macworld‘s Dan Frakes wrote his own article dreaming of a mid-range desktop Macand though he was very enthusiastic about the view, he also made this important point about the mistake of it all:

The reality in the computer market is that the percentage of people actually upgrading their computers in addition to adding RAM is quite small. But at the same time, many of the people who will never upgrade their computers still believe that they will upgrade their computers – or at least want the security and comfort of knowing that they could.

The truth hurts. Buyers of electric cars will prioritize range and charging network notwithstanding the fact that 95 percent of vehicle trips are 30 miles or less – and nearly 60 percent are less than six. Computer upgrade anxiety was a thing long before EV rank anxiety existed.

 

 

 

Power Macintosh G3 beige desktops, a tower, a pedestal computer, with large CRT screens.

 

 

 

 

25 years ago, Apple built medium-sized modular desktops for super users.
Image: Apple

 

Of course, the last two decades have almost completely eliminated the concept of upgradeable technology, especially on Apple devices. What’s built into current Macs is what they want – processor, memory, storage and GPU – forever. Only the ultra-expensive Mac Pro offers upgrade options. (And how much of it will be left when it makes the transition to Apple silicon? Only Apple knows for sure, but the evidence so far suggests it will be little to nothing.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Page one of Macworld’s five-page Hackintosh story.
Photo by Jason Snell

 

So what should an xMac fan do? Many of them tried to build Hackintoshes, custom Intel PCs that used Apple-compatible parts that macOS could install on. In 2008, a company called Psystar tried to sell macOS compatible minitowersdirectly to consumers, just to be sued in oblivion by Apple.

Same year, Macworld‘s Rob Griffiths explained his building of a “Frankenmac” (a synonym for Hackintosh, we used to avoid incurring Apple’s anger) in this way: “I do not want or need a machine with a built-in monitor, I do not need the power from an eight-core Mac Pro, but I want my Mac to be faster and more expandable than a mini. “

Mac users longed for something more. Macworld the magazine dedicated five physical pages to a story about buying a Psystar clone and building a Hackintosh, all to create a Mac that Apple refused to make.

The Hackintosh community never really died; there is still YouTube tutorials shows you how to make one. However, the Mac’s move away from Intel means that the Hackintosh era is nearing an end in the next few years.

2013 Mac Pro: Everyone loses

In 2012, xMac fans were thrilled when Tim Cook responded to an email from an Apple customer named Franz by telling him that a the new Mac Pro was ready in late 2013. The old Mac Pro was long in the tooth. This was definitely a chance for Apple to reconsider the whole idea of ​​a desktop Mac!

Macworld‘s Frakes jumped on the story and gave one updated list of requests for xMac, referring to the huge price difference between Mac mini and Mac Pro. Alas, Frakes found out that the late 2013 Mac Pro was still only for professionals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cylindrical Mac Pro from 2013.
Photo by The Verge

 

Not only did the Mac Pro not like the amount of xMac, it also lacked real internal expansion capabilities and had serious thermal issues, leading to a remarkable mea culpa where Apple promised to do better when it released the next version of the Mac Pro. That version aired in late 2019 and starts at $ 6,000.

Waste of a good screen

For the past few decades, the iMac has been the product that spans the line between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro. And forced to buy something, an awful lot of masters of the xMac have ended up buying the iMac. I would argue that this ended up distorting the iMac and forcing it to supports advanced chips and other features it overcomplicated what was supposed to be a friendly consumer all-in-one. With its simple design and bright colors, the M1 iMac is a return to form.

And then there is the waste of the perfectly good screen, which has always gnawed at many xMac proponents. Monitors can last a very long time, and if you are the type who upgrades your computer every two or three years, that means you are throwing out a thoroughly good monitor. It just seems a waste. (Apple briefly offered a feature called Target Display Mode, which allowed you to boot an iMac and use it as a silly external monitor.)

 

 

 

A user is working on the Mac Studio screen.

 

 

 

 

Mac Studio and Studio Display – headless modularity again.
Image: Apple

 

With the launch of not only Mac Studio, but also the new Studio Display – the company’s first new sub- $ 5,000 screen in more than a decade! – it seems that Apple has received this part of the message about the xMac philosophy. Yes, buying a Mac Studio and a separate monitor will cost a lot more than an iMac – but you can at least replace the computer with a new one in a few years. And if you already have a screen at hand, you are already sitting nicely.

Is it a big money saver? Optionally. Is it less waste? Yes a bit. And it meets at least some of the requirements to be a proper xMac.

Requiem for xMac

A funny thing happened on the way to the xMac finally existing: The world went on and left the dream behind. I asked 2005 xMac proponent John Siracusa how he felt about the arrival of Mac Studio. “Sixteen years is a long time,” he said. “If you have the same desire long enough, the world will change and make your desires come into play.”

Today’s Macs, apart from the Intel-based Mac Pro, do not have interchangeable banks of RAM or storage slots or card slots. Not even Mac Studio has them. “The fact that we can not upgrade RAM, we get a huge advantage for it,” Siracusa said last week on his podcast. “Apple does not do it just to be evil. Memory is really, really fast … it makes computers better.”

It can be hard to let go of that computer nerd’s desire to tinker with the interior of a computer, to accept that the benefits we get from a modern, integrated Mac may be worth the PC response as range anxiety. It is difficult to fight human nature.

But if you look past it, you see this: Apple is now selling a computer that is powerful enough to please “power users” but does not start at $ 6,000. It’s not there are still no holes in the row which may need to be completed by a more powerful Mac minibut the decades-long desire of superusers to buy a desktop Mac between Mac mini and Mac Pro has finally been fulfilled.

Even ex-Macworld editor and xMac fan Rob Griffiths, who built the “Frankenmac” at the time, bought a Mac Studio this week. The oasis in the Mac desktop desert? It’s not a mirage anymore.

Updated: March 24, 2022 — 5:42 am

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