What Apple Did Not Release

I am not going to go over the new hardware being brought out by Apple.  Fanboys are already cooing over the new iPhones.  But something – something that flew under the radar to all but techies – is about to substantially alter the power and cost of computing.

To those following the Apple event, one item was missing: the Mac Mini.  The Mac Mini was and is Apple's desktop option for those who want to buy just the core computer and provide their own monitor, speakers, keyboard, et al.  In its heyday (the 2012 Server Model), the Mac Mini offered an option of a quad-core (eight-thread) model, which could be easily upgraded by the user in RAM and storage.  On top of that, it was an elegant, lightweight, small-form factor gem.

Though it used a laptop CPU, it was highly powerful with great specs and was much loved by techies, who tended to shy away from Apple products as a rule.  The 2012 quad-core Mac Mini attracted geeks – as it was the one Apple model that allowed users to tinker.

In 2014, Apple's new and "improved" model dropped the quad-core option, soldered in the RAM, and made storage upgrades more difficult.  Mac Mini aficionados were furious.  For the past three years, they have been waiting for Apple to undo the insult and to upgrade the Mac Mini back to its quad-core glory days.  Instead, Apple has let the Mac Mini rot – and still sells it with underpowered, out-of-date fourth-generation Haswell chip technology.

The usual explanation is that Apple does not want to offer a cheap alternative to people buying its highly profitable iMacs.  But there is more to it than that.

In March 2017, AMD released the Ryzen line of chips, which came loaded with an impressive number of cores and could compete with Intel high-end chips for far less money.

AMD has unexpectedly released details of its first three Ryzen microprocessors which, it claims, will offer better performance at half the price or more of rival Intel products and will be available to order next Thursday.

Intel's high-end chips still held some minor advantages on single-core performance, but often this came with horrific price differentials.

[A]n expensive, eight-core Intel Core i7 6900K CPU is similar in speed to an AMD Ryzen 1800X CPU but the AMD processor costs less than half as much! That's revolutionary and disruptive ... to some people.

Again, this depended on whether or not single-core versus multi-core performance was in mind.

AMD really threw a sucker-punch at Intel earlier this year.  This immediately became obvious when techies started building Ryzen Hackintoshes.  Intel was out of the game.

However, Intel had promised to come back, and it looks as though the comeback will be another game-changer.

Intel's new Coffee Lake – modified Kaby Lake – chips will have a major increase in cores.

The Core i5-8600K will cost $300, which is a lot more expensive than the current Core i5-7600K's $240. However, you get more L3 cache and the core count goes up to six cores from four, which will likely mean it outperforms the current mainstream flagship, the [higher end, four-core] Core i7-7700K by big margins, despite costing less.

The Coffee Lake chips have a massive performance boost.  This comes not only in desktop chips, but also in low-power laptop chips – the sort of chips found in the Mac Mini.

[Intel] boasts that the new [eighth generation U-series] chips, which are refreshed models of the seventh-generation "Kaby Lake" chips can perform up to 40 percent faster than the original seventh generation Kaby Lake chips. In computer processor terms, a 40 percent jump in performance over the previous generation is a significant leap.

Performance differentials like this have real-world meaning.  Entry-level eighth-generation i3 chips will soon approximate today's 7th-generation mid-range i5 chips.  And, as noted above, a mid-range i5 may soon outperform today's high-end i7 chip, and for less money.

The chip wars are on.  And it is in this area of low-power laptop and small-form factor computers that it may be noticed the most.

Quad-core U-series chips from Intel will enable a much more powerful computing experience on a very low power platform. This can only mean faster, thinner and lighter devices. The performance difference might be so huge, in fact, that it will be worth waiting a few months until newer devices are available on this platform. We'd go so far as to say that this new chip might completely undermine the existing laptop market. a 40 percent performance bump is no joke.

This brings us back to the Mac Mini, which uses those low-power chips.  Had Apple released a Mac Mini on September 12, with a seventh-generation Kaby Lake chip, it would be assuredly obsolete in just a few months as the eighth-generation chips come online.  However, Apple has been known to do this.  The release of the 2015 21" iMac with an obsolete Broadwell chip comes to mind.  Such a release would have purchased Apple some time while appearing to offer something new.

But more importantly, if Apple now releases the Mac Mini in Spring 2018 with these newer workhorse Coffee Lake chips, there is a real possibility that an updated Mac Mini will approach the performance of some recent iMacs, which cost thousands more.  Apple cannot afford to release a budget computer that approximates or outperforms its star seller, at least in processes that are not graphics-intensive.

Even more worrisome is the rumored upgrade of Intel's own small-form factor computer, the Skull Canyon, to eighth-generation CPUs.  The present Skull Canyon with a sixth-generation CPU had mixed reviews.  It was a powerhouse, but it had some heating and noise issues.  Expect the newer model Skull Canyon to have many of these bugs worked out and to be loaded up with these new high-performance chips.

But what about the graphics on these chips?  Since these chips are used on laptops or small-form factor computers, they often have to rely on integrated graphics, with no recourse to graphics cards.

[C]hanges to the integrated graphics are expected to be minor, so graphics performance should remain similar to existing models.

Realistically, most people, except gamers and high-end video editors, do not need graphics cards.  The integrated graphics (iGPU) on most chips is more than sufficient.  I can easily do photo-editing on my 2011 computer with only an anemic 512MB of integrated graphics.  Plus the extra power of these new chip CPUs should compensate regarding any graphics demands.  Unless you are doing high-end video or running games, these new eighth-generation chips will make obsolete a considerable portion of today's hardware.

Apple may be faced with releasing a Mac Mini that approximates far more expensive iMacs that are only two or three years old – except for graphics-intensive processes that really need the dedicated graphics card.  Apple may foolishly decide to drop the Mac Mini altogether, since the Intel Skull Canyon seems to be tooling up to corner the market.  Or Apple may have to re-imagine the Mac Mini, no longer as a budget model, but as higher-end modular system – akin to the HP Elite Slice.

The broader issue is that with these new chips – unless one is doing 4K movie editing – buying desktop hardware may be pointless.  The lower-power chips may be sufficient, and one may be best advised to buy a laptop or small-form factor computer and attach it to an external monitor – if not with Coffee Lake, then with the anticipated Cannon Lake.  The age of desktops looks to be over.

This cannot be lost on Apple.  As core counts increase, the consumer will best be served with low-power units/NUCs or laptops.

Ultimately, it may be the iMac, not the Mac Mini, that should be made obsolete.  A modified Mac Mini may be Apple's best response to the new technology, but only if Apple re-imagines it as a modular system, not as a low-cost product.

Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who wishes he had availed himself more fully of the opportunity to learn Spanish in high school, lo those many decades ago.  He writes on the Arabs of South America at http://latinarabia.com.  He also just started a website about small computers at http://minireplacement.com.