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?


  • Sub $500 USD Mac?  Easy.

    Take current 2Ghz Mac mini.

    Remove FW800 port.
    Remove Optical Drive.

    Voila $499 and a better solution for multi Mac households.

    hmurchison had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 145
  • Most of your discussion assumes that a “budget Mac” must be a desktop.  With notebooks now handily outselling desktops, and with the recent surge in popularity of netbooks, I would think that any analysis of a budget Mac should be focused on a portable of some sort.

    I know the Mac Netbook topic has been beaten to death, about as much as a mid-range Mac tower, but I just can’t see Apple undercutting the Mac Mini.  The Mac Mini *is* the budget Mac desktop, but Apple currently isn’t competing in the sub-$1000(US) notebook market.  I believe they could do that and still maintain very healthy margins.

    Perhaps it’s time for a slash to the prices of the entire MacBook line, bringing the white MacBook down to $799.

    cwa107 had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 15
  • The Mac Mini *is* the budget Mac desktop, but Apple currently isn’t competing in the sub-$1000(US) notebook market.

    I agree.  The Mac mini is only a couple of hundred bucks above where it should be to quality as a true budget Mac.  That, unfortunately, is probably about as close as we are going to get from Apple.  The mid-range expandable desktop is a pipe dream, albeit one I cling to.

    The new space is the netbook or sub-notebook market.  I hope they venture into this area, although there’s no chance they’ll sell one at $300.  Maybe $500?  That could be tempting I suppose.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • I don’t think Apple will introduce any budget Macs. Doing so would disrupt their current system of features and price points. Worst of all, a budget Mac would probably be adequate for customers who currently buy higher end models. Show someone that they don’t need as much as they think they do and your chances of ever up-selling them again are slim.

    The better response for Apple is to improve the value of their existing lineup. There are simple things Apple could do without affecting their bottom line much.

    1. Include more RAM. Since most PC manufacturers have stopped advertising processor speed (they just use processor model numbers) this has become the most obvious number for customers to compare. Macs, particularly at the low end, always look anemic in this area. Consumers are being told that 2 or 4GB of RAM is necessary these days so a machine with only 1 looks like a joke.

    2. Include bigger hard drives. Hard drive capacity is now up there with RAM as a top comparison item and is another one where Apple routinely loses. 500 GB notebook drives are very inexpensive, I just bought one in an external case for just $99.

    3. Include better graphics chips. This will be increasingly important after Snow Leopard ships. Programmers will be able to off-load many computations to the GPU meaning that a powerful GPU may become equally or even more important than a powerful CPU.

    Even today there are really only two types of customers, those who only need basic integrated graphics and those who see the GPU as an important component. There is no room for low end chips like the GT120 that Apple uses in the iMac and Mac Pro. Putting what is essentially a $50 card into a $2500 workstation is insulting.

    All three of those components are continuously dropping in price on the open market. Apple should be able to take advantage of those changes and add value to their Mac lineup without hurting their margins.

    4. Lower upgrade prices on the Apple Store. Apple could own the RAM/HD upgrade market, but they’ve ceded it to third parties by charging way too much. Mac Pro hard drives are THREE TIMES the price of identical hard drives in my local PC store.

    Bregalad had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 14
  • My first thoughts are
    1) Can the MacMini learn anything from the AppleTV internals - to get a cheaper price? Remember the AppleTV can run regular OSX (apparently.. slowly..)
    2) What’s a realistic slower chip speed? I’d use the next MBA as the bare minimum (today it’s 1.6Ghz.).

    So yeah, we can’t just add a DisplayPort and extra USB ports to an AppleTV, it’s too slow, but it’s where I’d start. MacBook Airs are more expensive because they use the smallest parts - a cheaper MacMini or MacBook could use regular parts but drop to those same speeds.

    I’d really like Apple to go an entirely different direction though
    * Make OSX offer terminal services - so that your average iMac can support 3 concurrent users
    * Sell 17inch terminals that look like iMacs but are really a big/sophisticated graphics chip
    * Sell iPhone OS Netbooks which have limited apps, but which can also run as a Mac via a terminal when at home or work (or perhaps also when on the road via BackToMyMac?)

    Anyone with an existing >2Ghz Mac could upgrade to SnowLeopard, and buy a terminal for wife, kids, whoever. But unfortunately, the current remote control for OSX doesn’t cut it.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 228
  • So yeah, we can’t just add a DisplayPort and extra USB ports to an AppleTV, it’s too slow, but it’s where I’d start.

    I’d start with an existing Asus or Acer netbook and look for ways to improve it.  We already know that OSX will run on them, and since Apple isn’t all that interested in speed or performance at the low-end, then they could look at ways to improve the design, which is what they do well.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • Yeah, starting with cheap netbooks and working upwards also works.
    The main thing is I’d start by working from cheap machines upscaled, not expensive downscaled. Using their own technology has its advantages IMO.

    Though of course exploring from all angles is worthwhile!

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 228
  • Guys, some great ideas in there! And I’m sure we all liked Bregalad’s suggestion to give us better value for what Apple already sells.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • We all know I’m against netbooks. However, I’v been thinking, my real issue is they’re underpowered. I want a netbook that could run Adobe Creative Suite. CS4 requires a 2GHz processor and decent graphics.

    I don’t think any vendor offers a netbook with that sort of grunt, esp in the smaller screen sizes.

    If Apple made a 9inch netbook with that sort of grunt, I’d actually buy one.

    Why? Why am I turning hypocrite? After all the bagging I’ve done of netbooks? Simple. It could double as my desktop. Connect my 22” display and I’d be happy (provided it also had at least 3 USB ports).

    Dell’s netbooks have Atom processors and Intel GMA graphics. Likewise HP.

    Netbooks at the moment are an additional computer but if it could replace my desktop with a powerful very portable device, I’d be there.

    The future of netbooks needs to be high powered coz currently their usage is neutered and greatly restricted.

    So Apple, a MacBook with 9” display, Intel Core 2 Duo 2GHz CPU, 120GB HDD, NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics, 2GB RAM, 4 USB ports all for US$799, and you’d sell zillions, and even one to me.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • oh, and those specs would also make them much more useful to students as schools could provide a monitor for classroom usage, and mum and dad could provide the same at home.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • Are you saying you’d rather they actually reduced the size while increasing the power and the price?

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 228
  • no, those specs are actually the same as the white MacBook (except the 4 USBs - thought he white Macbook has a firewire which is really good).

    So it’s just a screen size reduction.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • and, obviously, the 9” wouldn’t include an optical drive.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • So kind of like the size of a 13” Macbook, but a little smaller (say 11.5”) due to internal space savings from no optical drive. No attempt to use smaller parts at higher cost (like MBA) - except for a 9” screen thus a little bit cheaper?

    Greg Alexander had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 228
  • Yeah, so something that would still be good for more than just email, web and word processing - esp with a monitor attached. smile

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 04, 2009 Posts: 1209
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