The Mac Studio is the fulfillment of a myth

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

In the 90s and early 2000s, being a Mac nerd meant using a Power Mac. The arrival of the original iMac in 1998 was greeted with enthusiasm by Mac nerds, as it meant that Steve Jobs might be able to restore Apple to greatness after its fall in the mid-90s, but none of between them would never stoop to using one himself. .

When Jobs returned to Apple, he presided over a dramatic and necessary simplification of the product line. The desktop Power Mac, a must-have for power users, disappeared in 1998. Choices narrowed to the underpowered iMac (and later Mac mini) on one side, and the tower Power Mac /Mac Pro more and more expensive on the other. .

In between, at least for experienced Mac users, was a desert. And emerging from the desert was a glorious mirage: a mythical mid-range mini-tower Mac like the Power Macs of yore. This legendary creature was known as xMac.

Range anxiety for computers

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and where the grumbling about Apple’s lack of a mid-range Mac desktop computer started, but it’s at least 20 years old. A 2005 Ars-Technica John Siracusa’s post suggests it was coined in the Mac forums on this site in 2001 or earlier.

Either way, the discontinuation of the desktop Power Mac seemed to create a community of Mac users who felt trapped between the iMac and the larger, more expensive Power Mac tower. They spoke out on internet forums and in threads linked to articles about new Apple hardware.

The introduction of the Mac mini in 2005 made it possible to better target the frustration. In his post, Siracusa dismissed the Mac mini as too limited to be a good alternative to an expensive Power Mac, and expressed his desire for an affordable modular Mac with configurable specs:

Here is what I want. Start with a choice of two possible processors: the fastest single processor sold by Apple and the second fastest. In contemporary terms, they would both be dual-core processors. The internal expansion buses should also be top of the line, but with less capacity than the Power Mac…. The build-to-order options should run the gamut for every item that can be configured.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the xMac. My xMac. The Mac I want to buy. Reduced to a sentence, it is a completely Configurable, headless Mac that trades expandability for reduced size and cost.

[…] but I would settle for a compromise: a completely configurable Headless Mac that trades expandability for reduced size and cost. call it him Power Mac mini, make it cheaper and faster than at least one Power Mac model, and give the “deluxe” version the fastest single processor available. This would still cannibalize some Power Mac sales, but it would also present an opportunity to sell iMacs and (especially) Mac mini customers. It could still be a clean win.

Siracusa was happy to trade expandability, but for many users it was impossible to detach the desire for the xMac from the desire for a modular PC-style Mac. In 2007, macworldDan Frakes wrote his own article dreaming of a mid-range desktop Mac, and while he was very excited about the prospect, he also made this important point about how it all went wrong :

The reality of the computer market is that the proportion of people who upgrade their computers beyond adding RAM is quite low. But at the same time, many people who will never upgrade their computers still think they will, or at least want the security and comfort of knowing they could.

The truth hurts. Electric car buyers will prioritize range and charging networks despite the fact that 95% of vehicle trips are 30 miles or less – and nearly 60% are less than six. Computer upgrade anxiety was a thing long before EV range anxiety existed.

Beige Power Macintosh G3 desktop computers, a tower, freestanding computer, with large CRT screens.

25 years ago, Apple was building mid-size modular desktop computers for power users.
Image: Apple

Of course, the last two decades have almost entirely eliminated the concept of scalable technology, especially on Apple devices. What’s built into today’s Macs is what they’ll have (CPU, memory, storage, and GPU) forever. Only the ultra-expensive Mac Pro offers expandability. (And how much will be left when it transitions to Apple silicon? Only Apple knows for sure, but the evidence so far suggests it will be little or nothing.)

First page of Macworld’s five-page Hackintosh history.
Photo by Jason Snell

So what’s an xMac fan to do? Many of them tried to build Hackintoshes, custom Intel PCs that used Apple-compatible components, on which macOS could be installed. In 2008, a company called Psystar attempted to sell macOS-compatible minitowers, directly to consumers, only to be chased into oblivion by Apple.

That same year, macworld‘s Rob Griffiths explained his construction of a “Frankenmac” (a synonym for Hackintosh that we used to avoid incurring the wrath of Apple) this way: “I don’t want or need a machine with a built-in monitor, I don’t need the power of an eight-core Mac Pro, but I would like my Mac to be faster and more expandable than a mini.

That’s how Mac users yearned for something more. macworld The magazine devoted five physical pages to a story about buying a Psystar clone and building a Hackintosh, all in an effort to create a Mac that Apple refused to make.

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

Mac Pro 2013: everyone loses

Back in 2012, xMac devotees got excited when Tim Cook replied to an email from an Apple customer named Franz saying that a new Mac Pro was coming in late 2013. The old Mac Pro had been around for a long time. the tooth. It was surely a chance for Apple to rethink the whole idea of ​​a desktop Mac!

macworld‘s Frakes jumped on the story, providing an updated list of demands for the xMac, citing the huge price gap between the Mac mini and Mac Pro. Alas, Frakes found that the late 2013 Mac Pro was still only for pros.

The cylindrical Mac Pro of 2013.
Photo by The Verge

Not only did this Mac Pro not sit well with the xMac crowd, it also lacked any real internal expandability and had serious thermal issues, leading to a remarkable mea culpa in which Apple promised to do better upon release. of the next version of the Mac Pro. This version shipped in late 2019 and starts at $6,000.

The waste of a good screen

For the past two decades, the iMac has been the product that straddles the gap between Mac mini and Mac Pro. And forced to buy Something, a huge number of xMac champions have ended up buying iMacs. I’d say it ended up warping the iMac, forcing it to support high-end chips and other features that over-complicated what was supposed to be a consumer-friendly all-in-one. The iMac M1, with its simple design and bright colors, is a return to form.

And then there’s the waste of that perfectly good display, which has always plagued many xMac supporters. Screens can last a really long time, and if you’re the type to upgrade your computer every two or three years, that means you’re throwing in a pristine screen. It just seems wasteful. (Apple briefly offered a feature called Target Display Mode, which let you boot up an iMac and use it as a dumb external display.)

A user works on the Mac Studio Display.

The Mac Studio and Studio Display — again headless modularity.
Image: Apple

With the announcement of not only the Mac Studio, but also the new Studio Display – the company’s first new sub-$5,000 display in over a decade! – Apple seems to have understood this part of the message of the xMac philosophy. Yes, buying a Mac Studio and a separate display will cost a lot more than an iMac, but at least you can trade in the computer for a new one in a few years. And if you already have a screen handy, you’re already well seated.

Is it a big money saver? May be. Is it less annoying? Yes a bit. And it fulfills at least some of the requirements to be a good xMac.

Requiem for the xMac

A funny thing happened on the xMac’s path to finally coming into existence: the world moved on and left the dream behind. I asked xMac 2005 developer John Siracusa what he thought of the arrival of the Mac Studio. “Sixteen years is a long time,” he said. “If you have the same desire long enough, the world will change and render your wishes moot.”

Today’s Macs, with the exception of the Intel-based Mac Pro, don’t have interchangeable RAM banks, storage bays, or card slots. Even the Mac Studio doesn’t have one. “The fact that we can’t upgrade RAM, we get a huge benefit from that,” Siracusa said last week on his podcast. “Apple isn’t doing it just to be mean. Memory is really, really fast…it makes computers better.

It can be hard to let go of that computer scientist’s desire to tinker with a computer’s internals, to accept that the benefits we get from a modern, integrated Mac might be worth the PC equivalent of range anxiety. . It is difficult to fight against human nature.

But if you look beyond that, you see this: Apple is now selling a computer that’s powerful enough to appeal to “power users” but doesn’t start at $6,000. It’s not that there aren’t yet holes in the lineup that might need to be filled by a more powerful Mac mini, but the decades-long desire of power users to buy a desktop Mac. between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro has finally come true. .

Even formermacworld Publisher and xMac fan Rob Griffiths, who built this “Frankenmac” at the time, bought a Mac Studio this week. That oasis in the desert of the Mac desktop? It is no longer a mirage.