Apple’s announcement of the Mac Studio on Tuesday may have fulfilled a dream that some Mac users have been clinging to for a few decades. Finally, there’s a modular desktop Mac that’s more powerful than the Mac mini, without the Mac Pro’s hefty price tag.
Back in the 90s and early 2000s, being a Mac geek meant using a Power Mac. The arrival of the original iMac in 1998 was greeted with enthusiasm by Mac geeks because it meant Steve Jobs might be able to make Apple great again after it foundered in the mid-’90s — but none of them would make it. ever be inclined to use one themselves.
When Jobs returned to Apple, he led a dramatic and necessary simplification of the product line. The desktop Power Mac, a model of choice for power users, disappeared in 1998. Choices dwindled to the underpowered iMac (and later the Mac mini) on one side and the increasingly expensive Power Mac/Mac Pro tower on the other.
In between, at least for Mac users, was a desert. And out of the desert rose a glorious mirage: a mythical mid-range Mac mini-tower like the Power Macs of yesteryear. This legendary creature was known as the xMac.
Range fear of computers
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where and when the grumbles about Apple’s lack of a mid-range Mac desktop started, but they’re at least 20 years old. a 2005 Ars Technica John Siracusa’s post suggests it was coined in 2001 or earlier on that site’s Mac forums.
Regardless, the discontinuation 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 vented in Internet forums and in threads linked to stories about new Apple hardware.
The introduction of the Mac mini in 2005 brought a clearer focus to the frustration. In his post, Siracusa dismissed the Mac mini as too limited to be a good alternative to an expensive Power Mac, expressing its desire for an affordable modular Mac with configurable specs:
This is what i want. Start with a choice of two possible CPUs: the fastest single CPU Apple sells, and the second fastest. In contemporary terms, these would both be dual-core CPUs. The internal expansion buses should also be of top quality, but with less capacity than the Power Mac…. The custom options should cover the full range 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 one sentence, it’s a fully configurable, headless Mac that trades expandability for smaller size and lower cost†
[…] but I’d be happy with a compromise: a
fully configurableheadless Mac that trades expandability for smaller size and lower cost. call it the Power Mac mini, make it cheaper and faster than at least one Power Mac model, and give the “deluxe” version the fastest single CPU available. That would still cannibalize some of Power Mac’s sales, but it would also provide an opportunity to sell iMac and (especially) Mac mini customers. It could still be a net win.
Siracusa was happy to trade in extensibility, but for many users it was impossible to separate the desire for the xMac from the desire for a modular PC-style Mac. 2007, MacworldDan Frakes wrote his own article while dreaming about a mid-range desktop Mac, and while he was very excited about the prospect, he also made this important point about the fallacy of the whole thing:
The reality of the computer market is that the number of people who actually upgrade their computers beyond adding RAM is quite small. But at the same time, many of the people who will never upgrade their computer still think they will upgrade their computer — or at least want the security and comfort of knowing they can.
The truth hurts. Electric car buyers will prioritize range and charging networks, despite 95 percent of car journeys being 30 miles or less — and nearly 60 percent less than six. Fears of computer upgrades existed long before fears of the EV range.
Of course, the last two decades have almost completely eliminated the concept of upgradable technology, especially on Apple’s devices. What’s built into today’s Macs is what they’ll have forever: processor, memory, storage, and GPU. Only the ultra-expensive Mac Pro offers upgrade options. (And how much of that will be left if it makes the switch to Apple silicon? Only Apple knows for sure, but the evidence so far suggests it will be little to nothing.)
So what should an xMac fan 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 tried to sell macOS-compatible minitowers directly to consumers, but was forgotten by Apple.
That same year, MacworldRob Griffiths explained his build of a “Frankenmac” (a synonym for Hackintosh that we used to avoid Apple’s wrath) like this: “I don’t want or need a machine with a built-in monitor, I don’t have the power of a Mac Pro with eight cores, but I wish my Mac was faster and more expandable than a mini.”
That’s how much Mac users craved for something more. Macworld magazine devoted five physical pages to a story about buying a Psystar clone and building a Hackintosh, all to make 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 shift from Intel means that the Hackintosh era is coming to an end in the coming years.
Mac Pro 2013: Everyone Loses
Back in 2012, xMac aficionados got excited when Tim Cook replied to an email from an Apple customer named Franz, telling him that a new Mac Pro would be coming in late 2013. The old Mac Pro needed a notch. This was certainly an opportunity for Apple to rethink the whole idea of a desktop Mac!
Macworld‘s Frakes jumped on the story and provided an updated list of requests for the xMac, citing the huge price gap between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro. Unfortunately, Frakes discovered that the late 2013 Mac Pro was still just for professionals.
Not only did that Mac Pro not please the xMac audience, it also lacked real internal expandability and had serious thermal issues, leading to a notable mea culpa in which Apple promised to do better when it released the next version of the Mac Pro. That version shipped in late 2019 and starts at $6,000.
The waste of a good screen
For the past few decades, the iMac has been the product that bridges the gap between Mac mini and Mac Pro. And forced to buy something, many of the xMac champions ended up buying iMacs. I’d say this eventually distorted the iMac, forcing it to support high-end chips and other features that overcomplicated what was supposed to be a consumer friendly all-in-one. The M1 iMac, with its simple design and bright colors, is a return to form.
And then there’s the waste of that perfectly good screen, which has always nagged many xMac proponents. Screens can last a very long time, and if you’re the type of person who upgrades your computer every two or three years, that means you’re throwing away a perfectly good screen. It just seems a waste. (Apple briefly offered a feature called Target Display Mode that let you boot up an iMac and use it as a dumb external display.)
Announcing not only the Mac Studio, but the new Studio Display – the company’s first new display under $5,000 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 costs a lot more than an iMac, but at least you can swap the computer for a new one in a few years. And if you already have a display to hand, you’re already sitting nicely.
Is it a big savings? Possibly. Is it less wasteful? Yes a bit. And it at least meets some of the requirements to be a good xMac.
Requiem for the xMac
A funny thing happened on the way to the xMac that finally existed: the world moved and left the dream behind. I asked 2005 xMac proponent John Siracusa how he felt about 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 question your desires.”
Today’s Macs, with the exception of the Intel-based Mac Pro, do not have removable RAM banks or storage bays or card slots. Even the Mac Studio doesn’t have it. “The fact that we can’t upgrade RAM gives us a huge advantage,” Siracusa said on his podcast last week. “Apple isn’t doing it to be mean. The memory is really really fast… it makes the computers better.”
It can be hard to let go of that computer geek desire to tinker inside a computer, 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 human nature.
But if you look past it, you’ll see this: Apple is now selling a computer powerful enough to satisfy “promising users,” but it doesn’t start at $6,000. It’s not that there aren’t still any gaps 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 Mac Pro is finally fulfilled.
even ex-Macworld editor and xMac fan Rob Griffiths, who built that “Frankenmac” at the time, bought a Mac Studio this week. That desert oasis of the Mac desktop? It is no longer a mirage.