Apple’s Mac and HomePod Announcements
Jan 25, 2023 • Extra Ordinary • Apple Event
Last week, Apple unceremoniously dropped a few press releases and a couple video segments clearly cut out of a Keynote video. (Even moreso than before, I am very much stretching the definition of my ‘Apple Event’ tag.)
I made my podcasting debut on The CultCast to talk about these announcements with Erfon Elijah and Lewis Wallace.
Mac mini with M2
This is not just the best value for your money Apple has ever offered in a Mac — the very fastest and latest consumer desktop computer for just $599 — it might be the best value in the entire computer industry. And you can get it for just $499 through the education store, where you need only a .edu email address.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with the rumored redesign that would have evoked the PowerPC Mac mini. Apple’s processor transition playbook is that initial versions with a new chipset reuse the old chassis, but over time, we get the designs Apple wanted to make all along. Like the first MacBook Pro compared to the unibody model, or even more recently, the M1 MacBook Air compared to the M2 MacBook Air. Perhaps a new Mac mini design is coming even later with M3, or Apple thinks the aluminum block design is still sufficient for this computer. If ever there were a computer that didn’t need to change in a chip transition, it’d be the Mac mini.
The M2 is a modest improvement on M1. The cores themselves are only about 12% faster, but there are more cores in every M2 variant such that most tasks using the CPU and GPU are a solid 20% faster. Now built in to the base M2 chip is the media engine for faster video encoding and decoding. The Neural engine is a whopping 40% faster. Don’t overlook this — it powers many of the advanced features these days like visual lookup, cutting objects out of photos and any app using Core ML. I suspect it’ll only become more important over time.
Apple struggled with the Mac mini in the past. The last three Intel versions only came out in 2012, 2014 (with modest improvements at best) and 2018. Now that updating these machines to the latest and greatest is entirely within their own control, and so much of the research and development is amortized across the entire lineup, I think we can expect regular updates to the sidelined Macs.
Mac mini with M2 Pro
This is what I and many others have been waiting for: A mid-range professional desktop running M2 Pro.
Start with the Mac mini, check a few upgrade boxes and you may approach Mac Studio level prices, but you will be prioritizing what you want out of a computer. I don’t need the chip with the highest core count; I want a lot of internal storage space and unified memory first. Ordering the Mac Studio is like buying more ports and a bigger processor out the gate.
The Mac mini is the perfect machine for small video production studios, marketing departments, graphic designers, podcasters, grad students, data scientists and more. Although it isn’t internally expandable, this Mac bears the most functional resemblance to the kind of workhorse PC that gets bought in bulk in offices and schools across the country.
We now have somewhat of an answer as to why the M1 Mac mini was so empty inside: the M2 Pro model features a larger logic board, cooling system and power supply. In a thread on Mastodon with Jason Snell and John Gruber, I was initially skeptical that Apple couldn’t jam an M2 Max chip in there if they really wanted to. After all, they have more room to work with even in the Mac mini than they do in a skinny laptop. The key might be in the power supply — the Mac mini’s is internal; the MacBook Pro’s is on the power cable.
The 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro are updated from M1 Pro and Max to M2 Pro and Max.
‘Spec bump’ is often used derogatorily, but in the era of Apple silicon, it represents a change in product direction. Updates to the hardware aren’t held back because engineers need to come up with a fresh new way to make the computer worse. Whereas in the dark days of the Intel era there were good and bad times to buy a Mac, you could buy a great MacBook Pro last week and an even better MacBook Pro this week.
It is still true in the M2 lineup that you spend at least $700 for the laptop form factor. You can see this for yourself if you compare an identically configured desktop and laptop; in this case, the Mac mini with M2 Pro and 14-inch MacBook Pro. Laptops are more expensive to engineer and come with a built-in display, camera, battery, keyboard and trackpad.
The very next day, we get the surprise announcement of a new HomePod. I’m not entirely sure why.
The original HomePod sold poorly because it was over-engineered and over-priced. It was a good value as far as premium home speaker systems go, but consumers didn’t understand it and didn’t buy it. It took three years to sell through the original production run from 2018.
The new HomePod removes two speakers and two microphones from the original in exchange for a newer chip, different internal design, added temperature and humidity sensors, Thread and Matter support. It’s allegedly cheaper for Apple to manufacture but sold at the same $299 price point the previous model was at for most of its life.
Maybe Apple thinks they can market the new version better, but I don’t have confidence. Aside from its bigness, it has complete feature parity with the HomePod mini, and it costs 3× as much. For the cost of one HomePod, you can buy a stereo pair of HomePod minis in one room and an additional HomePod mini in another room. Instead of one stereo pair of HomePods, you can buy three stereo pairs of HomePod minis for your living room, kitchen and office.
Erfon is adamant that a HomePod sounds well over three times as good as a HomePod mini. He’s probably right. But how is Apple going to convince people of that in a crowded noisy Apple Store? How will they market how much better this one is without indirectly putting down their other $99 speaker?
Apple AR/VR Headset
Mission failed, we’ll get ’em next time.
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