04 January 2006

Myth or Reality #4: FUNCTIONALITY

Predictions abound about the next Mac mini (assumed to be an Intel-based machine). It will, according to such predictions, be a full-featured media centre killer for instance. However (and despite my own wishes), if you look at the evidence in the earlier part of this series and a few more things, the Apple-extremists are likely to be disappointed. There was an excellent article recently at Ars Technica debunking why Apple would not release a DVR (tivo-killer). I've linked to it in an earlier blog entry, but here it is again.

So, IMHO, Apple will NOT release a killer media centre product in January - at least not something that will compare like-for-like with a high end MS XP-based MediaCentre PC. The mac mini is not physically capable of being that machine, Intel chip notwithstanding. First of all, it will need a higher end hard drive. Only a 3.5" form factor drive will give performance and capacity necessary for this purpose. It's not clear how Apple can shoehorn one of those inside today. Then it will need capability to have tv tuner(s) built-in. I've covered that recently - it's not going to happen. Apple will want to keep something like the current form factor. They will want to keep it's quietness and low-power use, while providing a greater capacity to provide video encoding/decoding features as they move the iLife experience onto the home TV (see recent blog entry on the Mobiliygen H.264 chip). So, the new Mini will be a bit faster on a few things. It will have FrontRow built-in. It will interface directly and indirectly to the TV's in your house (indirectly using a new airport express video device) and it will be able to serve content both from it's internal drive and from Apple's expanded content offerings at the iTMS (increasingly mis-named). It will allow you (unsupported of course) to run Windows too so it becomes a low/no-risk purchase. With an add-on similar-size box to provide additional storage and/or tuner capabilities it MAY be expandable into a low-end DVR in certain markets, but that will NOT be the prime purpose.

Of course, the functionality argument isn't just about DVR/Media Centre capabilities. But, if we consider that Apple's primary introduction of Intel-based machines is into the low-end space - unusual in product introduction terms where high-end, high-price is usually done first - this leads me to think Apple will not introduce too many innovations in functionality yet - especially if such innovations apply only to the Intel machines. But there will be important clues to be seen in these introductions. How easy will Apple make it to run Windows on the same machines? Will Apple increase support for switchers - perhaps by bundling something like move2mac into? Will we see greater integration for iPods? Will they open up FrontRow to run on all machines?

In the main, score 1 for Myth but read the small print for clues!

I will follow up these four areas of discussion (Timing, Pricing, Performance and Functionality) with a wrap-up of what I think we can expect from the first Intel Mac announcements. I'd like that conclusion to factor in some of your comments, so what are you waiting for - agree or disagree with the views put forward here? Look for the conclusion later on in the week.

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