Apple fans were, for the most part, disappointed with the iteration of the Mac mini that came out late last year (see “Apple Launches iMac with Retina Display, Refreshes Mac mini,” 16 October 2014). Some even called it “a disaster,” citing its soldered non-upgradable RAM, lack of a quad-core processor option, and slower multi-core performance than its predecessor.
Now it seems that the 2014 Mac mini, which heretofore defined the low-end Mac product line, is about to be joined by an even smaller, more limited companion: the Mac micro, announced today by Apple. Due to be released later this month in conjunction with the Apple Watch, the Mac micro boasts a much smaller form factor than the Mac mini: its anodized aluminum casing (available in space gray, silver, or gold, and in an Edition model — see “Apple Dramatically Expands Edition Line,” 1 April 2015) is the same size and shape as a third-generation Apple TV.
Unusually, its peripheral connectivity options have more than a passing resemblance to the Apple Watch: the tiny (1.7 lb/0.77 kg in the non-Edition models) slab provides only wireless connectivity — 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 LE. Even video connectivity is wireless, provided over a dedicated Wi-Fi link, using a beefed up wireless video streaming protocol that Apple is introducing with this model: AirPlay 2.
Power is supplied via an aluminum inductive charging plate, similar in principle to the Apple Watch’s inductive charger; however, this charger delivers much more power to the device and charges its internal emergency battery. Yes, the new Mac micro has a battery that can keep the device running in a reduced power mode for almost 2 hours or, more likely, in sleep mode for several days. Instead of schlepping a laptop with a breakable screen back and forth between home and work, you can just grab your Mac micro off its inductive charging plate and toss it in your bag, plopping it back on another plate at your destination.
Even more interesting is the elimination of login passwords: for authentication, the Mac micro uses a beefed-up Touch ID component on the top surface that can store as many as 50 fingerprints. Even Touch ID may not be necessary, since a paired Apple Watch is also sufficient for authentication, and the Mac micro can be paired with up to five Apple Watches.
The Mac micro internals are set in stone: 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB of flash storage, and a triple-core Apple A11 variable speed CPU that can range from 1.7 GHz to 2.3 GHz, along with a dedicated Apple-designed video processor capable of driving a 5K display at 59.94 frames per second. Until we’ve had a chance to run benchmarks, we won’t know how the triple-core A11 compares with the dual-core Intel Core i5 processors in the Mac mini or the dual-core Intel Core M processor in the 12-inch MacBook.
Wondering how you will see that new AirPlay 2 video stream? Also announced today along with the Mac micro is the 27-inch Apple AirPlay Display, a 5K Retina video display designed to handle AirPlay 2 seamlessly. It uses the same panel as the iMac with 5K Retina display, offering 5120-by-2880 native resolution that you’ll likely view at the ultra-crisp logical resolution of 2560-by-1440. The aluminum base of the display, which looks nearly identical to the 27-inch Thunderbolt Display, includes an inductive charger for a paired Mac micro. On the back it offers ports for Thunderbolt 2 and Gigabit Ethernet, three powered USB-C ports, and three powered USB 2.0 ports. The AirPlay Display, slated to ship 1 May 2015, will cost $2,199.
Apple also plans to release a $99 AirPlay 2-to-HDMI/DisplayPort adapter for connecting the Mac micro to more conventional video displays. That device is slated for a “mid-summer” release, according to Apple.
The normal colors of the Mac micro will sell for $449, including an Apple Wireless keyboard and wireless Magic Trackpad that incorporates the new Force Touch technology (see “Force Touch Trackpad Makes MacBooks More Compelling,” 20 March 2015). The gold-plated Apple Edition Mac micro will cost $25,000. As with the 12-inch MacBook, it seems that Apple may be signaling a technological sea change with the move to all-wireless connectivity, but in such a way that those who require the capabilities of the previous models have some time to prepare.
In the meantime, Apple’s desktop lineup is just as confused as the notebook lineup. For instance, the Mac mini remains in the lineup with no technical or pricing changes. For $499, the Mac mini offers significantly more storage and RAM expansion options, and is likely to outperform the Mac micro. Plus, the Mac micro is meant to be paired with an AirPlay Display, and their combined price is $149 more than the $2,499 iMac with 5K Retina display, but for a combination with less performance and fewer expansion options.