Mac mini Air: downsizing the modular

Commuters complain of waiting too long for buses. Computer users have had to wait three decades, but what we might be seeing now could bring radical change to our computer systems.

The old style Mac Pro, a massive and hefty metal-box tower, could be the last Mac of a long line initiated by the Mac II back in 1987. For that agonising thirty-odd years, Macs have shared an architectural problem with other computers: the complexity of high-speed buses. Getting the CPU, memory, graphics system, mass storage, and any other enhancements such as high-end audio to work together used to require them all to be engineered into a single unit. This was to enable delicate and complex multi-line buses to connect them together.

SCSI was a first, faltering step away from that, allowing us to hook up fast hard drives which performed as well as if they had been mounted internally. But SCSI cables and plugs are large, heavy, and hardly portable.

Apple’s engineers came up with two ways forward: miniaturise the motherboard and tuck the computer away in the display to create the all-in-one iMac, and shrink the whole show into a laptop like the iBook, now MacBook models.

The problem of high-speed buses had not gone away, though. With nothing faster than FireWire 800 pointed at the outside world, expanding either an iMac or laptop did not yield anything like the performance that could be achieved by an expansion card or internal hard drive inside a Mac Pro.

This all changed in 2011 with the arrival of the first MacBook Pro with a Thunderbolt port. Now at last peripherals can work closely with the core hardware, enjoying data transfer speeds exceeding those of relatively recent internal buses.

The other key technology for the future is the development of the system on a chip (SOC), which made potent iPhones and iPads possible.

Intel’s recent release of its Xeon Processor D Product Family offers an interesting way ahead: low power (so low heat output) but with 4 or 8 processor cores, aimed at desktop systems, and full Xeon (Broadwell generation) potential. Coupled with an integrated graphics SOC it should now be possible to squeeze the equivalent of a souped-up Mac mini and SSD storage into a case the size of a Blu-ray DVD, half the thickness of the current Mac mini.

Equipped with the same minimal ports as the current MacBook Air, a basic desktop system would consist of wireless keyboard and trackpad, the micro mini, and a flat screen display. It could run headless with capacious Thunderbolt storage as a workgroup server, in a rack for a compact low-power processor farm, or with a brace of peripherals for serious media development.

I claim no inside knowledge, but I would be most surprised if Apple has not been working on a prototype. Whether it ever deems it worth putting on sale is another matter.