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Apple's New Mac mini Strategy Revealed

Ashraf Eassa, The Motley Fool

The last time Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) updated its Mac mini desktop computer lineup was in October 2014. The systems are, unsurprisingly, extremely outdated. 

Although it started to look as though Apple was simply going to let this product category wither away and die, Apple CEO Tim Cook, in response to an email from a MacRumors reader, said, "We do plan for Mac mini to be an important part of our product line going forward."

Apple's iMac computers side by side.

Image source: Apple.

It's been almost a year since Cook's October 2017 email response was published, but Apple has yet to announce updated Mac minis. However, thanks to reporting from Bloomberg, we know that updates are coming shortly. 

What we know so far

Apple's planning to release upgraded Mac mini systems later this year, according to Bloomberg. The updated models will reportedly be targeted toward "pro users" (Bloomberg says that the Mac mini is "popular with app developers, those running home media centers, and server farm managers"). 

"New storage and processor options are likely to make [the new Mac minis] more expensive than previous versions," Bloomberg reports. 

Let's take a look at what upgrades Apple might bring to the new systems. 

A huge jump in processor capability

All of Apple's Mac Mini systems come with Intel's (NASDAQ: INTC) fourth-generation Core processors. The lowest-end Mac mini comes configured with processors rated at a 15-watt thermal design power (TDP), while the higher-end configurations are equipped with more powerful (and more power-hungry) chips rated at a 28 watt TDP. 

Earlier this year, Intel launched eighth-generation Core processors that are rated at a 28-watt TDP, making them suitable for the upgraded Mac mini. In the table below, I've included key specifications of the top fourth-generation Core processor that the Mac mini can be configured with as well as the specifications of its top eighth-generation Core counterpart. 

Processor Core i7-4578U  Core i7-8559U 
# of cores 2 4

# of threads

4 8
Processor base frequency 3.00GHz 2.7GHz
Max turbo frequency 3.5GHz 4.5GHz
Max memory size 16GB  32GB
Max memory bandwidth 25.6GB/s 37.5GB/s
Graphics Iris Graphics 5100 Iris Plus Graphics 655

Source: Intel ARK. 

In terms of performance, the difference between the current top-of-the-line Mac mini processor and the latest 28-watt processors is night and day. CPU performance has improved dramatically thanks to a combination of faster processor cores and having twice as many of them on the same chip. Graphics performance should be up substantially as well.

On top of the performance improvements, the latest processor supports up to 32GB of memory, up from 16GB in the processor that currently powers the Mac mini. 

The current Mac mini supports Thunderbolt 2 connectivity -- a technology that was replaced by the much more capable Thunderbolt 3 in 2015. I'd expect that the refreshed Mac mini will gain Thunderbolt 3 support. 

Impact to Apple's Mac business

Apple doesn't break down Mac revenue by product line, but it stands to reason that the current Mac mini is not a huge part of the company's Mac shipments. 

Nevertheless, as long as Apple prices these refreshed machines appropriately, their long-awaited release should help drive Apple's Mac unit shipments and, ultimately, revenues up. If Bloomberg is right that "new storage and processor options are likely to make it more expensive than previous versions," then the new Mac mini systems could have a positive impact on Apple's Mac average selling prices, too. 

One thing Apple needs to do, however, is commit to a regular (and much faster) Mac mini release schedule to keep sales of the device healthy over time. Ideally, Apple should update the Mac mini with new processors roughly every year (Intel has publicly committed to launching new PC processors annually). 

After all, if Apple's goal is to appeal to "pro" users -- that is, users that often value performance and features more than typical consumers do -- then it needs to keep the systems packed with modern hardware. 

Time will tell whether Apple decides to stick with the Mac mini for the long term or if the update that's reportedly coming later this year will be the last one for a while. 

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Ashraf Eassa has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.