Introduction

As soon as the Mac mini was announced, I had phone calls and emails from reporters and other news writers asking me if the mini was a threat to the PC. A threat, I think not; an item of infatuation, however, I’d say so. As far back as I can remember, any post of Apple news on a PC website would generate the usual group of responses: 1) too expensive, 2) can’t play games, 3) not fast enough, and of course, 4) “MACs suck.”

But at first sight of the mini, what did people (PC users) say? "I want one", "does it run Windows?" and "what kind of memory does it need? I just ordered one." There are still quite a few skeptics, which is understandable - the Mac mini wasn't the missing link that all of a sudden converted all PC users to be Mac-heads, nor did Apple expect it to be. But its success in the PC market did come as a bit of a surprise. There were actually PC users saying that they were very tempted by the mini, tempted enough to actually pick up one for themselves. To do what with, who knows - some wanted it for their parents/grandparents, others wanted to try out Mac OS X and never had a cheap way of doing it, and another group of PC users didn’t know why they wanted it - it was small, it looked cool and they, well, just wanted it. What’s extremely strange about its impact is that what I’ve just described (particularly the last part) is a phenomenon that is usually embodied by Mac users, not PC users. PC users never mindlessly want something like the mini without a tangible reason for it; they upgrade their video cards because it will make Half Life 2 run better, or they move to a faster CPU so that their system will feel snappier. They don’t go out and buy another computer because it looks cool.

But then again, replace the word computer with gadget and we may just be on to something. After all, how many times have you purchased a gadget that you didn't really need? In my first article on the mini, I stressed how it didn’t feel like a computer; it was more like something that you'd pick up at Sharper Image. It is Apple's styling that attracts users to the mini, not the idea that you want or need a computer.

The mini has been selling incredibly well, with Apple stores sold out and a 2- to 3-week wait for online orders on Apple’s website. Yet outside of Apple's website, you hardly see any mention of the mini anymore. The first wave of reviews is long gone, as are the first pictures of mini owners with their boxes. It's old news now, and Apple isn't doing much to advertise their new affordable Mac. It could just be that Apple doesn't want to spend money promoting a low margin product, it could also be that Apple doesn't feel the need to market the mini - let reviews and word of mouth handle the rest there. The mini is at a very critical stage right now. It's achieved quite a bit of positive attention, but the publicity wave is dying out. Obviously, Apple has no problem selling these things, but at the same time, it seems like there's a lot of mindshare that is left to win over - and by not advertising it and talking about it, those minds aren't going to be on the mini. In contrast, look at the iPod Shuffle, a product that's received far more criticism than the mini, yet one that's being marketed much more heavily. The mini could stand a commercial or two, maybe even alongside the iPod, to win more hearts and minds.

Obviously, one of the major attractions to the mini is its size. It's small and quiet, perfect for one particular application - the Home Theater PC (HTPC) - or in this case, an HTMac. Since the acronym “PC” doesn't necessarily exclude a Mac, we'll ditch the HTMac wording as it just sounds weird. Semantics aside, the mini's form factor is particularly appetizing to HTPC enthusiasts, but the question is - are its hardware specifications sufficient enough to fulfill the roles of a HTPC?

The Roles of a HTPC

A HTPC can mean many things to many different people. For some, a HTPC means a TiVo replacement, while for others, a HTPC is nothing more than a DVD player with high-resolution scaling capabilities. The primary functions of a HTPC can usually be grouped into one or more of the following categories:
  1. Media Storage Center - This role of a HTPC is to store and playback everything from ripped DVDs and music to photos. For those who download DVDs, the HTPC is quite necessary, but it requires a good amount of storage space - something of which the Mac mini doesn't exactly have much.
  2. TV Interface - Here, the HTPC is something that you use for its image output abilities. Whether it means something that is good at scaling or just happens to have a nice interface (e.g. MCE) is up to you. As a TV Interface, the HTPC can get its content either locally or served from a file server elsewhere in the home. The idea here is that the HTPC should look like it fits in with the rest of the components in the Home Theater.
  3. PVR/DVR - Even before TiVo, we had PCs being used as PVRs (Personal Video Recorders). Now, with the advent of Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition, computers can actually be used in ways that TiVo and other set-top PVR/DVRs can't. The functionality of a HTPC here is to be able to capture video as well as offer functionality based on its ability to capture video (e.g. pause live TV).
Does the Mac mini fulfill any one of these needs? Well, with a maximum of an 80GB internal hard drive, the role of a Media Storage Center isn't really going to be a territory for the mini to conquer. Although the mini has a DVI output, for which most modern HDTVs have support, the lack of a bundled remote control (although you can get a 3rd party one) and the lack of a specific media center interface hurt the mini's chances here. And finally, with no TV tuner, you can't do much as a PVR/DVR with the mini. Despite the plainly obvious, many still wanted to see what the Mac mini could do as a HTPC. The truth of the matter is that while you're much better off with something like a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC, those that have chosen the mini route do have some options at their disposal.

Before we get to those options, there is one usage model that we do want to touch on with regards to the mini - and that is, video editing.

The Mac mini as a Video Editor
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  • Thresher - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    This was an excellent read.

    I have a PowerBook and PowerMac G5 and never knew about the Firewire cable box. I am excited about hooking that bad boy up.
    Reply
  • CrankyTodd - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    Anand,
    Regarding playback of HDTV Mpeg-2 streams, El Gato's EyeTV software for their EyeTV PVR products is currently far and away the best performer. The software is a free download from their site, and doesnt require you to own one of their PVRs.

    Incidentally, by default it EyeTV won't open certain filetypes... this is an interface issue, not a capability issue. Holding down ctrl-apple while clicking on "Open Quicktime File" in the file menu will allow you to select any file.
    Reply
  • MIDIman - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    Superb article.

    "The result is that playing a DVD eats up between 40% - 60% of the 1.25GHz G4 in the Mac mini..."

    This and the visual problems are huge fallbacks as DVD and mp4 playback likely one of the best uses for a mac mini. Granted, not including certain HTPC features (digital audio, CATV in) shows that Apple isn't necessarily orienting this towards such users, but I have a number of friends who plan on purchasing this specifically for this purpose - DVD player, Internet on TV, etc.

    IMHO, this issue alone makes mini-itx desktop-based systems a much more usable alternative. They haven't quite reached the size, but I think they're well within an inch or two.

    Here's a second hand for seeing mp4 codec captures and how the mini handles them, as well as some method of getting in on the nvidia hardware decoding.
    Reply
  • paulbeers - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    What about the new Myth TV port for Mac OS X. I know it just came out probably too late for this article, but it is VERY interesting. It doesn't make the Mac Mini an HTPC by itself (the mac mini actually only acts as a front end with a "server" on the network to do all the recording). This actually makes the mac mini even more interesting to me, as per I can build a cheap and basic pc with as many tv cards and storage as I want that could be built from the many parts I have sitting around my house (and be as loud as I want because it isn't in my living room) and have the mac mini in my living room (attractive and quiet) actually playing the content.

    I do agree with Reflex that the lack of digital audio out is a disappointment, and I am riding the fence right now as to whether to buy a Mac Mini or wait for Part Deux as per I am disappointed with the GPU mostly. I would love to hear everyone else's opinions on the matter.
    Reply
  • Gatak - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    As for deinterlacing... Well, that shouldn't be a problem if you are connecting to a TV which will render the fields as single frames (as all TVs do, except some new TFT and plasma screens).

    When rendering on the monitor it should be using BOB mode - each field scaled up to a full frame and then rendered at twice the normal framerate (as you have double amount of frames). Even better if there are some smart motion compensation features together with BOB =).
    Reply
  • AtaStrumf - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    I'm quite surprised you didn't even try testing how the Mac mini handles different Mpeg 4 video codecs, diffrent audio codecs, different subtitle formats, etc. basicly how it plays "DivXs". With there still not being a perfect set top Divx player I guess I was hoping a MAC mini could serve as one.

    I also missed any mention of how to connect a mini to a SD TV. We have said here under comments, that there is a DVI->S-VIDEO adapter available for MACs, but I think you should make note of it in your article since I'm sure many don't read the comments section or at least not all of them.

    I agree that stereo sound is a bit of a dissapointment, but I don't think all that many people have surround sound in their living rooms to really miss a 5.1 sound output.
    Reply
  • hopejr - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    #10, you're forgetting that the first Macintosh, which came out in 1984, was an all-in-one (and I think the Lisa was too). Reply
  • Reflex - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    First off, they neglected to mention the largest thing that keeps the mini from being an acceptable HTPC: Lack of a digital audio output. If you want to watch your movies in stereo audio, great, but thats only half the experience that DVD offers.

    Put me in the "Cool deal, but I'll wait for v2 crowd". I am interested but its shortcomings are just too much yet even at that price...

    #8: The iMac and iPod were not the first in their class. All-in-One cheap PC's have existed since 94 or so, I know because I owned an old Compaq Presario integrated PC(486 w/14" monitor built in). And MP3 players existed for several years before the iPod. I will say that Apple was the first one to do these things *well* and actually attract media attention to them, but they were not even close to the first in those markets....
    Reply
  • faboloso112 - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    great article...keep it up! Reply
  • Zebo - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    " had phone calls and emails from reporters and other news writers asking me if the mini was a threat to the PC"

    Apple is innovative no doubt about it, but if the Mini works for Apple then dozens of PC clones will come out with thier own PC Minis negating the threat. I kinda feel sorry for Apple sometimes. Always breaching new ground with innovative products only to be copied. IPOD, IMAC are other instances of that.

    Anyway great read as usual from the Master.:)
    Reply

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