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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  • Stokestack - Monday, July 21, 2008 - link

    You picked one of the worst possible DVD sets to use for comparison. These discs are NOT from film. They are clearly crap-quality encodes from lame, interlaced VIDEOTAPE sources.

    You don't even have to freeze the images to see that.
    Reply
  • p0wermac - Wednesday, June 18, 2008 - link

    http://www.ammesset.com/downloads/firerecord/FireR...">http://www.ammesset.com/downloads/firerecord/FireR...

    download that and the newest FireWire SDK's from developer.apple.com

    ~p0wermac

    Reply
  • Squidlet - Sunday, January 15, 2006 - link

    After building my Media Center and showing it installed with all of it's Demo
    applications. Most people I have show it to where blown away by this version 1.01 application.

    GenieCommands is a unique programmable software application
    that allows you to control all your applications and media via simple
    menus, in a theatre or lounge room environment. The Media Center
    is a computer like the Mac Mini combined with the Geniecommands software that
    provides an all-in-one entertainment system for your entire family.

    While attached to your television screen it allows you to enjoy your
    favorite entertainment such as; watch DVDs, record TV or pause TV,
    listen to music, share your digital photos, access the internet and more

    We have provided a complete set of demo menus to get you started,
    with links on where to download additional software. These menus
    can then be edited to suit your lifestyle or create a new one.

    GenieCommands provides a kiosk push button environment
    where users can get easier access to the best of what the industry has
    to offer in software. This is achieved through simple user defined
    graphic menus, to access all the scripts and to control almost any
    application.

    www.Geniecommands.com
    Reply
  • Squidlet - Sunday, January 15, 2006 - link

    After buiding my Media Center and showing it installed with all of it's Demo
    appliactions. Most people I have shopw it to where blown away by this version 1.01 appliaction.

    GenieCommands is a unique programmable software application
    that allows you to control all your applications and media via simple
    menus, in a theatre or lounge room environment. The Media Center
    is a computer like the Mac Mini combined with the Geniecommands software that
    provides an all-in-one entertainment system for your entire family.

    While attached to your television screen it allows you to enjoy your
    favorite entertainment such as; watch DVDs, record TV or pause TV,
    listen to music, share your digital photos, access the internet and more

    We have provided a complete set of demo menus to get you started,
    with links on where to download additional software. These menus
    can then be edited to suit your lifestyle or create a new one.

    GenieCommands provides a kiosk push button environment
    where users can get easier access to the best of what the industry has
    to offer in software. This is achieved through simple user defined
    graphic menus, to access all the scripts and to control almost any
    application.

    www.Geniecommands.com
    Reply
  • MrCoyote - Friday, March 25, 2005 - link

    INTERLACING...That's what you see in those DVD pictures. It's no specific problem to that box. It is occuring, because the software is not de-interlacing the video. It happens on PC's too. Hook the box up to a standard interlaced TV, and the "problem" will go away. Reply
  • fitten - Friday, February 18, 2005 - link

    #11, the Mac was not the original all-in-one. There were *many* machines from the late 70s and early 80s that beat it. Commodore64, Apple ][c, Atari XE, heck, even the TRS80s. Reply
  • michael2k - Thursday, February 17, 2005 - link

    "it's similar to how apple disable's the dual display screen spanning on a perfectly capable radeon 9200 to segment the iBooks from the Powerbooks. there's no good functional reason to not have this sort of stuff enabled."

    Well, I can think of two functional reasons not to have this stuff enabled:

    1) No need to test this feature before distribution
    2) No need to support this feature in the field

    Those two aspects of manufacturing and tech support probably saves Apple some money :)

    By extension, that also saves consumers some money too.
    Reply
  • Childs - Thursday, February 17, 2005 - link

    H.264 will probably be the next preferred codec for htpc on the Mac. I've been meaning to test it out on my Mini, but haven't had the time.
    Reply
  • triadone - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    a liked the review. i'm unclear as to whether a TV or monitor was used for the DVD playback. if a TV would resolve the interlacing issues it would be nice to know. most ppl interested in using it as a HTMac probably wouldn't want it hooked up to their monitor, but their TV for playback.

    it is good that Anand is pointing out the limitations of OS X's hardware handling of video. it's similar to how apple disable's the dual display screen spanning on a perfectly capable radeon 9200 to segment the iBooks from the Powerbooks. there's no good functional reason to not have this sort of stuff enabled. i hope that apple is ready to take on their effort to expand their marketshare with the mini. i.e.-a traditionally PC-oriented site like Anandtech starts covering Mac products and giving them some recognition as well as constructive feedback...let's hope they listen instead of just doing their own thing. they'll have to learn how to "think different" and integrate the feedback from reviewers to better their product. it will be interesting if apple will be as responsive to their product reviews in similar fashion to how video and motherboard vendors are. i.e.-poor review = swift delivery of new firmware or drivers. i hope that apple can do this as i feel it will have everything to do with bettering the already solid product that the mini is.

    btw, USB 2.0 isn't a good option for Mac as of yet, unless u r a powermac user. specifically i'm referring to el gato's eyetv USB 2.0 product. it requires a baseline dual G4 system to handle the USB processor overhead along with on the fly video compression. not cool for my 1.2Ghz iBook. =(

    like others i would have liked to see divx/mpeg-4 evaluations. i use mpeg-4 and divx streamed wirelessly from my 250GB PC drive to my ibook without issue. simply due to the HD limitation, one would think that the primary function of the HTMac would be to act as a front end for media stored on the network, or at least that's how i use my iBook around the house. :)
    Reply
  • jsbhburg - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    The combination of the new 10.3.8 OS update, the QuickTime MPEG2 Playback Component and the EyeTV 1.7 software has tested out great on an eMac G4 1.25 GHz with the same 9200 Radeon video card. No dropped frames on 720p and very little, if any, on 1080i.

    Try out EyeTV 1.7 from elgato. It is dramatically better than VLC.

    Joe
    Reply

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