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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  • unithom - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    In case my profile doesn't show my link, my diagram of my setup is at:

    Apparently Apple has access to the hardware based MPEG decoding routines in the GPU but doesn't make those publicly available to folks like ElGato. So their DVD player works smoothly but EyeTV hits the CPU pretty hard. Note: it uses /tmp to store the cache as it processes, so keeping your EyeTV library on an external drive should help; less conflicting read/writes when on two separate disks.

    I borrowed a friend's 1.25 Mac mini to try out with my EyeTV 200 (analog) and EyeTV 500 (digital). The 200 worked fine. The 500 recorded okay, and played back 'fullscreen' (my 37" Sharp Aquos is at something like 1344 x 768 via DVI, dot for dot mode) pretty well .. maybe a dropped frame here or there, but nothing that made me freak out. Even if I wasn't happy with playback I could always use the Virtual DVHS app mentioned in the article; it played back the LOTR clip available on BitTorrent just fine, recorded and played back fine, and I also recorded from the EyeTV 500, edited out commercials, and played back the stream via VDVHS. All worked fine.

    I too was bummed that Apple didn't think to include a digital out like they did on their AirTunes-enabled Airport Express. But for now, I'm ordering the M-Audio Sonica Theatre with coax 7.1 output.

    re: storage space, my solution is fairly simple. Two 400 GB firewire drives. (One backs the other one up periodically, straight mirroring - but only once a day or whatever). I'm paranoid about losing data ever since I dropped a 250 GB external and DriveSavers pronounced it DOA...

    Re: remote controls. Watching live TV, even HD TV using EyeTV is a real pleasure. It has an IR remote. It lets you do 7 second instant replay and 30 second commercial skip just like TiVo, timeshifting your TV. People like myself are petitioning ElGato to include access to IR codes received via the SDK, e.g. the ability to map specific signals to run applescripts, shell scripts, and so forth. One guy on AVSForum wants to use an IR remote to output serial commands to his tuner and TV. There is already the IRTrans and iRed software available to do this as well.

    More eyeTV goodness: You can watch and record at the same time. There is an easy to use editor for removing commercials and then you can 'compact' your show (typically 1 hr -> 42 mins) to save space and junk the commercials. EyeTV 500 doesn't respect broadcast flag as long as you buy before June whatever-it-is. (And good thing, too. Screw them.)

    Originally I used the EyeHome, which is a sort of thin client; it browses pages served by a (sadly, closed) Tomcat server running on the Mac. It serves eyeTV recordings, ripped movies, iPhoto Library slide shows, iTunes songs/playlists, and lets you browse webpages on screen. But network latency makes it fall off. No on-screen 'time elapsed/remaining'. Can't get back to where you were easily if a program dies (happens WAY too often especially when trying to ffwd/rew, then hit play again... zoop, dies.) The interface is fairly hard to navigate.

    So I'm eschewing the eyeHome for a Mac mini. With a bluetooth module, and a wireless keyboard/mouse bundle, that's a far better remote IMO for doing other stuff besides EyeTV playback.
    (I already have wireless mouse/kbd and BT for an iMac G5 and though there is a slight wake-up delay and slight mouse-moving delay -- can't be helped, it's still really nice for a more clutter-free experience. For the living room, it'll be essential.)

    I found myself missing iTunes for playing music, iPhoto for doing slide shows, Safari for web browsing -- you get the point. So, having an actual computer in place of eyeHome will be nice.

    People keep saying that some kind of breakout box for the Mac mini needs to happen. IMO it's already here, it's the EyeTV. That plus external drives, and i.Link support -- just make sure all your devices have two ports (eyeTV does; other world computing sells the Mercury external enclosures with 2) or that you have a firewire hub, etc.

    Happy HTPCing!
  • mlittl3 - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    Thanks #20. That would work perfectly and not take up too much space or add more noise.

    I was thinking about harddrive space with regards to size and noise. I guess you could buy a 100 GB 2.5" drive from a third party and install it. That would be pretty cool.
  • T8000 - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    When viewing interlaced content on a PC, I usually do not use de-interlacing, as the slight resolution improvement is not worth the artefacts.

    Can the Mac also play DVD's without de-interlacing? And does that solve all artefacts?

    Also, with mpeg4, you are not unlikely to fit over 100 movies in VHS quality on a 80 GB PC/MAC.
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    Interesting. I didn't know HD recording was possible. You can get an HD tuner card for a computer, but is limited to over the air broadcasts, so big deal.

    It seeems that there is a way then to record from firewire, but then again, with bull encryption. Like someone is going to pirate a 10 GIGABYTE recording over the internet!
  • HardwareD00d - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    So what kind of software is available to let me record video through my cable box's firewire connector for the PC? Anyone?

    How much disk space will a 2 hr HD video stream take up? I'm guessing around 8-16 GB?

  • Doormat - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    My thoughts:

    -as poseted by #20, use m-audio USB TOSLINK out to surround sound reciever. Works fine with the Apple DVD player.
    -Wait until video core upgrade comes along in v2. I wont buy it unless it handles 1920x1080P/30 flawlessly (yes, 1080P will be available on HDTVs this year, no content available but available as an input). That would require something like a 9600 with 64MB vram.
    -use the Mac Mini as a HTPC client box, having a server someone else in the house with many video capture cards and some sort of remote scheduling front end (doesnt MythTV or one of those have a OSX front end available?). Also, the large server could also handle the massive storage requirements needed for HD.

    I personally want to use it as a client for a Kalidescape-style system, plus to surf the web and play MP3s on my 61" DLP TV. I'm hoping apple does a refresh for the Fall/back-to-school time (with more video horsepower, even if I have to pay extra for it).
  • paulbeers - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    bob661 -

    Yes true you can get an external hd. One can also get external TV Tuners. One can also get...yadda yadda...but all of these devises require more space and will generate more noise and more cables and more plug ins...etc. I even own an external drive enclosure. What Myth TV now will do for you is allow you to set a box wherever (close or office or bathroom if you would like) and that will do all the recording and can have all the loud 7200 rpm hard drives spinning away and it will never interfere with your enjoyment (if you have ever had an htpc in your living room that isn't virtually silent which I have) you know how annoying that proc fan can get reaallllyyy annoying.
  • michael2k - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    You want something like this, mlittl3?
  • mlittl3 - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    Since the Mac Mini has USB 2.0, are there any external USB audio solutions from any of the sound card manufacturers like Creative that supports Mac OS X? If so, this would be a way to get 5.1 and 7.1 audio onto the Mac Mini. However, this would require a little more space. You would have to stack the device on top of the mini.

    I can't possible see hard drive space being a problem. Just get an external firewire or USB 2.0 drive like #18 said.

    Lastly, Anand, it would be cool if you could make a section on your website for people to send in photos and solutions on how they set up their Mac Mini as an HTPC. There are a lot of combinations and externals that could be used and it would be interesting to see what people come up with. The comments section to these reviews is just not enough.
  • bob661 - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    Since the mini has USB ports just connect an external hard drive to the ports. You can get hard drive enclosures for $30-$40 and install any hard drive you want in there. No need for a server.

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