The Mac mini as a Media Computerby Anand Lal Shimpi on February 16, 2005 12:05 AM EST
- Posted in
IntroductionAs 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 HTPCA 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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.