The Mac-Based Media Center – The Apple Mac Mini 2010 review
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My traditional TV-viewing habits have simplified over the years… I’m either watching the news (80% of the time), a special sporting event like the Olympics, World Cup, or Tour de France (5%), or the occasional Star Trek/Stargate episode (the rest %). On the other hand, my video watching habits have also expanded if you start including web-only content like video podcasts, youtube funnies, cycling.tv, vimeo clips, i-Tunes TV shows, news interviews, etc. I’d venture to say that in terms of my total time, I watch more internet-based content than cable-company-based content, and this is a trend that is continuing.
My first dip into plugging in my laptop to my TV was a while back, but the lack of sufficient content left me mostly just plugging in the laptop occasionally. When the Apple TV came out, I got it in the hopes that I’d be able to enjoy more content more freely, but without a hack (and even after), the Apple TV still felt a bit like just a front for the iTunes store instead of a proper Internet TV aggregator.
I always wanted to get the Mac Mini, to replace the Apple TV I had, but the VGA/HDMI connection, plus the analog audio-out was a pain to deal with and set up since my TV didn’t really have a great setup for me to hook it up to these interfaces. So when the new 2010 Mac Mini with HDMI came out, I jumped on it. I was glad to see that on top of the HDMI, an SD card slot (for offloading pictures) and 4 USB ports were part of the package.
From a tech specs perspective, the only thing I really cared about was that my new media center would be able to have and play Flash, Silverlight, Quicktime, WMV, MPG4, H.264, and AAC/MP3 content. The reason was simple, these standards covered 95% of the content on the web. The Apple TV (old and new) couldn’t do that, and many of the cheaper hard-drive-plug-to-TV options weren’t great from an extensability perspective. There were other products out there, like ASUS’s media center with an Atom processor, but all the reviews I read seemed to point towards an underpowered machine for rendering 720p content. Sure, I could go and set up a Linux media center on the cheap, but I owned Apple content so that wasn’t an option, and the PC options with decent hardware weren’t really that great to look at nor was the interface really that great for what I wanted to do.
So, as you can imagine, my expectations were high. I wanted to buy a device that would allow me to explore any kind of content on the web as if it were TV content. TV viewing is quite different than computer viewing. Whilst you can interact with a TV via a remote, generally speaking the key differentiator is that TV viewing is more of a passive, lay-back experience, rather than the lean-forward, interactive experience that a computer commands.
The Apple TV was actually quite good at at least adhering to this TV-viewing ethos, and unfortunately, any other option I considered, seem to have no happy medium.. it was either full on, or full off. Thus perhaps the first thing we should discuss is controlling the new Mac Mini…
The ONLY way to use the Mac Mini, really, is via a keyboard + mouse. Yes, you can remote VNC your way in and do stuff, or use iPhone/iPad remotes to control iTunes, but generally speaking, there are so many apps, and web-based content that you’ll inevitably want to use a full-keyboard + mouse. I chose to use Apple’s wireless keyboard and new trackpad.
Once connected, the wireless keyboard and trackpad work well, but they are not ‘lean back’ kind of controls.. you need quite a bit of space on the coffee table or on your couch to deal with them. I wish there were a more elegant ‘integrated’ solution to replace these two parts. However, it works, if not clumsily. Whenever I can, and particularly when using iTunes, I try and use the remote app from Apple on the iPhone or iPad to control content selection, search, start, skip, and pause.
The next challenge when trying to control the Mac Mini, is that 1080P is too much resolution for you to be able to lean back from your Sofa 4 meters away or so on a TV 40″ or smaller… you have to be up close to read the icons. Text on the web is unreadable in the small-ish font, and you end up having to zoom in on websites just to be able to read them (you can’t zoom in within iTunes on the trackpad) therefore, I’ve had to drop-rez my Mac Mini to 720P in order to get the resolution to the point where I could actually use all the applications I wanted.
So, now that I have the keyboard and mouse and the resolution at 720P, how does it perform? Well, there’s on more little hiccup that I’ve experienced and it is with iTunes and with an external drive from WD. By using an external drive to store my iTunes content, I gained far more space by which to store the TV shows I’ve bought in iTunes. However, playing back from this drive does introduce a little bit of a lag here and there during video playback. This didn’t happen with the Apple TV and can be annoying at times. For the most part, it happens twice when you hit ‘play’ and then doesn’t return unless you pause and resume.
One thing that I’m surprised doesn’t work as nice on the Mac Mini as on the Apple TV is the Front Row software on the Mac Mini. In theory, that interface should be identical as the interface of the Apple TV. On the Apple TV you can see previews, buy stuff, etc. but within Front Row, you can only play your stored content and can’t browse the iTunes store or your own content as well as within the Apple TV.
That aside, the Mac Mini is not unlike any other Mac computer. It works well and does what any other Mac does. As a media center, I’d say it is far more flexible than an Apple TV as it allows you to buy stuff (but not HD stuff), play music from websites such as Soundcloud, Last.FM, Pandora, and from services like Spotify. If you live in the States you can use Hulu and other web video companies and in the UK you can use the BBC iPlayer.
I highly recommend this configuration, but you do have to have a bit of a geeky control center for it and unless you have a massive TV, you’ll have to down-rez the display in order for you to be able to see the fonts clearly.
If you do get one, invest in a good-quality high-speed HDMI cable.
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