Is the Mac mini the new Apple TV?

When Apple released a Mac mini that bears an HDMI port on Tuesday, it took mere minutes before people suggested that this new mini was the next-generation Apple TV in disguise. And for some, it may be. We’ll take a deeper look as we have more time to test out the new Mac mini, but here’s a look at some of areas that separate the two.

Connections

One of the clumsier elements of using a Mac mini as a media center has always been the TV connection. While you can make that connection with a DVI-to-HDMI cable or—with more recent minis—a DisplayPort to HDMI adapter, the results of the operation can be uneven. The images displayed by the mini may exceed the bounds of the TV’s display. You can address this by playing with an Overscan option, but this can lead to black bars around the four sides of the mini’s image. The new mini has the same Underscan slider found in the Displays system preference on the current MacBook Pros, which allows you to scale the mini’s image so it perfectly fits your TV screen. Of course, the Apple TV’s HDMI and component video options have made this type of connection easy from the start.

Advantage: Tie

Physical media

One advantage the mini has over the Apple TV is an optical drive that can play DVDs—however, like all other Macs, it can’t play Blu-ray discs. I know Steve Jobs believes Blu-ray is a “bag of hurt” and that Apple has rapidly moved away from optical discs, but the company’s jumped too soon on this one. Blu-ray has finally caught on now that it’s the single high-def standard for optical discs. Blu-ray players are now within the budget of most people, the price of Blu-ray movies is also dropping, and Netflix has an affordable Blu-ray rental option. Sure, the quality of streaming video is getting better and greater bandwidth will make purchasing, renting, and streaming video even more attractive, but there’s still a large segment of the public that wants to shove a plastic disc into a slot and watch the resulting movie. And, in regard to Blu-ray, this group is waxing rather than waning.

Advantage: Mac mini

Content

Another area where the Mac mini overshadows the Apple TV is in media options. Today’s Apple TV was designed with iTunes and the iTunes Store in mind. Sure, the device lets you look at YouTube videos and Flickr slideshows, but it’s otherwise locked to the contents of iTunes libraries and the iTunes Store. This is convenient if that’s the only kind of media you care to consume, but increasingly people want content from the Web—Hulu, Netflix, and countless Websites that stream video. The Apple TV’s locked-in model hasn’t been a hit with the public. The Mac mini is a Mac, and as such you can use it to play any Web content that OS X can handle, as well as all sorts of file types that iTunes balks at. And the Mac mini’s powerful processor and improved graphics mean full 1080p HD playback—something the Apple TV can only dream of.

Advantage: Mac mini

Navigation

On the navigation front, the Apple TV has a clear advantage. Front Row, Apple’s media interface for the Mac, was an exciting idea—when it was released half a decade ago. The new mini has power to spare to stream content and play and display media. But much of that power requires an operator who knows what he or she is doing. Better would be a version of Front Row that allows you to do all the great things possible with a Web browser—Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, Rhapsody, RadioTime—plus play your movies and music from any computer or NAS drive in your home; all without leaving the confines of Front Row. A wireless keyboard and mouse can give you total control over the Mac mini from your couch, but for a media center, simplicity rules.

Advantage: Apple TV

DVR capabilities

Some won’t be satisfied until an Apple TV serves as a digital video recorder a la TiVo. With the mini, you can add a device such as Elgato’s EyeTV HD to turn your Mac into a DVR. The Apple TV offers no such options, and probably never will.

Advantage: Mac mini

Price

The 160GB Apple TV costs $229, whereas the new HDMI-enhanced Mac mini starts at $699—that’s a huge difference, and a lot of money for a media center. Price wise, the Mac mini can’t compete if all you’re going to do is hook it up to your TV. If you plan to also use it as a hub for sharing your iTunes library around the house, hosting your Website, or for other uses (and don’t mind that it’ll have to stay within cable distance of your TV) then the price difference becomes a little less severe.

Advantage: Apple TV

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