Nothing small about Mac Mini’s media-center capabilities

By Julio Ojeda-Zapata
Laptops are all the rage, but desktop computers still have their place. Of these, Apple’s recently updated Mac mini is worth a look. This miniature Macintosh doesn’t seem like much. But I have lately become Mac mini-crazed because I’ve found all kinds of interesting uses for the machine.

For basic computing, the Mac mini is a compelling option because it is so inexpensive (as little as $599), and takes up little space. Just add a keyboard, mouse and monitor, as I did. This is the perfect computer for your grandpa. For nerdier types, the Mac mini can serve as a media-center computer when hooked up to an HDTV and tricked out with a television tuner for TiVo-ish functionality (along with the option to Web-stream TV shows via sites like Hulu).

Mac Mini Media Center

The mini’s Mac OS X operating system needn’t be a dealbreaker for those who like Windows XP or Windows Vista. Either of the operating systems can be purchased separately and inexpensively and installed on the mini with ease. Geeks can do this for their grandmas or for themselves if they want to use a mini as a Windows-based media center.

I worked through all of the above options and couldn’t be happier. Here is how these four approaches break down:

Mainstream Mac. If I were getting a basic computer for a relative tech novice, I’d definitely consider any of several low-priced Windows PCs.

But there are problems with this approach. Low-cost desktop PCs are often bulky, and Windows operating systems are more vulnerable to viruses. This is mostly a nonissue on the Mac side. Also, a Mac offers great value since it is packaged with powerful photo-, video- and audio-editing software that often costs extra for PCs. Besides, I think Grandma and Grandpa will find Mac OS X a delight to use once they have spent a bit of time with it.

That’s where a Mac mini comes in. It’s a cute, compact thing that sits alongside the display, almost unnoticed. What could be more newbie-friendly? The machine can even run two monitors at once, if the grandparents are up for that. Just make sure they have the right adapter if hooking an older VGA display to either of the mini’s newfangled ports.

The Mac mini has five Universal Serial Bus ports on the back—plug a basic mouse and keyboard into two of those.

Internet? No problem. Unlike many desktop computers, the Mac mini does Wi-Fi wireless networking a la laptops, if that’s more practical than hard-wiring the machine to a broadband modem via Ethernet (which also works just fine). For light computer use, the Mac mini has pretty much all that is required; Safari is a fine browser, Mail is terrific for e-mail and TextEdit is more than enough for creating and modifying text (and it will even open Microsoft Word files).

Mainstream PC. I’m not sure why anyone would turn a Mac mini into a Windows PC, given all the Mac environment has to offer. But this is a trivial undertaking if your intended tech-novice user insists on Windows over the Mac OS X.

Macs, in general, make remarkably effective Windows XP or Windows Vista machines. Even the Mac mini has more than enough of oomph for this, and a Windows operating system is easily installed using Apple’s Boot Camp software, which places Windows in its own partition on the hard drive alongside the Mac OS X partition. You can readily configure your Mac to automatically boot into Windows instead of OS X on start-up. Once Windows is installed, you want to add a few little software necessities.

Antivirus software is an absolute must, and the swell AVG Free is, well, free (free.avg.com). You should also update the Internet Explorer browser to version 8 for better security. For e-mail, the free Thunderbird (getthunderbird.com) is better than the basic Windows e-mail app. One alternative is Microsoft’s Windows Live Mail (get.live.com) that is part of a downloadable software suite that includes other goodies, like a photo editor and video editor.

One important note: You must buy Windows software separately for use with Mac minis. Get it affordably (for little more than $100) via such outlets as Tiger Direct (tr.im/jfWR) or General Nanosystems (tr.im/jfXf).

Mac media center. Though Apple has pushed the Mac mini as a budget computer for average users, it has been less eager to position the Mac as a media-center machine for advanced users. One reason for this: Apple sells an Apple TV set-top box for movie downloads and other media-center uses.

But tech-savvy Mac types have embraced the Mac mini as the ultimate media center for obvious reasons: This Mac sits elegantly and inconspicuously beneath or beside an HDTV and links up to a flat panel with no fuss. Keep in mind an adapter is required for use with a TV HDMI port, given that the Mac has mini DisplayPort and DVI ports.

After hearing about Mac mini media-center uses for years, I finally decided to give it a go. This blew my mind. Why didn’t I try this sooner? My Apple loaner paired up spectacularly with a 52-inch Sharp Aquos LC-52D65U LCD HDTV. This opened up all kinds of possibilities. For starters, I could fire up a Web browser and watch TV shows or movies via video-streaming sites. Along with the popular Hulu, these include Comcast’s Fancast and the TV networks’ own streaming-video sites (including full episodes for many popular programs).

Specialized software augments the media-center experience. Boxee (boxee.tv), for instance, provides one-stop access to top streaming-video sites for enhanced enjoyment. The elegant Plex (plexapp.com) provides a similar functionality and is also terrific for accessing videos stored on the Mac mini’s drive or elsewhere on a home network. Video stored in Apple’s iTunes looks cool in the Mac’s Front Row and is easily controlled with a tiny Apple remote. Apple has a decent selection of Hollywood movies and TV shows for purchase and rental on its popular iTunes Store.

I also wanted to record TV, so I plugged in an Elgato EyeTV Hybrid TV tuner (elgato.com). This device, which I’ve recommended before, pulls in over-the-air HDTV via antennas and allows for TiVo-like scheduling of TV recording. It also works with Comcast digital cable, recording free HD channels (called Clear QAM) that lurk unseen unless you know to get them. Running a channel scan with the EyeTV software reveals the awesome-looking channels in short order. Your EyeTV recordings can be burned to DVDs for archiving or exported for use on an iPhone or video-ready iPod.

For the Mac media-center pièce de résistance, turn your iPhone or iPod Touch into a remote, via any of several apps you install on the handheld gizmos. Options include Apple’s Remote for iTunes control (itunes.com/apps/remote), Boxee’s clicker app (tr.im/boxeemote) and the all-purpose Air Mouse (mobileairmouse.com).

PC Media Center. You can also use the Mac mini as a Windows-based media center, if you insist, since similar tools are at your disposal for audiovisual entertainment.

Let’s start with a TV tuner. You want one that works with Microsoft’s elegant, easy-to-use Windows Media Center interface. This is the PC-based equivalent of Elgato’s EyeTV software and makes for a great living-room experience.

Hauppauge (hauppauge.com) has a line of great tuners, and its plug-in WinTV-HVR-1950 model is compatible with Media Center. Like Elgato tuners, it will pull in over-the-air high-definition programming, but you need a good antenna. Another terrific option is Nero’s LiquidTV (nero.com) that integrates the familiar TiVo experience into PC-based TV recording. A Nero kit includes a Hauppauge tuner and a familiar TiVo remote along with TiVo software. Yes, you could use a TiVo set-top box, but the Nero option lets you burn video to DVD or move it to your portable video device. One hitch with Nero and Hauppauge: I could not access my cable Clear QAM channels, just standard-def “analog” cable. But Hauppauge has its own software as an alternative to Media Center, and that does pull in Clear QAM fine.

Video-streaming sites like Hulu work just as nicely in Windows as they do on the Mac. Access to the iTunes Store is flawless, too. If you have an iPhone, turning it into an all-purpose remote via Air Mouse works well via Windows, too.

Though a Mac mini makes a perfectly fine Windows-based Media Center, there are solid reasons to look elsewhere. Some PCs have integrated tuners, which is more convenient and elegant than using an external device. Many media center-style PCs have HDMI ports, which makes linking up to a big-screen TV easier. Some PCs also have Blu-ray drives for playing the high-def movie platters, something Apple has stubbornly declined to do. That’s too bad.

Julio Ojeda-Zapata can be reached at jojeda@pioneerpress.com and 651-228-5467. Get more personal tech at twincities.com/techtestdrive and yourtechweblog.com. Follow twitter.com/jojeda.

About

Have a look at my web site for ideas about the work I've done. I look forward to hearing from you about your next project, the Internet, the environment, or life. www.barenose.com

Tagged with: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.