Storming the living room

Apple now has two solutions for the living room entertainment experience, the Mac Mini and codename iTV. Microsoft also has two, the Media Center and Media Center Extender. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a look at each through a list, bet you’ve never seen a list on a blog before.

The following blog post is based on preliminary information about an unreleased product. Specifications may change in the future. So if the iTV thing turns out to be different, don’t look at me.

Mac Mini

Apple Mac Mini
The Mac Mini is a small-form desktop computer designed to satisfy the low-budget buyers of personal computers. It ships with Front Row as well as the Apple Remote. It is priced around the $600 mark.

Advantages

  • It can run applications.
  • It has storage capabilities through a hard drive.
  • It can play DVDs.
  • It plays a large variety of media formats, both supported and not-supported by iTunes.
  • Has Front Row. A ‘semi-10-foot’ user interface.

Disadvantages

  • It doesn’t have HDMI output. Not essential but popular with HD display panels. (DVI alternative)
  • It doesn’t have a lot of graphics processing power to play intensive games.
  • A little bulky. Needs power supply.
  • No TV (DVR) functionality. (Third party USB solutions available).

Codename iTV

Apple iTV
iTV is a project in development slated to release in the first quarter of 2007. The form factor resembles a Mac Mini but is thinner is height. It is designed to play content from an iTunes-enabled PC onto a television.

Advantages

  • Ultra-small and ultra-portable.
  • Has HDMI as well as component video outputs.
  • Can stream movie trailers from Apple.com
  • Very cheap.
  • ’10-foot’ user interface.

Disadvantages

  • Must have content available from iTunes enabled PCs elsewhere on the network (Mac+PC).
  • (Must be on a home network.)
  • Does not run system applications.
  • Does not play non-iTunes content.
  • Does not play DVDs (natively on the device).

Windows Media Center

Windows Media Center
Previously, Windows Media Center was a solution based around a combination of hardware and software delivered by OEMs. Now with Windows Vista, Windows Media Center is purely a software solution that is available on two versions of Windows Vista.

Advantages

  • Is a software package. Can be installed on any computer. (System configuration to user’s preference)
  • Can run other applications.
  • Has storage capabilities.
  • If user already has an appropriate version of Windows, comes at no cost.
  • ’10-foot’ user interface.
  • Supports TV/Radio (DVR) tuners.
  • Plays DVDs.

Disadvantages

  • Does not fully support every Windows compatible TV tuner.
  • System form-factors are usually bulky.
  • Systems are usually expensive.
  • Is current only an OEM solution. Not easily available to consumers.

Media Center Extender

Media Center Extender
The Media Center Extender is a device that allows streaming of content from a Windows Media Center system to a television. Products has been on the market since 2004, long before Apple. The Linksys product sells for about $200. XBOX 360 also supports Media Center Extending capabilities, but obviously sells for much more.

Advantages

  • Small and portable.
  • Fairly cheap.
  • ’10-foot’ user interface.
  • In the case of the XBOX 360, you can also experience other entertainment content.

Disadvantages

  • Must have content available from Media Center enabled PCs elsewhere on the network.
  • (Must be on a home network.)
  • Does not run system applications.
  • Does not support non-Media Center content. (But simple hacks can enable DivX streaming)

So what does this all mean? Well it means nothing is perfect. Every solution offers something different that is suited towards different markets, but there is a consistent quality in terms of experience throughout all four products. If you already own an abundance of content on existing computers, then the Media Center Extender or iTV solution is for you. If you want to use a PC exclusively for the media center, then the Windows Media Center and Mac Mini is better suited.

10 insightful thoughts

  1. Whilst a Mac Mini may not have a HDMI output, it has a DVI output. The difference between the two is only the fact that HDMI carries audio as well.

    Most people with decent home theater setups (those who would use HDMI) would also have DVI inputs on their displays. Audio is usually dealt with in a separate device (surround sound system/amp) so it makes more sense to use the optical out provided by the Mac – so I don’t really agree with that point.

    As for processing power – you’d probably want to change that to video processing power. The Mac Mini can be equipped with a 1.8ghz Core Duo processor which is more than enough for the latest games. The built in onboard Intel GMA950 graphics controller is fairly powerful too, just not up to the expectation of playing very intensive games.

    TV functionality can also be added to a Mac via the EyeTV USB tuner – though not out of the box and can be fairly expensive (assuming you buy their TV tuner and not one of the additional supported ones.)

    Instead of “somewhat 10-foot UI” for the Mac Mini, I’d actually (after using it on a plasma TV and projector) say it is better than the Media Center UI (Which I’ve also ran on the same displays – and still continue to). It feels cleaner to work with.

    HOWEVER – with all of that being said, my Media Center PC will always be my primary HTPC device because:

    * TV support is integrated in to the UI out of the box, a little work brings me the Australian TV guide.
    * I can add various folders (including network locations) to be scanned for media, whilst Front Row only scans what is in your ~/Music and ~/Movies (etc) folders and you can’t add additional folders.
    * The remote, whilst having a huge number of buttons compared to the Mac Mini gives me precision control and quick access to the different parts of the eHome system.
    * I can burn my movies or music stored in the libraries directly from the interface with my remote – particularly useful when I don’t have a keyboard/mouse hooked up.

    Of course, there are more that I could come up with – but like I said, I still and always will prefer MCE over Front Row/the Mac Mini setup.

  2. Thanks Chris. I added some details to the list.

    The processing power issue is mainly a graphics card problem. I can tell you the Intel GMA950 is very capable, but still not good enough if you want to play something like Unreal 2004 on a good resolution with every turned up. I could also use the Apple & games argument, but I won’t.

  3. I think you missed to add xbox 360 to the list.

    It plays games…
    It plays DVDs…
    It plays CDs…
    It plays music from your mp3 player (including iPOD)
    It’s a media extender playing content from your media centre or Windows Vista installation (can be a pc, mac or virtualized)

    It’s not a DVR but your media centre/ vista installation will do that assuming you have a tuner installed with that.

    In my opinion the ideal combo would be an xbox 360 (without fan noise), an option to connect to iTunes or a shared drive on you PC/ Mac as well as Media Extender functionality.

  4. I don’t use any DRM content on my Media Center PC or Front Row on my Mac ;). It isn’t a requirement on either.

    Con of MythTV: On the off chance you have DRM content you can’t play it. Works both ways.

    Hehe. :)

  5. A 10-foot interface describes an interface that is specially designed for uses in a large room where you might be sitting a large distance away from the monitor. It takes into account the possible low-resolution of the screen as well as readability, ease of use with remote and keyboard-less navigation. Common features of a 10-foot interface include large text and big buttons. Windows Media Center, TIVO and Front Row are examples of 10-foot interfaces.

  6. BTW, apparently HDMI is backwardly compatible with DVI, so you don’t technically need a DVI input on your display (lot’s of the HD TV’s nowadays don’t have a DVI input).

    You can get HDMI from your Mac Mini with one of these (admittedly expensive) cables. However your statement about Digital Audio still holds true. Your HDMI signal would not have any audio in it, so you’d need to feed that to your amp seperately (or some TV’s might let you feed it as an alternate audio source) via TOS.Link/optical audio from the back of the Mac.

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