By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Decades ago, a home computer was often expected to use a television as its monitor. With Apple's newly revised Mac mini, we've come full circle -- only now the computer costs as much as some late-1970s TVs, while many of today's high-definition TVs sell for as much as home computers did back in the day.
This tiny white box of a machine represents Apple's first serious stab at a goal Microsoft began pursuing in 2002 with its Media Center Edition of Windows XP. The idea is to make the computer at home in the living room, not just the office, by giving it an interface and a remote control that invite people to play their music, view their photos and watch their videos from the couch.
The Mac mini, sold in $599 and $799 configurations, is a little cheaper than most Media Center PCs and a lot simpler and smaller than all of them. But it also shows its relative youth with some needless oversights and, in the two models I tried, one crippling flaw.
The biggest difference between the mini and Media Center is that Apple doesn't include any way to tune into or record TV programs. The company built this machine to bring the computer to the TV, not the other way around.
That means you can't use the Mac mini to replace a TiVo or other digital video recorder (unless you plug in a tuner kit, such as one of Elgato's eyeTV models). But it also means you don't need to make it cooperate with a cable or satellite set-top box, many of which include their own digital video recorders; you can just plug it into a TV's video input.
That TV should be a high-definition model -- an analog set's lower resolution would make a mess of a computer's interface -- and that input should be a DVI or HDMI digital connection or an analog VGA jack. You may need to purchase some expensive adapter cables.
You may also need to spend some time tweaking display settings. With a digital connection to a Panasonic 42-inch plasma HDTV, text and graphics looked extraordinarily sharp, but the margins of the Mac desktop were clipped off at the edges of the screen. Shutting off an "overscan" setting in the Displays preferences window made everything visible -- but left more than an inch of blank screen on each side of the Mac interface.
Strictly speaking, this isn't Apple's fault -- many HD sets can exhibit this behavior with computers. But it's much easier to update a computer's software than a television's circuitry; Apple should provide a fine-tuning option to let users fix this issue.
The headphone jack on the back, with an optical digital-audio cable, can send surround sound to a compatible receiver, or you can use a regular RCA cable for just stereo output.
With the Mac mini thus hooked up, you can use a wireless keyboard and mouse to surf the Web from the couch, but why bother? A laptop with WiFi does that perfectly well. The Mac mini's reason for taking up residence next to the TV is to present all the digital music, photos and videos on its hard drive -- and on other computers in the house -- using Apple's Front Row software.
In this respect, Front Row shuts down Microsoft's Media Center. Instead of Microsoft's click-click-click march through windows and dialog boxes -- including a mandatory reboot of the computer sharing the files -- Mac mini users only have to click one button in iTunes and iPhoto on the sharing computer, verify that its firewall allows this activity, then select "Shared Music," "Shared Photos" or "Shared Videos" in the Mac mini's copy of Front Row.
Music- and video-sharing works with both Mac and Windows computers running Apple's iTunes program, as long as the files you want to share show up in the other machine's iTunes library. Photo sharing, however, is limited to Macs with Apple's iPhoto application.
You can also play audio CDs and watch DVD movies from Front Row.
To link to other computers, the Mac mini includes a WiFi wireless receiver and an Ethernet jack for wired networks.
But neither of two Mac minis loaned by Apple could stay connected to my WiFi router from farther than a few yards away. I had to plant an extra wireless transmitter three feet below the second Mac mini before shared music, videos and photos would play back without interruption.
Some Mac mini users have reported the same problem in online forums, while others haven't had any such issues. A representative at Apple's tech-support line suggested a troubleshooting routine that could not have worked on the Mac mini but had no other help to offer. Apple's spokesmen acknowledged "some isolated cases" of this flaw but didn't have an explanation for it.
Front Row's elegantly sparse interface -- a black screen with a minimum of icons and menu items -- is driven by a slim white remote with just six buttons. You're never farther than a few button presses away from any part of Front Row.
In comparison, a Media Center PC's remote, with dozens of tiny buttons and switches, looks like a parody of consumer electronics gone wild. Its onscreen menus need some pruning to get rid of the irrelevant or outright pointless commands that still clutter them.
On the other hand, Front Row could stand to have some features transplanted from Media Center, such as the ability to assemble a custom playlist, copy an audio CD to your hard drive or display a computer-generated visualization of the current song. That last option wouldn't just be more interesting to look at than Front Row's static display of the song's title and artist; it would also reduce the odds of that text getting burned into a plasma TV's screen.
This Mac mini, like earlier versions, can also be used as a regular desktop computer. With its Intel processor -- a 1.5 GHz Core Solo in the $599 model, a 1.66 GHz Core Duo in the $799 model -- it runs far faster than its predecessor, especially with software adapted for the new chip.
It also includes a more capable graphics chipset -- one without its own memory. Instead, it will borrow up to 80 megabytes' worth from the 512 MB onboard -- a resource already heavily taxed by the Rosetta software needed to run programs written for Apple's older PowerPC processors. An upgrade to 1 gigabyte of memory is just about mandatory for anybody using this computer for more than Front Row.
The new Mac mini also offers more expansion options, with four USB ports instead of the two included on the old model. Now adding a keyboard and mouse (neither comes in the box) won't max out this machine; you can also plug in a printer and a memory-card reader. Or the modem that's not included -- anybody who relies on a dial-up Internet connection will have to shell out $49 for Apple's external USB model.
That last aspect makes the Mac mini a considerably more expensive proposition to many home users, even while it falls short of its potential as a living-room device. With some updates, it could be the best fusion of computer and TV yet. But will that come at the price of neglecting the price-conscious home users the Mac mini was originally built for?
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro firstname.lastname@example.org.