A Mac mini is more than double the price of an Apple TV - is it worth the money? Here’s a handy table comparing the two products (information on the Apple TV was found at Ars Technica citing AppleInsider).
|Apple TV||Mac mini|
|Audio Output||HDMI, optical audio, analog RCA stereo audio||Combined optical digital audio output/headphone out|
|CD/DVD||None||Combo Drive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW)|
|Processor||1.0GHz Pentium underclocked on a 350MHz bus||1.66GHz Intel Core Duo|
|RAM||256MB of 400MHz DDR2||512MB (Video RAM shares this RAM)|
|Software (selected)||Apple TV interface (modified Front Row)||Mac OS X, iLife, Front Row|
|Video RAM||nVidia G72M with 64MB DDR2 Video Memory||Intel GMA 950 graphics processor with 64MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory|
|Wireless Features||802.11b, g, n||802.11b, g and Bluetooth 2.0|
|Video Output||HDMI, component video||DVI, VGA with included adapter, S-Video and composite video with optional adapter|
What the Apple TV offers that the Mac mini doesn’t
First off, the Apple TV offers you a $300 savings. You could get two Apple TV’s for the price of one entry-level Mac mini. The Apple TV also offers HDMI output, a true one cable hookup for audio and video and is designed to work with TV’s out of the box. Mac minis do not necessarily work with TV’s without a bit of tweaking.
The Apple TV features 802.11n technology which should allow for stutter-free wireless streaming of larger files if you have an 802.11n router. As an aside, the Apple TV allows you to playback protected content from the iTunes Store - a feat that is not replicated by any other extender-like device. Additionally, the Apple TV does not have integrated Intel video. This should allow for better video playback capabilities.
Apple TV is also dead easy to use. It is built around a modified Front Row program which locks the user out of any real power settings. It’s an excellent device you could place in your guest room and have your guests figure out how to use it even if they have never used a Mac before. All you have to do is run the network behind the scenes.
The slick Apple TV interface is effectively a modified Front Row.
Apple TV Menu: Movies, TV Shows, Music, Podcasts, Photos, Settings and Sources.
Front Row: Music (contains a Podcasts submenu), Photos, Videos (contains Theatrical Trailers, Movies, Music Videos, TV Shows, Video Podcasts), DVD.
Why buy a Mac mini then?
Let’s face it, the Apple TV doesn’t do much at all. It is not in the same class as the Mac mini. The Apple TV is merely a box that pulls your content from your computer to your television. These devices are not meant for the same audience, however the Mac mini could easily take the place of an Apple TV should you chose.
Alright, so what do you get for the extra $300 if you chose an entry-level Mac mini? A quick note: the following calculation is far from scientific and these numbers may vary depending on vendors; if you come up with other numbers, feel free to post them in the comments. I used Froogle to find some pricing information. A Mac mini includes a DVD player and CD burner. A DVD-ROM reader can go for as little as $20, a stand alone can cost a consumer $30. Let’s say this combo drive feature is worth $20 for argument’s sake. The Mac mini also includes Mac OS X and iLife which retails for $129 and $79 respectively. The Mac mini has a 60GB hard drive compared to the Apple TV’s 40GB hard drive - that 20GB difference is worth about $20. $248/$300 covered so far. There is an extra 256MB of 667 DDR2 SDRAM in the Mac mini which runs about $45 from Crucial (I am sure there are cheaper options for RAM, but Apple products have been known to be temperamental with RAM). $293/$300 covered. So far, $7 are not accounted for.
However, the Mac mini has capabilities not offered by the Apple TV that are not so easily priced (well, by me). Expandability through four USB 2.0 ports and one Firewire 400 port is offered through the Mac mini. The one USB port on the Apple TV is not meant for the end-user. I would imagine the only way to expand the capacity of the Apple TV is via a networked computer or hacking the device with another hard drive. Since the Mac mini runs a full version of OS X, other video formats are supported such as DivX, Xvid, and VIDEO_TS. What is that capability worth to you? The Apple TV does not have this ability at all.
What should you get? It depends.
Should you shell out $600 or $300 for your next Apple product? It depends on a number of factors.
After you decide how much money you are willing to spend, the main factor to consider is content - what kind of content do you already have? Do you have DRM’ed iTunes music and video? Both machines play DRM’ed iTunes media. Are you a DivX fanatic? Then the Apple TV is incapable of handling your media. Keep in mind that the Apple TV can play anything an iPod can. It is effectively a headless 40GB iPod with an HDMI out. If you want to be able to run backed-up copies of your homemade DVD’s, then an Apple TV may not be the best option for you.
Also consider maintenance. As great as Macs are, they are still computers. Computers need maintenance, but the Apple TV is positioned as an appliance and should rarely need anything like repairing permissions or other repairs initiated by the user.
Don’t overlook your television. If you have an older TV that has neither HDMI nor component video, you will need some kind of adapter (if one exists) to hook up the HDMI or component output of the Apple TV to a RF or composite input. Sticking an Apple TV into a guest room may be tricky if your television doesn’t have the appropriate inputs. The Mac mini has an adapter which allows for S-Video and RCA composite output which costs $19.
Consider how long you keep equipment. If you are planning on keeping either device for a long time, a Mac mini can be repurposed in numerous ways. In a couple of years, it may not be the latest and greatest computer, but it may make a fine server or project box. An Apple TV is a single purpose device that will inevitably be hacked. Its usefulness over time depends on what kind of hacks will be available. A Mac mini does not need hacks to be useful, however.
After considering these factors, don’t forget about the all important spouse-factor. Your spouse may not be thrilled with your Mac mini + HDTV dream, but may be more amenable to the Apple TV + HDTV combo. Why? Just ask your spouse.
I am sure there are more considerations to ponder in making your decision, but if you get lost or confused just ask yourself, “What do I want to do with this thing?” Once you know the use of the product, you may have a clearer idea of what to chose.