Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

What is the Mac Mini, really?

Jerry Stratton, January 22, 2005

Mac Mini with Disc

(photo courtesy of Apple)

Is the Mac Mini really designed for Windows switchers? I’m not so sure. Others have pointed out that if it is for switchers, it is not for switchers who buy inexpensive computers: they don’t have USB keyboards and mice. Cheap windows computers still come with PS/2 keyboards and mice. They’ve got old, 15-inch monitors. They don’t know what a KVM switch is, and probably don’t want to spend a hundred bucks on one at the Apple Store anyway.

The perfect entertainment center

When I look at the Mac Mini, I see the perfect device to replace my DVD player and CD player. At $499 it is at the right price point. It doesn’t need a monitor, it would plug directly into the television set. I’d have my iTunes collection available right at the stereo, and maybe even have my iPhoto collection right at the stereo and television.

It doesn’t come with much memory, but it doesn’t need much memory. How much memory do you need to run iTunes, DVD player, and iPhoto, and then only one at a time? The basic 256 MB should be fine.

And it’s all portable, as far as such devices go. My entire iTunes collection, my iPhoto collection, my DVD/CD player, is easily turned off, disconnected, and packed back into its little luggable carrying case ready to be plugged into another television set and another stereo in my hotel, at a conference, or at my parents’ house.

As an added bonus I could hook up other devices that are currently shared off of my “real” computer. My USB printer, for example, could be shared off at the entertainment center. The real computer would not need to be turned on for my friends (or myself, from my laptop) to use the printer.

The thing is, at the moment, it isn’t there. I look at the Mac Mini and I desperately want one sitting on top of my television set. It is so close, I can’t help but think that this is the real future of the Mini. What functions would it perform?

DVD player
The Mac Mini is already a very nice DVD player. Mac OS X, when you pop a DVD in, will automatically start up the DVD player application. What else does it need? Some sort of remote control device, which probably also means built-in bluetooth, an S-Video port, and at least RCA output for sound.
CD player
Again, when you pop a CD into your Mac, iTunes automatically starts up to play it. You can even tell iTunes to automatically rip your CD to your hard drive for you. If you have the Mini plugged into your network (it has Ethernet already, as well as a modem), it can check the CD against the CDDB database and automatically pick up the title of the CD, the artist, and all of the track names. Some higher quality sound output would be nice, however.
iTunes station
Screw CDs, I never listen to them any more. I buy CDs, rip them, and then put them up for display. The really cool feature of a Mac Mini entertainment center is having iTunes always available at your stereo, with the iTunes interface playing on the television screen. I’ve already done this occasionally with my laptop. It works great, especially when you turn on visualization mode. Again, though, the Mini needs better sound output. The kind of person who would pay $500 for an iTunes station is not going to be satisfied with plugging a headphone jack into their stereo system.
iPhoto station
Imagine having not just all of your music at your disposal, but everything else you might want to listen to or watch from your couch. Why not make your Mac Mini Entertainment Center also hold all of your photos? That giant control bar with its really big icons looks perfect for a television screen, doesn’t it? With Bluetooth built in, you might not even have to hook your digital camera up to your Mini, but even if your camera doesn’t have Bluetooth, it is still as easy as hooking up a USB cable. Most of the time, you won’t be transferring photos from your camera, but watching them on your television, with the appropriate music playing from your iTunes collection. You’ll probably find that 40 GB isn’t enough space, though, so you’ll need to spring for the 80 GB drive.
Printer server
If you use your Mac Mini for iPhoto, you’ll want your printer hooked up to it as well. But that also means that whenever your Mac Mini is turned on—which will be all of the time—your printer is available to any computer on your network. This may sound geeky, but it just isn’t hard to do at all. You plug your USB printer into your Mini, go into your System Preferences and Sharing, and click Printer Sharing. That’s it. All of the rest of the Macs on your network will automatically see that printer in their list of printer choices.
Simple web browser
For serious web browsing, you probably wouldn’t want to use your television set as a monitor (although WebTV was extremely popular before Microsoft purchased it). But how often have you found a cool movie trailer or flash animation and got the whole family huddled around the computer screen watching it? Now that your Mini is your entertainment center, the family need only sit down on the couch in the living room. The movie trailer will play directly on your television set.
Streaming events
The same goes for watching music videos in iTunes, or watching streaming video events from QuickTime. However, Apple will need to make it easier to watch these videos and streams in full-screen mode. I suspect that it is for some weird licensing reasons, but QuickTime currently requires that you purchase QuickTime Pro to easily play QuickTime in full-screen mode. The ability is in the free version, but it requires making or finding an AppleScript. Most of QuickTime Pro’s other features are there for professionals who edit QuickTime movies. The full-screen feature needs to be moved into the free version. It needs to be made not just easy but automatic.

So what does it need?

The $499 price is the perfect price for this hypothetical entertainment center. While more expensive than a DVD player by a long shot, it also does a whole lot more. However, anything beyond $499 is too much except maybe for geeks like me. So, what currently needs to be added beyond the basic $499 to make this into a set-top box that performs the above functions?

Remote control
This is the most expensive part that Apple would need to add in order to make this an entertainment center. It would probably have to be a Bluetooth wireless device. You can’t have a long USB cable going across the living room. For all but one purpose, however, the Bluetooth remote control device need be little more than a mouse. The CDDB handles naming all of your CDs. Only iPhoto would require a keyboard, in order to enter keywords, titles, and film roll names. If there were some way for multiple Bluetooth-equipped computers to share the same keyboard and mouse, this problem would be partially solved—people could use the same keyboard that they use for their “real” computer. But the Mini would have to come with Bluetooth built-in. That is currently an additional $50. A Bluetooth keyboard and mouse costs $100.
Quality video
The Mini already comes with great video out. It has DVI video, not VGA (it comes with a VGA adapter). For $20 at the Apple store you can buy a DVI to S-Video adapter and plug the Mini into any modern television set or home theater center. If this were to be designed specifically for use as an entertainment center, that output needs to be built-in. As parts go, however, Apple could add that feature in for a lot less than it costs us to buy separately, so I don’t see this as a major problem.
Quality sound
The Mini currently comes with only a headphone jack. Despite the great video, it has nothing special in the sound department. You could probably live with it by getting an RCA mini to RCA stereo adapter, and plug that directly into your stereo. But the kind of person who would pay $500 for a music player and DVD player isn’t going to like that. We want at least 5.1 sound. Griffin Technology has just announced a $100 FireWave, a FireWire device that provides 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 sound from any Macintosh with FireWire. (It does not include sound input, however, so is not a solution for recording or time-shifting.).
Disk space
For most uses, the included 40 GB drive is probably fine. If you have a lot of CDs, or if you rip to higher quality than most people do, you might end up needing more. And if you have lots of photos and want to use the Mini for iPhoto, you will probably end up needing more. The 80 GB drive instead of the 40 GB drive is an additional $50. Remember, of course, that you can add any FireWire or USB external drive later on if you outgrow the drive you purchase. That partially ruins the point of a standalone set-top box, but it is nice to have options.

With all of the necessities added in, the Mac Mini Entertainment Center now costs $670 before taxes. If you need the bigger hard drive, it is $720. With a wireless keyboard, it is either $770 or $820.

Can Apple bring the $670 price down to $499 or less, perhaps with a simple bluetooth remote control/gamepad included? I’ll bet that they can, and I’ll bet that the basic version will have at least a 60 GB drive by then as well, so most people won’t need the bigger hard drive.

If they really want to go crazy, they could add a simple microphone and turn on voice commands by default. This is something that Mac OS X already has. But it would have to be smart enough not to respond to music and movies, and it would have to not slow down movie playback or music playback.

The world at our fingertips

I have not even touched on other possible functions that I would not use. For example, a computer is a great choice for a video recorder, time-shifting television shows (it would need some sort of sound and video input for this, of course).

I said above that it is “nice to have options.” Using a full-on computer gives you options galore. The potential uses for a Mac OS X-based set-top box explode as soon as computer programmers start writing for it. The Mac Mini can run any program that the Mac can run. That means any graphically-oriented application, any time-saving command-line script, any Automator or Dashboard helper.

The only issue is that the software needs to be designed to display on a television set. It would need simplified controls.

That also makes the Mini into a game machine. Remember Connectix and their Sony PlayStation emulator? Sony bought that years ago and canned it. Apple, however, seems to have a renewed relationship with Sony: Sony’s president came up on stage with Steve Jobs at their latest Apple Keynote. If Apple can add a PlayStation emulator to the Mac Mini, a whole new world of games opens up, games that are designed to be played on a television set.

Is this what Apple really has in mind for the Mac Mini? We’ll probably find it at next year’s MacWorld.

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