Whatever your feelings towards the updated Apple TV, it has revived the age-old Mac media centre topic, asking questions about the way we consume our entertainment and whether the traditional broadcast model still works. In the age of on-demand viewing, the networks and content providers are working hard to please those who still enjoy being told what to watch, those who time-shift their viewing and those who pick and choose their media in an à la carte fashion.

Whatever method you prefer, there are a wealth of ways to enjoy the content you love using a number of different techniques, from the simple Mac mini and HDTV setup, through to wireless streaming and more. Over the next few pages, we’ll take a look at how you can turn almost any Mac into the ultimate entertainment system for very little outlay, if any at all.

What is the definition of a Mac media centre? Well, in its most basic form, it’s a Mac connected to a TV in order to play music, movies and TV shows in your living room. As technology advances, however, the definition has become blurred with the introduction of wireless networking and streaming media into the mix. You could perhaps even call the Apple TV a Mac media centre, given that it runs an Apple operating system and connects to your TV for media playback.

Over the course of this feature we’ll be looking at all of the available options, whether it’s using a dedicated Mac to connect to your TV or using a device like the Apple TV as an intermediary between your media and the screen. We’ll even show you how you can take your media centre on the road with you and still access the content you have at home.

The Mac mini and birth of the media centre Mac
The idea of a Mac media centre really grew some legs when Apple introduced the Mac mini in 2005. A miniature computer housed in a slimline casing bereft of a keyboard, mouse or even a screen as standard, it looked more like a traditional digital TV receiver than it did a Mac. Cost was another factor: at under $500 (£359 in the UK) this was a realistic home-entertainment purchase price, even if Apple thought of the mini as an entry-level desktop machine for switchers from Windows.

As with most Apple products, it’s likely that the Apple TV had been thought of long before the Mac mini, but the compact computer prompted such an outbreak of online clamouring for an Apple-made entertainment box that it resulted in the introduction of the Apple TV in 2007. Later revisions would be and still are referred to by Steve Jobs as a “hobby” – which, in reality, is Apple-speak for “something we want to do but the public hasn’t gone nuts for yet”.

If you’re new to the concept of connecting a television to your Mac, it may seem a daunting or even fruitless task, and if you’re happy with your TV and the content it’s offering you, you probably don’t need this feature. The question is, do you know what you’re missing by using a standard setup?

Let’s first remove the preconception that a Mac media centre needs to replace your existing system. While it could, a connected Mac can do as much or as little as you need it to in order to perfect your entertainment setup, and offers a great deal more than the Apple TV in terms of content and customisation. This was one of the possible downfalls of the original Apple TV: its lack of flexibility. Users were limited to the content that already existed on their Mac and downloads from the iTunes Store and that was it. In terms of third-party media the only other options were selected clips from YouTube and photos from Flickr. This was meagre in comparison to other systems that offer streaming TV shows and movies, as well as customisable content sources, but we’ll get to those a little later.

It’s the last option that makes the Mac mini a more exciting prospect for the media centre faithful. While the Apple TV restricts you to its own graphical user interface and Apple-authorised content, a fully functional computer connected to your HDTV provides endless possibilities. Anything available on the web can be played on your TV and you’re not stuck with one method of control. While you could make do with a wireless mouse and keyboard to navigate Mac OS X from your sofa, even on the biggest television it’s a fiddly task. Apple’s Front Row software aimed to alleviate some of these problems with a much larger interface but, as with the Apple TV, the limitations as to what you can view are still present.

Boxee is arguably the best media centre application available for the Mac

The Front Row rivals
Fortunately, software developers were quick to jump into the media centre market on the Mac even before the mini was released, building apps for the iMac G5 back in the day. Apps such as Equinux’s MediaCentral did largely the same job as Apple’s Front Row but allowed for a greater level of control from the user.

As podcasting and streaming media have developed in the last few years, so have the capabilities of these applications that can be quickly installed on a TV-connected Mac (or even an iMac with a large display) for all your entertainment needs. These media centre apps do a great job of aggregating not only the content you have stored on your Mac but also on-demand television offerings, podcasts and live streams into an all-in-one solution. With a few simple clicks you can add more content to your system too, including favourite channels and custom feeds.