When Apple released a Mac mini that bears an HDMI port in June, it took mere minutes before people suggested that this new mini was the next-generation Apple TV in disguise. Now that Apple has updated the Apple TV, we know that the two are very different beasts. So which device should you plug into your TV?
One of the clumsier aspects of using a Mac mini as a media centre has always been the TV connection. The newest mini brings an HDMI port for direct connection to your TV, you can also make a connection with a DVI-to-HDMI cable or with a DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter, but results can be uneven. The images displayed by the mini may exceed the bounds of the TV’s display, for example. Although the new mini has an Underscan slider in the Displays system preference that allows you to scale the mini’s image so that it perfectly fits your TV screen. By contrast the Apple TV used to have component video options which made it easy to plug into most modern TVs, now it only has an HDMI option. Advantage: tie
Like all other Macs, the mini can’t play Blu-ray discs. Sure, the quality of streaming video is getting better, and greater bandwidth will make purchasing, renting and streaming video even more attractive, but there’s still a large segment of the public that wants to shove a plastic disc into a slot and watch the resulting movie. The new Apple TV can only stream content from iTunes Store or your iTunes library. The mini, on the other hand, has an optical drive that supports standard-definition DVDs. Advantage: Mac mini
The new Apple TV is pretty much limited to the contents of iTunes libraries and the iTunes Store (unless you are in the US with a Netflix subscription). It doesn’t even have a hard disk on which to store content. The Mac mini is a Mac and as such, you can use it to play any web content that OS X can handle, as well as all sorts of file types that iTunes balks at. And the Mac mini supports 1080p HD playback while the Apple TV still only manages 720p. Advantage: Mac mini
On the navigation front, the Apple TV has a clear advantage. Front Row, Apple’s easy to use media interface for the Mac. Even better would be a version of Front Row that allows you to do all the things possible with a web browser – access Channel 4OD, iPlayer, SeeSaw and other online content – as well as play your movies and music from any computer or NAS drive in your home; all without leaving the confines of Front Row. Unfortunately we’re still waiting for such features. Nevertheless, while a wireless keyboard and mouse can give you total control over the Mac mini from your couch, for a media centre, simplicity rules. Advantage: Apple TV
Some people won’t be satisfied until an Apple TV serves as a digital video recorder. With the Mac mini, you can add a device such as Elgato’s EyeTV HD to turn your Mac into a digital video recorder. The Apple TV offers no such options, and probably never will. Advantage: Mac mini
The Apple TV now costs £99, whereas the new mini starts at £649. Pricewise, the Mac mini can’t compete (unless of course you don’t already own a Mac – not that you need one to use the Apple TV.) If you plan to use the mini as a hub for sharing your iTunes library around the house, hosting your website or performing another duty, and don’t mind that it will have to be within cable distance of your TV, then the mini’s higher price becomes easier to justify. Advantage: Apple TV