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The computer in the living room: setting up a Mac mini media center

Christopher Breen | May 8, 2013
Trot back to the 16th century and corner famed prognosticating monk Nostradamus, and it's quite likely that when posed the question: "Will those living in the year 2013 be able to call up any media programming they like from a single box?" he'd respond with an enthusiastic "Mais oui!"

Trot back to the 16th century and corner famed prognosticating monk Nostradamus, and it's quite likely that when posed the question: "Will those living in the year 2013 be able to call up any media programming they like from a single box?" he'd respond with an enthusiastic "Mais oui!"

Sadly, we know only too well where this one sits in the cleric's win/loss column. Progress has been made, via cable and satellite services that deliver a trillion channels plus on-demand programming, as well as set-top boxes that have access to online music and video services. But the ultimate goal--watching exactly what you want to watch when you want to watch it--remains elusive.

In search of a solution, some people have turned to the most powerful media device in their home--their computer. Not only can it play locally stored music, video, and slideshows, but it can also bring you any media found on the Internet, including streaming TV programming, movies, and music.

But sitting in front of a computer monitor--regardless of its resolution--can be limiting. It makes for a less-than-satisfying group-viewing experience, and it's hard to shake the feeling that you're, well, sitting in front of a computer. What many of us want is a device as intelligent as a computer but one that's at home in the living room, attached to a big-screen TV. Turns out that Apple produces a device fitting that exact bill: the Mac mini.

Small, not obscenely expensive, and capable of accessing media locally as well as online, the Mac mini has a lot going for it. But is it the perfect solution for those anxious to cut the media cord? I spent a month with one to find out.

About the box

I chose the $599 base-model Mac mini for my media experiment, largely based on its price and performance. That mini includes a 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, a 500GB hard drive, and the Intel HD Graphics 4000 chipset built into the motherboard. For another $200 you can purchase a Mac mini with a i7 processor and a 1TB hard drive. I chose to save that $200 because the base-model's processor is fast enough for a media server, and because, while storage is important for this kind of use, an external hard drive offers more space for less money.

Today's Mac mini offers other advantages as a media server. It sports an HDMI port, which allows you to jack the computer directly into your TV or HDMI-compatible AV receiver. It includes an SDXC card slot for directly accessing the pictures stored on a camera's memory card. Unlike most of today's Macs it still retains a FireWire 800 port (though it also has a Thunderbolt port). It includes four USB 3 ports for plugging in additional storage devices and media peripherals. The mini has an IR receiver and comes with Apple's remote, so it can be controlled from the couch. It carries a gigabit ethernet port, for when wireless isn't fast enough. And its supports digital audio in and out.

 

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