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Apple TV vs. Mac mini – Which one is right for you?

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Apple TV vs. Mac mini

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
Price $299 $599
Audio Output HDMI, optical audio, analog RCA stereo audio Combined optical digital audio output/headphone out
Hard Drive 40GB 60GB
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
Weight 2.4lbs 2.9lbs
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.

Apple TV and the Front Row Interface

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.

137 Responses to “Apple TV vs. Mac mini – Which one is right for you?”

  1. curiouslyvague

    remember that the Mac Mini is also expandable with hardware tuners and software such as is sold by Elgato, so ontop of being a media centre, it can act as your digital (DVB/ATSC/Analogue) TV tuner, internet programmable PVR and even terrestrial radio (eg, in the UK radio channels are available on DVB). Hard to beat that.

  2. I think it’s as simple as “what kind of TV do you have?” If you have a widescreen or HD TV, then you should get the AppleTV. Otherwise, you pretty much have to either get the Mac mini or the HomeDock Deluxe (to be used by your video iPod).

  3. The Mac Mini is a full-purpose computer. You could play games on it, watch YouTube videos on it, etc. Get a wireless keyboard and mouse and you’re set. Plus, you could add elgato to make it a DVR. I’m pretty disappointed with how little the aTV does, it’s just a media extender, for just $100 less than an entire XBox 360! I’d wait until they upgrade the mac mini though, you’re gonna want the extra horsepower of the Core 2 chips, maybe a better video card, more RAM and bigger HDD are to come, but who knows when. Until then I’ll just attach my MacBook pro to my TV when I need to…

  4. Clearly Apple expects buyers of the tv to already own a computer, so considering a computer as an added cost isn’t quite fair.

    It’s a convenience device. If you can handle setting up your mini to be a TV, you’re not the target market.

  5. heck, for 300 bucks I can build a PC to do all this stuff and not worry about a Mac. I would take $600 and build a nice PC with a HUGE hard drive and use Media Center to do all my TV Recording as well as Playback.

  6. The author also makes no mention of the CPU difference. A 1 Ghz Pentium M vs the Core Duo, imho that more than makes up for the dollar difference, and then some. Not to mention USB ports and peripheral support.

    It can be “apples to apples” there are just more angles to take than what was covered here.

  7. Jerry Moore

    All the technical specs and press materials for the Apple TV imply for use on wide screen TV’s only. So what happens if you connect an Apple TV to an HDTV with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Black bars on top and bottom, edges cut off or no display? I know the Mac mini works fine with a 4:3 LCD, but info on Apple TV for 4:3 doesn’t seem to exist.

  8. Of course, what you should really get is an easily-expandable vanilla box PC for around $400 that comes with a 160gb hard drive and 2gb of RAM.

    But if you want to pay Apple for looking “cool,” go right ahead.

  9. Andre Helmstetter

    I have had a mac mini + elgato eyetv 500 + a usb based digital surround card (connected digitally to my sound system) connected to my HDTV via DVI since the original mini’s came out. I have a 300GB firewire drive connected and I use content from the iTunes store as well as backed up DVD’s and other home made content. I stream content (photos, music, video) to other laptops and desktops in the house from this setup and it works fine. I can also sit on the couch and actually use the computer to play games, check mail, or surf the web with my bt keyboard and mouse. The system kicks a**, and I will definitely NOT be switching to iTV. I WILL be getting one of the new core duo mini’s so that I can get full res 1080i through the eyetv. To me there is now comparison between the two. The mac mini rules the media room hands down. Oh yeah, I shouldn’t forget to mention that eyetv can export recorded tv shows to itunes, so that I can watch in the media room, or shared to any other iTunes running computer in my house.

  10. Teddy, creating a reference movie for every movie in my collection is hardly a good solution! out of the box Apple TV DOES NOT play DivX and Xvid. If it did I might be interested.

    As it stands a mac mini is a far better solution, and what the OP fails to mention is that AppleTV needs a mac in the first place to get content from.

  11. interesting comparison and worth a comment. of course, as computer users, hackers, people interested in the underlying technology-this is an interesting comparison. as it clearly shows that apple is doing a fine job of it making its launch into businesses that could do with a bit of ‘dumbing down’. Thats what they are good at. Apple is has always been good at abstracting: abstracting technology into something that is understandable for normal human beings. they have done it with all their products, in both hardware and software terms to make things more easily accessible to normal human beings, with the added touch of trying to make that abstraction easier and easier to use. recent macword simply codified this in terms of hte iphone and this aTV thing. They are going after the basic couch potato in one sense as well as those who simply couldn care less which branch of bsd they have built it on. as long as it works, easily, simply and my spouse can use it. Even the mini is a far cry from the mac clasic in this sense. Good comparison.

  12. Oli Young

    #11 – No, it won’t. That method of enabling XVID/DIVX support requires access to the QuickTime components, because the only way Quicktime can play them is through new codecs and the only way you can install them is by dropping the XVID codecs into ~/Library/Quicktime

    We can easily assume that that TV won’t have that kind of access, it’s a black box.

    You’ll still need to convert them to an acceptable format, but it’s easy with something like VisualHub or iSquint

  13. Oli Young

    The 802.11 b/g/n v b/g comparison will be a non-issue once 10.5 is released; most new macs are coming with a dormant DraftN chip and you could assume that 10.5 will enable them ..

  14. The Apple TV will be able to play XviD and virtually any video file that Quicktime can play. The Apple TV can play anything you load onto iTunes. Though iTunes does not accept AVI files, you can take quick and easy steps (without encoding) to import such files onto iTunes. Here’s the solution I’m referring to:

    So to put it simply, if you have videos that can be played in Quicktime, they can be played in iTunes (using the method above). This means you should be able to play the same files on Apple TV. After all, even the Apple website advertises “if it’s on iTunes, it’s on Apple TV”.

  15. The Mini also works perfect with the matching IOMEGA-drives. A stack of two Iomega 500GB drives, and a Mini with 60GB – will definitly give you storage for the next five years.

    My choice will be a Mini – optic audio to the surroundreciever, DVI to the HDTV. Also it lets me use plugins for xvid, divx and other piracy formats :P

  16. rjschwarz

    You can check your email and websurf on a MacMini. Why they didn’t include this functionality in the Apple TV I don’t know. I’d much rather have my guests check their email and surf on the television than on my computer. Hopefully version 2.0.

  17. Marco Burelle

    Was questionning myself since second one I saw the aTV. So thanks for the comparaison. Other thing I’m looking for is to surf the web and record program tv so the aTV is not for me it seems.

    • Hey macminiman ~are you an Engrish teacher or what? Who cares whether or not the’s a ‘white space’ on the left hand side or not?! Get a life and make a positive comment-

  18. Yes, I agree…this comparison is a bit of stretch in an “apples to apples” evaluation. Remember too that an TV requires a computer to provide it with the content, whether stored or streamed.

    I’ve had a Mac mini-HDTV setup for about 8 months now and I truly like the experience of having it both as an oversized desktop (42″ @ 1900×1080) and as a media center (FrontRow & EyeTV HD). The ability of “working” on a mini as well as serving up media content justifies the price difference, including the EyeTV hardware.

    The only real improvement I see needed in the mini is a dedicated video card (128MB +).

  19. I’ve been debating this as well. One more thing going for the Mac Mini is that it is a backup machine in case anything happens to your primary one. My wife’s Macbook had to be sent in for repairs. We back up our machines daily to a bootable external drive.
    Right now, she is without a computer of her own, just relying on mine when it’s available.
    If we had a Mac Mini, she could boot from the external drive, and use it just like her macbook without skipping a beat.

    this is not possible with the AppleTV

    not to mention, with the mac mini and a bluetooth keyboard and mouse, you can purchase iTunes content from your couch. again, not something that you can do with the AppleTV.

    I think i’ll start looking into getting a mini. With Leapord coming out and front row 2.0 (which will most likely be very similar to the aTV interface) it’s worth the extra money.

  20. I like the comparison of the tv to a headless iPod. It’s quite true, the tv even shows up on the iPod section of the apple website. That’s the way people should think of it, not as a computer or a DVR (Which I wish it was)