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

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. Just wanted to comment that the AppleTV can output 5.1 digital audio through the Optical Audio and the HDMI connections. Also there is no reason why the Apple TV could not play back HD video (720p in the case of the AppleTV) at the correct frame rate. It would be foolish for Apple to release this if it could not play back 720p content as stated. So the assertions in post #2 are not correct.

    I’ve been debating between the two of these as well however I’d like to see the Mac Mini with an HD drive of some sort (blu-ray or HD DVD) and an HDMI port. Not being able to play other codecs like divx is a big reason why I probably won’t get an AppleTV.

    I do however think for a a first appearance, the AppleTV is a great start that will hopefully be upgraded with more features as time passes.

  2. Excellent comparison. #18, Andre, sounds like a sweet setup… wondering how far away your bt keyboard and mouse are from the actual Mac Mini? I gave up a bt mouse because of lag time between hand movement and on screen pointer… it just got too frustrating.

    ~Ryan H.

  3. Nice article and interesting comments.

    For those of you who are using your (Intel) Mac mini as your home media center….Can you get 1080i (or “p”) to replay *without dropping frames*? This is a problem with first-gen Mac mini’s, of course. Curious to know if, with the Intel chip, the on-board graphics are up to the task?

  4. robreams

    I’ve been thinking about going the Mac mini route for a while, now. Does anyone have any favorite RF/bluetooth keyboards that have a smaller form factor & an integrated trackball or pointing stick?

  5. I would choose the Mac Mini again in a heartbeat; I can play emulated console games on it to my heart’s content using a bluetooth or USB game pad or plenty of other controller options… Can’t do that on aTV!

  6. It’s just a shame the aTV didn’t include a DVD Player, and more codec support that’s really all it would of needed for me.

    I don’t own a Mac Mini, does anyone know if you can get a Mac Mini to boot straight into Front Row… and hence make if GF friendly. Oh and how can you get it to play DivX, XVid and backed up DVD ISO’s (Preferably over network).

    It seems like there’s no perfect solution and no solution that suites everyone.

  7. I use a mac mini with a sony HD LCD TV, digital cable and a Tivo series 3. They just work great together. I would like to find a way to play my DIVX through front row (currently I start the DIVX player) and I would like Tivo to rent downloaded movies. Otherwise I can’t imagine a need these three devices don’t provide.

  8. Dave: No-one buys a mac to look cool. They buy a mac because it’s an alternative to windows, and therefore have an os that actually works properly, day after day after day, period. In this particular case the mac mini is a good option because of it’s form, which works for me because I can mount it right BEHIND my plasma. If you want your beige box sat next to your TV, you go right ahead.

  9. For me, the choice was easy; I went for a Mini.

    I think the Apple TV is a great product and for many people will be very useful. I decided the additional capabilities of the Mini were worth the additional cost. Specifically, the ability to playback all sorts of video files, as I didn’t want to be locked into iTunes content only.

    The Mini is connected to a 32″ Bravia and the pictures are stunning. My partner can’t tell the difference between playback on the Mini and playback from our SKY+ (a Tivo like device here in the UK that also receives digital satellite). I’m also using it as a music server, streaming to an AirPort Express as well as being connected to my main amp that’s with the TV. Overall I’m very happy with the set-up.

    If you can afford the extra dosh, go for the Mini, you won’t be disappointed. The one thing I wish the Mini had was 802.11n, but perhaps Apple will offer some sort of replacement wif-fi card in the future, that they will charge you to install.

    – northlondonhippy

  10. Steve K.

    Iyaz Akhtar,

    Would you please explain how to hook up a Mac-mini to an HDTV through an analog component connection? There has been ZERO rate of success of this on the Apple Dscussion Forums. Apparently the Mac-mini does NOT contain the circuitry to do this on it’s own.

    If you can actually shed some light on this it would be greatly appreciated. Until then, the Apple TV will probably be the ONLY way to get your media to display on an HDTV with component only.

    Best regards,

    Steve

  11. Allow me to clear up two points here:

    1) the Mac Mini does not include support for 802.11n. The enabler will only work on Core 2 Duo Macs (except 17″ 1.83GHz iMac) and the Mac Pro. Mac Mini is Core Duo. Apple has already confirmed this.

    2) Apple has already confirmed that the Apple TV will be able to play unprotected, non-ITS content. There is a Podcast menu. None of this content is sold by ITS or has DRM attached to it. Also, how absurd would it be for the Apple TV not to support your iMovie home videos? If iTunes will play it, Apple TV will play it. Period. Just rip your DVDs into h.246 and be done with it.

  12. I’ve been running a Core duo Mac mini as a media center and it is a very flexible solution, but it is not really possible to set up to run 100% by remote only — which to many end users is a HUGE stumbling block. The Mac mini IS still a computer and there are a lot of things to do with it that demand the use of a keyboard (either wireless or via VNC).
    I imagine that the aTV is mainly designed as an media extension appliance that offers convenience and no-hassle setup combined with easy streaming of audio and video from another computer (Mac or PC) that’s running iTunes. If you’ve got everything in a format that is used by iTunes and you want to be able to use the device 100% with a remote and you have a wide screen TV with HDMI, and you just don’t want to hassle with maintaining the device as a computer via a keyboard, the aTV is the only way to go (vs. Mac mini option.) If you’ve got audio and video in other formats that demand QT components with the proper codecs and you want flexibility and possibly DVR funtionality via sometheing like eyeTV, then the mini or some other media center is the way to go.

  13. So the real question that hasn’t been answered here is what’s the cheapest way to hook a mac mini up to an hdtv set via hdmi, hd-dvi, component, and/or s-video and have it display at least 720p hd?

  14. I’m going to have to side w/ the mini here. There’s just too much up in the air about the Apple TV playing non-iTS content. Slap on an external 500GB HDD and it could be my media server too. Or just have it stream stuff (more than likely I’d have it hardwired). Only problem is that it’s $100 too much right now just for that purpose. And I want to stick w/ intel macs right now. the xbox does it’s job for now.

  15. The hard drives capacities are comparable. That is with Mac OSX and a few apps, you end of having only 4OGb of space left for media files on the Mac mini. So this is the same as Apple TV, except you can add in external drives on the mini to ramp up storeage (I’ve got 400 GBs already filled with only 3GB free). And you can use FTP which is much faster then a finder transfer over the network.

  16. you could also purchase a core xbox 1, for $125 and install xbox media center. It’s a incredible piece software and for the price its the best fully functional media center. XBMC plays all file formats and can even stream a video compressed in the RAR format. The xbox also includes a 20 gig hard drive but can easily be upgraded to more. This is the still the ideal choice for me as I have three other media centers but I bought a second xbox to use as my alternate in our other movie room. Anyone serious about media capability should consider it as a extremely viable option.

  17. Here’s what the comparison should really be (let’s make it apples to apples): First, assume that the prospective buyer already has another Mac in the house that will do normal computer stuff, and this purchase will act specifically as a streaming media server. Let’s also assume that Apple will introduce a Core 2 Duo Mini with 802.11n networking at the same $599 price point in the near future.

    NOW, compare the Mini at $599 to an AppleTV at $299 plus a new Airport Base Station at $199 plus a small hard drive… around 100GB for $100. For just about the exact same price, how do they compare?
    – they both can run headless/keyboardless/mouseles (VNC on the Mini)
    – they both can easily stream media to a TV and stereo
    – they both can broadcast a wireless network and share an internet connection (see system prefs/sharing on the Mini)
    – they both contain small hard drives that are easily accessed by the desktop Mac for backups, media storage, etc
    – they both can display live and archived TV on the television (the Mini uses an EyeTV unit, the AppleTV sits next to a TiVo that can export recordings to iTunes with the new Toast software)

    Basically it’s a wash… one is very nearly as good as another. The real difference this highlights is a philosophical one. The Mini approach (which I’ve embraced, btw) is your standard “media server.” Google ‘iServe’ for some thoughts on this from a few years ago, or look at the product M$ announced at CES.

    Rather than sell an iServe, Apple (rightly I think) questioned the very premise of the product. If there’s a big powerful desktop that can do all sorts of normal computer work, including media creation and transcoding; and if that computer is on a superfast wireless network; and if you can hook your TV up to that network to grab and play media from the desktop computer; then why centralize? It’s unnecessary, and unnecessarily complicated for the average Joe.

    As I said, I personally choose the centralized, Mini-based option. My home server is kickass, and some of the ones described above are too. But I definitely see the value in Apple’s decentralized strategy.

  18. The_Ogre

    I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I went a decidedly lower tech & less-expensive route; I have an iPod Universal dock connected to my AV receiver (miniplug to dual rca audio and S-video to rca video). I have a remote control for the dock. Everything works, and I spent less than $100.00. Currently all my music and the one iTunes-purchased movie fit easily on my 80GB video iPod. I can’t stream, but I really see no need to.

  19. hlwimmer

    i didn’t catch it in the above posts, but the mac mini will also play DVDs and CDs — a simple enough thing, but the core of the home-theater experience. while many of my movies are “backed up” digitally, creating a QT file for each could get painful and i’d still miss the DVD extras. also, while not a fair comparison, my macbook hooked to my sony XRB1 via a DVI/HDMI cable looks awful (overly sharpened and not the ight scale). i’d hate to pay $300 for a non-returnable computer to find that the true HDMI hookup is also cruddy. oddly, the signal via VGA/DB15 is quite nice. the mac mini will be an inch or so taller, have a few more cables coming out the back and not be “n-ready” (yet), but i think the mini will be a better solution for me — even with a house-server and a few laptops lying about. if they came out with an aTV with a DVD reader and the ability to newwork to places other than an iTunes library, i’d be sold… but that product is essentially a mac mini with an HDMI port. if you were starting the digital home-theater thing, working with the aTV’s nuances might be worth the hassle, but to go back and retrofit everything could get messy — fo that, the mini seems the better buy.

  20. I’ve been using a Mac Mini… PowerPC with 1Tb of external storage. I am running Front Row(shh don’t tell Steve) and I also use Eyetv and Matinee for Ripped DVD Viewing. I use the S-video output and connects through my stereo. With QT addons I can play all my other favorite videos, divx, wmv etc. through Front Row.

    Why would I need AppleTV when I can jump from Front Row and all my protected itunes music and movies to live TV just by cmd Tabbing. My only problem is space… I still have more DVDs to rip to hard drives.

    It’s worth the price of admission.

  21. Bozo the Engineer

    I think this is posing the wrong question. Either way, you need a system to act a a server – minimally, a Mac Mini. So the real question becomes, “is it worth the extra $300 to have a second Mini?”
    You could look at it as either a $300 insurance policy, or as $300 of extra capabilities. On the basis of extra capabilities,
    * the value of the combo drive is zero because the server machine presumably already has one.
    * the value of Mac OSX and iLife is zero for the same reason.
    * the value of the extra RAM is zero because the AppleTV already has enough to perform its function, so you don’t get any utility from the extra.
    * the extra drive space is worth the $20, minus any difference in the system software requirements that would take up some of the extra.
    * the connector is worth the $19 if you need it, $0 otherwise.
    * DivX support is worth whatever it is worth to you.
    * the USB connector could be worth something to you, particularly if you attach a flash card reader to it and gain some “instant slideshow” capability you didn’t have otherwise. It probably would be a multi-step process to get the same thing on the server side, though it could be scripted.
    * the firewire connector could be very worthwhile if you have a set-top box with a firewire output. Due to FCC rulings, this is often required (my Comcast box has one). The value comes down to whether you want to record an MPEG Transport Stream off the box, and whether the streams you want are unencrypted from your set top box.

    Nice comparison – it certainly crystalized some of the questions for me.

  22. I have my Macmini 1.66 hooked up to my Panasonic 42″ plasma
    PC input to DVI from my Macmini. The picture is surperb. I
    can also use a DVI-HDMI, but the picture s squeezed, so I go
    with a frontal PC input. I watch iTune movies, cruise the internet, load applications, watch podcast; etc. I even have my Mac
    split; with Mac OS on one side and Vista on the other, with a reboot. I have
    external HD for expansion. I have the stereo output hooked up to my
    plasma internal speakers and the fiber optic hooked to my receiver
    amp for big sound. I would go with the more expensive MacMini,
    just for more options it gives you. I wouldn’t be locked in to a system,
    that is already outdated.

  23. Dave and Mike
    For $300 I can have someone deliver a steaming pile of manure to my living-room, but I’m not going to do that either. For my money the aTV has too few options as a living room device. It’s especially useless outside the US where you can’t yet buy video content from iTunes. Unfortunately the Apple’s choice to favor very small form factor over price really makes it too expensive when you compare it to the iMacs. For a couple of extra inches on all dimensions they could have put a standard 3.5″ drive in and quadrupled the storage for he same $’s.

  24. Jon Hart

    There is one critical difference that no one has mentioned.

    The mini is capable of outputing a dvi signal at the native resolution of your tv ( in my case it is 1366×768 ), bypassing the scaler built into the tv.

    In fact, with my current setup the signal goes through two scalers, one in my cable box which only outputs a fixed HD resolution ( I choose 720p ) and that then gets scaled to my tvs native res. 1080i material looks pretty shit.

    A solution here is to use the firewire output on the cable box and have the mini decode the mpeg stream and scale it to tv native res.