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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. whats about renting movies from apple? this new feature of appleTV was presented at the key note some days ago. kann i use the same feature in front row? with the same easy using?

  2. iTunesSharing

    I was thinking of getting the aTV, but after this article I’m now thinking I should get a mini. If I get a Mini, can I still manage all of my music on my iMac but access my iTunes through front row on the Mini?
    Also, can I access youTube through front-row on the mini?

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  4. Justin

    I agree with #38.

    If you already have an ipod video (30gb, 60gb 0r 80gb), you are better off just getting a dock to hook up to your TV. Even if you don’t have an ipod video, it is still cheaper, plus you can take all of your media with you, and have up to twice the storage as apple tv.

  5. Andrew

    I look at this blog while waiting for the atv to hit Australia, and decided that neither the atv or the macmini were really suitable. So I bought a G5 1.6 tower off ebay, these come with a decent video card with a DVI output. I swapped out the factory installed 80G SATA and put 2 x 320G drives which retail all of 120 bucks here now. I use a DVI to HDMI cable to drive a LG 42 plasma screen. Worked right away, the OS had it figured as soon as it was switched on. I dont compress movies as it takes too long to rip them. So I have heaps of video_ts folders which are ripped by Mac the ripper and organised by Matinee and played by apple DVD player. I use a bluetooth mightymouse as the remote and logitech wireless headphones as well as a airport extreme card to connect to the internet. I havent figured a way to the get the sixpack out of the fridge remotely yet. This system cost less than a mac mini and acts as a complete media centre.

  6. Simple man

    Will the Apple TV be able to simply receive my laptop current screen and sound and transmit it to my HDTV system?

    If not, is there a device that will do this?

  7. Sorry if someone else has already stated this, but has anyone tried to use the mini FireWire port plugged into your cable companies DVR to record content from the cable box?? If so, what do you use to record the video from within OS X – iMovie? Searching around but haven’t found the answer yet. basically want to record video via the Firewire directly from Motorola DCT-6416 HD DVR onto my Mac Mini.


  8. Joe Cassara

    Getting a second-hand, early generation Mac Mini is a fine alternative if you want the benefits of being able to play a wider range of file formats and you don’t want to upgrade to an EDTV/HDTV.

  9. Jesse David Hollington

    I started out with a Mac Mini last fall and began primarily with streaming content from my Powerbook G4 through Front Row on an 802.11G (Airport Extreme) network. This was generally 640×480 content either purchased from iTunes or converted into the new baseline-LC profile, but at no point did I have any issues with streaming, even over a ‘G’ network.

    I eventually attached my external drive (2TB LaCie FW) and iTunes library directly to the Mac Mini, but that had more to do with the back-end machine being a Powerbook (that therefore wasn’t always at home or plugged in ;) ), then any kind of performance issues (there was a secondary consideration in that the playback position for streamed content was not tracked either by Front Row).

    Ultimately, 802.11N is not necessary for streaming of content at current resolutions and bitrates. As we move to 720p or 1080p content, I’m sure it will be necessary, but it’s worth keeping in mind even then that the Apple TV also has an internal 40GB drive so you don’t necessarily have to stream if your network doesn’t support the kind of speeds you would like (40GB combined with some creative smart playlists in iTunes is all you’d need to keep a current roster of content queued on the device itself).

    I’m contemplating getting an Apple TV for my bedroom, with the only consideration being that I don’t (yet) have an HDTV in the bedroom :) However, since the TV that is in there is getting old, it’s going to be time to replace it soon anyway….

  10. regarding #70, Aaron there is a world of difference between Dolby Surround and Dolby 5.1

    Dolby Surround is the old 2 channels with the back channels encoded into them. If you get a movie from iTunes you will note that the sounds is just ‘stereo’ (presumably Dolby Surround) not D5.1

    The optical out is nice but if there is a QT movie format that supports 5.1 yet I haven’t seen it and you get Dolby Surround support with just a L & R hifi connect.

  11. Last Chance Rand

    I also have Mac Mini Core Duo integrated into HD home theater/recording studio. Mini stores and serves all of my content, including full house audio via Airtunes. I love it, and wouldn’t change a thing.

    However, I would like to use an Apple TV for my HDTV in our informal family room so we don’t have to fire-up the home theater to view content.

    I’m concerned that my Core Duo Mini will never support the “n” wireless standard, as the newer Core 2 Duo machines will.

    Will my Core Duo Mini ever be able to run at “n” speed? If yes, will it be simple, like a new Airport card? If no, then I’m doubtful that my current Mini will adequately stream to the Apple TV.

    Also, since we have a house full of wireless Macs, the Apple TV and new Airport Extreme hub will have to be on a separate network from the other non-“n” Macs. AND, what ever Mac is serving content to the Apple TV will have to join one network for streaming content, and a second for file exchange with non-“n” computers. This is necessary because the “n” network will slow for all users to the speed of the slowest wireless connection. I’m supposing that with “n”, streaming to the Apple TV will be poor.

    Of course, since the Apple TV has a hard disk, one could forego streaming and rely on syncing via iTunes.

    Any thoughts?

  12. James Adamson

    Have any of you actually USED the appleTV? I have, and if you try to fast forward or rewind a video, you can only go up to 3x, tops. Thats THREE TIMES speed folks. And there is no way to advance any faster. There is NO RANDOM ACCESS or chapter access,and It is not blind, so you are forced to WATCH (spoil) the movie as it is rewinding or fastforwarding. So for example, you are watching a movie with your wife, she gets a phone call, and when she gets back, she has to WATCH what she missed at 3x speed. This would spoil the movie for her. THe only other option is to restart the film from the beginning. So, if you do the math, It will take exactly ONE HOUR to fast forward to the 120min mark in Lord of the Rings. Does anyone else think this is HUGE, GLARING deal breaker for the AppleTV? I am quite honestly shocked no one has mentioned it thus far.

  13. How about comparing it to a 17″ imac.. an older one of those can be got for around $600 still with Mac OSx and for those without an HDMI TV could it offer a realistic budget option?

  14. AppleTV is for n00bs and as you said “locks the user out of any real power settings.” Mac mini all the way baby and loving my media centre. I’m still waiting for someone with a PC to come remotely close to something as elegant and as easy to use.

  15. Jean:
    “I also think that the Apple community will quickly find out ways to add other Codecs to the aTV.”
    If the AppleTV is an open system, I am going to be very surprised.

    “…but don’t forget that most of us out there have native HDTV TV’s with only really 720p resolution. 1080p is far from being the norm.”
    I wouldn’t be so sure about that. As the prices of HDTV’s drop, their allure is going to grow. Most newer TV’s are being made with 1080p native resolution. They are also coming with HDMI ports which make attaching a Mac Mini pretty easy using the DVI-HTMI cable.

    As for iTunes content. The day they have HD content for sale or rent, I’ll consider an AppleTV. I was flabbergasted that Job’s didn’t announce that they would sell HD content when he all but released the AppleTV to the public. What good is an HD set-top box if there is no content to play on it?

  16. I choose both :)

    Reason is simple, simplicity at the living room and i keep my Macmini in my office where it belongs.

    High speed wireless ? I don’t need it. I ran a Ethernet Cable upto my TV from the basement. Nothing beats a wire.

    Have you ever tried to connect a Macmini to a component video TV ? I did and the results are pretty bad, so I changed my TV for a model that has a DVI input, but if the aTV would have existed then I might have kept my old Sony 51 inch that was 1080i capable using Component video but had no DVI. There are a lot of people with projection TV’s out there with only Components video connections.

    For anyone who have not done it yet, a Keyboard in the living room is not practical nor elegant (not counting the mouse). And reading emails on a HDTV (event at 1080i) from 6 feet away, is not the way i want to treath my eyes (too hard to read)

    Playing games with a Macmini, forget it, The chipset of the machine was not designed to do this. Frame rate is sluggish and not practical, i abandonded the ideal long time ago.

    1080 resolution vs 720p ? Granted the Macmini can play 1080i and possibly 1080p resolution, not shure about frame rate tough, but don’t forget that most of us out there have native HDTV TV’s with only really 720p resolution. 1080p is far from being the norm. And the difference betwen 1080i and 720p is hardly noticeable.

    As for the Divx stuff i would gladly take the time to convert them to H.264 if i really want to see my ‘Illegal’ videos on my aTV. I also think that the Apple community will quickly find out ways to add other Codecs to the aTV.

    HD-DVD or Blueray, the battle is going on strong and why would Apple take a camp when the winner is not yet annouced !? And meabe they don’t need to make that decision now because apple wants to promote buying content from Itune store. But let’s not forget that the aTV is running a strip down version of OSX (not said but obvious) and it has a USB port ! So I can easily figure out that eventually you will find upgrades in the form of a USB connected HD-DVD or Blueray external drive… eventually when a clear winner is known.

    So, while i do have some Divx content, once I have access to download movies and TVshows (i’m in Canada) then I know i won’t copy Pirated stuff anymore (well… a lot less i’m sure)

    Cheers !

  17. #62 cjtv…
    This is a known issue with Panasonic tube sets. The Audio Authority transcoder is known NOT to work with Panasonic sets. Apparently one of the expensive ($300!) Key Digital transcoders will work, but I sold my 34″ widescreen set to a friend, and bought a 37″ LCD with a VGA input instead. Problem solved, with a net cash outlay of $100. :)

  18. I would choose the Mac Mini over the AppleTV anytime. I currently have my MacBook hooked up to my Sharp Aquos 42″ LCD HDTV with a Mini-DVI to DVI connecter, then DVI to HDMI connecter to plug into my TV. I then got TOSLink to digital audio cable to plug into my receiver. Works great. I get a smallish black border around the screen, but the movies and TV shows I watch are great looking. I also got the Apple Bluetooth keyboard and mouse so I could access the Mac part of the setup from the couch.

    I just can’t see what use the AppleTV will be other than a device for folks that don’t understand computers. Problem is, if they don’t understand computers, they probably won’t be using iTunes and won’t be buying movies off iTunes or listening to podcasts via AppleTV’s podcast menu, etc…

    So, I’m not really sure what the point of the device is. I suppose for those who don’t want to spend the money to buy a Mac Mini, Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, cables to convert the output from the Mac Mini to the TV’s inputs, AppleTV is the way to go. I just don’t see it.

  19. MiniTvMe

    My .025: I have a MacMini – and ordered the Apple TV as well. Why? Well, to quote the author above “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.” That would be the primary reason in my case. I want something that let’s me watch videos, look at my pictures and listen to music from my living room.

    Everything I have tried so far, has fallen short – primarily because something stops working – or just runs too slow. To say that what Apple TV does can be done cheaper by using other solutions is missing the point. Just like when the iPod came out – there were many cheaper solutions but nothing worked as “cleanly” or consistently. I have said from the beginning that most non-technical people do NOT want a computer hooked up to their TV. At least not a computer in the traditional sense. The best solution (even for a geek like me) is something that performs the necessary functions (music, video, pictures) with ease but doesn’t have the software “bulk” of a full OS. I don’t want to edit documents, create presentations, run databases or even surf the internet. I just want to listen to music, watch videos and display my digital photos. If the Apple TV can do that – then it’s a perfect solution for MOST users and may even be the best solution for a geek like myself that just wants a STABLE clean/easy solution. Perhaps this isn’t ideal – but I am willing it a shot. The biggest disappointment for me is not the limitations on video format or the HD size – but that it lacks gigabit. That really makes NO sense to me; it would have added almost nothing to the cost.

    I think Apple is way head of the curve here – more than people realize. I only hope is that that they aren’t too far ahead (think Newton) or that it doesn’t catch on as well as it should because it’s not well understood by the majority of the public (TiVo).

    • Jimmy Jam

      I have a MacBook that I can hook up and use my BT keyboard and mouse to do the features that the MacMini does however I would much rather have something hooked up and in place with little maintenance to do its job and do it well. The aTV.

      Follow me here, it will make sense in a second.
      I know I could buy another PC or Mac to play games but having an appliance (device) that’s sole purpose is to provide the best functionality for it’s intended purpose is what I want. Such as games, if I want to play games I will use an Xbox, playstation, or other game console instead of a PC or Mac.

      I am a geek and like to tweak things but I also like the simplicity of things such as a Game console designed for games and a Media system designed media.

      just my two cents :)

  20. Jonathan

    To answer POST 54 and 55
    1. You can view DIVX and XVID and h.264/x.264 in Frontrow if you download the Perian quicktime component (do a google search for “Perian”)
    2. You can get Frontrow to boot on startup by downloading “remote Buddy” and configuring startup options

  21. I’ve thought about the same question (ATV vs mini). My biggest problem with going the mini route is .. it’s not just $300 more that I’d be spending. I’d upgrade the memory, of course, and I’d *have* to get the wireless keyboard/mouse (how frustrating would it be to have a mac in the living room and not be able to check your email with it?), and if I’m going to have a mac as a media device it of *course* has to be able to do DVR, so there’s an Elgato to buy. And, probably a couple extra hard drives for all the DVDs I have that I’d want to have online instead, and .. and .. And before you know it I’m talking about spending $1000. :p That’s when the “only $300” starts to look attractive. Unfortunately, my TV’s too old for the ATV to plug into, so it’s not really an option anyway. : Ah well. Guess I’ll just have to start saving the money. :)

  22. I have an issue with screen resolution on my HDTV though. Does anyone know how to get the resolution to match up so i can see the whole screen on the TV? It is a Panasonic 34″ HDTV (Tube TV).