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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. Can i get a digital tv signal trough the MacTv on to my desktop (along my towerMac) Display. can it be used for video/tv input device with comp., hdmi, scart, coming from coax

    “viceverca “

  2. I know this blog is a little old, but I have a 2009 mac mini that I use as my main computer.

    Is it possible to use the same Mac mini as a media server as well as my computer, thus costing me zero dollars?

    Thanks!

  3. Both my wife and I love the Mac Mini as a media center. I truely believe the Mac Mini is a revolutionary computer because it provides a glimps into the future of fully integrated TV / computer world.

    The Mac Mini is such a great device because it can be used in data centers as well as media centers. Apple has just released a Mac Mini “server” with 1TB of storage (2 x 500GB disks) and 4GB of memory. For more details check out Mac Mini World Hosting

    Thanks for the informative comparison. In my opinion the Mac Mini is a clear winner over the Apple TV.

  4. Also, from “My multimedia Mac mini” by Christopher Breen:

    “Where the mini falls flat is as a client for a larger media server.” Apple TV excels in this, no effort wireless-n streaming from a computer.

    “From my experience it’s clear that one can assemble a multimedia center with a small computer at its core, but doing so takes time and money and the result doesn’t provide the convenience of traditional AV gear. There must be a better way. My money’s on Apple one day providing it.” This article was written in 2006, Apple TV was released in 2007.

    http://www.macworld.com/article/51113-2/2006/05/multimediamini.html

  5. #66 Dave says Apple TV is: “a device for folks that don’t understand computers”. Sorry, Dave, that’s not what it is all about to me. It’s all about simplicity.

    Buy an Apple TV and a Harmony remote. That’s all you need, control ALL of your A/V units (including Apple TV) from a single remote.

    If you want even more functionality and run Apple TV like an iPod, download and install the “Remote” iPod Touch/iPhone app and use that with Apple TV. Still simple to use.

    If you really want to test the limits of a media center, load Boxee on an Apple TV (Boxee also has a Touch/iPod “Remote” app).

    A laptop on the couch is for computer-related “stuff”. An Apple TV is for playing media.

    Surfing the web from the couch is overrated. If you REALLY want to do this, just buy a WebTV unit for $150. They are selling like hotcakes. ;)

  6. I am actually about t buy a mac mini to hook it up with my tv. I wanted to ask whether the software that the aTV uses is available for download anywhere, or one that is similar to it. The thing with front row is that you cannot go and preview movies from the iTunes store and then buy them. Front row only accesses what you already have downloaded. In order to buy movies from the mac mini you have to go through itunes using a mouse/keyboard and Having a keyboard and a mouse lying around the sofa/bed is not the most convinient thing. I was wondering whether i could just preview/buy movies with a remote through front row (or front row like program) with the mac mini. Anyone can help?

    thanx

  7. Oh yeah, for those of you that would rather pay $25 for a Mini instead of $599, then go here. http://macminis.freepay.com/?r=43083386 you may have to pay a small fee, you may not, depending on what other offer you want to sign up for. The reason I think this is the best way to go is you only have to sign up for 1 offer, and they seem pretty interesting. If you don’t, forget this comment. If you don’t like it, then don’t comment. This is for those that want to benefit.