Why I’m Buying the New Mac Mini: Value Reconsidered

macmini1Yesterday, Apple introduced new hardware across its desktop offerings, and with one exception, the changes were pretty much hailed and welcomed by all. That one exception received, and continues to receive, fairly harsh criticism from all sides, including from our very own Tom Reestman, who argued that Apple really under-delivered with yesterday’s update to their tiny all-in-one. Tom’s main problem is with the value prospect of the new machine, since, as he rightfully points out, you don’t get very much bang for your buck when you drop $600 on the entry-level machine.

What’s Wrong With It

It is underpowered, it is overpriced, and, worst of all, as Gizmodo points out, it is not easily upgradeable after the fact, so most users would be advised to bite the bullet and pay Apple’s extortionate rates for in-house upgrades, or risk breaking something. The hard drive options are almost insulting, with the max available upgrade being 320GB. That seems pretty clearly intended to force your covetous gaze towards the higher-priced iMacs, if you ask me.

Even though I agree with Tom, and I truly believe everything I just said, I will still be buying a new Mac mini today…despite already owning an iMac and a MacBook. Maybe I’m masochistic, or just a compulsive shopper, right? While both of those things may be true, neither is the reason for my purchase.

What’s Right With It

The reason I’m buying the Mac mini is that for my needs (not as a small business owner, and not with such specific tastes as some), and with my existing setup, it is the perfect home theatre PC. Before you protest, let me explain. Afterward, you can protest till the cows come home.

The Current, Mac mini-less Setup

I currently don’t have a proper home theater receiver, or traditional book shelf or floor speakers or any kind of 5.1 surround setup. What I do have are two sets of Logitech X-series (two different incarnations of the same product, but released at different times) 5.1 computer speakers, three gaming systems (Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii), an HD cable box, and an LCD HDTV. To wrangle these mismatched, hodge-podge devices, I currently use a system of plugging and unplugging depending on what I intend to do, watch, or play, and what source I intend to use. Volume is controlled either remotely or manually, owing to my speaker sets lacking a wireless remote. I would provide a visual diagram, but I don’t want anyone to become terribly lost and confused.

There is one set of circumstances during which everything seems at peace with my home theatre setup. In order for everything to come together, I have to have my MacBook hooked up next to my TV, with both set of speakers attached to the headphone jack via a 2-mini stereo jack to 1-mini stereo plug adapter, and with the optical audio out from my TV attached to the MacBook input via a TOSLiNK to mini-TOSLiNK cable. Also, my MacBook’s video out is hooked up to my TV’s VGA input.

Still with me? I also need a software helper, the freeware app called LineIn that lets you pass audio directly through your computer from the input jack to the output. This means that audio from the cable box will play through the speakers, or, if I watch something from my MacBook, I can hear that too. It also gives me remote volume control, thanks to Apple’s own IR remote (of which I have many).

All that sweet synchronicity falls apart every time I have to unplug my MacBook to work, or to travel, and in the meantime I trip on all the cables it takes for me to be able to use my computer from the couch. Then it’s back to fumbling with plugs and switches, and turning dials to control volume.

The Setup With the Mac mini

The Mac mini will sit quietly in my TV console, nestled comfortably next to my cable box, all wires out of site. With the improved graphics card, it’ll be able to handle full 1080p HD video without issue, and maybe even some older games. Thanks to LineIn, it will be doing the duty of a receiver, and thanks to my existing external media hard drives, which will be plugged in behind it, it will provide access to my entire media library, including movies, TV shows, and music.

Buying a new home-theatre-in-a-box would cost me at least $600, and that’s not for a good one. I don’t need Blu-ray, because I’ve got it with my PS3, and even then, I suspect digital distribution will replace it in a few years anyway. I don’t need an HDMI connection, although it would be nice, because the PC-in on my TV, even if it does required two cables (gasp!) works just fine. I’d like a larger hard drive, but I can live without it, thanks to the FireWire drives I already own. I don’t want a screen, because that’s precisely what’s stopping me from using my iMac in the same capacity.

The new Mac mini may not be the ideal computer for everyone, and I fully acknowledge its many failings. For someone like me, however, who’s looking to leverage his existing components, and cares more about form factor than whiz-band features and specs, it might just be the perfect machine.

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