At Home With the New Mac Mini: My Setup and Impressions

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I recently received my brand new Mac mini in the mail, and, as it always is when I get a package from Apple, it was a joyous occasion. For once, I didn’t have to find someplace to cram a huge box, since the packaging is size-appropriate for such a small desktop.

My afternoon the day it arrived was spent going through the extremely satisfying computer-lover’s ritual of setting up a new machine. I didn’t do an automatic set-up using one of my existing machines, because the mini was going to be used primarily as an HTPC, and as such I wanted it specially tailored for such a narrow focus. I wanted to devote as much of the 4 GB of RAM, 2.26GHz processor, and 120 GB HD to media playback as was possible, so I skipped a lot of my usual software installs and went with the basics.

Essential Software

The basics included the latest version of Perian, the all-in-one codec solution for Quicktime, and VLC for when that wasn’t enough; Firefox for browsing and YouTube viewing; LineIn, for audio pass-through from my TV to my speakers; and Rowmote Helper, for use with Rowmote for the iPhone, a great supplementary remote application for the Mac. I also installed Logitech Harmony remote software to go with the brand new Logitech Harmony 550 universal remote bought specifically to compliment the new mini. I’m still debating whether or not to also put Hotspot Shield on the machine so that I can watch Hulu outside of the U.S.

Media Storage

I decided to make my iTunes library resident on the Mac mini’s own internal HD, since I don’t like waiting for the drive to spin for music to start up. I also don’t like the extra time it takes to add music from another source, owing to the extra copy time to the USB-attached drive. My extensive video library, however (all backups of DVDs I own, honest) would be impossible to fit on the measly 120 GB HD, so that would have to stay on the external drive. I may yet invest in a drive with Firewire 800 connectivity to make this an even more practical solution and cut down on playback hiccups.

Connectivity and Calibration

For connection, I was forced to use the included Mini-DVI to DVI adapter, in combination with a DVI-D to HDMI cable. My audio goes out to speakers, so luckily no audio connection to the TV was required. I still think it’s pretty ridiculous that no HDMI out is included in a machine otherwise so perfectly suited to the HTPC role. As mentioned in my earlier post on why I was buying a Mac mini in the first place, I also run TOSLiNK to mini-TOSLiNK cable from my TV to the mini’s mic/input port. I still have four empty USB slots since I use Bluetooth-connected control devices.

It took some fiddling with the display settings, but now I’m more than satisfied with the playback of both standard and high definition video files via the Mac mini. Blacks are still not as crisp or clear as I would like them to be, but that’s probably more of a problem with my somewhat older Samsung 32-inch LCD flatscreen than with the computer.

Playback

Video playback, both streaming and downloaded, offered no problems, and the GeForce 9400M has no problems with full 1080p video, although my TV technically only supports a max resolution of 1360×768, so 1080p is downscaled. Even gaming performance (I briefly installed Lego Star Wars: The Original Trilogy for testing purposes) seems to compare favorably with my iMac (20-inch, mid-2008 with 4GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon 2600 HD).

Verdict

I wouldn’t use it as my primary DVD player, because the mini’s drive produces a lot of noise when it spins, but my Xbox 360 or PS3 can easily fulfill that role. Other than that one minor complaint, and the lack of a true HDMI-out solution, I’m already very much attached to my new piece of Apple hardware. In fact, I’m not sure how I got by without it in the first place. I just hope my iMac doesn’t languish in neglect while I lavish attention on its new younger brother.

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