Spoutin' Off: New Mac is a Mini letdown

By Michael Rau

March 6, 2006

In the category of "close, but no cigar" falls my prediction from a few weeks ago regarding Apple's new Mac Mini.

While they have implemented some changes which move it in the direction I predicted, it fails to meet my expectations.

The new Mini continues the Mac's transition to Intel chips, with the base model using a 1.5 GHz Solo Core processor, and the higher end unit sporting the same 1.67 GHz Duo Core chip used by the new iMac.

As I've said before, I won't be able to muster much enthusiasm for the processor transition until software developers catch up by introducing more MacIntel-ready applications, but that's not the point. My disappointment is in what's missing.

Several reviews I've read are touting the new Mac Mini as the system that'll take on Windows Media Center (like that's hard to do). All that distinguishes either of these systems is the user-friendly manner in which they interface with your existing home audio and video equipment.

The addition of ports for audio and video in and out, as well as the inclusion of Apple's Front Row remote control and interface system, almost gets us there.

What's missing is the killer app - the software/hardware combination which leads to a genuine paradigm (I swore I'd never use that word in a column, but it fits) shift in the manner in which your computer integrates with the rest of your media systems.

The first necessary component that's missing is a TV tuner. I would have recommended using both an analog and a digital tuner as both are currently viable and supplying both could serve to make the Mac Mini the device which consumers use to assist themselves in the transition from analog to digital television broadcasting. The public will be looking for an easy way to accomplish this change and the Mac Mini could serve that role.

TV tuner circuitry is dirt cheap - including both in the hardware scheme of any computer would logically have added only twenty or thirty dollars to the unit's manufacturing cost.

The other part of the equation which would have made this device a true media control center is an application that enables the device to serve as a digital video recorder.

Essentially, it would work in the same manner as that which is resident on your VCR or DVD recorder (or if you have one, your Tivo). You'd program the unit to record your favorite shows using date, time , and channel, or even a VCR Plus-type code. The video would be stored on your hard drive and recalled for consumption at your convenience.

To take this idea a step further, let's spend a minute considering the fascinating (ahem) subject of video compression. The current industry standard is still MPEG-2, which is over 10 years old, but remains the codec of choice for rendering DVDs and digital broadcast video.

Conveniently, as it turns out, Apple is a licensed provider of H.264. If you're not familiar with that particular moniker, that's OK. (They really need to find a more marketable appellation).

H.264 is among the newest generation of video compression standards and falls within the MPEG-4 family of digital media compressors, which also includes DivX and AAC. It's amazingly efficient.

Although available elsewhere, the H.264 compressor is a key component of QuickTime 7, so it's probably already resident on your system, and certainly included on any Mac sold today.

Although there are many variables, files compressed using H.264 are about one-third the size of those utilizing MPEG-2 with virtually no loss in quality (around 700 MB per hour of video in H.264 vs. a little over 2 GB per hour with MPEG-2).

Why does all this matter? Because it means you could, in theory, record and store a tremendous amount of broadcast video onto a Mac Mini, configured as previously described to work as a DVR.

I really thought Apple was prepped to take this leap into dominating the home entertainment market. Maybe they'll get around to it in a few months. Perhaps third-party accessory providers will fill this niche until they do.

Take a six and a half by six and a half by two inch box such as that which houses the Mac Mini - stick a big honkin' hard drive in it - add a circuit board which houses an analog and a digital TV tuner - bundle it with an application which, tied into the Mac Mini's newly included Front Row remote control and interface, programs the device to, on schedule, record broadcast video, rendering it into H.264 on-the-fly using QuickTime, and stashing it for future viewing on the hard drive (that's a mouthful).

Now take this device - connect it to any high resolution monitor and powered audio speaker system, and suddenly you have a complete, all-inclusive, high-end home media system for not a whole lot of money.

Now, that's what I call a media center.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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