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Switched On: Mac mini, the best media center that isn't


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Apple creates consumer solutions that reflect deep insight with unparalleled integration and attention to detail. However, that focus sometimes requires sacrifices when compared with Microsoft's far-flung initiatives and longer-term ROI window (or, as the company calls it, "patience").

Such has been the case with living room computing. Apple has repeatedly dismissed this notion, with Steve Jobs insisting that consumers want a passive TV experience. That may have been true at some point, but television itself is changing. Picture-in-picture, electronic programming guides, video-on-demand, digital video recording, and the display of other media via network interfaces, DVDs, and flash cards are transforming the medium even more profoundly than the content explosion that cable wrought.

That said, this emerging market has tested even Microsoft�s patience with almost a decade of misses. As recently as Media Center Edition 2004 (which for some reason seems so last year), the ten-foot PC user experience was flailing aimlessly in the market. In the 2005 edition the operating system, however, has started to see some signs of momentum, especially when wrapped in an attractive and richly featured box such as the HP Digital Entertainment Center. Black, bulky, and filled with more ports than the wine list of a top-rated restaurant, it embodies one vision of living room content management.

There are others, though. The media center concept would benefit from a platform with high reliability, strong integration, an inventive developer community, software design acumen, and a retail channel that could effectively explain its benefits to a high-income customer base. Also, much as Microsoft has introduced Remote Record to schedule Media Center recordings, an online service with account information would be a useful asset as well. Know of any Cupertino, CA-based PC companies that can provide all of this? As it has proven with iLife, Apple � unlike any other PC vendor � understands that consumer content isn�t simply about moving bits from one room to another.

The apparent result of a mandate to shrink different, the Mac mini is a pioneering computer that, unlike previous small consumer Macs, is going to make a really terrible aquarium. It is intended to attract those who might not be ready for an iMac, but who are perhaps i-curious. With a little software and a few hardware tweaks, though, it could be a superb set-top box.

At a third of the price and a smaller fraction of the size of the HP living room offering, the Mac mini is closer to the price of an XP Media Center Extender than the Media Center PC that its capabilities approach. It has ample computing horsepower to play and optionally record DVDs, store thousands of music files, and produce beautiful OpenGL-based high-resolution photo transitions that are beyond the scope of today�s best digital media receivers. Rip. Mix. Ken Burns. It lacks video capture and an IR blaster, but these could be added through FireWire or USB at the expense of a little bulk. There are also several capable PC remotes on the market, but Apple could probably design a more elegant one.

While the Mac mini�s hard disk options fall a bit on the wee side for a digital video recorder (especially if Apple continues to embrace its new high-definition religion), there are still plenty of TiVo-based DVRs being sold with capacities of 40GB and 80GB. The computer costs as much as an entry-level TiVo device and lifetime subscription before rebate and, unlike with TiVo, one could easily add an external hard disk for more storage. It�s a foregone conclusion that at least one company, perhaps Elgato Systems, will develop some combination to turn the Mac mini into a capable Windows Media Center competitor, but it will be impossible for anyone but Apple to market such functionality with the support that, say, the iPod has received.

There is at least one good reason for Apple to delay. Currently, TiVo and Microsoft are pushing the FCC to enforce mandatory adoption of CableCard by operators. While not a panacea, CableCard opens the market for alternatives to cable-supplied digital set-tops, much like a SIM card enables a choice in GSM cellular handsets.

From a user experience perspective, it eliminates the ugly and unreliable infrared blasters that both TiVo and Microsoft today use to work with digital systems. From a market perspective, however, it may be tough for third parties to compete with offerings from cable cronies Scientific Atlanta, Motorola, and Pioneer if cable companies continue to offer subsidized options the way wireless carriers still do.

At some point, though, open-minded Mac fans or anyone who wants alternatives for networked home entertainment should hope the Mac mini media center finds the same hole in the reality distortion field through which flash-based MP3 players and headless consumer Macs recently maneuvered.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at
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