The Mac mini has always been the perfect form factor for a media center appliance (often called a Home Theater PC/HTPC). It's extremely small, almost completely silent and it can easily blend into an existing electronics shelf - or be hidden away completely.
The lack of a refresh (and rumors that the line was going to be discontinued), coupled with technical specs that didn't justify the price-point, have led many would-be HTPCers to write off the Mac mini as an option because they assume it is just too expensive.
However, as more and more content moves online and people become accustomed to getting their media from a computer, the idea of a HTPC is starting to make sense to more and more families. Taking off where netbooks left off, nettops are starting to enter the marketplace. These low-priced machines are diminutive, low-powered and connect easily to a television set. There's just one problem. Although nettops are pretty good at playing back regular video content, they absolutely choke when it comes to Flash, Silverlight or any other streaming content.
Still, when you look at the numbers, nettops aren't much more inexpensive than a Mac mini. You get what you pay for, too: the mini is much more powerful and can actually be used as a workhorse computer.
Thanks to updated hardware and a much-improved graphics chipset, the current revision really hits the sweet-spot for the ultimate HTPC.
Although many of us have longed for Apple to release an official media center product that brings the Mac mini and the Apple TV together, the current Mac mini is more than capable of serving as that product right now.
Now that Apple has allowed the purchase/rental of some high-definition films via iTunes, the media content options for the Mac mini match that of the Apple TV and then some.
In mid-June, my fiance and I bought a 2009 Mac mini (the 1GB 2.0GHz model). For the last few months, I've been testing hardware, accessories and lots and lots of software to make it into the best HTPC around. My goal was simple: my Mac mini needed to work with my existing surround sound setup and it needed to seamlessly connect to the FreeNAS media server where several terabytes of audio and video files reside. It needed to connect and work with our other Macs -- as well as our Windows 7 machines -- and it needed to be silent and simple, with an interface that a visitor or guest could easily suss out.
Read on for tips and tricks to get the most out of your machine's hardware and software, as we transform a 2009 Mac mini into the ultimate HTPC!