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Switched On: New Mac mini a mixed Apple TV alternative


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

As TVs and Blu-ray players increasingly feature internet connections, content partnerships, and now even open operating systems, they're turning up the pressure on of standalone devices such as Apple TV and the Roku player. Indeed, Steve Jobs has said the demanding existence between the rock of the connected television and the hard place of the closed cable system is what's relegated Apple TV to "hobby" status.

In the Windows world, several companies in the netbook space such as Asus, Acer and Lenovo have popped Atom processors into slim desktop enclosures, dubbing them nettops. Dell has gone a somewhat different route, opting for more powerful desktop components in its chunky Inspiron Zino HD desktop/home theater hybrid. And now, the Mac mini has taken a step toward this role as Apple, which has been a strong backer of DisplayPort, has adorned its only display-free Mac with an HDMI port.

As Switched On discussed at the launch of Google TV, the increasing breadth of top-tier TV programming available online is combining with convincing standards-based user interfaces to make the notion of throwing powerful hardware at Web programming more compelling than ever. However, that doesn't mean that even as attractive and quet a computer as the aluminum-clad Mac mini will usurp Apple TV as the company's strongest foray into the living room.

First, while the low-profile computer may have power to spare for pumping local 1080p video to an HDTV and a simplified overscan control for adjusting output onto a television, it lacks the telltale integration that characterizes Apple's push into a consumer behavior. Front Row -- the Mac user interface layer that preceded Apple TV , hasn't evolved much since its inception, although alternative Web video user interfaces such as Hulu Desktop and Clicker.TV are alternative portals to Web video.

The new Mac mini lacks the telltale integration that characterizes Apple's push into a consumer behavior.

Second, while Apple may have succumbed to the licensing fees of HDMI, it maintains the seal on the "bag of hurt" that is Blu-ray licensing. Of course, the company's iTunes store competes with physical disc distribution, and most Windows-based nettops lack any optical drive. Nevertheless, Dell offers Blu-ray as an option for its Zino.

Finally, even without a Blu-ray drive or any integrated DVR capabilities, Apple's consolidation of the Mac mini baseline configurations into a single $699 product continues the upward pricing push for Apple's least expensive Mac. That's double the price of some nettops, three times the price of AppleTV, and seven times the price of the Roku player.

The new Mac mini's HDMI port will streamline connecting to an HDTV for commercial applications, presentations, residential systems integrators, or enthusiasts who have paired it with an Elgato TV recording product. Combined with its mini DisplayPort port, it will also facilitate dual-monitor use on the desktop. But whatever Apple's path to the mainstream living room may be beyond Apple TV, it's not the Mac mini.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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