Mac Mini vs. Microsoft Media Center: Round 1

It's a clash of the world featherweight and the world heavyweight. Can the Mac Mini and Apple's Front Row defeat the mighty Microsoft Windows Media Center? Oooh! There's the bell...

Microsoft has been desperate to claim the living-room as its trophy wife, but a series of attempts to nail the Media Center concept have largely failed. Noisy PCs with fans blaring don't really appeal to many of us.

After a hard day at work, slaving in the sickly glow of an Excel spreadsheet, the last thing you want to do when you get home is run a spyware removal tool and edit the registry before you can get Shrek to play. Still, Microsoft was the only real option last year.

We've decided to pit Microsoft's Media Center offerings against Apple's new Intel Core Duo Mac Mini. A newcomer to the PVR scene, the dual-core Mac Mini is no bigger than a Bible (indeed some Mac fans will consider it thus), and capable of running full 1080i high-definition video. It also comes with a bundled remote control. The Mini is practically fanless. Although a small fan will audibly kick in if things get very hot, in normal operation it's almost silent. 

Unlike our experiences with most Windows PCs, you won't have to turn up the volume to mask the sound of the small jet plane taking off inside. But Apple's G4 towers were once notoriously referred to as 'wind-tunnels', so PC manufacturers are not alone in this problem. However the majority of Media Centres we've looked at are distinctly noisy, especially in comparison to a DVD player or video recorder.

The Mini comes pre-installed with Apple's Front Row software. This is an extremely slick interface that lets you browse your iTunes and iPhoto libraries using the Apple remote control. It's a tough call between this interface and Microsoft's -- both are glass-buttoned masterpieces and easy to navigate. There is, however, one snag with using the Mac Mini as a PVR, and that's the absence of a built-in TV tuner. We've suggested before that the reason Apple hasn't included this is because it views TV as a declining technology. Apple probably intends iTunes to eventually usurp terrestrial and satellite TV.

Apple already offers TV show downloads to its US customers, but we'll have to sit tight over the coming months to see where the company takes its video download service. Steve Jobs' massive shareholding in Disney is certainly grounds for interesting speculation.

If you want to use your Mini as a video recorder, the easiest solution right now is to get hold of a USB digital tuner and plug it into the back of the Mini. We used the Miglia TVMini tuner on our review model and it worked immediately, tuning into all available Freeview channels and displaying a crisp picture on our 32-inch Philips Ambilight LCD .

The Mini is as fast as a dedicated hard-drive PVR, and records live TV seamlessly. However, we're having ongoing problems matching the resolution of the Mini to the slightly unusual resolution of our LCD (1,366x768). This means the picture slightly overscans. This may be a problem with the TV refusing to reposition the picture, so we'll be checking it on other LCDs soon. However, compared to the hair-pulling ceremonies we've held getting Window Media Center PCs to display anything at all on a TV, the Mac has delivered a nasty right-hook to Microsoft's fighter.

For video iPod owners, recording using Elgato's EyeTV2 is nothing short of a revelation. Not only can you schedule and record live TV, but you can save it in a format that is used by the video iPod. It's a very smart solution for any commuter who wants to catch up on their favourite shows on the train to work. Microsoft Media Center can't export video in an iPod format.

Ding DING! We've reached the end of round one, and the Microsoft Media Center is already panting in the corner of the ring. The Mac Mini automatically recognised the LCD TV we're using, and the third-party tuner was similarly straightforward to set up. Compared to the hours we've spent coaxing similar results out of some Microsoft Media Center systems, the Mini is definitely ahead so far.

It can't be understated how frustrating it can potentially be to get a Media Center PC to communicate with a TV. It's easy for the technical-minded to overlook this simple fact, but anyone who is used to a DVD or video recorder 'just working' will find that Media Center PCs are sometimes not an easy alternative. Several systems get it right, but many have problems. The Evesham Mini PC, for example, worked well straight out of the box --- just like the Mac Mini does. But this is often not the case. We can't count the number of times we've had to plug in a regular screen and tweak monitor settings.

We'll continue to test the Mini over the coming weeks and keep you updated on our experiences. Check back for Round 2, when we'll be comparing the TV scheduling systems. It's likely that Microsoft will scream ahead in this respect, their PVR software is far superior to anything currently available to Mac users. Expect this battle to get dirty. -CS

 

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