The Perfect HTPC (Home Theater PC) is…

…an Apple Mac Mini with 4 Gb of RAM?! Particularly when combined with an iPod or iPhone that has an app installed that is capable of acting as a remote control for FrontRow.

Hardware Configuration

To help you understand my enthusiasm, it might be helpful to provide an overview of our home entertainment infrastructure.  We have a Mac Mini with a 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4 Gb of RAM (it came with 1 Gb which I replaced with 4 Gb) and a 120 Gb hard drive.  It’s providing a 720p video and stereo audio to a 37″ Vizio LCD TV through its VGA connector and paired eighth-inch stereo jack (the TV also has the normal complement of HDMI, component, and RCA inputs). The Mac Mini is also connected to our Gigabit Etherenet home network, so we can control it remotely over the network using the Mac’s VNC service, with a wireless keyboard/mouse combination, or with an iPod Touch. In another room, we have a standard home stereo receiver, speakers and subwoofer. Connected to the stereo receiver is a small form factor Lenovo PC with an AMD Sempron, 3 Gb of RAM and a 1 Tb (yes, one terabyte) hard drive; this PC is also connected to the Gigabit Etherenet network, and because it has no monitor, keyboard or mouse, we control it remotely using a Remote Desktop Protocol (RPD) session from either the Mac Mini or one of our other PCs. To simplify references to these computers, I will call the Mac Mini that is connected to the TV “TV-Mac” and the Lenovo PC connected to the stereo “Stereo-PC.”  Finally, we have an Apple Airport Express connected to a small “bookshelf” stereo system in our bedroom.

Also connected to the TV are: a TiVO HD, a WII and an XBOX 360.

Software Configuration

TV-Mac came with the standard OS X “Leopard” and Apple’s iLife application pack, and I’ve installed the Hulu Desktop, Boxee, RealPlayer for Mac, the Netflix streaming player, the latest Flash player and the player. Stereo-PC is running Microsoft Windows XP Pro and iTunes. Both iTunes on Stereo-PC and TV-Mac can be controlled by a remote application our our iPods and iTunes on Stereo-PC can route audio to the bedroom stereo through the Airport Express.

Using the System(s)

We use these two systems (Stereo-PC and Mac-TV), both separately and together, for so many things it’s difficult to know where to start. Even though the Netflix player is installed on the Mac Mini, we almost always use the TiVO HD to stream Netflix content – the TiVO has a much nicer remote control for such viewing. Likewise, even though the Mac Mini can play DVDs, we normally use the XBOX 360 to play them. Again, we have the media remote for the XBOX, which is easier to use than the wireless keyboard, and also because the DVD player software on the Mac seems difficult to control – either because it’s difficult to see the icons on the buttons from across the room (the “10 foot” user interface), there are too many options, it seems to have a mind of its own regarding the shape and size of the window used for playback, or some combination of all of the above.

We also use the TiVO HD to time-shift OTA (over the air) broadcasts (we don’t have cable or satellite TV) and to collect and view a few video podcasts, and we use the game consoles for playing games.

So, if we don’t use the Mac Mini to play DVDs, stream Netflix content, or play games, what do we use it for? We often watch full episodes of TV shows on the networks’ web sites, we download and watch several video podcasts from iTunes, we purchase and watch certain TV series that are shown on channels that we don’t get (remember, no cable or satellite TV here) but are available from the iTunes store, we watch some of the older content on Hulu, we do some lite web browsing (particularly Youtube), we occasionally use it for catching up on Twitter or Facebook, and – very rarely – for email. Also, because of it’s close physical proximity to Stereo-PC, we use the Mac’s RDP client to connect to the Stereo-PC to synch an iPod or buy some iTunes music or other content. Finally, we use FrontRow on the Mac Mini to stream some video podcasts that the Stereo-PC catches from iTunes.

So Why is the Mac Mini the Perfect HTPC?

Because it is small (about 6 inches square and 2 inches tall), it is quiet (quieter than the TiVO HD, and a lot quieter than the XBOX 360), the OS X interface scales well to the 1366×768 resolution of the TV, it has wireless networking built-in in case wired Ethernet is not available, I didn’t have to build or integrate it myself, and – so far at least – it has not suffered any ill effects from running 24 hours per day for months at a time.  With the addition of a Mac-compatible USB HDTV tuner and remote control, we could probably use the Mac Mini for time-shifting TV instead of the TiVO HD.

To me, that makes it as perfect an HTPC as I’ve found.

Andy Anderson

Andy Anderson

The Information Technology "Renaissance Man." With a formal education in Computer Science and over 33 years of professional experience, Andy lived through the personal computing revolution and into the Internet Era. While still providing and managing mainstream commercial products, he now specializes in applying Open Source solutions and virtualization technology to small business IT issues.

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