Should I use Apple TV or a Mac Mini for a Media Center?

Over the past couple of weeks I have begun ripping my personal DVDs to an external hard drive on my iMac. Why you might ask, because I have my iMac hooked up to my 42″ LCD TV. You can ask, why not just go ahead and use a DVD Player? Well, I currently have 5 different remotes to use to control all of the components I have connected to the TV, and I would rather not have to keep an entire DVD collection on shelves that take up space. Just for reference, this article will be using a Mac Mini as the Mac of Choice.

There are benefits and disadvantages to both setups. The Apple TV is very useful for those who have purchased a significant amount of content from the iTunes store, or for those who do not want to spend time determining how to hook up a sound system to a Mac computer. While, on the other hand, the Mac mini is good for those who have obtained their media using non-iTunes means or do not mind getting their hands dirty to get the perfect setup.

The positive aspects about the Apple TV are the slim design, simple setup, easy update function and it just works right out of the box. The Apple TV has digital out, for both audio and video. The video can be outputted using Component cables (Red Green Blue) with RCA Audio (Red and Yellow), or via HDMI. HDMI has both audio and video being outputted over the same single cable. The Apple TV has some negative things, including the fact that it has not had an update in months, and who knows when the next update will be.

Despite all that the Apple TV has going for it, there are some downsides. It does not have the ability to play DVDs (no optical drive at all). It cannot be easily modified or re-configured if your needs change. There is no expandability support, excluding any software updates that Apple releases. The Apple TV works best as an all-in-one media center for the iTunes centric. It does support 720p content (if encoded by the user). However, remember the Apple TV can ONLY play items that iTunes can play. It must be attached to an iTunes library.

Using a Mac as a media center is a different story. It has the ability to do better than 1080p (1920×1200 resolution). You have the option for playing DVDs. Using Front Row on OS X 10.5 Leopard along with some programs will allow you to play just about ANY type of file that your mac can play, not just iTunes content. You will not be limited by what iTunes can play, as you are with the Apple TV. This mean that you could play, DIVX, XVID, DVD, mp3s, ogg, flac, any file type that a Mac can play. This has significant improvements over just having a limited number of file types that you can play. Additionally, you have significant upgrade capabilities with the Mac Mini. If you would rather build your own DVR you can always get an El Gato Eye TV to use and being recording programs to your Mac for viewing later.

The downsides to using a Mac as a media center are the extra cables needed to convert the DVI connection to HDMI. The audio is not transmitted on the same cable. Since the DVI Specification does not include audio. There is no digital audio on the Mac like the Apple TV, so you will only have analog (â…›” mini-jack out). However, if you have a USB to digital audio out, I do not see why it would not work as a digital audio source. The cost of the mac mini is also a factor, considering that the base price of a mac mini costs twice as much as the Apple TV does.

Whichever solution you decide on, it behooves you to do your research into which will work for your situation. If I had to suggest a solution, I would suggest the mac mini. It has more capabilities than the Apple TV and can be expanded and upgraded much easier.

I'm into everything technology related, particularly anything Apple related. I enjoy programming and tend to lean towards server-based technologies over client-based. You can contact me on twitter, via e-mail, or follow me on friendfeed.