Walt Mossberg

Mini Is Solid Addition To Home Media Center Despite Some Caveats

This is a review of an interesting new entertainment-center component that happens to also be a personal computer — a computer fully capable of, say, creating a spreadsheet, but one you might never use that way. This new product also happens to be a new Macintosh model from Apple Computer, but, in its entertainment-system role, it works perfectly with Windows computers.

The new gadget is the latest version of Apple’s tiny Mac Mini desktop computer — a petite silver and white box that’s just 6.5 inches square and stands just two inches tall, small enough to tuck away on a shelf near a TV. This Mini costs $599 and doesn’t include a monitor, keyboard or mouse.

The new Mac Mini

The most important thing about the new Mac Mini is that it comes with Front Row, Apple’s handsome software for controlling a computer from across a room, and with the tiny, simple remote control Apple designed to work with Front Row. You can just plug it into your TV and home audio system, fire up Front Row, and watch any videos stored on its hard disk, listen to any songs it holds, or view any photos it contains. It also plays DVDs.

Even better, this new Mini can automatically find — and stream to your home entertainment system — all music and videos stored on any other computer on your home network, whether Windows or Mac. All that’s required is that the other computers be running Apple’s free iTunes software. The Mini can’t stream photos from a Windows PC, but it can do so from another Mac.

In my tests, all of this worked fine, and I can recommend the new Mini with Front Row for anyone who wants to play back, on a home entertainment system, media stored on a computer or multiple computers. But there are a few caveats.

First, this new Mini isn’t the so-called media hub product Apple is rumored to be working on. It’s still too much of a regular computer to fit that bill. A media hub product would be entirely focused on the home entertainment task, and it would be much cheaper.

Second, company officials made it clear to me that the Front Row software is still a work in progress that will gain more functions and power over the coming months. This is a high priority inside Apple.

Third, you can do something similar with a Windows PC that uses Microsoft’s Media Center software. In fact, Media Center, which I’ve reviewed several times in the past, does more than Front Row, because it’s also capable of receiving and recording TV programs. Microsoft has been ahead of Apple in this area, and Media Center is very well designed. But I found the new Mini simpler to set up.

When I got one of the new Minis for testing, I first connected it to a monitor, keyboard and mouse, simply so I could go through the new-computer setup and copy over to the 60-gigabyte hard drive a bunch of songs, photos and videos.

Then, I took the Mini downstairs — sans monitor, keyboard and mouse — and plugged it into my Sony Trinitron 35-inch analog TV using a $19 adapter Apple sells and an S-video cable from RadioShack. I also plugged the Mini into my speaker system using another accessory cable. I set the TV for the input corresponding to the jacks the Mini was using, turned on the computer and waited for it to boot up. Then, I pressed the menu button on the Apple remote.

Instantly, the Front Row menu appeared, and I was able to sit on my couch and choose from four options: music, videos, DVD and photos. The menu — and all the media I played — filled the TV screen and looked and sounded great. (The Mini automatically detects that it’s hooked to a TV, and sets its video output accordingly.)

All my iTunes playlists were available, and each song was accompanied by a large picture of its album cover on the TV screen. Videos played perfectly, and photos were displayed as slide shows.

If you click on “shared music” or “shared videos” in Front Row, the Mini will search your home network for other computers, and list them. I was able to stream music and videos from my Hewlett-Packard desktop and my IBM ThinkPad laptop, both running Windows XP; and from my portable and desktop Macs.

There were a few issues. All the videos took up to a minute to launch, a problem Apple says it will address with a software upgrade eventually. Music playback wasn’t as flexible as on iTunes — for instance, you can’t shuffle through songs in a single playlist. Also, unless you connect a keyboard and mouse, you can’t add new content to the Mini or upgrade its software. And Apple should really add the ability to view photos from a Windows computer.

In addition, video playback is highly dependent on the speed and robustness of your home network. In my tests, videos played perfectly, even from laptops connected wirelessly, as long as the Mini itself was plugged into a wired connection. When both the Mini and the laptops were wireless, the videos sometimes stalled. But that may be due to the fact that my main TV is located in a room with especially weak wireless reception. Your results may vary.

All in all, the new Mini is a solid addition to any entertainment center.

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