When Apple launched the Mac mini in January, it was done amid all sorts of speculation that it was going to be the “iHome” – – an Apple-branded media center. (Apparently, this is now an annual-ish thing.) Given recent events (i.e., the new iMac with FrontRow and now Microsoft’s Xbox360 launch) I think it may be time to once again take a quickie look at this.
Besides, speculation is fun.
First: What’s the goal of a home media center appliance like this? The question seems silly at first but think about it seriously and you can see the different approaches here? Xbox goes in as a console and then LOOK! there’s all kinds of other stuff you can do with it. Dump music and photos on to it and c. But that’s more “vector” and less “goal”.
The consumer’s goal is going to be: Gimme one box that I can lean on. One box to hook up to my 9000-inch TV and streamline my vacation slideshows, music playing, and so forth.
There’s already varying degrees of competition here. You can do this easily with the Mac mini – – but the mini doesn’t have FrontRow, so you’re experience is still tainted a little by that “I’m sitting at my desk” ethos of keyboard and mouse. Apparently the Xbox360 will let you do this as well – – but most reports I’ve encountered so far don’t remark much (or at all) on the slideshow itself – – just on the fact that you can hook up a digital camera and browse photos. (v.1.0.1?) That being said, the slideshow feature (along w/ DVD and music playback) is obviously a major component here that the media center design crews are harping on.
Take (as another example) Bose’s approach with the 321-series home entertainment systems. You’ll observe (right out of the gate) that there’s something else at work here: DESIGN. Small, unobtrusive units that (well) don’t PRESENT themselves so much as hang out in the background as the acessories they are. Quality speaker set comes as part of the package, hooks up to your TV for DVD playback and for navigating the “uMusic” menu to access the CDs that you’ve stored on its … er … well, in it!
Again though, despite the clunky interface and arcane music loading/access methods, the Bose 321-series systems still feel like a better candidate for a home entertainment system than either the Xbox360 or the Mac mini. It beats the Xbox becauce it feels/looks like it belongs in your living room. And it beats the mini because it has a remote. And was meant to hook up to the TV.
I’d prefer not to keep returning to that “TV” aspect but that’s a big component here. TVs were meant for watching. And people understand gathering in the living room, getting on the couch, and watching something on the TV.
Recipe for success?
Next gen Mac mini will need FrontRow. It will need FrontRow and it will need to come bundled with a way to hook it up to your TV. The DVI connection is a good place to start there but let’s get down with component video, shall we? Let’s get down with S-video. Hell, let’s get down with the yellow RCA cable, even. While we’re at it – – don’t skimp on sound. If you want this thing to go into the living room, the mini needs premium audio. Maybe all that will mean is optical out so that you can easily hook it in to your Bose receiver w/ speakers, sub-woofer and so forth, I don’t know.
But without a remote, the mini ain’t gonna go far. Not in the living room, at least.
UPDATE: Hack A Day covers the Xbox360 – – same so-so reviews (esp. re: “as a media center”), same skimpy coverage of its slideshow/photo abilities.