Upside: Many devices have promised the ability to stream digital media content around your home, some delivering more successfully than others. Apple's new Mac Mini Core Solo stands out as a home-theater PC for its promised ease of use, its form factor, and the ubiquity of iTunes. Its new capabilities will let you stream iTunes content directly from other computers on your home network and to your television. A forthcoming upgrade to Apple's Bonjour networking software provides the streaming capability, and you control it all via Apple's intuitive Front Row media software and a bundled Apple Remote. We've looked long and hard for an easy-to-use, attractive PC that will fit in with a home-theater setup. Apple's new Mac Mini just might be the solution.
We also can't forget the fact that this new Mac Mini has an Intel Core Solo chip in it, which should deliver faster performance compared to the older Mac Mini's 1.42GHz PowerPC G4 CPU (the Mac Mini also comes in a Core Duo flavor, available for $799 with a few other features). That should be a major leap forward, although the 4X performance boost that Apple's CEO Steve Jobs claimed at the Mini's announcement remains to be tested. You also get two more USB 2.0 ports than on the old model, bringing the total to four.
Downside: If you have high-resolution video content converted to iTunes-friendly video formats (H.246 and MPEG-4), then the Mac Mini Core Solo's new video-streaming capabilities will come in handy. Otherwise, we don't relish the idea of streaming that 320x240 resolution episode of Lost to a 32-inch digital TV. That is, of course, provided you can get the new Mac Mini connected to your TV. We hoped that Apple's announcement would include news of a new output on the back of the Mac Mini, but we were disappointed to see that it comes only with the same DVI output of the original. This means you need either a TV with a DVI input, which is rare, or an adapter. The Mac Mini comes with a VGA adapter, which isn't exactly helpful for TV connections. You can also buy Apple's DVI-to-video adapter for $19, which gives you S-Video and component connections. For a price that low, we're surprised that Apple didn't throw in the adapter to get as many people connected out of the box as possible. You can also find DVI-to-HDMI adapters, if you have a more modern television.
We also wonder about performance. Most of the video content you can download from the iTunes Store is of low resolution, so we don't imagine the Mac Mini Core Solo will have too much trouble with it. Of course, that again begs the question, why would you want to play such low-res content on your television in the first place? But should HD content crop up, no Windows PC video-decoding hardware has proven itself the quality equivalent of a direct HD signal pumped into your TV. Unless Apple has some powerful decoding capabilities in the Mac Mini that we haven't heard about (which we doubt, given its anemic, memory-hogging Intel Graphics Media Accelerator integrated video chip), we have questions about whether it will be up to such a demanding task.
Outlook: If nothing else, the Apple Mac Mini Core Solo demonstrates the potential for PC and TV convergence when it's executed by a smart company. Apple's track record has earned it the benefit of the doubt as far as ease of use, especially since we've seen most of the pieces already. The little Mac Mini box is also attractive enough that no one should cringe at having it on display in the living room. Our major reservations have to do with performance. There simply isn't an easy way to get big screen-worthy content into iTunes. Unless that situation changes, and providing the hardware is up to the task of making it look right, the Mac Mini Core Solo might appeal only to dabblers who want to show off the home-theater PC concept. That's not the audience that will help this device--let alone the great concept--take off.