I've always liked Apple's Mac Mini. It was easily the most affordable desktop Mac around. Now, in its latest models, the new Mac Mini comes as both a desktop and Apple TV replacement and as a SOHO (small office/home office) server, I still see a lot to like.
While, it's not as cheap as it used to be, the desktop model comes in at $699, it's still not expensive considering the combination of Mac's ease of use and what you get in the box. The server will cost a cool $999 with Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server. Underneath the Mac OS X pretty exterior, you have, for all intents and purposes, a 64-bit Unix server with all the usual Unix server goodies.
Both models are smaller than ever at 1.4 inches by 7 inches by 7 inches HWD (Height, Width, Depth). Each also comes with 4GBs of memory, which can be upgraded to 8GBs. They also come with Nvidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics. This new graphics package makes it much faster than before. While no serious gamer will ever mistake the new Mac Mini for a kick-rump and take names gaming PC, it does make it more than fast and powerful enough to easily output 1080p HDTV.
That last bit is important since each comes with an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) port, which is commonly used for HDTV. It's this port that makes the Mac Mini a potential Apple TV replacement and competitor to Google TV. If you don't have an HDMI-compliant monitor, which is quite likely, Apple also bundles in an HDMI-DVI (Digital Visual Interface) converter.
That said, I still don't see Apple really getting the home TV market. You see, to really make it work with your HDTV, you'll need a little technical elbow-grease to get it set up properly with Front Row, Mac OS X's media server software. It's not hard, but it's also not as easy as most Mac users would expect. You'll also need to use a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse or Apple Remote software to use it in your home theater.
Both new Minis also comes with FireWire 800 port, 4 USB 2.0 ports, and an SD (Secure Digital) card slot. I find that an interesting combination of ports. First, the inclusion of FireWire makes it clear that all the rumors over the last two years that Apple was abandoning FireWire were false. I think that's underlined by the fact that Apple is including USB 2 support, but not the far faster USB 3.0.
For networking, both use Gigabit Ethernet and the usual assortment of 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi support. And, for that wireless keyboard and mouse, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR.
The desktop Mac Mini comes with a 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and a 320 GB, 5,400-RPM hard drive. It also sports a slot-loading SuperDrive optical drive. Apple will upgrade these for you if you want. But, another reason why I see Apple still missing the bus when it comes to home theater is that a Blu-Ray drive is not one of the options.
The server Mac Mini doesn't have a slot-loading optical drive. This rather bothers me since there are still times when I've needed to load software on a server from a CD or DVD. It also gets in the way of using this one for a pure media server since you can't load DVDs into it for conversion with HandBrake into a digital video library.
By default the server Mac Mini comes with a 2.66-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and two 500-GB, 7,200-RPM hard drives. You can either use this for a combined 1 terabyte of storage or, the smarter move for a server, mirror the disks at RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) level 1 for better data security. If you need more storage, and for a server you probably will, you can attach external hard drives.
It also comes with, besides the usual Linux and Unix server tools such as Apache for Web serving and Samba for Windows file and print sharing, Time Machine backup; Wiki Server, Mac OS X's groupware software; and Podcast Producer, a full-featured pod- and video-casting production program.
Last, but not least, if you don't like shelling out money for Windows Server style CALs (client access licenses) it can support unlimited clients. While you can certainly put together a cheaper department or SOHO server with generic hardware and the Linux of your choice, I'd certainly consider this server for a Mac-centric office.
So there you have it. You now have a nice choice for an inexpensive Mac desktop or server. But, as for an Apple TV replacement, no, despite what others may say, I don't see it here. Not yet anyway.