I have written about the MacBook Air a few times before but I have not written about my total setup for a while. I have been running a Mac Mini under the TV as a media centre for a number of years.
However, with the recent move this had to change a little. I needed a computer to do my freelance work on. While I have the Air it’s important for me that I keep it for only personal stuff, not work. For me being unable to work on the Air is a feature. This left the Mac Mini under the TV for my work.
I moved the Mac Mini out from under the TV and hooked it up to a cheap 24” screen and decided to work from there. I put an Apple TV under the TV as a replacement. The Apple TV does a much better job than the FrontRow application, with the added bonus of having easy access to YouTube and Vimeo.
While this setup was fast enough it had a few limitations and frustrations; mostly with the cheap screen I had purchased. While the screen was very nice I never found a way to get it set up right. The colours were always wrong and the reflective bezel (reflecting the screen inside the inset) was extremely distracting.
Looking at my options I could see two choices, sell the screen on and replace it with a better quality screen, or swap to an iMac. I had decided against another laptop early as even a 17” screen would be to small and still require an external display.
The iMac was an appealing choice, the Mini caries a price premium for its size. Under the TV the small size was important, but on the desk its no longer an advantage. A quick look at 2nd hand 27” iMac prices meant that the cost to replace the Mac Mini and Screen with a 27” iMac was around £200. This compared well with purchasing a decent 24” screen, but was much less than buying an equivelent screen to what the iMac offers.
So I found a new home for the Mac Mini (thanks Gumtree!) and screen (thanks Jack!) and purchased a 2nd hand 2010 model 27” iMac. The iMac is a much more capable machine as both a media centre and a work station.
Another advantage to the iMac, is that the it can be used as a screen for my MacBook Air and my work issued MacBook Pro. This has proved useful a number of times already; it allows me to have both portability and power with my home setup. It also means when I am working from home, I can still enjoy a large display.
I am a long time fan of the Mac Mini, but I no longer consider it worth the time investment as a media centre under the TV. FrontRow has been neglected by Apple (indeed, removed from OSX Lion entirely) and the experience is poor. Frontrow is buggy and does not work smoothly with my large media library. Using it as a computer plugged into the TV is difficult and not condutive to productive work. For my TV experience, the maintenance free and power sipping Apple TV wins outright.
I did consider other options such as Boxee and Plex. These systems feel overly complex and they wont playback my iTunes protected media properly, which is a deal breaker.
The final use for the Mac Mini was as a TV recorder. In the end we used this rarely but the new iMac is capable of taking over this role. What’s more the iMac can do a much better job of decoding HD content and exporting shows for later.
The Mini did have a number of advantages over the iMac. The biggest being power consumption. The Mini when idle draws around 10w of power. The iMac when idle (with the screen off) uses around 30w. This is annoying but it’s the cost of higher performance. Both the Mac Mini and the iMac spend most of their time sleeping (where they both use around 2w) so its not too bad in reality.
As an aside, when playing back media thought the Apple TV I have observed the iMac waking, transfering the video file then returning to sleep. Whereas the Mac Mini was required to run the entire time when plugged directly into the TV.
As a media server the iMac is great, we use it to stream our iTunes library to a number of devices (AppleTV, iPad). Its also a great workstation. The iMac (quad core, with 8gb of RAM) is much faster than the Mac Mini for iPhone Development with compiling being 3-4 time faster. Whats more, when compiling the system does not get bogged down. Its far smoother handling large complex files in Fireworks and juggling multiple applications.
Finally, the iMac is somewhat expandable. It supports four times as much RAM as is currently installed and it even has a spare SSD bay which can be filled later.
Effectively, for the same cost as buying a nice screen I have doubled my computing power, got a gorgeous display for use with other machines and future proofed my setup for years to come. Bargain!