Is Apple's Mac Mini a viable Home Theatre PC?

Turn your Mac Mini into a Home Theatre PC by adding HDMI functionality

There is an abundance of media players on the market — including the WD TV and ScreenPlay HD — that allow you to play downloaded files as well as other media on your television either locally or over a network. Some products, like Syabas Technology's Popcorn Hour, even include features for Internet radio streaming and BitTorrent downloads. However, there is still a place in the living room for the humble Home Theatre PC (HTPC); the computer that lets you do it all from the couch.

If you want to set up a Home Theatre PC the Apple Mac Mini offer an easy to set-up and aesthetically attractive option. Although it is not designed specifically as a Home Theatre PC, it has all the criteria; it has a small form factor, runs quietly, offers enough power top run media applications, and it runs Mac OS X. Using dedicated media software such as Boxee, you can turn your Mac Mini (or any PC running Mac OS X, Linux or Windows for that matter) into an attractive and powerful HTPC that can also become your standard living room computer when need be.

However, the latest incarnation of the Mac Mini, released in March this year, is let down by one major caveat: it doesn't have HDMI. Instead, the desktop Mac uses Apple's proprietary Mini DisplayPort and Mini DVI connections. Both can be adapted to DVI, VGA and DisplayPort using first party adapters from Apple.

This may not be an issue if your HDTV port has a DVI or VGA input. Many televisions do, and they allow you to easily output video from the Mac Mini to your TV. However, this also means you need to output audio separately directly to the TV or to an amplifier, normally through the Mac Mini's headphone port.

Put simply, it can be a messy setup and one that doesn't take advantage of HDMI's ability to output audio and video over the same connection. The Mac Mini's mini DisplayPort has a similar feature, but so far this has only been enabled when connecting to Apple's own 24in LED Cinema Display. Third party adapter manufacturers such as Monoprice have attempted to replicate HDMI’s output features using a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter, but so far these options have been unable to deliver audio over the same connection.

Thankfully, a solution is finally available; adapter manufacturer Kanex offers its own form of adapter that outputs audio and video to a HDMI port.

So how does it work? Firstly, Kanex's solution is a little more unwieldy to set up than the Monoprice option. Instead of a small adapter, the solution is a fairly long cable that has an HDMI port on one side, and on the other it breaks out to Mini DisplayPort and USB cables. The adapter uses the Mini DisplayPort connection to output video, and plugs into one of the Mac Mini's five USB ports to connect audio. All you have to do is select the automatically recognised USB audio output in Mac OS X's System Preferences, and both audio and video will suddenly be available for use over HDMI.

We tested the cable using both Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard and 10.6 Snow Leopard with equal success. Apart from a slight delay in recognition when connecting HDMI to the television, the adapter worked without issue. We were able to watch videos over Boxee and through the VideoLAN Media Player with both sound and video through the same source. Provided you're able to successfully conceal the rather ugly adapter behind something, the Kanex mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter will answer the prayers of Mac-loving HTPC fans everywhere.

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James Hutchinson

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