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Is iTV the Best Solution?

The iTV unit will no doubt ease the process of using your TV to view digital media from your Mac. However, I’ve already been asked whether I think it’s the best solution and whether I’ll order one as soon as it hits the market. Setting aside my hesitation to buy any piece of technology as soon as it is released, there are arguments to be made both for and against connecting a Mac directly to your TV instead of purchasing an iTV.

In favor of iTV are the following:

  • Ease of setup: you don’t need to worry out of the box about things like video resolution (this is a potential issue more for digital TVs than analog CRT models).
  • Smaller form factor: no external power brick; no trying to fit something too big into your entertainment center.
  • Simple management: iTV will be controlled via the Apple remote, but any management will almost certainly be done on the computer that it is paired with. You won’t have to worry about hooking up a keyboard or use the Mac OS X standard interface to change settings or make updates (a particular concern on analog CRT TVs, in which a standard computer interface often flickers or is blurry—although Front Row’s interface takes CRT television into account and displays fine on almost all TVs).

In favor of connecting a Mac to a TV:

  • Available immediately: you could build a Mac media center today (or for Christmas) instead of waiting up to six months for the iTV to be released.
  • Broad array of video support: installing the software and codecs required to view additional forms of video content such as Windows Media and DivX is easy on a Mac. Once installed, they enable Front Row to play those formats with little trouble. Often, PC users will use these formats for creating video, particularly if it will be distributed via the Internet.
  • More storage choices: Front Row can access shared music, photos, and video content from multiple Macs (and PCs). As we’ll discuss in part 3 of this series, a home network enables you to share content among multiple computers in your house and to view them through Front Row, iTunes, iPhoto, and a number of other applications.
  • Direct access to eyeTV or other recording technologies: Elgato’s eyeTV software, and the devices it works with, enable you to record video from a TV antenna, cable, or satellite service on your Mac much as a Tivo or DVR device does and view it on your Mac or export it to iTunes (and iPod) or DVD. There is no evidence that eyeTV will have any point of integration with Apple’s iTV (and the potential confusion in that sentence is probably why Apple has said it will be changing the name of iTV when it is released). We’ll profile eyeTV in part two of this series, but suffice to say that when connected to a Mac and TV.
  • Alternative media environments: this article talks about software that has the potential to be like Front Row and iTV on steroids, giving you additional options in your Mac media center experience. Needless to say, that software requires a Mac and will not function with iTV.
  • Potentially lower cost: if you compare the price of the least expensive Intel Mac mini to the iTV $299 price point, that probably sounds crazy. However, if you already have a recent Mac, you might be able to use it as the center of a Mac media center (even if it didn’t come with an Apple remote). You might also be able to purchase an appropriate Mac using eBay, a used computer reseller, or the classified ads in your local paper for less than $299.

So overall, is iTV for you? Well, that’s up to you. If you’re willing to spend the $299 in addition to the cost of the computer, don’t plan to use video other than that purchased from the iTunes Store, have only a single Mac in your house, want the simplest setup possible, and don’t mind biding your time, then yes, it probably is. However, if you’re more of a power user, want something sooner, have an extra Mac lying around, and want a broader set of video options, you might want to consider building your own media center. And, as you’ll see, it can actually be easier than you think.

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