Are You Listening, Steve Jobs?

Practically since the moment the Mac Mini was announced, the online Macintosh communities have been ablaze with commentary from people who’d like to use one of these suckers as a DVR and A/V hub. From DealMac to AVSForum to PVRBlog, there’s a sizeable cohort of tech-savvy folks who look at the Mini-Mac and say, “That belongs right next to my friggin’ huge HDTV.”

Unfortunatley for all those folks (myself included), the Mini just isn’t built for that task. The hard drive is too small and too slow (it’s just a 4200 rpm laptop drive), and the video card and G4 processor don’t have the horsepower to play back HD video. The current models of Minis are designed to be either second computers for Mac owners, or first Macs for Windows users who’re fed up with Microsoft and want to see how the other side lives.

But. That’s just the first model. Who’s to say there won’t be an A/V Mini coming down the pipe from Cupertino in the future? Noted tech historian Bob Cringely (real name Mark Stephens, who was briefly one of Apple’s first employees) thinks Steve Jobs is working a deal with Sony to make a set-top Macintosh that’ll act as a video server for downloaded movies.

Personally, I think that’s a neat idea, but what I’d really like to have is an affordable Mac that can act as a high-definition ReplayTV–and that’s ReplayTV, not Tivo, folks. Tivo imposes way too many MPAA-demanded limitations on content for my tastes. I want a box that will schedule, record and play back HD programs, and will also allow me to edit and permanently record that content to removable media, preferably some form of DVD. I can do all that now for standard definition with my Replays and my 2001-era G4 Mac tower, thanks to DVArchive software.

It’s theoretically possible to do all of the above in HD with a G4-class Mac and ElGato’s EyeTV 500 Firewire box–but only in theory. The ElGato box is designed to need a dual-processor G5 Mac for full HD playback, and that’s a dang sight more powerful, expensive, and bulky a computer than the new Mini-Mac. It’s alleged that one could overcome the Mini’s lack of juice by playing back HD video through a set-top HD converter box with a Firewire port, but I haven’t found an example of anybody who’s actually done this, and even if I did, I suspect the process is too ungainly for casual use (i.e., my wife would hate it).

Still, if all the EyeTV 500 box needs is the processing power of a set-top box, what’s to keep ElGato from building that in to a prospective EyeTV 600, plus a heftier hard drive? I don’t think we can count on Apple to produce an HD-PVR-ready Mac anytime soon; after all, Jobs himself is the CEO of a major (and very successful) movie studio, Pixar. He’s not going to cross his fellow moguls with a pre-broadcast-flag HD PVR system… but I wouldn’t be if a future video-hub Mini does arrive with some kind of DRM built in, a la the iTunes music store.

Until then, though, Apple’s best customers are shouting about what they’d love to be able to buy from the company. If Jobs isn’t listening, somebody else almost certainly is. Stay tuned.