Since we got rid of our VCR, several years ago now, we've been using EyeTV on our iMac to record TV and radio, streaming the resulting recordings to our living room TV using a discontinued Elgato product called EyeHome. This worked well for a long time, though if there happened to be significant wireless network activity while we were watching, we'd get a stuttering picture. The rest of the time it was great, as we don't watch much live TV, and we could also easily edit out the adverts and reduce the length of films scheduled in 2 hour slots by as much as 25 minutes.
This neat setup recently fell apart when our EyeHome developed a fault with the video card, and also started to randomly drop the audio while streaming some recordings. Since Elgato doesn't make the product anymore, I had to decide whether to get a streaming box from another manufacturer, or to try something else. I also wanted to take the opportunity to move all our music to a dedicated machine, and solve the network streaming problem. I thought it would also be good to be able to record TV on a box in the living room itself, as our iMac is in the office/spare room. Overnight guests Chez Bsag have often been surprised and delighted to be woken at 2am by the (very bright) iMac screen turning on when EyeTV starts to record some late night film on Channel 4. We tried to remember to clear the scheduled recordings when we had guests, but it didn't always work out like that.
The Mac mini was a fairly obvious choice and others, like Jon Hicks, have written in detail about setting the mini up as a media centre. I was tempted for a while by the AppleTV, but I'd still have to record TV using EyeTV then export the recordings to the AppleTV, which seemed like a bit of a pain. The other advantage of the mini is that I could run Squeezebox Server on it to pipe music to my venerable old SliMP3 player.
Eventually, I took the plunge and ordered a Mac mini only a week or so before they improved the specifications and reduced the price a bit. Hey ho. Actually, I'm not too worried about that, because I think the performance of the model I have is great. It's amazing how little EyeTV taxes the mini's processor: on the iMac (an old PowerPC model), it consistently uses about 20% of the CPU, even when not recording or exporting. The mini barely breaks a sweat with any of the tasks. It's almost silent, and uses a lot less electricity than the iMac, which is important for a computer that you need to keep awake for most of the time. It also does a great job of running Squeezebox Server, with none of the occasional stutters and dropouts that I used to get using the iMac to run the server.
In case anyone else is wondering (as I did) about the practicalities of hooking it up to a TV, I can report that with a Sony Bravia 32-inch LCD TV, using the included mini-DVI to DVI adapter and a DVI-to-HDMI cable works fine. It automagically chooses the correct resolution once connected, and I don't have any of the problems with 'letter-boxing' or missing portions of the screen that other people have reported. I then connected the audio using a standard mini-jack to stereo connector cable to the TV, and this also works fine. Your mileage (or kilometre-age) may vary, of course.
I'm generally really pleased with it. The only issue is that it's not as 'remote-friendly' as the AppleTV would have been, which has meant that I've needed to train Mr. Bsag a bit in the 'ways of the Mac mini'. Rowmote on the iPhone is also brilliant at acting as a multi-remote (which works well with EyeTV) and also replacing the mouse and keyboard for the few times that you need to use them. An added bonus is that we can use iPlayer to catch up on anything we've forgotten to record, without having to crowd around the computer screen.