My new Mac mini (Intel, 1.66 GHz, 1 MB RAM, 80 GB HD), named “Aereon,” arrived this last week. I set it up as a home theater device last night. It’s been very interesting to see Front Row in action and to play with some of the new capabilities the mini brings to the audio/video arena.

For those who don’t know, Front Row is Apple’s easy-to-use program for accessing music, DVDs, movies, and pictures. Just click the menu button the pack of gum-sized Apple six-button remote, and up pops Front Row. Honestly, it couldn’t be simpler to use, and compared to the crazy number of buttons on most remotes, Apple’s done a bang-up job (again) of taking something ordinarily complex and making it extraordinarily easy.

The music in Front Row is pulled from your iTunes library. I started off by sharing the large iTunes library on Mystic, having Aereon pull the tunes wirelessly across the local network. This worked flawlessly, but it requires that Mystic be awake and present on the network. What if I’m traveling and Erin wants to listen to music? I’ll be moving the iTunes library over to Aereon shortly.

DVDs play flawless through Front Row. Again, the remarkable Apple magic has made it so that one little remote can control everything. It’s a lovely experience.

I don’t have any iMovie movies to test (yet), but I suspect they would appear much the same way. Similarly, I’ve not purchased any TV Shows or Movies via the iTunes store (which Front Row integrates into your TV viewing experience), but I assume they’d be just fine. One neat feature is the ability to access Apple’s QuickTime Movie Trailer site. The available movies appear as posters you can scroll through. Then you click the remote button to select the preview you want to see. The downside here is that you’ll be loading the larger full-screen sized trailers, so it can take a couple minutes before the trailer starts. A faster Internet connection (Verizon’s FIOS, for example) would go a long way toward alleviating this complaint.

I’ve not had time yet to explore the Pictures category, but Front Row should display everything from your iPhoto library in slide show format and you can just happily click along.

In terms of hooking the Aereon to the TV, I faced some challenges. Our old 1993 RCA does like its composite video in port for some reason, so I had to route through the VCR’s coaxial cable input. I will soon get an S-video cable and attempt a connection that way.

The audio out of the Mac mini is superb. With the appropriate cable, it routed audio from mini jack to RCA stereo with no problems, and, if I do say so myself, the Dolby Pro-Logic Surround Sound rocks. It’s a terrific audio experience (better than the video experience in fact since that old RCA is on the dreadful side).

I’ve also purchased and attached an Elgato EyeTV 250, which is roughly a Tivo for the Mac. If that means nothing to you, think of it as a super-duper VCR replacement. Basically the EyeTV 250 lets you record TV to your Mac. But it does more. You can also pause live TV. Plus you can easily skip commercials (yay!) on recorded shows. You can even go back, cut out the commercials, then keep the show on the Mac, burn to disc, or move to video iPod. You can also program to record shows by viewing a TV schedule and clicking a button. (Programming a VCR was never this easy.) The display still flashes “12:00” though. Ah, just kidding. The EyeTV can also digitize old VHS tapes, which should mean our wedding video will last a bit longer. =)

Presently, the tough parts of the Mac mini home theater are in the setup. Routing cables hither and yon takes some patience, and, it hardly need be said, the right cables. Once everything is connected, the biggest issue is turning everything on: Stereo system, TV, VCR, Mac mini. Actually using what’s there isn’t that difficult, but I reserve the right to amend this sentence once I show it off to a relative non-techie like Erin and get her opinion. (In that regard, MAJOR kudos to my wife for letting mess around with the TV like this. Every guy should be so lucky.)

Oh, one more thing…I’ve installed Apple Remote Desktop on Aereon so that I can control all the TV programming (actually I can control the whole computer) from Mystic. In theory, I can even program the EyeTV to record shows from any Internet-connected computer. Say, I’ve forgotten to tape the Amazing Race and I’m not at home. I should be able to jump on the Internet, click record, and have the EyeTV activate at home. Haven’t tested this yet, but it sure sounds exciting.

I’ll post again on this after another week or two of use. I think the potential for revolutionizing the home theater experience is huge.