Using a Mac mini as a DVR is definitely not a cheaper approach than the DVR provided by your cable company. That said, the solution I’m about to outline will indeed provide you with a list of tools and a basic understanding of how one can turn their Mac mini into a DVR. A bit of advice: this becomes a lot cheaper if you already happen to own a Mac mini in the first place.
What you need to get started:
First you need to get yourself a Mac mini. This is fairly obvious, but if you already own one, then connecting it up so that you have it running on your TV, while perhaps also using traditional PC speakers with a wireless remote, is going to make life a lot more pleasant. While you can often run audio through your TV speakers, external speakers will generally give you better audio performance.
Secondly, you need to choose software you’d like to use. I tend to point people to eyeTV for OS X as it has a history of working as promised with minimal frustration. Not only is the eyeTV user interface something that can be handled well, but OS X users feel right at home instantly as it’s familiar to them. Options provided include being able to choose your own tuner card, as well as being able to save your program searches into “smart guides.” Another killer feature of eyeTV is the ability to edit out the stuff from recorded programming you’d rather avoid. Bundle this with the backup option to save recorded programs to disc and you can see how eyeTV is a natural fit for anyone wanting a DVR experience on their Mac mini.
The next item you need to settle on is a compatible TV tuner card. I recommend using one from the list provided by eyeTV specifically, to ensure things work as they’re supposed to. The option you’ll likely be shooting for is either a simple USB TV tuner dongle or an attached box that acts as a go-between for your cable box and the Mac mini itself.
Finally, you need to have satellite or cable TV. Unlike iTunes, where content is purchased a la carte, having a ready source of TV content is kind of a big deal for your Mac mini DVR. Luckily, most people already have this TV source available in their own homes.
Pay close attention to the TV tuner card you end up with. Not all of them are going to be Mac compatible or even compatible with encrypted TV signals, which is why I recommend starting with the eyeTV device list above. Be sure to read the fine print just to be safe. The other thing to do is make sure you have an Internet connection to the Mac mini. This enables you to both keep the software up to date as well as access TV guide data.