Posted by: Ole | March 29, 2008

Defenestrating my TV

512-front-row-leopard.pngSince I first found out I could hook up a computer to a TV, I’ve dabbled at setting up a mediacenter system, with varying results. My living room has hosted everything from servers over workstations to laptop pc’s. Finally, I’ve arrived at something I think is a good and viable solution. Using a Mac Mini as a mediacenter!

As much as I love macs, it does sometimes feel like you’re not really wanted, and that you can’t really do all that you want. Therefore I’ve assembled this little list of stuff I’ve come across, and how I’ve set up my system in general.

My criteria for a system like this, was the following:

  • It has to be silent. Not just quiet, but totally silent.
  • It has to look good.
  • It has to be as compact as possible.
  • Everyone should be able to use it.
  • It needs to handle all of my media seamlessly.

Hardware
I, of course, have a Mac Mini. I opted for the big one, because of the extra space, and the SuperDrive allowing me to burn DVD’s if need be.

Even with the extra space, the 110 GB is simply not enough for hosting all of your media, so I went out and bought two Western Digital Passport USB drives, of 320 GB each. One for movies, and one for TV shows. They are pretty cheap, and the advantage of this approach, is that they do not need their own power-supply, they make virtually no sound, and they can easily be disconnected, if you need to move some files around.

I use my good old iPod 60 GB for music. It’s hooked up in a dock, and contains all of my music, and iTunes is able to play the music directly from it. The bonus here, is that I can always just grab the iPod out of it’s dock, and put it in some portable speakers, for music everywhere.

Lastly, I use Apple’s wireless keyboard, Remote, MightyMouse and iPhone for control of the whole thing.

App’s
As I mentioned, when using Apple software, you sometimes feel a bit unwelcome. FrontRow only likes stuff from iTunes. iTunes only likes stuff from the iTunes Music Store, and so on. These are the app’s I’m currently using to keep everything running smoothly.

FrontRow – Apple’s take on a mediacenter interface, and basically all you’ll get, if you buy an AppleTV (don’t do that). It handles DVD’s, music, TV Shows, movies and podcast nicely. The interface is beautiful, and everyone can work it.

iTunes – When using Apple and especially FrontRow, iTunes is a necessary evil. It’s good for music, and it works OK for the rest of it.

Perian – By default, Quicktime and iTunes cannot play that many formats, and certainly not DivX, Xvid and such. Installing Perian will make QuickTime play nice with most formats, and since both iTunes and FrontRow uses Quicktime, that’s needed.

VideoDrive – Adding movies and TV shows to iTunes can be a bit of a hassle. VideoDrive will handle all of it for you. You basically just point it to your media folders and it will find all of your stuff, look it up online for covers and such, and add it to iTunes. Thereby making it appear in FrontRow. It’s a brilliant little app, and the guys behind it is very helpful, should you have any questions.

HandBrake – If you have DVD’s that you want to add to your digital collection, HandBrake will do it for you. It’s very very easy to use, and it will rip a DVD in about an hour.

Touchpad Pro – I’ve you own a jailbreaked iPhone, Touchpad Pro will allow you to use your iPhone as a touchpad for your mac. It can also mimic the remote of the mac, so you can control everything, even without line-of-sight.

VineVNC – Touchpad Pro runs on VNC but Apple’s built in VNC server is a bit buggy, and sometimes runs amok with your CPU cycles. Luckily there are alternatives. VineVNC is free, and it hasn’t failed me yet.

Simplify Media – I’ve written about this before, but it really kicks ass. It allows me to play the music from my mac at home, on my PC when I’m at work. You log in, and it creates shared libraries in iTunes, and you can play away. You are really struck by how simple something like this can actually be.

Shareipod – Because I have my music on my iPod, and iTunes doesn’t give the same options to music on an iPod as it does with music in it’s native library, you need to add the music on the iPod to the iTunes main library. This script will do that for you.

Here’s where it gets tricky. The following two app’s are in the shadowzone of legality, so you should of course only use them for stuff you legally can download. (There, I said it – let’s get on with it)

TV Shows – TV Shows is a little app that will search different networks for you, and automatically download the latest episode of any show, as soon as it becomes available. You simply select the show you want to follow, and it will magically appear in your incoming-folder as soon as it’s ready for download.

Transmission – Transmission is the goto app for downloading from BitTorrent networks. It’s clean and simple, and it always works.

Given all this, I am still not completely satisfied with the setup. The way FrontRow handles seasons in TV Shows is simply stupid, and it does not show subtitles from external files, but I have faith that it will get better in future releases of the software. I still need to add the possibility to record TV and timeshift it. I have seen examples of this done using Elgato, so that may be a topic of a future post. I will continue to update my system, and add experiences here as I go along.

Update

There’s a very good post over at hicksdesign about using EyeTV with the Mac Mini, and using a Mac Mini as a mediacenter in general.

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Responses

  1. I guess Apple’s Movie Rental should change the chemistry of the present equation.

  2. It will no doubt affect it. Both in terms of TV Shows for purchase, and movies for rental. But I will probably always buy stuff on DVD’s, or other mediums, as well and have a need to display them in a nice fashion.

    But you’re right. If you live in a country where Apple offers the whole package, and you only buy your stuff from them, you only need iTunes and FrontRow.

    I personally think that is a little scary, but let’s see what they can do. After all.. I do buy all my music from them.

  3. Ole, thanks for mentioning us! Btw, the newest version of Simplify Media (coming very soon to existing users as an optional update) has FrontRow integration. Just pick a remote computer under Sources.

  4. […] its praises for months and it just keeps getting better and better. Jeffrey: Very, very cool Ole: it really kicks ass Stevan: quick install and ingenious Jsimon: Simplify Media is awesome! Jon: I […]


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