Scattered thoughts on everything Projects and thoughts from my brain

25Jun/0989

My Mac Mini media centre

apple_mac_miniBefore deciding on witch components to build my Mac Mini media centre from, I had done lots of research. With open mind I had searched the market to find out if a Mac solution even was the best choice.

There are a plethora of alternatives. Windows Media Centre, DreamBox, PlayStation3, Xbox 360, Tvix, Popcorn Hour is perhaps the most famous ones. However, since I have a fondness for the Mac platform and my experience of it dates back to the early 90’s, I thought it – from a configuration point of view – would be the best solution. And so it was.

These are the components included in my media centre solution:

I guess the prize landed at around 16,000 SEK (around 1,600 USD) for all this (TV and receiver excluded), but not more. I must add that I already had an okay stereo system and a great TV.

I am very satisfied with the solution, and I do not think I would have been equally happy with a Windows based solution. MacOS X together with iLife (that came bundled with the Mini) is a great combo. You don’t really need much more for a basic media centre. The rest is, so to speak, only icing on the cake.

However, this solution has taken me many hours of research and configuration. The setup of the Harmony One remote control, together with Remote Buddy, has undoubtedly been the most time consuming parts. But now everything works great and smoothly.

With the Harmony One remote control I manoeuvre most of the functions on my TV, stereo and computer. I can put the Mini to sleep as well as wake it up, start the applications I want and control the functions I like, from the sofa. You can smoothly operate all this with the Harmony, if you spend some time configuring it first. However, one should be aware that a computer solution never can be as smooth and easy to manoeuvre as, for example, a TV. That’s because it is also so much more advanced than a TV.

Nor does it currently exist one application for MacOS X that handles all your media (movies, music, live TV, recording etc.). Plex has the potential, but if you want to be able to watch/record TV on your Mac, you still have to rely on separate software for this. I know people are working on integrating TV into Plex. Probably it’s just a matter of time before we can enjoy the fruit of their work.

However, I don’t see any problems using different applications for different things. In my opinion it works just as well, it just takes some ingenuity to smoothly control them all. The applications I primarily use on my Mini, which I have configured for the remote control, are these:

  • Plex (ripped movies, Swedish television, YouTube, music)
  • Front Row (music, photos)
  • iTunes (music, internet radio, etc.)
  • iPhoto (photo sorting/viewing)
  • EyeTV (TV, timer recording/time shifting, FM radio)
  • Apple’s DVD Player

Performance

I’ve made some simple performance tests with different films (see the post Mac Mini vs. HD-video, currently only in Swedish). The conclusion is that my Mini (2.26 GHz, 4 GB, Nvidia 9400M with 256MB of VRAM) is capable of displaying “normal” HD movies with bit-rate peaks up to 40 MBit/s. The Mini is fast and swallows most things you feed it.

The Nvidia 9400M chipset in the 2009–2010 Mac Minis is optimized to handle h.264 HD video, but this also requires that the software you use can take advantage of it. Today Snow Leopard is required to obtain the h.264 acceleration. A great news is also that the next version of Plex (0.9) will have this acceleration.

Primate Labs, who makes Geekbench, has a list of different Mac Minis and their performance compared to the iMac. As information, my configuration scores 3058 points, which is about 10% better than the 2.0 GHz model from 2009. If it’s worth the extra money is up to you to decide.

One great feature of the Mini is that it is completely quiet – perfect when using it in a media centre solution. The only thing that has a sound level to be concerned about is the optical drive. It is too noisy to be perfect. However, it’s not nor quieter or louder than any other optical drive I’ve used.

One more positive thing, from an environmental and economic point of view, is that the Mini in fact consumes as little power as Apple claims. The Swedish magazine M3 measured its power consumption to the extremely low 12–28 watts, compared to the “less than 13 Watts” Apple claims.

Connections

Antenna

Due to the current situation, I use the TV for viewing TV and EyeTV only as a VCR/radio recorder. Because of this I needed a coaxial cable splitter and two coaxial cables for the two antenna inputs, one for the EyeTV stick and one for the TV.

Video connection

Swedish MacWorld has an old but extensive guide (in Swedish) on how to best connect the Mac to the TV.

Mac Mini ‘09 to older TV’s. If you have a newer Mac Mini with the GeForce 9400M video chipset and want to connect it to an older TV with no digital inputs – such as HDMI, DVI-D, etc. – the solution may be expensive. Then you have to buy a digital to analogue video converter for around 400–2000 SEK (40–200 USD) that converts the digital signal to analogue VGA/S-Video/SCART/Component/Composite video.

The video chipsets in the previous Mac Mini models (prior 2009) outputted both analogue and digital signals, depending on the type of screen/TV connected. The GeForce 9400M chipset in the current Mini’s is only outputting a digital signal through its video outputs.

A small DVI guide (taken from Wikipedia):

  • DVI-A outputs only analogue signals.
  • DVI-D outputs only digital signals.
  • DVI-I outputs, beside the digital signal, also an analogue RGB signal. A simple adaptor can therefore be used to connect it to VGA displays.

Therefore a DVI-D to VGA/S-Video/SCART/Component/Composite converter is required. Here are some links that may help you:

Either way you’ll be restricted to the resolutions your TV and cables can handle.

Mac Mini ‘09 to newer TV’s. The Mini is easily connected to your TV through a DVI-D till HDMI cable or an Apple Mini Display Port to HDMI cable.

If price is not a problem there are different types of DVI+Audio to HDMI converters that merges the digital audio output from the Mac together with the DVI signal and send it all as an HDMI signal to the TV. Even better is the Kanex iAdapt 51 witch today is the ultimate solution. Better but also expensive.

After a little searching in my TV’s settings, I found the menu to enable “maximum viewing area” (so called “over scan”), which is required if you don’t want a black border around the image area. I know cheaper TV’s can have difficulties maximizing the image. This might be worth checking before you go out and buy a new TV.

If you encounter problems finding a good screen resolution on your TV, then maybe SwitchResX, DisplayConfigX and Cscreen can work as a last resort, but they probably won’t solve problems with over scan.

One more thing you might consider before buying a new TV, is to check weather it supports pixel mapping or not (i.e. so that one pixel in the video output from the computer becomes one pixel on the TV screen).

This might sound contradictory but personally I do not take advantage of the TV’s full resolution (1920 x 1080p). I use a resolution of 1600 x 900 (interlaced). This is because the three meters between the couch and the TV otherwise makes it difficult to read text on the screen.

A great function in OSX is the ability to zoom in and out on the screen, using the mouse’s scroll wheel. Just press CTRL on your keyboard and scroll the wheel to zoom in/out the area surrounding the mouse pointer (this feature must be enabled in System settings-> Accessibility). Perfect feature if you’re sitting far from the TV.

Finally, I can’t say that I have encountered any problems besides some relating to the TV’s refresh rate (see bottom of post).

Audio connections

toslink-miniplugSince it isn’t possible to output audio through the video cable today (theoretically possible through the Mini Display Port but currently not possible), one have to rely on an extra cable for this (an analogue 3.5 mm audio cable or digital mini-Toslink 3.5 mm to Toslink, such as these).

In my media centre solution I have made an analogue T-junction between the computer/TV/receiver where the computer’s audio cable (out) splits, both to the receiver (through RCA) and to the TV (through a 3.5 mm audio plug). The idea is that the sound level mainly is controlled using the volume adjustments in OSX when using the Mini.

Since I use the TV for all “normal” TV viewing, I also need to have the audio output from it connected to a spare input connection on my receiver, presuming I want the TV audio outputted on my stereo.

This means that the audio from the Mini is outputted both to the TV and to the receiver, while the audio from normal TV viewing is outputted to the TV and to the receiver, but on a different port on the receiver.

Even if you can, I would recommend to only connect one thing per port on your stereo.

If you own a modern sound system, you can get 5.1 sound (DD, DTS) through the optical audio output on the Mini. Thereafter it’s up to the application itself if it works or not. Plex and application that uses Perian/QuickTime are safe bets. Others are more uncertain. Here is a (Swedish) guide on how to get 5.1 audio and surround sound in QuickTime applications.

Remote controlling

A major benefit of many PC-based media centres is that they often have a display on the front showing what happens inside. This saves you from having the screen turned on every time you want to do something with your computer. I don’t know how well this works in reality, but theoretically it seems to be a nice feature.

For Macs, to my knowledge, there are no such solutions. However, there are other tricks to remotely control Macs.

  1. Screen Sharing. MacOS X 10.5 and later has a built-in VNC client (System/Bibliotek/CoreServices/Screen sharing.app ) – a very smooth way to control your Mac over the network.With VNC you can for example, have an old Mac laptop (and even a PC with the appropriate software (in Swedish)) to control your media centre Mac remotely. Thus, eliminating the need of a screen to the latter.Constantly having to switch on and off the TV/monitor for the smallest trifle you want to perform can be quite frustrating. Then a VNC client is a nice solution.Much more versatile, but with almost the same functionality as Screen sharing in OSX, is the Apple Remote Desktop. However, it cost a hefty penny and is primarily intended to aid workgroup administrators handling large groups of Macs.There are also a number of free clients available for download, but I prefer the built-in client of OSX.
  2. iPhone/iPod Touch. Probably the best way to remotely control the gadgets in your home. There are countless of apps for this, e.g. Remote, Signal, AJAX (together with Remote Buddy), BobbyAirRemote, BluEye, Touchpad Pro, UiRemote, Voomote and Total Control app. If this is not enough, there are nine more here and a bunch more here.
  3. Touch-screens. There are plenty of small, touch-screens that you can connect to your Mac media centre. Convenient but expensive, is a good summary. Here are a few who seems to work fine with OSX:
    • Mimo Monitors – Cheap and apparently Mac-friendly products. Here is a Swedish test.
    • Lilliput – Wide range of touch screens (here and here are drivers).
    • Elotouch – Wide range of touch screens.
    • Xenarc – Screens perhaps primarily for mounting in a car.
    • Ergoguys – Products to retrofit screens.
    • Troll Touch – Products to retrofit screens.
    • Touch-base – Software to control the touch-sensitive equipment.

    When you have got the screens working together there are two options: mirroring  where the same image is displayed on both screens  or letting them operate parallel. One problem that arises with the latter option is that you will not see any menu bar on the secondary screen. Then Secondbar, DejaMenu and Dragthing may become useful since they fix this problem (here s a guide to Dragthing). The application Overflow displays an alternative Dock , which also may help you.

  4. AirPort Express (AE) is a wireless router that you can connect your sound system or speakers to. It has a 3.5 mm analogue/digital audio output that allows you stream music from iTunes over the network (wirelessly or over Ethernet). You can place it somewhere in your house where your sound system does not reach. The downside is that you must have some sort of computer in order to control the music. AirFoil removes the restriction to only stream audio from iTunes. With it you can stream anything from your computer to the AE.There are similar options from other manufacturers, for example the Logitech Squeezebox and Roku SoundBridge.
  5. AppleTV (ATV) is for video what AE is to audio. ATV retrieves and plays media from your iTunes library (on another computer). In some countries you can rent movies from Apple Music Store using the ATV, but not yet so in Sweden.There are many cool custom-built ATV’s. Look here to see what can be done.Other solutions, similar to the ATV, are WD TV Live, Xtreamer and The Cinema Tube. You can describe them as “hard drives with a playback function”. Good value for the money though, since they only cost a few 100 USD.
  6. Speech recognition. As early as in the mid-90’s, there was a relatively advanced speech recognition built into MacOS (8.5 I think). Then as now, it was mainly English commands that worked and if you wanted to speak any other languages to your Mac, you had to write phonetic transcriptions of your commands. I believe this still is the case, so I advice you to only speak English to your Mac.What you need is a microphone (an amplified one, or for example an iMic) and then all you have to do is begin adding executable commands in the System Settings.
  7. A remote control. You’ll still need a screen to see what you are doing (continued below)...

logitech-harmony-one

Logitech Harmony One

The most time consuming component. After spending lots of time evaluating the different alternatives my choice stood between the Sony PlayStation Remote Control (Bluetooth) or a Logitech Harmony One (IR). I chose the latter and it feels completely right today.

With its small touch screen and the ability to create virtual buttons that you can name, it feels like a much better choice.

Logitech Harmony setup software

Saying Logitech’s software is intuitive, is a lie. Although I usually learn applications quite easy, this one was difficult. However, it is very competent once you grip the way it works, which everyone can do with a little guidance.

Logitech’s concept is to divide the functions of the remote control into devices and activities. This is key. To put it simply: the devices carry the buttons (functions) you pick from when you compose the activities.

Here is a comprehensive setup guide (current only in Swedish), to both the Logitech Harmony Remote Software and Remote Buddy, which I have written.

Devices

Harmony_2Under the Devices tab you (surprisingly) configure the devices you want to control with the remote (e.g. TV, DVD, sound system, computer). The setup of the devices is pretty straightforward. It’s all about linking the correct functionality to the right button.

After the configuration, each device becomes accessible under the Devices tab on the touch-screen of the remote control.

The configuration of the devices is easily done by searching and downloading pre-programmed settings for just the device you’d like to control. The configuration software connects to the Internet and then downloads the button scheme matching the device’s real one. Thereafter, simply sync the Harmony remote with the setup software.

There are an almost infinite number of button schemes available for download from Logitech. It’s not likely not finding a matching button scheme for your TV/sound system/DVD. If you still wouldn’t find any scheme, you can read the codes right of your old remote (see Logitech’s help for this), so there are really no restrictions.

When you have configured the Devices and fine-tuned their buttons, you can move on to the Activities tab. There you can create an orchestra of individual Devices, playing together through separate buttons and macros calling many functions in a row.

Activities

Harmony_1Under the Activities tab, you can combine buttons from all your devices into sets – activities – suitable for the activity you’d like to perform. For example, if you want to watch a DVD, you simply press the button on the remote which you’ve labelled “Watch DVD”. By doing so all the electronics you need to watch the DVD turns on and becomes configured automatically (TV, sound system, DVD, etc.). It also activates the right button scheme in the remote, e.g. so that you can control the sound level on stereo with one button and do the DVD navigation with another, but on the same remote.

Under the Devices tab in the remote control, you can only control one device at a time; under Activities, you can link different devices to all buttons. For example, you can have the volume button control the stereo, the navigation cross can control the computer and the numerical buttons can control the TV. You can e.g. pick functions from different devices under Activities and combine them.

Usually it is best to create activities from scratch (manually) and not involve the “wizard” available. The only advantage of using the wizard is that each activity gets a nice, suitable icon on the remote control screen. The disadvantage, in my opinion, is that the wizard is more difficult to fine-tune and that the accompanying icons doesn’t always match the activity you want to perform. For example, if I would like to have an activity for using iPhoto, I can’t find any configurable activity/icon named something like “Image slideshow”. For TV channels though, there is a plethora of icons available to decorate your TV activities. Otherwise you have to content with the bland “manual” icons.

My configured Devices/Activities looks like this:

Devices Activities
Standard buttons

("Mac Mini")

Additional buttons

("Mac Mini")

Standard buttons

("Use Mac Mini")

Additional buttons

("Use Mac Mini")

Activities No. 3–8 in the second picture from left in the table above (“Använd Plex” and so on) is somewhat unnecessary to program into the remote; they are only there for treat. The only purpose they serve is to load exactly the same key scheme as the activity “Använd Mac Mini”, plus that they also start the program given in the activity name (Plex, Front Row, iPhoto and iTunes). Besides this, they contain exactly the same key scheme as the activity “Använd Mac Mini”, which contents I have listed in detail in the bottommost images.

The Apple Remote-dilemma

The problem with IR remotes is that Macs just accept the Apple Remote. In order to use other remotes you’ll either have to buy a Keyspan IR receiver or emulate an Apple Remote.

Apple’s remote has 6 buttons while the Harmony One has many more. Then how do you program the Harmony One to use more than 6 buttons/functions?

Fortunately, it is possible to use multiple Apple Remotes together with a single Mac. The Mac separates the Apple Remotes through their individual IDs (which can be shifted). By having the Harmony remote emulate a certain number of Apple Remotes (with different IDs), where the total number of buttons matches the Harmony remotes, you can make the Harmony send different commands through different buttons. Does is sound difficult? Fortunately, there are people who already have done the heavy work for us.

Emulate Apple Remote(s)

Harmony_3Fortunately you don’t have to buy an Apple Remote and map the 6 buttons a hundred times; there is already a button scheme available through the Harmony One configuration software. Its name is “Plex Player” and you can find it in the Media Centre PC category. The button scheme emulates 10 Apple Remotes. With it you get 58 configurable Apple Remote buttons to map onto your Harmony remote.

It may be a bit confusing that the Mac button scheme, when it shows up in the Harmony software, is called “Plex Player” and not Mac-something. The reason for this is that the setting primarily was intended for the media centre software Plex, that has Harmony support built-in.

If you – like me – have a TV, a stereo and a Mac in your media centre solution, these components are all the devices you need to configure for your remote control. Start off by configuring the devices, then the activities.

One thing to be aware of is that the Logitech software often shows up “Okay” buttons in its interface, which actually are “Cancel-but-save-my-settings” buttons. The interface is quite messy, but you’ll get used to it.

Remote Buddy (RB)

RemoteBuddyAfter some research I concluded that Remote Buddy probably was the best piece of software to control the Mac using an IR remote control.

Besides the Apple Remote (and thus Harmony One) RB also supports the Nintendo Wii remote and the PS3 Bluetooth remote. To see what’s possible to do with the Wii remote, watch the cool demo movies on Iospirits website. Regarding the Wii remote, you should be aware that you must have a so-called “sensor bar” in front of the TV in order to use the Wii remote’s motion sensor.

Remote Buddy costs about 20 USD and is required if you want to control the Mac with the remote, at least in any greater sense. There are other, cheaper solutions, but with less functionality, like Sofa Control, iRed Lite and Mira.

Preferences

Under the Preferences menu you’ll find the configuration window where you set the actions to be executed in the different applications when you press the Harmony buttons.

Without RB, your remote will just send assorted Apple Remote commands and not perform the expected behaviour of the Harmony remote buttons. Furthermore, you’ll be limited to the 12(1 actions of the Apple Remote. It is RB that interprets the IR-commands, sent from e.g. the Harmony’s volume buttons, that raises/lowers the volume on the Mac.

After you have registered all the remote buttons in RB (by pressing all of them on the remote) and deactivated “Paring”, its time to set-up the commands for each application. E.g. you may not want the remote’s play button to send a space key command in both iPhoto and iTunes. Then this must be configured in RB.

Although it is possible to make one global setting for the remote in RB (where the same commands are executed in every application), the result will probably not be satisfying.

Personally I only use global commands on the things I want globally accessible, e.g. the RB menu, keyboard arrows, quit (long press on the Exit button), return key, etc.

(1Apple Remote has 6 buttons, but 12 commands. Each button can be pressed a few seconds and thereby send a different command than the standard.

Behaviors

If the predefined commands in RB aren’t enough, you can create your own. You do this under the Behaviours menu. These commands will then be selectable from within the Mapping tab. For more info see the RB’s help section.

To make it easy for you to match the Harmony remote buttons to the RB actions, you can download my button scheme (in Word format).

Elgato EyeTV

The TV stick

Elgato_hybrid_features_sticksElgato has a variety of TV sticks. Some say they are over priced compared to the competitors’, but I still consider the Elgato sticks are the best value for the money. It is, after all, Elgato who makes EyeTV, which today represents the best piece of software for watching TV on the Mac. However, I know friends who bought cheap sticks and they’ve worked great. It is also said Elgato sticks require a generally higher antenna signal than others to work well. I have not encountered such problems since I have cable TV.

I did chose the Hybrid model for three reasons. It is capable of:

  • Both analogue and digital television (DVB-T and DVB-C)
  • Both SD and HD tv contents (the latter also depends on the computer’s capacity)
  • Analogue radio

I have subsequently come to the conclusion that analogue radio perhaps was not a necessary feature, since the majority of radio stations today broadcast live via the Internet. However, it is always a useful feature if you want to timer record a radio program.

EyeTV_sladd

The EyeTV package also includes a lead-in video cable (composite and s-video) so you, for example, can connect a video game console or a digital TV box (which, together with the Harmony remote works great). The advantage of a digital TV box is that you avoid the cost of buying a CI module needed to watch the pay channels (probably you also avoid the hassle of getting the CI module to work).

The majority of the Elgato TV sticks have a built-in IR receiver. Theoretically you should be able to use it as a substitute IR receiver together with older Macs that are not equipped with a built-in IR receiver. Unfortunately I have not done any testing yet with the Harmony remote to see how/if it works.

One problem of using the included EyeTV remote is that the TV stick usually is plugged into the USB ports on the back of the computer and thus becomes “invisible” for the remote’s IR signals. Having the stick lying in front of the computer works, if you have a sufficiently long USB cord – but it is hardly aesthetically pleasing.

Software

The software that comes with Elgato TV sticks is very competent, although I think it offers too few settings. Alternatives to the EyeTV are: The Tube, iTV and XTelevision.

Timer recording works great, even with the computer asleep. But be prepared to have quite an amount of disk space available since an hour of uncompressed SD video eats up approximately 3.5 GB of your hard drive.

Since I currently have analogue cable TV (via the Swedish ComHem) I miss all the interesting information functions digital TV offers, for example program information and so-called “com-skipping”. The latter means that advertising blocks are skipped in recorded material. The plug-in Etv-comskip makes this.

EyeTV can handle external sources of EPG data. Usually a 12-months free subscription to tvtv.co.uk is bundled when you buy an Elgato stick. Here’s a guide on how to use external EPG sources in Sweden.

In Sweden it is also possible to use the free solution SweDB XMLTV Grabber for EyeTV, which uses the XMLTV and SweDB to fetch the EPG data. Here’s a guide how use it. And here’s another way to download free EPG data to EyeTV.

A useful widget that displays Swedish TV program info can be found here.

Another nice feature built into EyeTV is that you can share recorded programs over the network.

CyTV_serverWith the free server/client software CyTV it is possible to stream live TV to any computer on the network, and pick it up in – for example – VLC or a web browser. With some luck it is also possible to switch channel in the most recent, sharp version (although I did not get it to work properly). However, by only using the server software, you can easily get it to work, both in the web browser and in VLC (apart from the channel switching that is). A new version (0.7) is underway and it seems promising (still an early alpha version).

If you want to reach EyeTV from within Front Row there is a hidden command for this.

Here’s a list of EyeTV shortcuts, which can be useful when you configure Remote Buddy.

Tips & links

Plex

Plex_1Plex is a promising media centre application, still in beta stage. It is based on the open source software XBMC, originally developed as an alternative Xbox interface. Boxee is another member in the XBMC family tree.

Unlike the other family members, Plex has been adapted to play along well with Apple’s iLife suite and is now the most “Mac-like” XBMC variant of the three.

Sometimes the Xbox heritage shines through in things like navigation and bugs. Plex’s strength today is undoubtedly its features. It’s weak point – if one can call it that – is the interface. Hopefully it will be improved as the development progresses.

Plex’s main features are image viewing, music playback, video playback and Internet radio. Especially its video player is probably the best one available for the Mac platform today, since it swallows the video files other players fails to play.

To start learning Plex you really just have to start the application. It is fairly self-explanatory and if you would encounter any problems, just consult the start guide. What takes time is defining the sources – which are the places where Plex looks for media files – and the “scraping” of movies – which is the process where Plex ads information and posters to the movies.

Plex_2Plug-ins are very easy to install as this is done from within Plex. Some of the most interesting plug-ins are the tv plug-ins and the ones for Spotify and YouTube.

There is also a number of unsupported plug-ins, which you can download and install manually.

The main key commands to control Plex are:Plex_3

CMD + F = Toggles full screen mode

Esc = Cancel/go back

C = Contextual menu

M = Show player controls

Keyboard arrows

Tips

  • The Media Server. One important thing to remember is to keep the Media Server running (Settings > System > Media Server >). Turning it off will cause things to behave strangely or not work at all.
  • Weather settings. It is not always possible to enter a nearby town in Plex’s weather settings. Here you’ll see what places you can choose from.
  • The media-scraping feature works best when the movie files on your hard drive are named according to the syntax File name (release year).avi. For example: Batman Begins (2005).avi
  • Plex Skin Installer. An installer that downloads all working skins to Plex (follow this guide).
  • Manage Your Media Using Plex. A quick guide to Plex, which also shows that Airfoil works together with Plex.
  • Swedish radio. A simple plug-in that makes it possible to listen to Swedish radio in Plex. We hope that it develops further.
  • Advanced Guides. Wiki-page, among other things, describing how to rip Blu-Ray movies.
  • Game Launcher. Plug-in making it possible to launch emulators from within Plex.
  • Hardware accelerated H.264-decoding. Offers a great performance boost to H.264 encoded movies. Requires that your Mac is equipped with the GeForce 9400M video circuit. Works great!

Front Row (FR)

FrontRowFront Row is Apple’s way of making the content of iTunes and iPhoto easily accessible from the couch, hidden behind a slick and couch-friendly interface. Unfortunately FR’s functionality is quite limited if you want to use media sources other than Apple’s.

However, there is plug-ins that makes FR a little bit more fun. PyeTV is one, which allows you to use EyeTV from within FR, which not works very well. Another, similar plug-in is FrontTV. Then there is Sapphire, which provides support for more video formats and automatically downloads movie information from IMDb, etc. – similar to what Plex does.

With the Understudy plug-in you’ll get access to streaming video services like Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and BBC iPlayer through FR. With the Emulators Plugin for AppleTV you’ll be able to launch emulators from within FR.

Radio

Analogue FM radio, as mentioned earlier, is a built-in feature of the EyeTV Hybrid and it works great. After a little tinkering with QuickTime, Flip4Mac and Perian you’ll find that iTunes can become an equally good radio swallowing all kinds of streaming audio formats.

As you probably know, there are hundreds of international radio stations available in iTunes by default. If you want even more stations – perhaps some Nordic channels – then you should download and install this iTunes script that gives access to a bunch of Scandinavian radio stations.

Update: Please note that Apple has removed the feature to play WMA streams in iTunes 8 and newer.

The problems (yes, they exist)

Finally, the problems I have encountered to which I have not yet found any solution:

  • Mac Mini to the TV. The image quality on my TV is superb but there is a problem. Since the computer perceives the TV as just a “TV”, the only refresh rates I can to choose from are PAL (50Hz) and NTSC (60Hz) in the monitor settings. This relatively low frame rate creates a subtle flicker on the TV. In most situations you’ll probably not notice anything, but sometimes you will. My TV supports up to 60 Hz via the HDMI input and probably you can’t get any higher frequency through HDMI. The VGA port on the TV supports up to 75 Hz. I have tried to create custom settings using SwitchResX (set to 1600 x 900 75 Hz) but it refuses to work.Update: After a lot of experimenting, I noticed that the flicker was due to the TV’s low backlight setting. Since all LCD screens suffer from so-called bleeding/clouding in varying degrees, I had deliberately set the backlight level of my TV to a minimum to reduce the effect. Then I discovered that pulling it up to around 60% of maximum made the flicker disappear. However, the bleeding/clouding now returned. My own TV settings can be found here (currently only in Swedish).
  • EyeTV. My first idea was to watch all TV through EyeTV but I soon found out that the video quality of EyeTV was somewhat poor, at least in analogue mode displayed on a 46” TV.I live in a tenant where I can choose from analogue cable TV and digital IP-TV (good picture quality, but it costs extra). What I found out was that the built-in analogue decoder of my Sony TV produced much better video quality than EyeTV, which probably has to do with EyeTV’s lack of post image processing features.So due to this, I only use the EyeTV as a VCR.
  • TV, receiver, Mac. Some electronics uses different IR commands for on and off, so called discrete IR codes. This is a great feature when using them together with the Harmony One remote. Unfortunately my TV, receiver nor Mac is equipped with this feature, which prevents me from making advanced function macros that sends different on/off signals depending on the situation.Consider a case where you have the TV on but all other things in your media centre solution off. Suddenly you want to watch a movie and press the (virtual) activity button “Watch a movie” on your Harmony remote. It is supposed to fire up the TV, receiver and DVD all together. The result you’ll get is that the TV will be turned off while the receiver and the DVD is turned on. And that was not what you wanted.A small but annoying thing.
  • Mac Mini and Harmony One. When I use the remote together with my Mac, I notice that the Mac’s response is slightly delayed. What this is due to, I do not know. Maybe the Apple Remote is inherently slow (I have not had the opportunity to test an real Apple Remote yet). If this is the case, then naturally the same goes for the emulating Harmony remote.I have tried adjusting signal delays in the setup program for the Harmony remote, but to no avail.Update: I finally found a way to speed up the respons of the Harmony (currently only in Swedish).
  • Apple Bluetooth mouse. I have the Mini hooked up on the Internet through a wireless AirPort Express router (G standard) and I have noticed that sometimes it interfere with the Bluetooth signals of my Mighty Mouse. This rarely happens though, only in extreme cases when you push the limit of your bandwidth, then you may notice that the motion of the cursor gets wobbly.

Tips & tricks

  • Convert FLV to MPEG4. Sometimes it is not possible to convert a Flash Video (.flv) to any QuickTime-friendly format, neither with Perian or iSquint. I guess it’s a bug in Perian that prevents this. However, for me it has worked by simply changing the file’s suffix from .flv to .mp4, and then QuickTime swallows it without any problem.My conclusion is that no conversion is needed as long as the video track in the FLV file is encoded with MPEG4 – you’ll just need QuickTime and Perian.

Miscellaneous links

  • MacWorld.com – Mac Mini media centre solution.
  • Pure-mac.com – Media centre applications.
  • Overclockers – Guide how to create a Mac Mini media centre.
  • Fast Mac.com – Blue-Ray player for the Mac Mini.
  • Amex Digital – Blue-Ray retrofit kit for the Mac Mini and iMac.
  • Handbrake Video Transcoder – Great tool for DVD ripping on the Mac.
  • PS3 Media Server / Nullriver MediaLink / Connect360 / iSedora – To connect the PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 and UPnP/DLNA gadgets to the Mac.
  • iSquint – A light version of VisualHub to convert various video formats to MPEG4.
  • EMUlaunch – Interface for launching and managing games for around 15 different video game consoles and arcade machines, e.g. from within Plex.
  • AppleScript – Solution to control the Mac by sending emails to it.
  • SubFix – Application to correct timing issues in subtitle text files (.srt).
  • My OSX freeware – Software blog listing new and interesting applications.
  • 123Macmini.com – Discussions totally dedicated to Mac Mini.
  • DLNA Server Comparison Chart – Comparison chart of different DLNA applications on various platforms.
  • Windows Vista Mac IR Driver – Mac driver for using the Apple Remote together with Windows Vista (on Intel Macs).
  • Shades – A small utility for dimming down the screen, or, in other words, adjust its brightness.
  • DiscRotate and Scharping – Lowers the reading speed (and noise) of your optical DVD/CD drive. Resetting PRAM has also been reported to fix loud SuperDrives.
  • Overflow – An alternative dock to open applications and documents. Perfect for a small touch screen.
  • Sandman – Nice and inspiring site for Mac-based media centre solutions (in Swedish).
  • FLV Crunch – Free video converter.
  • Stop Dashboard widget – Kills the Dashboard to free up RAM and CPU power.
  • Burn – Free and versatile CD/DVD burner.
  • MakeMKV – Application for ripping DVD/BD on the Mac.
  • Subler – Add/edit data tracks in MPEG4 files.
  • Teleport – Use several Macs simultaneously by sharing keybord, mouse and clipboard between them, like if the only were different screens.
  • VideoSpec – Application giving detailed information about video files.
  • Install a Mac without a screen – Guide how to start and configure it without the aid of a screen (by using a MacBook though).

My ambition is to supplement this tutorial with all new things I discover regarding Mac and media centres. Hopefully my work will become useful to someone, despite my insufficient English.

Comments, corrections and suggestions are greatly appreciated!

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