Hicks

Mac Media Centre part one - hardware

For a few months now, I’ve been bitten by the desire for a Mac based ‘Home Media Centre’. I have all these scattered elements – music in various iTunes libraries, photos in various iPhoto libraries (We’d been using Old Faithful for downloading and keeping all the family photos), as well as DVDs and movies. I felt that I could bring these together somehow, but I also didn’t want to buy lots of new kit in order to do it. What follows is my experience in setting up a basic media thingy.

First of all, I’m a muppet when it comes anything video related. Emails back and forth with Siobhan who knows about such things helped me learn my coaxial from my s-video, and formulate some plans. Originally I wondered if I could use my G5 to double up as a ‘centre’, but looking through the January sales in Glasgow, I found a low spec ex-demo Mac Mini going cheap. It went against the ‘spending too much money’ rule, but it was a bargain. There was no damage – just a bit dusty on top.

Mac Mini

Being the lower model, it lacked a few features, most of which I could compensate for:

  • No Bluetooth, but I did have a USB dongle I could bung in the back, so that wasn’t an issue.
  • No Airport, but no problem as it would be sitting a couple of feet away from my wireless modem/router, and I could just run an ethernet cable to it.
  • Only 512mb RAM, which is OK, but replacing the RAM is straightforward as this model doesn’t have a bluetooth module or airport card to be disconnected first. All you need is a thin putty knife to unclip the base.
  • No DVD Writer. This was more of a problem, as the intention was to combine it with EyeTV at some point in the future, and the ability to burn off a DVD would’ve been ideal. Never mind, I could just grab the files onto the powerbook or G5 to burn a DVD.
  • Iomega MinimaxSmall hard drive, but then again, even the larger spec 80gb model probably wouldn’t be enough. I knew I would have to use an external hard drive anyway. Word of warning though: If you want to buy one of those firewire drives that sits underneath the Mini, get the Lacie mini drive, not the Iomega Minimax. I got the Iomega solely because it was available on Amazon, and I’d saved up some gift vouchers. The problem is that it takes less than a minute of being underneath the Mini for the drive to get too hot and start emitting a loud, high-pitched whine. The Lacie drive has a stand built in to allow cooling, so it shouldn’t get this problem.

So, connecting it all up. At the moment, the iPod dock, bluetooth dongle and firewire drive plug into the mini, and the mini is connected the telly by Scart connector with audio coming from the headphone socket, and video passing through an Apple DVI Video adaptor (which converts the DVI connection to s-video).

Once the hardware was set up, it was time to set up the software:

  • Installed OSXVNC and set it to run at startup. As it has Tiger, I could’ve enabled “Remote Desktop” in the Sharing preference pane to activate OS X’s in-built VNC server. However, I’d heard reports of this being slower than OSX VNC, and that was certainly my experience.
  • Disabled “Open Bluetooth setup assistant at startup when no input devide is present” in the Bluetooth preferences as I was going to be running it without no keyboard or mouse.
  • Installed Salling Clicker and the FrontRow Controller script, and set up the connection to my bluetooth phone.
  • Installed Chicken of the VNC on my powerbook to setup and control the Mini via VNC.
  • All my media files were copied to the firewire drive, and then I set up iTunes to use the library on the drive, rather than the Mini. To get iPhoto to do this too, I simply removed the pictures folder, and started up iPhoto. It then asks you where the library is located, and gives you the opportunity to choose the firewire drive instead. In iTunes and iPhoto this worked fine, but when trying FrontRow (more on that in part 2), it has problems accessing the files. Instead, I created symbolic links (with this easy context menu tool: SymbolicLinker ) of the Movies folder, and iTunes/iPhoto libraries, and that worked a treat. I haven’t tried a plain old alias, but that might work too. iTunes and iPhoto were also set to share their libraries so that we could listen/view on them on the powerbook as well.

Final note – if you’re ever trying to get Apple DVD player working when there isn’t a display connected (as I was, using VNC), it won’t work. DVD player doesn’t like this situation and will refuse to play. VLC doesn’t however. I spent ages trying to work out what was up with it. Doh.

Mac Mini

It all works, except…

The upshot is that this works just fine, apart from my TV, its not one of these fancy ones with a DVI or VGA connection. The S-Video to Scart connection works, but the picture quality isn’t brilliant (looks better on DVD’s though). This is the limitation of the s-video connection, I was a bit naive to think that it would be enough. The sound quality playing music through the TV’s speakers is made ‘fairly good’ by using the Volume Logic plugin for iTunes, but it lacks a bit of oomph. Music could be fed to a stereo via Airport Express, but while Airfoil allows you to send audio from other apps, the small time lag means this wouldn’t work for playing DVDs. At least thats what I figure – if you have any experience with using an Airport Express like this, please leave a comment!

So that’s the only limitation so far, but there’s not much we can do about that. Unless I can arrange the children to have a little ‘accident’ with the telly, there’s not enough justification to get a new one!

Now, read Part two: software