My multimedia Mac mini

With the introduction of the iMac G5 and its accompanying remote control and Front Row media browser software, Apple hinted that the Macintosh was ready to add a new skill to its resume—serving as a multimedia center. I took a look at the multimedia capabilities of that G5-based iMac earlier this year, approaching the task with a challenging goal in mind: Switch off the stereo, TV, TiVo, DVD player, and radio and replace those devices and their functionality with the iMac and a select set of third-party peripherals.

While the iMac proved to be an adequate multimedia center, it wasn’t about to replace my dedicated media components. Its display was too small for a large room and television pictures displayed on its monitor lacked the clarity that you find on a real TV. Maybe the answer wasn’t in replacing my media center, but rather using the Mac as an enhancement to my existing components. If only the computer was smaller, cheaper, and—when plugged into my TV—free of the redundant display.

Apple released just such a computer in the Intel-based Mac mini. Unlike the original mini, this Mac supports infrared remote control, includes an updated version of Front Row that supports playing shared media, and offers 5.1 digital audio output, four USB ports rather than two, and, of course, a more powerful CPU. Could this Macintosh be the answer to my multimedia needs?

To find out, I got my hands on a Mac mini with a 1.66GHz Core Duo chip. I also created a new set of goals.

  • Goal 1: The mini must serve all my video needs, including playing DVDs on my television in glorious 5.1 sound, displaying live television, recording television programs, and streaming video from another Mac in my house.
  • Goal 2: The mini must serve nearly all my audio needs. It will play CDs, play and record Internet and terrestrial radio, and stream music from another Mac in my home.
  • Goal 3: After the initial setup, I won’t have to leave the comfort of my couch to configure my Mac or play media through it.
  • Was such a small computer up to such large challenges? When outfitted with the proper peripherals (and those peripherals are correctly configured) the mini performed as a workable media center as long as its media files were stored on the mini or a hard drive attached to it. As a client tasked with streaming media from another computer, Front Row and the mini have a way to go.

    Out of the box

    Apple makes it clear that when you purchase an Intel Mac mini you get the basics—a computer packed with basic software (including iLife ’06), a power supply, and Apple’s remote control. The rest is up to you. Apple suggests that the bare minimum for the rest is a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. To that list I’ll add a set of computer speakers or headphones—listening to music or a DVD soundtrack through the mini’s tiny (and tinny) internal speaker is far from satisfying.

    With those speakers or headphones and a decent monitor (my Apple 20-inch display, for example), iTunes sounds great and DVDs look fabulous. Controlling them through Front Row makes sense when you’re sitting across the room, but with the Mac set before you on a desk, I prefer using iTunes and DVD Player directly. As slick as Front Row may be, it offers a limited set of controls. For example, I have a large enough iTunes collection that I routinely use iTunes’ browser or Search field to find the music I want. Front Row provides no way to do that. And when you attempt to play disc 2 of Pixar’s The Incredibles you discover that you can’t navigate through the menus with Apple’s Remote—the plus (+) and minus (-) keys do nothing. With DVD Player and a mouse you can easily click the menu items you want. And, of course, you can forget about using the iTunes Music Store with Front Row.

    But forget all that. This Mac wasn’t destined for the desktop. Living room, ho!

    Beyond the box

    Goals 1 and 2 required that the mini handle my video and audio needs. The first step toward meeting those needs was to incorporate the mini into my existing media center.

    Cheapskate that I am, I’ve yet to commit to HDTV—my Sony WEGA CRT television dishes up the day’s Daily Show . Like most old-style TVs, the Sony offers three video inputs—antenna (also known as coaxial ), composite, and S-Video. The Mac mini includes a DVI video port and a DVI-to-VGA adapter is included in the box. To make the mini talk to the television I needed Apple’s $19 DVI to Video Adapter. This adapter features a DVI port on one side and composite video and S-Video ports on the other. It was the work of a moment to plug the adapter into the back of the mini and string an S-Video cable between the adapter and the television’s S-Video port.

    Griffin Technology’s XpressCable helped me hook up my Mac mini to a 5.1 AV receiver.

    Above the TV I have a 5.1 AV receiver that includes an optical ( TosLink ) digital audio input. Although the mini supports digital audio output it doesn’t include this TosLink connector. Rather, it sports a mini-plug output. Fortunately, Griffin Technology’s $20 XpressCable includes the adapter necessary for the cable to work with the mini’s audio jack.

    I could just have easily created a computer-specific audio system by using this cable to jack into the $400 Logitech Z-5500 5.1 speakers that adorn my computer desk. This 5.1 speaker system includes a variety of audio inputs including 6-channel direct, digital (coax or optical), and analog.

    Temporarily putting aside my desire to control everything from the couch, I plugged a spare USB keyboard and mouse into the TV, connected the mini, and fired it up. The mini recognized the DVI to Video Adapter and adjusted the mini’s resolution to 800 x 600 (VGA). As expected, the picture was a bit squished and fuzzy, but clear enough that I could see what I was doing as I pulled down menus, opened folders, and navigated through applications.

    I inserted a DVD, invoked Front Row with Apple’s remote control, and enjoyed the same kind of movie experience I get with my dedicated DVD player and AV receiver. The one fly in the ointment was that I could control the volume of the movie with only the AV receiver’s remote control—the Mac’s overall volume controls (including those in Front Row) hold no sway over a digital audio output. You can, however, control volume from within applications—using iTunes or DVD Player’s volume sliders, for example.

    After the movie I flipped back to the Front Row menu, selected Music, and listened to some of the tracks stored on the mini. No problems here.

    Television trickery

    So far, I’d hardly taxed the mini’s media capabilities. It was now time for something tougher—playing live TV and recording that programming.

    Elgato provided the necessary peripheral in the form of its now-discontinued $350 EyeTV 200. (The EyeTV 200’s replacement, the EyeTV 250, is on the way. I’ll offer my views on this device in an upcoming update.) In league with Elgato’s EyeTV 2 software, this small gray box—which includes coaxial, composite, and S-Video ports—allows you to watch live TV, record TV programs, create schedules for your recordings, and automatically export those recordings in a format compatible with an iPod with video. It includes its own remote control.

    Though the EyeTV lacks such TiVo niceties as program recommendations based on your tastes and smart scheduling (where the TiVo service automatically changes schedules when lineup changes occur) it does have a singular advantage not currently available to Mac users—the ability to convert recorded video to a portable form. Though TiVo has promised a Mac-compatible TiVoToGo service that will let you convert your TiVo recordings to a format that you can play on your computer or iPod, such a program is still missing in action. The EyeTV 2 software can automatically convert its recordings to an iPod-compatible format and send them to iTunes.

    Along with the EyeTV 2 software, Elgato’s EyeTV 250 lets you watch and record TV through your Mac.

    To incorporate the EyeTV into my setup, I strung a FireWire cable between the mini and the EyeTV’s FireWire port. I then plugged the output of my Dish Network receiver into the EyeTV’s S-Video and stereo RCA input ports. From within the EyeTV 2 software I was able to view live TV. When zoomed to full screen the EyeTV didn’t look quite as good as a direct connection from the Dish Receiver—some artifacts were evident—but it was no less watchable than TiVo programming recorded at medium quality.

    Changing channels was another matter, however.

    Sorting out satellite

    When using the EyeTV with an iMac G5 earlier this year, I ran into a snag—the device doesn’t provide a way to change channels on a digital cable or satellite TV box. My TiVo includes an IR-blaster for this purpose—a device that relays an infrared signal from the TiVo to a cable or satellite receiver via a cable device that carries two LEDs that shine the infrared signal at whatever they’re pointed at (a satellite receiver’s IR window, for example). Elgato doesn’t support such a feature. This time around I was determined to find a way around this crippling limitation.

    The IRTrans USB Module is a piece of the puzzle for changing channels on a digital cable or satellite TV box.

    I found it in IRTrans’ iRTrans USB Module (€85.5 with iRed software), the iRed software that lets the IRTrans work its magic, and Vidcan Software’s $30 iEye Captain. The IRTrans is a small blue box with a USB port on one end and a series of IR LEDs on the other. When plugged into your Mac and configured with the iRed software, it can send the IR codes necessary to control any device with an IR receiver—a TV, stereo, or, most important for my purposes, a Dish Networks satellite receiver.

    iEye Captain provided the final piece of the puzzle—a way to create schedules that fire the IRTrans at times that match the schedules I’ve created with the EyeTV 2 software. iEye Captain does far, far more than this including allowing you to save EyeTV recordings to multiple drives and access all those drives at once in EyeTV and organize your recordings in smart playlists and saved searches.

    I’ll go into richer detail on how to configure these components in a future article, but for the time being, here’s the gist:

    After installing the iRed software, you plug the IRTrans into the computer’s USB port. Although the iRed software offers some built-in controls for Sony remotes, it doesn’t include controls for my Dish receiver. In cases such as this you must train iRed to recognize a remote’s codes. You do this by creating a virtual remote control, assigning buttons—in this case, 0 - 9 and the Dish remote’s Select button—clicking a Learn button in the software, pointing the remote at the IRTrans, and pressing the remote’s corresponding button to teach the software that command. Complicated as this sounds, it doesn’t take long to configure, particularly if you’re using a small subset of the remote’s keys as I have. And, in most cases, it’s no more difficult (or time consuming) than programming a “real” universal remote.

    iEye Captain acts as an intermediary between the EyeTV and iRed software—taking the schedules you’ve created in the EyeTV software, turning those schedules into iCal events via some clever AppleScripts, and then firing the IRTrans with the proper codes at the time of each scheduled event. It’s a convoluted solution, but one that works.

    Alternatively you can use iEye Captain with the less expensive ZephIR, but the $65 ZephIR’s software is even more complicated than what you find in iRed. (With luck, you’ll find the device you want to program already configured in the ZephIR’s code library.) The ZephIR’s developer is in the process of updating his software to make it more powerful and easier to use.

    Graham Jones, iEye Captain’s creator, has worked out bundle deals with both IRTrans and ZephIR. For $90, you get the IRTrans device, iRed software, and a coupon for $10 off on iEye Captain. The ZephIR bundle costs $75 and includes the ZephIR device, ZephIR software, and iEye Captain. Details on purchasing the bundles can be found on Vidcan’s website. For more details on the differences between the IRTrans and ZephIR devices, see Vidcan’s FAQ.

    Radio reception

    My methods for playing and recording local and streaming radio worked well enough when I configured the iMac G5 as a media center that I changed very little about them for the Mac mini. I continued to use Griffin Technology’s $70 Radio Shark to tune into local radio. When I began work on the mini I used the non-Intel-native version 2.0 of the Radio Shark software and it mostly worked—after recording a radio program it refused to play live radio until I restarted the application. Griffin has since released the Radio Shark 2.0.1 software, a Universal binary version, that works as advertised—no need to restart the application after recording to listen to live radio.

    Ambrosia Software’s $19 WireTap Pro 1.2.0, though not a Universal binary application, works as it should under Rosetta emulation. Like the Radio Shark software it lets you record what’s playing on the Radio Shark—either via a live recording or one you schedule.

    For recording streaming radio (and scheduling terrestrial radio recordings) I’ve stuck with RadioTime —a Web-based service that lets you listen to more than 50,000 music, sports, and talk stations from around the world through a client (which, in turn, channels its music through Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, RealNetworks’ RealPlayer, or QuickTime). For $39 a year, RadioTime will let you schedule and record those programs. Regrettably, the Mac version of Windows Media Player has reached the end of its life—Microsoft has no plans for updating it further. And this version doesn’t work with the RadioTime client. Its alternative, Flip4Mac, is no help as it, too, is incompatible with the RadioTime client. (RadioTime representatives report that work is being done on a Universal version of Flip4Mac that resolves most of its issues with RadioTime.)

    Griffin Technology’s Radio Shark lets you tune into local radio on your Mac. A Universal Binary version for Intel-based Macs is now available.

    As a majority of streamed radio stations offer programming only in Windows Media format, this makes RadioTime less valuable for Mac users. Fortunately enough programs are offered in RealPlayer and MP3 formats that I could still play and record plenty of content. Plus, many of the programs I wanted—those from NPR in particular—are offered by a number of stations, some of which stream their content as RealPlayer files.

    Couching toward Bethlehem

    As I was already involved in one form of remote control, it was time to turn to another. No Mac is a media center if you have to control it with a wired keyboard and mouse. Cute and cuddly though the Apple remote may be, there will be times that you’ll want to navigate around the Mac in ways forbidden to the remote. For this, you need an alternate input device.

    Should you wish to remain in the Apple camp, you can do this with Apple’s Wireless Keyboard and Wireless Mouse ($59 each). The range of these devices was good enough to control the Mac from across my living room, but using them requires that you put up with swapping in new batteries from time to time. Keeping a couple of sets of rechargeable batteries on hand took the sting out of these all-too-frequent swaps (every couple of days, on average).

    A potentially more flexible option is Belkin’s $99 MediaPilot. As I explained in my earlier look at the iMac G5, the MediaPilot comes in two pieces—a base plugged into a spare USB port and a wireless keyboard that communicates with the base via a 2.4Ghz wireless connection. The MediaPilot offers a couple of advantages over Apple’s Bluetooth devices. First, the keyboard carries a rechargeable battery. When you place the keyboard in the base, the keyboard’s battery charges. So much for worrying about battery replacements. Secondly, it can learn the functions of other remote controls via an IR teaching mode. Potentially you could train it to mimic the Apple remote’s commands for controlling Front Row.

    I toss the word “potentially” around so liberally because the MediaPilot’s software isn’t currently compatible with Intel Macs. Though you can use its default functions for moving the mouse, clicking, and typing text, you can’t configure it. When that software does go Universal, the MediaPilot will be a far better option.

    Reducing redundant remotes

    I could have left it there but it occurred to me that while I was now able to remain on the couch, I was going to be buried in remotes. My current setup required not only a wireless keyboard but four additional remote controls for Front Row, the Dish receiver, the AV receiver, and the EyeTV 200. Too much.

    A universal remote like Logitech’s Harmony 659 can help you cut down on remote clutter around your Mac mini multimedia center.

    Rummaging around in my box of gear I unearthed a Logitech Harmony 659 Advanced Universal Remote. This $150 remote lets you replicate the controls of just about any remote control you throw at it. Unlike other universal remotes that you teach by firing one remote at another and hoping the universal model learns the other’s commands, you configure the Harmony remotes online. Just travel to the Harmony remote members site, choose the devices you own (the list of supported devices is exhaustive), and download a profile that matches your gaggle of gear. Plug a USB cable into the Harmony remote and the Harmony software uploads that configuration into the remote control.

    This I did, adding all the aforementioned remotes as well as profiles for controlling Front Row and an iPod plugged into Apple’s new IR-capable Universal Dock. Now, with this single remote, I could control every bit of gear in front of me, save for turning the Mac on and off (though I could make it sleep by using the Apple remote’s Sleep command—a command you invoke by holding down the remote’s Play/Pause button for about three seconds).

    Priced from $130 to $400, Harmony remotes aren’t cheap and if I didn’t have one already I could turn to other pieces of gear I possess—my Palm T2 or Sony-Ericsson phone. One of these Bluetooth devices in league with a Bluetooth-bearing Mac let me use the $24 Salling Clicker, a utility that allows you to control most of a Mac’s media applications with a compatible Bluetooth phone or PDA.

    While Salling Clicker lets you pull up Front Row and control it with that Bluetooth device, it offers so much more. You can directly control iTunes, iPhoto, DVD Player, QuickTime Player, VLC, EyeTV, SlimServer, PowerPoint and Keynote, and even direct the Mac’s cursor and clicking functions. And because it uses Bluetooth you don’t need to be within line-of-sight of the mini’s IR port. If you’re within about 30 feet of the Mac, you’re golden.

    Not so gently

    One particularly welcome feature of Front Row 1.2.2 is the ability to play shared music, slideshows, and videos. This is a real boon with the Mac mini because the mini’s 80GB hard drive (the 1.5GHz Intel Core Solo mini includes a 60GB drive) will quickly prove too cramped to hold multiple full-length movies ripped from DVD. Far better that the mini act as a client wirelessly connected to a media server that holds more expansive hard drives. And Front Row’s Shared media services seem to hint that it can do just that.

    That client/server relationship was my next goal. Regrettably, it proved the most challenging task I’d undertaken. Both file size and the speed of my network connection proved to have a significant bearing on how successfully my downstairs dual-2GHz Power Mac G5 and upstairs Mac mini-streamed media.

    Below stairs, you find my office equipped with an AirPort Extreme Base Station. The signal from that Base Station is reduced to one-to-two bars in the upstairs living room where the Mac mini resides. Over this connection, I was able to reliably stream iTunes music files via Front Row’s Shared Music command—though it took Front Row a minute or so to see the downstairs Mac and load its library. Streaming movies from that same downstairs Mac via Front Row was next to impossible—Front Row gave up after a few minutes of churning away at the task, claiming there was a problem with the server.

    To help things along, I boosted the wireless signal by creating an extended wireless network with the help of an AirPort Express Base Station placed near the mini. This provided a strong enough signal that I was able to stream music videos I purchased from the iTunes Music Store. Alas, longer programming often resulted in server errors or programming that did play back, but stuttered.

    Obviously, wireless wasn’t the complete answer. I then moved to a HomePlug network using two of Belkin’s $60 Powerline Ethernet Adapters. These are small adapters you plug into electrical sockets that send data at speeds up to 14Mbps over your home or office’s electrical wires. Setup is a cinch: Plug the adapter into a nearby socket, string the included Ethernet cable between the adapter and each Mac’s Ethernet port, enable Ethernet in the Network system preference, choose Using DHCP from the Configure IPv4 pop-up menu, and the two Macs are networked.

    This provided better results. The mini was able to play iTunes episodes of Weeds and Lost streamed from the remote Mac via Front Row. It choked, however, on a 90-minute Saturday Night Live collection of Christopher Walken’s appearances purchased from the iTunes Music Store. It was also incapable of playing the file that does death to only the most robust networks—a 2.69GB MPEG-4 rip of the 2 hour and 42 minute It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World .

    Before taking the next step and moving to a direct wired connection, I experimented to see just what effect Front Row had on the proceedings. As it turns out, a great deal more than I expected.

    I discovered, for example, that I could play previously unplayable Front Row streaming videos by opening them directly in iTunes. For example, the Walken collection played over the HomePlug network when I chose it within iTunes from the G5’s shared library.

    By eliminating iTunes’ Shared entry items altogether I had even greater success. I mounted the network volume that housed my movies and copied an alias of the Walken collection from the Power Mac to my mini’s Movies folder. I then invoked Front Row, selected Movies, and chose that alias from the mini’s Movies entry. It played without a hitch. Using this technique I was even able to open It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World within Front Row. It initially stuttered over the HomePlug network, but after 30 seconds or so, the video played back smoothly.

    I was getting close.

    I finally bit the bullet and ran wire—100 feet of Cat-6 Ethernet cable from the downstairs 10/100BaseT Ethernet switch to the mini. In this wired world, all the television shows I purchased from the iTunes Music Store played within a shared Front Row environment. The aliased version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World loaded via Front Row and played immediately as well. But the shared version once again refused to load. Replacing the 10/100BaseT switch with a faster gigabit Ethernet switch didn’t help. Front Row was happy to play the movie as an alias saved to the mini’s Movies folder, but refused to play the movie via its Shared Video menu. Likewise, the movie would not play when accessed from within iTunes as part of the G5’s shared library.

    I originally ripped this very long movie at a frame size of 720 x 288 and a bitrate of 2,300kbps—settings designed to provide a good quality picture that mirrored its original widescreen format. But it was too much for Front Row and iTunes to swallow over Front Row and iTunes’ sharing. To see just what they would allow, I encoded the movie in the H.264 format at bit rates of 1,200-, 800-, and 400kbps and attempted to view each version over a shared connection. Front Row and iTunes remained uncooperative when attempting to share any of the three versions. I then ripped the movie at 400kbps at a frame size of 640 x 256. No dice.

    Maybe it was an issue of length rather than bit rate. I used Instant HandBrake to rip an MPEG-4 copy of the 1 hour, 42 minute Casablanca . Front Row and iTunes wouldn’t play the shared version at all, much less again, Sam. It was pretty clear that this less-than-dynamic duo weren’t up to the task of playing shared full-length movies.

    Of course, Apple never said they could. But given that Front Row has no objection to playing such movies when they are presented as aliases to files on a mounted drive, it’s clear that such streaming is possible. Let’s hope there’s some improvement in such media sharing. The diminutive mini is a natural as a shared media client.

    (Since this article first appeared, a reader got in touch with me to offer a tip on successfully playing these movies in Front Row. You can read all about it in this update to my multimedia Mac mini adventure.)

    Local motion

    For my purposes, the mini media center was complete. How did it measure up? On a local level—one where media is recorded and accessed from the mini’s hard drive—reasonably well. On a standard television the mini’s video output through the S-Video port of Apple’s DVI to Video Adapter produces an acceptable picture when displaying DVD movies, iTunes and QuickTime videos, and television brought to the Mac via the EyeTV 200. And the mini’s 5.1 digital audio coupled with a sound set of amplified speakers make for a rich DVD, audio CD, terrestrial and Internet radio, and iTunes music experience.

    If your television setup is such that you don’t need the assistance of an IR blaster to change channels—you access TV via an antenna or an unscrambled analog cable connection—the EyeTV 200 is a less-than-full-featured, though adequate, substitute for a TiVo PVR (and one without TiVo’s monthly service fees). And while I’d love to see Elgato provide its own IR blaster option for the millions of people who do get TV from a scrambled cable box or satellite receiver, it’s comforting to know that if you really, really want to automatically change channels via an IR signal, it’s possible to cobble together the parts and software necessary to do it.

    In the kind of complex configuration that puts the Mac in the middle of an existing media center, Apple’s Remote and Front Row are barely adequate—providing the essentials but little more. Again, with the funds and will to do so, you can control the entire enterprise with a single Harmony remote or much of it with a Bluetooth PDA or phone and Salling Clicker.

    Where the mini falls flat is as a client for a larger media server. If you traffic exclusively in music or short-to-medium length TV programs and videos purchased from the iTunes Music Store, you’ll get along fine sharing that media over a solid wireless network. But when you’re ready to deal with full-length movies, Front Row’s Video Sharing must regrettably take a back seat to doing things the old fashioned way—mounting a remote server over a faster wired network, adding aliases to your local Movies folder, and finally playing the remote files through Front Row, iTunes, or QuickTime Player.

    Pointing the way

    At the risk of breaking out the crystal ball, I can’t help but ponder the similarities between today’s state of the computer-as-media-center and the standing of portable digital media players just before the release of the iPod. Today, as then, the pieces exist to create much of the experience you desire, yet those pieces remain scattered. From my experience it’s clear that one can assemble a multimedia center with a small computer at its core, but doing so takes time and money and the result doesn’t provide the convenience of traditional AV gear. There must be a better way.

    My money’s on Apple one day providing it.

    [ Senior Editor Christopher Breen is the author of Secrets of the iPod and iTunes, fifth edition and The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide (2005, Peachpit Press). ]

    Editor’s Note: This story was reposted on June 2 at 4:27 p.m. PT to update information about the Radio Shark 2.0.1 software as well as Ambrosia’s WireTap Pro.

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