My multimedia Mac mini

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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