The computer in the living room: setting up a Mac mini media center

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At one time you could do this with Apple’s Front Row technology, which allowed you to impose an Apple TV-like interface on your Mac. While it did make browsing media easier, it was almost entirely limited to the media in your iTunes library. Apple appeared to have no interest in opening it up to streaming media from other companies.

Thankfully, third-party developers are more open-minded about this kind of thing. Currently there are a couple of media-center applications that you can use to control not only your locally stored music, images, and videos, but also Internet-based media streams: XBMC and Plex.

XBMC is an open-source media player and entertainment hub. Plex is an application and interface built on XBMC’s technology. Of the two, I find Plex easier to use thanks to its slick interface and the ease with which you can add not only local media, but also Internet streaming services such as Hulu, The Daily Show, PBS, YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Pandora, Shoutcast, and Spotify.

Viewing Plex from an iPad running the Screens app.

Using Plex with your local media means configuring the separate Plex Media Server. This is a free application and one that isn’t difficult to configure. You choose the kind of media you’d like to add and then tell Plex where it’s stored. It will make sure that it appears in the Plex player.

Once you’ve added the streaming media channels you desire as well as the music, movies, and images stored on your Mac (or a local network server), you can navigate to them easily using the Apple Remote, a keyboard, or one of the iOS apps I mentioned. The Plex interface consumes the entire screen, making it seem like you’re working with a dedicated media player rather than a computer.

Regrettably, Plex can’t play all the media you might want to access. For example, it won’t play copy-protected media such as the movies and TV shows you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store. It also lacks on-demand content such as HBO Go or a cable or satellite service’s catalog of streaming movies and TV shows that can be played in a computer’s Web browser.

Simplifying the interface

If you want to play such media, you must leave Plex, which can cause a problem for the family because they’re now confronted with a computer interface, which less-savvy users may find confounding. There are some simple (and not-so-simple) things you can do to make the experience easier for them.

The first is to place aliases of applications and sites they’ll want to visit on the desktop. For example, you might hold down theandkeys and drag iTunes from the Applications folder to the desktop, thus creating an alias. If you wish to watch HBO Go, launch Safari, travel to, and then drag the icon from the address field to the desktop to create a Web location file that, when double-clicked, launches your browser and takes you directly to that site. Alternatively you can create a folder full of aliases and drag them to the dock. Instruct your loved ones to click on this folder and then click on the site or application they wish to launch.

(Some readers will wonder why you’d need to use HBO Go in a browser when you have to be an HBO subscriber in order to access HBO Go and therefore can watch it on your cable or satellite receiver. The sad fact is that not all cable and satellite providers offer HBO Go. DirecTV, for example, does carry some HBO content on demand, but not the complete HBO Go service. Those people must use the iOS app or a Web browser to enjoy this content.)

Automating the one-button approach

You can make this process even easier by providing one-button access to applications and websites. The means for doing this is Automator. This is how you’d do it with the HBO Go website.

Launch Automator, and in the workflow chooser that appears, select Service. Configure the pop-up menus at the top of the workflow to read Service receives no input in any application. Now drag the Web location file for HBO Go to the workflow area. A Get Specified Finder Items action will be added that contains the Web location file. Select the Files & Folders library, and from it drag the Open Finder Items action to the workflow area. Make sure that its pop-up menu reads Open with default application.

The complete HBO Go workflow.

To test the workflow, just click the Run button at the top of the window. Safari will launch and take you to HBO Go. If you’ve already visited, signed in, and had Safari remember your password, you’ll still need to click Sign In and enter the email address for the cable or satellite service you use; the site requires that you sign in each time you visit.

Save and name the service (HBO Go has a certain ring to it). Launch System Preferences, select Keyboard, click the Keyboard Shortcuts tab, and select Services. Your HBO Go service will appear near the bottom of the list under the General heading. Select it and click Add Shortcut. Now assign a keyboard shortcut to the service. You can trigger this shortcut from a wired or unwired keyboard or an iOS app.

Repeat this process for other websites you wish to make easily accessible, assigning a different keyboard shortcut for each site. Now all you and your family needs to do is to remember which keys launch the websites they want to access.

Cord finally cut?

Regrettably, far too little has changed on the content front. Television networks, large and small, cling jealously to their programming. You can’t stream TV the way you can access it from a cable or satellite box. Thanks to online sports subscriptions services like MLB.TV, NBA Game Time, and NHL GameCenter, you can stream live baseball, basketball, and hockey games, but these are only out-of-market games (meaning you can’t watch your home team when they’re playing at home). And many other popular sports—including football, golf, and soccer—aren’t consistently available. Special live events like the Oscars broadcast or election coverage are also unavailable. And premium channel content from HBO and Showtime is available only if you already have an existing subscription, which requires that cable or satellite box whose cord you’re anxious to cut.

Elgato continues to offer a way to get live TV into your Mac via its $150 EyeTV Hybrid—a TV tuner on a USB stick. With this device you can both display and record unscrambled cable TV as well as digital over-the-air broadcasts (antenna required). While this solves the live events issue for many people, it doesn’t grant access to the vast majority of cable programming.

Given these limitations, the Mac mini, like the Apple TV, Roku, Xbox, and countless other set-top boxes, remains a media accessory, though one more powerful than these dedicated devices. While it falls short of a cable or satellite box (complete with DVR) or true à la carte programming, it remains a worthwhile addition to the AV cabinet of the technically-inclined.

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