Creating a Media Center Mac

It’s not often that I come away from a Microsoft event as excited as I was after the recent Vista after hours session.

You see, we have a problem at home… our DVD player has stopped recognising discs. That shouldn’t really be a problem (DVD players are cheap enough to replace) but it’s a CD/DVD player, tuner and surround-sound amplifier and I don’t really want to have to replace the entire system because of one broken DVD drive. So I took it apart (thinking that Sony might use the same drives in their consumer electronic devices as in a normal PCs), only to find that the externally slim slot-loading drive is actually a huge beast with cogs and is actually nothing like anything I’ve ever seen before.

Faced with the prospect of a hefty repair bill, I began to think that this (combined with the fact that we never know what is on our video tapes) could be the excuse I need to install a media PC in the living room? Well, possibly, but there are some hurdles to overcome first.

I’ve been toying with a media PC for a while now but, however hard manufacturers try, pretty much none of them is likely to pass the wife approval factor (WAF) – not even the lovely machines produced by a French system builder called Invasion.

It’s not that my wife is demanding – far from it in fact – but she wasn’t too keen on my “black loud cr@p” (my semi-decent hi-fi separates) when we first moved in together and the shiny silver box (the one that’s now broken) was the replacement… I just can’t see anything that isn’t similarly small and shiny being tolerated anywhere other than my den.

I even saw an article in the July 2006 edition of Personal Computer World magazine, which showed how to build a living room PC using old hi-fi separates for the case; however you need a pretty large case for anything that’s going to make use of full-size PC components. Then there’s the issue of the system software… I tried Media Portal a while back but found it a bit buggy; Myth TV is supposed to be pretty good but I believe it can also be difficult to set up properly; the Apple TV sounded good at first – except that it doesn’t have PVR capabilities and relies on many hacks to get it working the way I would like it and (crucially) lists a TV with HDMI or component video inputs as one of its prerequisites – I was beginning to think that the best answer for me may be a Mac Mini with a TV adapter hooked up to my aging, but rather good, Sony Trinitron TV.

Then, at the Vista After Hours event, I saw the latest version of Windows Media Center – Mac OS X includes Front Row but Media Center has some killer features… and I have two spare copies of Windows Vista Ultimate Edition (thank you Microsoft)! Why not install Vista on a Mac Mini, then plug in a USB TV tuner (maybe more than one) and use this as a DVD player, PVR and all round home entertainment system?

I’ve written previously about installing Windows Vista on my Mac but I never activated that installation and I later removed Boot Camp altogether as I found that I never actually bothered to boot into Windows. The latest Boot Camp beta (v1.2) includes Windows Vista support (including drivers for the remote control) so I thought I’d give it a try on my existing Mac Mini before (potentially) splashing out on another one for the living room.

After downloading and installing Boot Camp and running the Boot Camp Assistant to create a Windows driver CD, I moved on to partitioning the disk, only to be presented with the following error:

The disk cannot be partitioned because some files cannot be moved.  Backup the disk and use Disk Utility to format as a single Mac OS Extended (Journaled) volume.  Restore your information to the disk and try using Boot Camp Assistant again.

Backing up and restoring my system… sounds a bit risky to me.

Then I found Garrett Murray’s post about how the problem is really caused by files over 4GB in size. That may have worked in Garrett’s case (FAT32 disks will not support files over 4GB) but despite using WhatSize to track down a DVD image that was taking a chunk of space on my disk, I couldn’t get past the message (even after various reboots, starting the system in single user mode to run AppleJack and even starting the system without any login items). In the end, I gave in and accepted that my system disk required defragmenting, setting about the lengthy process of backing up with Carbon Copy Cloner, booting from the backup disk, erasing the system disk and restoring my data. Thankfully this worked and left me with a defragmented system disk, which Boot Camp Assistant was able to divide into two partitions.

After catching some sleep, I set about the installation of Windows Vista. I had a few issues with Boot Camp Assistant failing to recognise my DVD (either the one I created with the RTM files from Microsoft Connect, or a genuine DVD from Microsoft) – this was the message:

The installer CD could not be found.  Insert your Windows CD and wait a few seconds for the disk to be recognized.

It turns out that Boot Camp Assistant wasn’t happy with me running as a standard user – once I switched to an Administrator account everything kicked into life and I soon had Vista installed after a very straightforward installation. Furthermore, Apple has done a lot of work on Windows driver support and items that didn’t work with my previous attempt (like the Apple Remote) are now supported by Boot Camp 1.2 and Windows Vista. Sadly, my external iSight camera does not seem to be supported (only the internal variants). It also seems that my Windows Experience Index base score has improved to 3.3 (it was 3.0 when I installed Vista as an upgrade from Windows XP with Boot Camp v1.1.2).

After this, it wasn’t long before I had Media Center up and running, connected to the TV in my office – although that’s where the disappointment started. The Apple Remote does work but it’s so simple that menu controls (Media Center and DVD menus) necessitate resorting to keyboard/mouse control – basically all that it can do is adjust the volume, skip forward/backwards, play and pause. What I needed was a Windows Media Remote (and so what if it has 44 buttons instead of six? The Apple remote is far more elegant but six buttons clearly isn’t enough!):

Apple remote control Windows Media Center remote control

(It’s a pity that I didn’t see the pictures of the prototype Windows Vista Media Center remotes first, or else I would have tried to get one of the alternative remotes from Philips).

Also, after switching back to my monitor, the display had reverted to basic (2D) graphics and I needed to re-enable the Windows Aero theme. Clearly that’s a little cumbersome and would soon become a pain if I had to do it frequently; however in practice it’s likely that I’ll leave the computer connected to either the TV or the monitor – not both.

I also needed a TV receiver – I was able to pick up an inexpensive Freeview (DVB-T) USB adapter (£29.99 including postage) and a Windows Media Remote (£21.99). Although the Digital terrestrial TV signal in my house is weak, I was pretty sure that I’d be able to boost it, and anyway, having a portable Freeview device will always be handy. Windows Vista didn’t recognise the device natively but I downloaded the latest drivers and despite being unsigned, they installed without issue. Unfortunately, Windows Media Center still didn’t recognise my tuner but the problem turned out to be that I had plugged the device into the Apple keyboard (which I think is USB 1.1) and once I plugged it into on of the Mac’s own USB 2.0 ports then I was able to set up the TV functionality within Windows Media Center – no need to bother with the TV guide and tuning software supplied with the device (although it did take a while to download the TV program guide and to scan for channels).

My local TV transmitter is at Sandy Heath and, although I tried other transmitters too, using the supplied aerial I could only pick up channels in multiplex D. Even the cheap £9.99 Labgear aerial that sits on top of my TV could pick up those channels! Ideally, I’d use an externally-mounted roof aerial but that wasn’t an option and for £19.99 I picked up the highly-rated Telecam TCE2001 at and was able to pick up 53 channels in mutiplexes 1, 2, B, C and D (and that was without using the signal booster). By boosting the signal the scan picked up 70 channels, although not all of them were strong enough to view.

As for the Windows Media Remote, I found that it didn’t work with the built-in IR receiver (it needed to use the supplied, but rather bulky Microsoft receiver); however this is not as bad as it sounds – the Microsoft receiver has a long USB cable, meaning that it can be placed next to the TV (the logical place to point the remote at), rather than wherever the computer is.

So, with working drivers and a functioning remote control, Windows Media Center was happy enough to let me watch and record TV using it’s built in electronic programme guide…

The final piece of the puzzle was pre-recorded media in a variety of formats such as QuickTime movies and DivX. After transferring the files from an OS X hard drive to something that Windows could read, I decided to see what Windows Media Center could play. I’m still working out exactly which codecs I need – I tried various combinations of XviD/DivX/3ivX plus the AC3 filter and ffdshow – these seemed to enable most of my content; however I’m still experiencing difficulties with some movies that were originally encoded as AVI and then converted for QuickTime/iTunes on the Mac (using Apple QuickTime Pro) and also some unprotected AAC audio with JPEG stills in the video track – e.g. some of the podcasts that I listen to. Through all this codec troubleshooting, one tool that I found incredibly useful was GSpot.

[the original version of this post referred to a codec pack which I have been advised may contain illegal software. As it is not my intention to publicly condone the use of such software, and as I'm not convinced that it is required in order to make this solution work, I have removed it from this post and edited the corresponding comments.]

After going to all of this effort to get Media Center running on my Mac, was it worth it? Yes! The Windows Media Center (2007) interface is excellent, without a hint of the standard Windows interface (as is right for a consumer electronics device) and is simply (and intuitively) controlled using the remote control. It’s not perfect (very few interfaces are) but it is better than Front Row. If I do carry on using this to record TV though, I will need to provide more disk space. One feature that I particularly liked though, was how, even when working in other Windows applications, a discrete taskbar notification appeared, showing me that Media Center was recording something:

Windows Media Center recording notification

So, having tested this Media Center Mac concept on the Mac Mini that I use for my daily computing, I need to decide whether to donate it for family use in the living room and buy myself something new (MacBook Pro or Mac Pro are just too pricey to justify… but should I get a MacBook or another Mac Mini?) or just to pick up a second-hand Mac Mini for the family. The trouble is that second-hand Mac Minis cost almost as much as new ones. Still, at least I’ve proved the concept… I’ll have to see if this technology bundle passes the WAF test first!

29 Comments

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  • Sunday 20 May 2007 - 11:53 | Permalink


    Hi Mark,

    I’m not fortunate enough to have an Intel Mac yet, and I’m also not that into capturing loads of TV I’ll never get around to watching. But I am impressed by how people are doing this kind of things.

    Last month one of our members at the Midlands Mac User Group did a presentation of how he set up his Mac Mini to do the same thing, except under Mac OS X. We videoed it:

    http://www.mmug.org.uk/mac-media-centre

    If you’ve got an hour, you might find it useful?

    Cheers,

    Richard

  • Waethorn
    Sunday 20 May 2007 - 16:13 | Permalink


    ….too bad you just publicly admitted to using pirated software to get this up and running. If you did your homework, you’d know that the [name of codec pack removed] software is actually a collection of (mostly) unauthorized, unlicensed, pirated commercial codecs, of which include the following:

    On2 codecs

    Most of the DVD codecs, including Cyberlink, Ligos, Mainconcept

    DivX Pro

    Intel Indeo (actually owned by Ligos now and is only available commercially)

    Fraunhofer MP3 (absolutely NOT free, despite what free-software advocates would say)

    Quicktime and Real ActiveX controls and technologies

    The “alternative” codecs also use patented, unlicensed technologies from their original holders – Quicktime and Real.

    etc. etc.

    The [name of codec pack removed] is made from the leftovers of the same group that brought out [name of well-known P2P software removed], which was also a copyright violation since they stripped out Sharman Networks’ bundled adware and spyware from their original program (not that I approve of spyware either), so Sharman Networks couldn’t collect advertising revenue from the use of their program. You should be a bit more careful in your software selection next time you choose to post about it on your blog.

  • Sunday 20 May 2007 - 17:35 | Permalink


    Richard – thanks for the tip, I will watch that video when a get some spare time – it should be interesting!

    Mark

  • Ex2bot
    Sunday 20 May 2007 - 18:26 | Permalink


    I bought a refurbished MacBook Pro Core Duo 2.0 Ghz / 512 / 80 ATI 1600 128 for $1350.

    Heckuva deal and better IMHO than a MacBook.

    Bot

  • Sunday 20 May 2007 - 19:15 | Permalink


    Waethorn – I honestly didn’t realise that the [name of codec pack removed] included pirate stuff as otherwise I’d have expected to have to look in some of the shadier parts of the Internet to pick it up (rather than a simple download from an easily-found website)… although now you mention that it’s related to [name of well-known P2P software package removed], that would make sense as to where the name comes from.

    For reference, I had just about all of my content working (except QuickTime) using the (perfectly legal) codecs that I listed in the post. [name of codec pack removed] was a last resort to try and get the last couple of files to play (the ones I’m still having difficulty with) and I have edited the post accordingly in order to avoid any perception that I am publicly condoning software piracy.

    Mark

  • Sunday 20 May 2007 - 19:54 | Permalink


    Bot,
    Nice find – well done on bagging that MacBook Pro :-)

    I guess I’ll just keep on looking… I figure there should be a few around after whatever Apple unveils at WWDC.

    Mark

  • Waethorn
    Sunday 20 May 2007 - 22:06 | Permalink


    No problem with the advice. Steer clear of free-codecs.com too, because it’s just more of the same, even though it’s also very popular.

  • Waethorn
    Sunday 20 May 2007 - 22:26 | Permalink


    One more thing – be careful with AC3 codecs, because like MP3 codecs, they are not free and must be licensed (although some software developers that integrate them into an otherwise free software package will pay license fees on the users behalf, similar to how Microsoft pays for the MP3 codec in Windows Media Player 11, even though the player is entirely free for users). The website divxmovies.com where the AC3 codec comes from looks kinda sketchy because it advocates downloading free movies from P2P file-sharing services….

  • Sunday 20 May 2007 - 23:25 | Permalink


    Waethorn,
    As you can tell, codecs are not my strong point – thanks for the advice.

    Mark

  • Gary
    Monday 21 May 2007 - 2:32 | Permalink


    Hey, best way to set auto-WAF is this;

    1. Explain, in the smallest possible you can every little thing you think about in relation to the intended purchase, continually.
    2. Whenever you think about something related to the purchase, relate this to the W and ask for her opinion
    3. Go about this every couple of days for a week or two

    Soon enough, you will find that any mention of the project will be too much for her to handle and gradually she will stop listening to all discussion about it.

    Then when you finalise your requirements about what your are going to buy, explain it all, sent URL’s of each item to her ad-nauseum. W will be so sick of hearing iYou’ll be sure to get what you want, and then if W complains you can tell her she was kept informed.

    Good luck …

  • Monday 21 May 2007 - 20:07 | Permalink


    LOL!

  • Tuesday 22 May 2007 - 12:06 | Permalink


    It’s great that someone as prominant in the Windows world as Paul Thurrott has linked to this post (thanks Paul) but Paul´s observation that this is just a Media Center PC misses the point somewhat…

    Yes, a Mac is a PC. Ergo, my ¨Media Center Mac¨ is a ¨Media Center PC¨; however Paul uses Apple PCs as well as other brands and is happy to refer to his ¨Mac¨. Similarly, I refer to my IBM T40 notebook PC as my ¨ThinkPad¨.

    At the end of the day, it´s just a name, but if I refer to a Mac as an Apple PC, I’m accused of pedantry (as in the comments on my running another operating system on a Mac post). Similarly, if I run Windows on it and refer to it as a Mac, I´m corrected by Windows journalists. It seems that I can’t win!

  • Tuesday 22 May 2007 - 13:25 | Permalink


    Somewhat predictably, I’ve also been criticised by a Mac fanboy with the usual (tired) long-winded stuff about how Windows is horrible and his Mac is perfect…

    More sensibly, someone asked why would I ever want to do this with Vista instead of using CenterStage and products from Elgato. CenterStage looks promising, but is still alpha software. The Elgato software is good, but the TV guide requires a subscription after the first year (in Europe) and it would also involve running multiple applications to watch different media (i.e. it does not seem to integrate with Front Row). As I wanted something simple for our living room (rather than something technical for my den), that effectively rules this out.

    As for buying a PC with HDMI out… that won’t solve the issues interfacing with my perfectly-good 9 year old TV, nor will it produce something that looks good in the living room, the reason for using my Mac Mini.

  • Waethorn
    Tuesday 22 May 2007 - 18:16 | Permalink


    Ever thought of building a Media Center PC? Antec has some really nice desktop/HTPC cases. My favourite is the Fusion (naturally the most expensive), but they also have some cheaper variations. Of course, there’s also Shuttle Media Center systems, but they’re a little overpriced. You can save some money by building your own Shuttle system from a barebones kit, but sadly, the UK models are somewhat limited to the US models. The NX100/200 series would certainly give that Mac Mini a run for it’s money though. There’s also Aopen with their MiniPC’s too.

  • Wednesday 23 May 2007 - 0:57 | Permalink


    Hi Waethorn,
    Thanks for the links – they are all good-looking cases; although the Antec Fusion and even the Shuttle systems are a little on the large side for what I was aiming at. I did look at Aopen last year (when I originally bought the Mac/Apple PC/whatever-I-am-allowed-to-call-it-without-annoying-people ;-) but the model at the time seemed like a poor-imitation of the Mac Mini; however the one they are showing on the website now looks much better.

    I may have to splash some cash… damn. Need to write some linkbait and push up the advertising revenue ;-)

    Mark

  • Waethorn
    Wednesday 23 May 2007 - 3:39 | Permalink


    Ya the Fusion is big, but it’s designed to be no wider or taller than an average home theater receiver system, so it matches nicely with other HT gear. In case you missed the Shuttle NX100/200 series, they’re on the US website, but they don’t look as good as other cases/systems because they have that black plastic design. They are quite a bit smaller than a Mac Mini though.

    Aopen has a few different series of mini-style PC’s. They do have a Shuttle-style series of cases and integrated systems called XC Cube, and those offer some upgradeability that the MiniPC line lacks. Don’t confuse Aopen’s MoDT (mobile on desktop) initiative to the line of SFF cases and systems – most of the XC Cubes, albeit relatively small, take desktop processors, whereas the MiniPC’s are part of the MoDT initiative and take mobile processors and are completely integrated, much like your Mac Mini.

    The older Aopen MiniPC’s that were available a few months back had a similar design to the current model, but the new one does look different because of the addition of front USB ports. The new model Aopen MiniPC also sports the Intel “Santa Rosa” platform stuff now too, so that gives you the GMA X3100 as well as Intel Turbo Memory, and the newer mobile Core 2 Duo’s with 800MHz FSB. They even have a Blu-Ray slim drive option! (drool!….)

    I once thought about building an SFF system for myself, but when I thought about the option of gaming on an HDTV along with PVR capabilities and general computing (unfortunately the XBOX 360 doesn’t offer those two last options….yet!), I figured the next system I build for myself will be one of those Shuttle systems with a good PCI-Express graphics card and a Core 2 Quad since it’d turn into a kickass little gaming machine that’s handy to take to LAN parties, and still relatively small enough to use as a Media Center. I’ll wait until the new Intel chipsets launch first though – “Penryn” is right around the corner.

  • Friday 8 June 2007 - 9:53 | Permalink
  • Gary Gatter
    Friday 8 June 2007 - 16:04 | Permalink


    I keep looking at mac mini and thinking it looks great but not sure about front row. Then I look at media center PCs and think they look horrible but Media Center Edition 2005 looks great. So this combination of mac mini with media center looks like the perfect solution, just one question, should I go for vista or a stand alone media center edition 2005?

    Great article by the way, this is what the web does best – spreading useful stuff like this.

  • Friday 8 June 2007 - 18:08 | Permalink


    Hi Gary,
    Glad you found this useful. Some of the sites that linked to this post were less complementary!

    Personally, I would go for Vista because Windows Vista Media Center seems to be a big improvement over Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. Of course, your mileage may vary – it might help to check out the Media Center section of Paul Thurrott’s Windows Vista Review.

    Mark

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  • James
    Wednesday 11 July 2007 - 16:49 | Permalink


    Have you considered using MythTv on an ubuntu installation on a Mac-Mini, I’m looking into this as it lets you have a remote “back-end”, so my hard-drive & recording stuff can be under the stairs & my mac-mini can be under the TV looking beautiful & only turning on when I need it.

    It also allows me to drop files from my computer onto the “back-end” & view them instantly on the mac-mini under the TV.

    MythTv comes with plugins to allow DVD ripping & internet browsing, weather etc etc.

    James

  • Wednesday 11 July 2007 - 21:50 | Permalink


    James,
    After watching an episode of Systm, I’m seriously considering having a closer look at Myth TV but first I need to suss out how to get my USB TV tuner working with Linux…

    Mark

  • Thursday 12 July 2007 - 8:23 | Permalink


    “MythTv comes with plugins to allow DVD ripping & internet browsing, weather etc etc.”

    Sssssssshhhhhh…Waethorn might hear you and tell you that the Baby Jesus cries every time somebody uses decss! Evildoer!

  • Gary Gatter
    Wednesday 7 November 2007 - 23:59 | Permalink


    Mark, I took the plunge and am now using a mac mini with Vista installed. It looks great! The main problem is the time spent (up to 1 at least for the last 3 weeks) tinkering with media center and the many free addins out there in the web. I tried Leopard and front row for a time (about a week) and then installed Vista using bootcamp, there was no comparison, Vista media center is so much better than front row. I now need to get a good remote (pity that media center needs a special IR to work). Thanks again for the inspiration.

  • Thursday 8 November 2007 - 5:52 | Permalink


    Hi Gary – glad to hear that this was useful to you. I’m still saving for a new Mac so that the Mini can move to the living room, but its certainly tempting. As for the Media Center remotes, mine wasn’t expensive but I did see one of the Philips ones that I mentioned with a Media Center PC in PC World… haven’t seen them sold individually yet though. Mark

  • Saturday 15 December 2007 - 14:02 | Permalink


    A optically very appealing solution I found, is to pair a Mac Mini and a Cinema Display. Here’s a litte howto I wrote up.

  • Monday 17 December 2007 - 12:37 | Permalink


    Martin,
    Thanks for sharing that. If I ever get around to having a play with Myth TV then I’m sure I’ll find your article useful.

    The one thing I take a (slight) issue with is the Apple Cinema display. Gorgeous it may be… but it’s also expensive and there are other displays around which match the quality and beat the price.

    On a slightly different note, in my case, I have two aging but perfectly good Sony Trinitron widescreen CRT TVs that I don’t see any need to replace yet (they will probably outlive most modern displays), so all I need is a good looking PVR (i.e. not a full-size PC) and the Mac Mini will certainly fit that role.

    Mark

  • Tukom
    Thursday 29 April 2010 - 18:06 | Permalink


    While Mac Mini is still the best home theater PC, you need to make sure that you have a proper
    10-foot interface installed to your Mac. Otherwise Mac Mini will not be used frequently by your family. Which media center software you have found as the best one?

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