Some time back, I wrote about my plans for a living room PC but before this could happen there were several hurdles to overcome:
- Earn enough money to replace my Mac Mini so that it could move to the living room.
- Negotiate the wife approval factor for IT in a common area of the house (must look good – hence Mac Mini).
- Find a software setup that works for me, but is also consumer-friendly for the rest of the family (i.e. no hint of a Windows, OS X or Linux interface).
Fortunately, the first two items came together for me quite easily – after I decided to raid my savings and buy a MacBook a couple of months back, my wife asked me which PC it was replacing and I said “that one” (pointing at the Mac Mini), never expecting the response that she gave – “Oh. I like that one. It’s cute.”! This was a revelation to me – my wife has never before referred to any of my IT as “cute” – so I grabbed the moment to say something like “yeah, I thought it could go in the living room for when we watch films and stuff” (and the lack of any objection was interpreted as implicit approval).
The hardest part was the software setup. I still feel that Windows Vista’s Media Center capabilities are vastly superior to Apple’s Front Row – there’s TV support in there for starters. There are other options too: EyeTV would add TV support to the Mac (the problem is that it only has a 1 year TV guide subscription in Europe); Center Stage looks promising, but is still an alpha release product (and has been for a while now); Myth TV could work too (but my research suggested that USB TV tuner support could be a bit of a ‘mare). Then I thought about it a bit harder – we have lousy terrestrial TV support in my house (digital or analogue), so the clearest TV signal I have is on satellite (Freesat from Sky). Unless I can find a way to interface the Mac with my digibox, TV on the living room PC is not going to happen (this solution looks interesting but is for Windows/Linux only). Which meant that the criteria for a living room PC were:
- Access to my iTunes library (which lives on my MacBook) to watch podcasts, listen to music, etc.
- Ability to play content from CD/DVD.
- Ability to play content ripped from DVD or obtained by other means (e.g. home movies or legally obtained digital downloads).
- Simple (no technical skills required) user interface.
So, ruling out the need for TV integration meant that Apple Front Row was suddenly a contender as the OS X 10.5 (Leopard) version of Front Row can access shared libraries from other PCs (so I don’t have to copy/convert the media) and the remote control supplied with the Mac Mini does not rely on line of sight to control the PC. Vista Media Center could do this but I’d need to have that huge IR receiver and ugly remote control. Of course, I could just buy an Apple TV, but the Mac Mini gives me so much more (and it can output to my aging, but still rather good Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen TV). I will stress though, that if I ever manage to get a decent TV signal from our aerial, Windows Vista Media Center would beat Front Row hands down.
It’s ironic that I’m writing this in a hotel room in Bolton (nowhere near my living room) but so far, the software stack on the Mini is:
I may have to add a few more codecs over time (but Perian seems to include most of what I need) and furthermore, this headless PC (sorry, Mac – for the purists out there) is suiting my requirements pretty well. I’ve watched films from the hard disk with no issues at all, and streamed video podcast (and audio) content from my MacBook across an 802.11g Wi-Fi network (with no apparent playback issues – despite the signal having to travel through several walls and to the furthest corner of my living room – although I wish iTunes would mark podcasts as played when viewed remotely). There is one caveat though (and that’s a hardware issue) – even though the Leopard version of Front Row supports DVD playback, I still watch DVD content on my home theatre setup as that gives me true 5:1 surround sound (it’s only stereo on the Mac Mini).
Other applications that will probably find their way onto the mini over time include:
Those are for the future though – at this point in time, I’m ripping my content (and performing iPod conversion as required) on other machines and transferring it to the Mini across the network (see below). I also tried running a Windows XP virtual machine for downloading from BBC iPlayer and Channel 4 On Demand but didn’t manage to set up the tools that are necessary to remove the Windows Media DRM in order to play the content on the Mac (I do at least have a PC running older software releases that I can use for that).
As for getting media onto the living room PC (the stuff that I don’t want to stream across the network), I can always plug in a USB drive and control it remotely using the screen sharing capabilities in OS X.
OS X screen sharing is only VNC but it works well across my network (and scales the display accordingly – it even gave a decent representation of my 1680×1050 resolution display downscaled to fit on a 1280×800 MacBook display, although the picture here is with the Mac Mini hooked up to a standard definition TV). One point to note – it’s necessary to disconnect the shared screen session before trying to control the living room PC with the remote control or else it won’t work.
Wikipedia article on Apple Front Row.
MacInTouch Intel Mini Home Theater.
ARS Technica review of various Mac Mini media solutions.
This guy has some great details of how he set up his Mac Mini in his living room – he uses MythTV but gives some good details about mounting the hardware to only take up 97mm (3.8″) of room space.