My living room PC finally becomes a reality

This content is 16 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Some time back, I wrote about my plans for a living room PC but before this could happen there were several hurdles to overcome:

  1. Earn enough money to replace my Mac Mini so that it could move to the living room.
  2. Negotiate the wife approval factor for IT in a common area of the house (must look good – hence Mac Mini).
  3. 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.

Screen sharing in OS X to access the living room TV remotely

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.

Further reading

Wikipedia article on Apple Front Row.
MacInTouch Intel Mini Home Theater.
ARS Technica review of various Mac Mini media solutions.

And finally…

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.

Creating a Media Center Mac

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

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!

Get a Mac? Maybe, but Windows Vista offers a more complete package than you might think

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I’ll freely admit that I have been critical of Windows Vista at times and I’ll stand by my comments published in Computer Weekly last November – Windows XP will remain in mainstream use for quite some time. Having said that, I can’t see Mac OS X or Linux taking the corporate desktop by storm and the move to Vista is inevitable, just not really a priority for many organisations right now.

Taking off my corporate hat one evening last week, I made the trip to Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading for an event entitled “Vista after hours”. Hosted by James Senior and Matt McSpirit it was a demo-heavy and PowerPoint-light tour of some of the features in Windows Vista that we can make use of when we’re not working. Not being a gamer and having bought a Mac last year, I’ve never really paid attention to Microsoft’s digital home experience but I was, quite frankly, blown away by what I saw.

The first portion of the evening looked at some of the out-of-the-box functionality in Windows Vista, covering topics like search, drilling down by searching within results, using metadata to tag objects, live previews and saving search queries for later recall as well as network diagnosis and repair. Nothing mind-blowing there but well-executed all the same. Other topics covered included the use of:

  • Windows Photo Gallery (which includes support for the major, unprocessed, raw mode formats as well as more common, compressed, JPEG images) to perform simple photo edits and even to restore to the original image (cf. a photographic negative).
  • Windows Movie Maker to produce movies up to 1080p.
  • Windows DVD Maker to produce DVD menus with support for both NTSC and PAL as well as 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios.
  • Windows Media Player to organise media in many ways (stack/sort by genre, year, songs, album, artist, rating, recently added, etc.) and share that media.

Apple Macintosh users will think “yeah, I have iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iTunes to do all that” and they would be correct but Apple says (or at least implies in its advertising) that it’s hard to do these things on a PC – with Vista it’s just not… which moves me on to backup – not provided (at least in GUI form) by the current Mac OS X release (only with a .Mac subscription) and much improved in Windows Vista. “Ah yes, but Leopard will include Time Machine!”, say the Mac users – Windows has had included the volume shadow copy service (VSS/VSC) since Windows XP and Windows Backup includes support for multiple file versions right now as well as both standard disk-based backups and snapshots to virtual hard disk (.VHD) images, which can then be used as a restore point or mounted in Virtual PC/Virtual Server as a non-bootable disk. Now that does sound good to me and I’m sure there must be a way to make the .VHD bootable for physical to virtual (P2V) and virtual to physical (V2P) migrations… maybe that’s something to have a play with another day.

Regardless of all the new Vista functionality, for me, the most interesting part of the first session was Windows Home Server. I’m a registered beta user for this product but must confess I haven’t got around to installing it yet. Well, I will – in fact I’m downloading the April CTP as I write this. Based on Windows 2003 Small Business Server, it provides a centralised console for management of and access to information stored at home. Microsoft claim that it has low hardware requirements – just a large hard disk – I guess low hardware requirements is a subjective term (and I figure that my idea of low hardware requirements and Microsoft’s may differ somewhat), nevertheless it offers the opportunity to secure data (home computer backup and restore, including scheduling), provide centralised storage (a single storage pool, broken out as shared storage, PC backups, operating system and free space), monitor network health (i.e. identify unsafe machines on the network), provide remote access (via an HTTPS connection to a defined web address) and stream media, all controlled through a central console. Because the product is aimed at consumers, ease of use will be key to its success and it includes some nice touches like scheduled backups and automatic router configuration for remote access. Each client computer requires a connection pack in order to allow Home Server to manage it (including associating account information for secuirity purposes) and, in response to one of my questions, Microsoft confirmed that there will be support for non-Windows clents (e.g. Mac OS X 10.5 and even Linux). Unfortunately, product pricing has not yet been released and early indications are that this will be an OEM-only product; that will be a great shame for many users who would like to put an old PC to use as a home server.

Another area covered in the first session was parental controls – not really something that I worry about right now but maybe I will over the next few years as my children start to use computers. Windows Vista includes the ability for parents to monotor their child’s activities including websites, applications, e-mail, instant messages and media. Web filters can be used to prevent access to certain content with an HTTP 450 response, including a link for a parent to approve and unblock access to the content as well as time limits on access (providing a warning before forcing a logout). Similarly, certain games can be blocked for younger users of the family PC. The volume and diversity of the questions at the event would indicate that Vista’s parental controls are fairly simplistic and will not be suitable for all (for example, time limits are on computer access as a whole and not for a particular application, so it’s not possible to allow a child access to the computer to complete their homework but to limit games to a certain period in the evening and at weekends).

If session one had whetted my appetite for Vista, session two (Vista: Extended) blew my mind and by the time I went home, I was buzzing…

I first heard of Windows SideShow as a way to access certain content with a secondary display, e.g. to provide information about urgent e-mails and upcoming appointments on the lid of a laptop computer but it actually offers far more than this – in fact, the potential for SideShow devices is huge. Connectivity can be provided by USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth – Windows doesn’t care – and the home automation possibilities are endless. I can really see the day when my fridge includes capabilities for ordering groceries via a SideShow display in the door. There is at least one website devoted to SideShow devices but James Senior demonstrated a laptop bag with a built-in SideShow controller including a cache for media playback. Typically used to expose information from a Windows Sidebar gadget, SideShow devices will wake up a sleeping computer to synchrosise content then put it back to sleep and can be secured with a PIN or even erased when logged off. Access is controlled within the Windows Control Panel and there is an emulator available to simulate SideShow devices.

As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center

Next up was Windows Media Center. Unlike with the Windows XP Media Center and Tablet PC editions, Microsoft no longer provides a separate SKU for this functionality, although it is not enabled in all Vista product editions. Media Center is a full-screen application that offers a complete home media hub – sort of like Apple Front Row but with support for TV tuners to include personal video recorder (PVR) functionality. As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center – multiple TV tuners can be installed (e.g. to pause live TV, or to record two items at once, as well as the elctronic programme guide (EPG), controls, etc. being displayed as an overlay on the currently playing content. As with Windows Media Player, visualisations are provided and in theory it ought to be possible to remote control a Media Center PC via Windows Home Server and set up a recording remotely. Individual programs, or whole series, can be recorded and many TV tuners include DVB-T (digital terrestrial) support (i.e. Freeview), with other devices such as satellite and cable TV decoders needing a kludge with a remote infra-red controller (a limitation of Sky/Virgin Media network access rather than with Windows). Other functionality includes RSS support as well as integration with Windows Live Messenger and some basic parental controls (not as extensive as elsewhere in Windows Vista but nevertheless allowing a PIN to be set on certain recordings).

The event was also my first opportunity to look at a Zune. It may be a rather half-hearted attempt at producing a media player (no podcast support and, crucially, no support for Microsoft’s own PlaysForSure initiative) but in terms of form-factor it actually looks pretty good – and it includes functionality that’s missing from current iPods like a radio. If only Apple could produce an iPod with a similarly-sized widescreen display (not the iPhone) then I’d be more than happy. It also seems logical to me that as soon as iTunes is DRM-free then the iTunes/iPod monopoly will be broken as we should be able to use music purchased from the largest online music store (iTunes) on the world’s favourite portable media player (iPod) together with Windows Media Center… anyway, I digress…

I mentioned earlier that I’m not a gamer. Even so, the Xbox 360‘s ability to integrate with Windows PCs is an impressive component of the Microsoft’s digital home experience arsenal. With its dashboard interface based around a system of “blades”, the Xbox 360 is more than just a games machine:

As well as the Xbox 360 Core and Xbox 360 Pro (chrome) systems Microsoft has launched the Xbox 360 Elite in the United States – a black version with a 120GB hard disk and HDMI connectivity, although it’s not yet available here in the UK (and there are also some limited edition Yellow Xbox 360s to commemorate the Simpsons movie).

Finally, Microsoft demostrated Games for Windows Livebringing the XBox 360 Live experience to Windows Vista-based PC gaming. With an Xbox 360 wireless gaming receiver for Windows, Vista PC gamers can even use an Xbox 360 wireless controller (and not just for gaming – James Senior demonstrated using it to navigate Windows Live maps, including the 3D and bird’s eye views). Not all games that are available for both PCs and the Xbox will offer the cross-platform live experience; however the first one that will is called Shadowrun (and is due for release on 1 June 2007) bringing two of the largest gaming platforms together and providing a seamless user experience (marred only by the marketing decision to have two types of account – silver for PC-PC interaction and gold for PC-XBox).

Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch… and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side

So, after all this, would I choose a Mac or a Windows PC? (or a Linux PC?) Well, like so many comparisons, it’s just not that simple. I love my Mac, but Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch, splashed out on the (admittedly rather nice) Apple hardware and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side. In addition, Apple’s decision to delay the next release of OS X whilst they try to enter the mobile phone market makes me question how committed to the Macintosh platform they really are. Linux is good for techies and, if you can support yourself, it has the potential to be free of charge. If you do need support though, some Linux distros can be more expensive than Windows. So what about Windows, still dominant and almost universally despised by anyone who realises that there is a choice? Actually, Windows Vista is rather good. It may still have far too much legacy code for my liking (which is bound to affect security and stability) but it’s nowhere near as bad as the competition would have us thinking… in fact it hasn’t been bad since everything moved over to the NT codebase and, complicated though the product versions may be, Windows Vista includes alternatives to the iLife suite shipped with a new Macs as well as a superior media hub. Add the Xbox integration and Windows SideShow into the mix and the Microsoft digital home experience is excellent. Consumers really shouldn’t write off Windows Vista just yet.

Missing QuickTime codecs

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Earlier this week, I needed to play back a .AVI file in iTunes/Front Row. That’s not really a problem as it’s easy to convert the video to a .MOV file using Apple QuickTime Pro but one major issue was a complete lack of sound.

Now, before I go any further I should explain that there is one common theme throughout the comments section of every site discussing media formats and players – someone always says something to the effect of “use VLC – it plays everything”. VLC is a great media player but:

  • I have Apple QuickTime Pro.
  • I use Apple iTunes and Front Row (both of which depend on QuickTime).
  • QuickTime components are available for many audio and video formats.

In other words, using VLC isn’t the right solution for me. QuickTime gave me a clue as to the problem as it informed me that:

Some necessary QuickTime software is missing. It may be available on the QuickTime Web site.
If you have a dialup connection to the internet, make sure it is active, then click the Continue button to check for the software.

I could have worked out for myself that I was missing a codec (and that message is pretty poorly written… should I not click continue if I don’t have a dialup connection? Maybe I’m reading the message too literally!) but clicking continue took me to the QuickTime components page and I didn’t know which one I needed. I was pretty sure that the video was an XviD movie and I already had the DivX codec (v6.4) as well as Christoph Nägeli’s XviD codec (v0.51) installed but then I found a big clue in the XviD FAQ:

It’s important to understand that video and audio are two separate things, which when combined make up movies. A movie consists of a video stream for the picture and an audio stream for the sound. The XviD codec is what makes it possible to decode the video stream, but it has nothing to do with decoding the audio stream. If the sound in a movie isn’t working you have to find out which audio codec is missing and install it.

The FAQ continues to explain how to use a Windows utility called GSpot to identify the necessary codecs but after reading Mike Peck’s article about playing XviD movies on an Intel Mac (and Paul Stamatiou’s follow-up post on getting Front Row to play XviD, DivX and 3ivX videos), I realised that the missing codec was for AC-3 (Dolby Digital). After installing the A52Codec (v1.7.2) for AC-3 playback and restarting QuickTime and iTunes I was able to watch my video, complete with the previously-missing audio stream.

I’m sure that over time I’ll need to add more codecs and one potentially useful resource is afreeCodec , offering downloads for Windows, Linux and Macintosh computers, games consoles and mobile phones.

A few iTunes and Front Row tips

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Apple iTunes has supported podcasts since v4.9 and I stopped using a separate podcatcher soon afterwards but earlier today I wanted to add a podcast subscription manually (i.e. not through the iTunes store). It turns out that’s easy enough – simply select Subscribe to Podcasts… from the Advanced menu but it took me a bit of research to find that particular option (I had been looking for an appropriate command on the File menu and eventually found this out from Apple’s essential tips for podcast lovers).

Whilst writing about iTunes, I might as well add a few more tips that I’ve discovered in recent days:

There are still a couple of iTunes items that I’m trying to work out:

  • How to get my old (pre-iTunes native podcast support) podcast files to be recognised as podcasts (rather than sitting in my music library) – there is a script to re-add tracks as podcasts but I figure there must be a simpler way.
  • How to mark a track as explicit – for example I have a copy of a recent Madonna concert and whilst I may share the views on American politics that she expresses during her performance of I Love New York (which is great song but has just about the worst lyrics I’ve heard from an artist of Madonna’s calibre in a long time), my 2-year-old son does repeat a lot of what he hears right now so I’d probably better avoid playing explicit tracks in the car. One way to do this would be to exclude explicit tracks from a playlist but the explicit/clean tags only seem to be possible on podcasts and purchased music.

If anyone knows the answer to these, please leave a comment on this post.