Mac Mini as Home Entertainment Hub

on
Watching TV and writing this article - click for larger view

I know this isn’t all about photography, but it was too cool not to write about.  So….what am I talking about?  When you make a computer the brains of your home entertainment center all kinds of new possibilities and sharing across the house happen.

Here are some of the cool things:

  • Virtually unlimited TV-recording capabilities
  • Sharing movies, music, and photos throughout the whole house
  • Web-browsing on your TV
  • Getting free online content on your TV
  • Playing computer games on your TV
  • Backing up your CD/DVD/BluRay/whatever library
  • Watching movies on your iPhone, iPod, or iPad
  • Streaming TV Recordings to your XBOX 360
  • And much, much, much more

What you need for a Mac build:

  • Computer (the Mac Mini is perfect for this)
  • LCD or Plasma HD TV – something that works well with a computer
  • EyeTV – best for Mac
  • Wireless Network for sharing
    Home Entertainment Setup with Mac Mini – click to see larger

I did this because I am a geek was inspired by my piece of junk Cox Communications-severly-limited DVR box.  If Cox allowed all those USB ports to work, I would have just plugged in some external harddrives.  But they don’t so I went searching for another way to expand the recording space on my DVR.  I also wanted to stream recordings to my bedroom TV.

What I wasn’t expecting is how fantastic some programs are for streaming online content (TV Shows & Movies) that has really made this whole project really incredible!  Between Hulu, NetFlix, Boxee, and online streaming News I am wondering why I continue to pay for cable.

I am writing this article on my TV, with CNN playing through EyeTV and Young Guns recording in the background while also chatting with a buddy on facebook, and fielding emails from work.

The process:

Why Mac?  It is just easy.  Nothing more needs to be said, but if you want to read more on my switch to Mac, check out Making a Mac work in a Car Dealership.

I first checked out my favorite blogs and forums:  TUAW and MacRumors to get some insight on how to set things up.  The best article is on TUAW:  Ultimate Mac mini HTPC Guide.

I strongly suggest researching things a bit especially if you have a Cable Box or don’t have a HD TV.  I tried to do this with a projection HD TV and it just didn’t display things from the computer well – it showed TV and movies fine, but the computer programs were a pain.  You’re going to want to make sure your TV has enough Inputs for HDMI cables and your stereo system has the capability to play an audio signal coming from the TV.

I will cover the costs later.

Connecting to the TV - click to see larger

Setting things up:

In my case, I have a Cox DVR box, a Panasonic Home theater in a box, a XBOX 360, and the Mac Mini plugged into a Samsung LCD TV.  My TV has 4 HDMI inputs that are fully used now.  And I am only using one audio input from the Mac Mini (plugged in through the headphones output on the Mac Mini).

The Cable DVR Box:

I have this thing hooked up to the TV by HDMI when I just want to watch TV without turning on the computer – you know, traditional TV viewing.  Then I have the composite video (Red, Yellow, and White plugs) and S-Video plugs running to the EyeTV DVR box – this way I can watch regular TV while recording to the Cox DVR box and/or the EyeTV DVR box.  Yeah, that’s about every single plug in a Cox Motorolla DVR box.

Connecting the Mac Mini - click to see larger

The Mac Mini:

The EyeTV plugs directly into the Mini by USB.  The regular way you plug a computer into a computer monitor is the same way you plug the computer into a TV except I picked up a DVI to HDMI plug to use HD quality viewing.  The headphone output sends the audio signal to the TV and the TV sends it to the home theater sound system (quality is fine).  Then I have a OWC-provided Mini-stack 1TB harddrive that I record TV to.  It is hooked up by FireWire 800 so it is blazing fast and also works as another hub of USB and FieWire ports – very nice!

Home theater sound system:

This is unbelievably simple.  Since I used HDMI hook-ups for the XBOX and Cox DVR box the audio signals from those devices go straight into the TV.  And with the Mac Mini feeding directly into the TV too, all I had to do was run audio cable (red and white plugs) straight into the home theater audio-in inputs.  That is all that is being used.  However, my home-theater-in-a-box also plays DVD’s so I plugged an HDMI cable between the home theater and the TV.

The glue that brings everything together:

Logitech builds universal remote controls.  There are 3 that are really awesome, but the one I use is the Hamony One.  It is an expensive remote, but you can do almost anything with it.  It has something called “Activities” that are like “Watch TV”, “Play a DVD”, “Listen to Radio”, etc.  So, after a little programming in the Logitech remote setup program, you plop your butt down on the couch and just hit whichever activity you want to do.

Programs you’ll need on the Mac:

Streaming Online TV, Movies, and Radio

There is an argument amongst the Mac Home Entertainment people that involves two programs that will become your online-content-viewing-hub.  The debate is between whether to use Plex or Boxee….or even Apple’s Front Row (sucks in my opinion).  I use Boxee.  When you’re reading some older articles about the two, it sure sounds like Plex is better, but since I made this move, Boxee sure seems to tbe the winner.  Nothing is stopping you from having both, like I do.

Boxee TV shows list - click for larger view

Boxee is hooked into Netflix, Pandora, CNN, MLB, Clicker, MTV, etc.  Then it also has a great deal of other free content items like 24, The Office, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Simpsons, Southpark, etc.  When you start one of these TV shows you’re given the choice of which episode to watch and sometimes even which season.  Where is that on Cable?  Plex has the same, but I like the Boxee interface better for this part.  You can also get a ton of this through the Hulu Desktop (which is a fantastic program as well and works inside Boxee).

Backing up your DVD’s

Yeah, that’s right – you want to backup those DVD’s in your collection <wink wink>.  You know, just in case they get scratched.  The neat part about “backing up” your DVD’s is that you *could* stream them from your harddrive to other devices in your house (office computer, bedroom TV, XBOX, iPhone, etc.).  Of course, it is illegal to distribute your “back ups” to other people.  But since they’re your copies, you can use them on your devices.  You’ll need a program called Handbrake to do it on the Mac.  It is very simple to use – you just pop a DVD into your Mac, tell Handbrake the recording quality you want, and let it rip!

Getting your recordings to other devices

Thank you Roxio!  They have a fantastic set of programs called Toast and Crunch/Popcorn for turning the things you record off of EyeTV (will get to that in a minute) into files that can be viewed on other computers, game stations, or iPods.  Toast lets you do it and Crunch or Popcorn can help you compress it into a smaller file (especially if you want to take something on the road with your iPod/iPhone/Touch).

Streaming

Getting ready to watch the Daily Show on Boxee - click for larger view

Now that you’ve “backed up” your DVD’s, “Toasted” some TV recordings, and have some good stuff sitting on the harddrive, now it is time to make sure you can get this stuff in other rooms of the house.  You need a wifi network.  I’m going to assume you’ve already got one, so let’s talk about some of the ways you can expand it with Apple products (because that’s what I use).  First off, you’ve got your wireless router, and in my case, that is an Apple 1TB Time Capsule.  That communicates with an Apple Airport Express (Draft N version) to help keep a clear and full wifi signal throughout my whole house (walls are such a pain for wifi).

I still have a PC for playing games.  That sits in my home office and is connected via ethernet cable directly into the Time Capsule.  It is on the network and I have given it access to specific folders on my Mac Mini (don’t want a stupid PC Virus spreading to my clean Macs).  My MacBook Pro shares folders with the Mac Mini and they also share harddrive space on the 1TB Time Capsule, a 1TB Western Digital Worldbook, and an older 500GB Western Digital external harddrive.  Yes, I keep a lot of digital files – mainly RAW photograph files that take up tons of room.

In my bedroom I have an XBOX 360 hooked up to the wifi network and wirelessly connecting to the Mac Mini with Connect360.  This way I can stream content from the Mac Mini to the XBOX.

So, I stream content to a XBOX 360 in the bedroom, a MacBook Pro just about anywhere in the hosue, an iPod Touch & iPhone around the house, and a Windows 7 PC in my home office.  Yeah, it is overkill and the one that gets the most use is watching recorded TV in my bedroom through the XBOX.

Think about listening to your entire iTunes library throughout the house while having your photographs act as a screen saver on your TV’s – cool way to setup for a party.

EyeTV 250 Plus DVR box - click to see larger

EyeTV

This is a very small PVR….or as marketing calls it – a DVR.  It does the exact same thing your Cox Cable DVR box does except it records to your computer….thus giving you unlimited recording space as long as you have enough harddrive room.  EyeTV comes with fantastic software and can work with multiple TV-to-Computer input hardwares.  It also works directly with Toast!  It comes with a remote, so you can program your Logitech Harmony One remote to control EyeTV just like it controls everything else.

Check out EyeTV at http://www.elgato.com – I use the 250 Plus, but would have gotten the Hybrid instead to save a little money since I’m using a newer Intel Mac Mini.

Other stuff

SwitchResX is a nice little plug-in to your system preferences that allow a ton more control of your TV’s resolution.  It also has profiles that can be set up so you can have certain programs push specific resolutions.  For example:  websites and email at 10 feet away on a 55″ TV screen have really small text at 1080p (1920 x 1080), so when you launch FireFox or Mail SwitchResX can change your resolution to something smaller (1360 x 768 in my case) so you can read stuff easier.  But when you’re done checking a website out or reading your email, then you can go back to watching TV or streaming content at 1080p resolution for the best picture quality.

Air Mouse Pro is awesome if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch.  This little app lets you control your computer from your iPhone when both the iPhone and the computer are on the same wifi network (which you would be at the house).  With this app you can use your iPhone as a mouse, a keyboard, a remote, or even a program launcher – VERY COOL!  I actually use this at work during presentations – it blows peoples’ minds.

Perian is another plug-in for your system preferences that adds all kinds of different video playback codes.  With Perian there really isn’t a video you can’t play on a Mac.  It is actually a plug-in for QuickTime.

Flip4Mac is recommended by Microsoft for Mac users.  It simply allows WMV files to play in QuickTime.

Mac Mini and Harddrive are very small - click for larger view

The Costs:

If you’ve read everything this far, then here’s where I kick you in the teeth.  This is not an inexpensive setup.

$600 – $800 Mac Mini:  you don’t need a whole lot here.  Video playback does not take a lot of processing power or RAM.  I suggest the mid-range or bottom of the line Mac Mini in the Apple store.  The only thing you’ll be looking for down the road is more harddrive space and you do that through external harddrives.

Free – $300 Keyboard & Mouse: you probably have a keyboard and mouse laying around that you can use for setting the Mac Mini up with.  If you want to keep things nice looking and run on Bluetooth or whatever, then you might get into a little expense here.  You can go to the extreme and get some of the really killer options Logitech has for integrated mouse & keyboards, or go the route I did and just pick up an Apple Magic Mouse and Apple Wireless Keyboard.

Resources my Mac Mini is using with FireFox, Mail, TV, Handbrake, and others - click for larger view

Free – $2,000 Remote Control optional:  If you aren’t the lazy fool I am, then you can bypass the remote entirely.  Just use the keyboard and mouse and your old remotes.  But if you just want to plop on the couch or just be really technology-cool, then check out the universal remotes Logitech offers.  They can get really pricey.  I found my Harmony One about 2 years ago at Circuit City for $170.

$80 – $200 EyeTV:  just depends on which model you buy and where you buy it from.  Other World Computing had the best deals when I bought mine.

$50-$60,000 Harddrives optional:  Yeah, you read that right – $60,000 and I was just capping it somewhere.  It is truly unlimited because you can go nuts.  For a home system you don’t need a server farm for harddrive space, but a nice 1TB drive is good (what I use).  I wanted faster connections (FireWire 800), more USB ports, a 7,200 RPM drive, and something that fit with the Mac Mini so I went all out for a whopping $200 on a ministack v3 1TB drive.

14 Euros or $18 SwitchResX optional:  If you find the need to use this wonderful plug-in then Stéphane Madrau would like you to donate 14 Euros to the cause.  It is free to try for 10 days.

$0.99 to $4.99 Air Mouse Pro optional: you find this in the Apple App Store.  Right now it is on sale for $0.99.

FREE – that’s the cost of everything else I’ve mentioned in this article….except for a TV if you don’t have it, an iPod/iPhone if you don’t have it or any streaming devices like XBOX’s or Apple TV’s.  But all that is something entirely different for the purpose of this article.

Summary:

When you read something like this you either think “COOL!!!!” or “What a waste of money – Alex you’re nuts” and I agree with either reaction you have.  I cannot say that this filled any need whatsoever.  I can say that it has made my TV viewing, multitasking, and appetite for more content that much stronger.

How about this thought on the cost side: a TV bill, whether it is satellite, cable, or whatever is not cheap for anything beyond the basic channels.  Mine is roughly $150 a month.  I don’t know how it got that high, but I just looked at the bill and it is…..holy crap there are a ton of extra BS charges on there.  Anyway, there is enough online content to fill just about any TV addiction.  If I were to cancel cable, then I could pay for my entire setup within 8 months.  After 8 months, I’m saving $150 a month.  Chew on that thought.  That also makes me wonder what the future of the TV, satellite, and cable companies really is!

Advertisements