Sanity check my Mac media center.
February 2, 2009 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Please sanity check a possible Mac Mini HTPC/media center setup.

Before I start spending money on additional components, maybe the community can review my plans for a Mac-Mini-based media center and HTPC. I've done lots of reading online, and based on some other AskMe threads, I'm not alone in being a little confused about the best setup for my needs, until someone invents a box that does it all.

I have:
- an HDTV with resolution up to 1080i
- an Intel Mac Mini with OS/X 10.4, but no remote
- a home theater receiver with speakers and lots of input options
- a NAS with tons of music, and some movies
- an Xbox 360
- a VCR
- a Netflix account, which I use to stream movies to the Xbox
- at the moment, cable
- a laptop

I want to:
- ditch cable and get HD programming over the air
- watch whatever programming I can get via the Internet
- watch streaming Netflix movies
- transfer VHS tapes to the NAS
- browse and play music and movies from the NAS
- use Tivo-like capabilities like pausing, recording, and browsing on-screen listings
- control as much as possible with a single remote
- play games

Right now I'm planning to go down a route similar to mr. obsession, using a HDHomeRun tuner, some kind of antenna, and EyeTV software for the TV end, and Plex for the media center end (which would require upgrading the Mac to Leopard).

Has anyone used a similar combination of these pieces? Do you think there's a better way to do it?

Also (and this is really my "original" question), since I've lost the little white Mac remote, is there a universal remote that works with the Mac? Controlling the Mac via the laptop (or getting a wireless keyboard) is certainly possible, but it's not ideal if I just want to flip channels and browse media.

Thanks in advance!
posted by swift to Technology (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I've never used Plex, but like XMBC and MediaCentral quite a bit (free vs. paid).

I personally use a TiVo Series 2 and push movies to it from my iMac. I use VisualHub to transcode them to TiVo-friendly MPEG files.

The uber-remote you're looking for is one of the Logitech Harmony remotes. Expensive but there isn't a device out there that it won't control (almost). Highly configurable and customizable.

I have about 20 of the little white Apple remotes. If you MeMail me, I can easily send you two or three of them for a very nominal charge (they retail new for $20, so perhaps $5 each?).
posted by at 10:58 AM on February 2, 2009

As someone with a mac mini and a new 46" TV, I will be watching this thread with great interest. I'd love to chuck Brighthouse Cable out the window and get something free and great.
posted by willmize at 11:29 AM on February 2, 2009

Plex and XBMC are both good, but also take a look at Boxee. All of them are similar and stem from the same roots, but each has it's own strengths. Boxee will also stream from your Netflix account.

I use a Harmony 880 with my Mini HTPC, and it works well, plus also lets me turn the TV on and off, control the volume on the AV receiver, etc.
posted by nonliteral at 11:30 AM on February 2, 2009

We just bought a Mac Mini for the TV this weekend, and we're still working out the setup so maybe I can't address your question all that well, but here's whatever insight I can offer.

We're using Boxee instead of Plex. From what I've heard it's pretty similar (I've never seen Plex in real life) except with some social features built in (recommendations, etc). I like it. We've used it so far to watch Netflix streaming movies; play movies and music from NAS (airport extreme with HDs plugged into it); watch shows from Hulu, Comedy Central, Adult Swim, Joost, YouTube, and various other Internet sources; and stream stuff to it from our laptops using iTunes. We're using the white remote, but the Logitech Harmony remotes supposedly work well, and I've seen some rather tempting screenshots of Remote Buddy, which is paid software. We got the newish (flat metal) Apple wireless keyboard and mouse. The keyboard is small and very light and makes a perfectly reasonable coffee table adornment - we've had no problems at all just picking it up and using it when necessary. Mousing is a little bit less great, but the mighty mouse actually does OK on my leg or the couch.

We haven't delved into the world of DVRing with it, but if we do we'll probably take the same EyeTV route.
posted by dreadpiratesully at 11:39 AM on February 2, 2009

the elgato HD tuner sticks are also good, as are the Pinnacle ones that pop up on woot! every so often if you don't want to spend the money on the HDHomeRun. (I have one of the Pinnacle ones and EyeTV - it works pretty well. make sure you get a newer one with ATSC if you go this route.) plus, if you want to record VHS cassettes, many of the regular thumbdrive-style HD tuner sticks have ports (via breakout cable) for S-VHS and composite input too - better quality than capturing VHS video via the RF output on the VCR.

I'd second boxee - the alpha is open now, so you don't have to hunt for an invite. it does NetFlix streaming, like your 360. but, for me, the awesome bit is streaming Comedy Central, Hulu, CBS, etc. from them - it's all built in, and works very well on my AppleTV (minus Netflix, which isn't available - the AppleTV is pretty lame spec-wise). the mini has a lot more horsepower, so it works even better on a proper Mac. plus, and this is a feature shared with most of the other XBMC-type deals, you can mount your shares on the NAS and play media through it. I honestly don't really use my HD tuner much anymore; there's no point if I can wait a day or two and pick it up via boxee or add it to my NF queue.

remember that if you hook it into your TV via HDMI that you'll have to run a separate audio cable; minis do have optical out on them, but the DVI port doesn't bundle in audio itself.
posted by mrg at 11:47 AM on February 2, 2009

I've been rocking the mini+tv setup for 2 years now and would never go back. The only caveat I would mention would be getting video out of the mini and into the TV. The TV that I bought doubled as a 32" LCD monitor (viewsonic). Resolution is only 720p, but that's good enough for me. I'm not sure about the dynamics of DVI/HDMI conversion, but my mini only had DVI out (the TV only had DVI/component in). The TV sometimes will forget the aspect ratio/resolution after waking up from sleep, but that is my only gripe. I'm using analog audio out, as the digital optical out was a line-level out (you could not control the volume via the mac), and my audio setup did not have a remote. I ditched cable, and have just been itunesing/netflixing/huluing tv when the mood strikes. It has served me well. Netflix + silverlight has been working well for watch instantly. Frontrow can be a bit gawky when your movie library gets large, I usually just use the finder to fire up movies.
posted by rye bread at 1:37 PM on February 2, 2009

I would third Boxee, but it doesn't have the TIVO-ness as far as I know. The interface, Internet goodies, and social aspects (my boxee ID is matatabe) are very awesome. It's mian weakness is that it's awfully slow to scan music at the moment and a bit crashy. Boxee has freaking venture funding and 10 employees, so it's a safe bet to take off and improve at a rapid clip.

I use Connect360 with my mac desktop mini to stream to my 360 too, and it is fine for movies but fairly awful for music due to the 360's clunky interface.

I've been researching this a lot myself, and I think the current best price for performance solution if you aren't concerned about DVR is a 1.87/2.0 Ghz Core 2 Duo Mini for 1080p playback, plus your NAS setup. You can get optical audio out of the mini and DVI-HDMI conversion too.
posted by ejoey at 1:56 PM on February 2, 2009

I tried the Mac route as a DVR and didn't like it. EyeTV is good tuner software but pretty poor for a TV DVR interface controlled via remote. Media playback is pretty hit or miss, you'll end up having to swap back and forth between apps and struggling with a wireless keyboard/mouse.

I would definitely recommend going the Boot Camp route and installing Vista MCE, or even better, Windows 7 MCE. You'll get one unified interface that is worlds better than EyeTV, will be able to play pretty much any format as well as viewing Netflix through it. IPTV is also built in, it comes preloaded with NBC, ABC, CBS, Discovery, etc...
posted by wongcorgi at 2:40 PM on February 2, 2009

Instead of a Harmony remote, I use an iPhone app called jfcontrol. Enables an iPhone to be a remote control of a mac. Using bonjour and wifi technology, the iPhone controls Front Row, EyeTV, VLC, Quicktime Player, DVD player and more. Seems to be updated monthly. $4.
posted by conrad53 at 2:47 PM on February 2, 2009

I have a Harmony 555 and it works pretty well. The only downside is that it feels a little plastically and creaks when you twist it (which you normally wouldn't do - but indicates whether or not they've strengthened the product, which they haven't).

I've no experience in the 880 but I would recommend you look at the differences between the two carefully before you buy.

From an initial glance using the Logitech comparison tool, the 880 looker slightly nicer, has a colour display, is rechargeable and has a battery status indicator.

Whilst this is all well and good, i'm not convinced that it justifies the $120 premium - especially when a colour screen doesn't really add much and you can use standard rechargables.
posted by mr_silver at 3:37 AM on February 3, 2009

You might already be aware of this, but just in case, netflix does support OS X now for online streaming.
posted by meta87 at 9:39 AM on February 3, 2009

Please be kind, this is my very first post.

I have a Intel Core 2 duo Mac Mini running Leopard, with the following setup:
1. eyeTV tuner (the latest model includes FM reception and the HD tuning is noticeably improved over the prior model),
2. Channelmaster 2-bay antenna (slightly larger than the head of a tennis racquet, the antenna sits inside my apartment on the second floor)
3. iPod Touch w/ "Remote Buddy" --- essentially a universal remote, but more expensive than jfcontrol mentioned above.

software: Miro (good for videos such as TED lectures), iTunes, etc.

I've had no trouble using the DVR software supplied with the Elgato tuner. I live in the Bay Area and get about 45 channels using my setup, with only minor interference from a nearby airport. The antenna is about $40 from Fry's.

As an aside, one very good video website is if you like intelligent talking heads.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 9:22 PM on February 3, 2009

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