Can I Have a Mac Media Center Now?

by Bruce Stewart

Our friends over at Makezine found an interesting article by Ryan Faas on using a Mac today as a media center. Building a Mac Home Media Center, Part 1: How To Get iTV Capabilities Today, For Less, has some good information for anyone considering using their Mac in this fashion. We also recently published an article by Matthew Russell on how to turn your Mac into a TV/PVR using Miglia's TV Micro USB tuner and EyeTV software, Miglia TVMicro and EyeTV: Easy TV on Your Mac.

While iTV is on the horizon, Ryan points out that there's an awful lot you can do right now if you don't mind fiddling with things a bit. I own an older Powerbook with a damaged screen and have been thinking about doing something along these lines with it, so this article is very timely for me. I'm especially looking forward to the second installment where he covers using a Mac as a PVR, but this first article also had some helpful tips that I wasn't aware of, like this information on completely controlling an infrared-capable Mac with the remote control:

Use the Apple Remote to sleep/wake a Mac in your entertainment center. If you install a Mac mini (or other Mac model) as a unit in your home entertainment center, you might want to operate it completely from the remote (as a piece of home theater equipment instead of a computer). Not only can you invoke and navigate Front Row all from the Apple remote but you can also put the computer to sleep or wake it from sleep by holding the play/pause button on the remote for three seconds. Pressing any button on the remote wakes the computer. This approach can also be helpful if you want to use a TV (or external display) with a MacBook or MacBook Pro while keeping the computer closed because you can connect the TV or display, sleep the computer by closing the lid and wake it with the remote.


Are others out there happily using Macs as their media centers and PVRs? I'd be real interested in hearing your success stories. And your not so successful ones, too.

9 Comments

Andrew Kimpton
2006-11-15 14:29:32
Don't forget MythTV (http://www.mythtv.org). It's an open source project with distributed client/server architecture. The 'client' (more properly known as a frontend) already runs on Mac OS X (ppc & intel). The 'server' (backend) also runs on Mac OS X however there are limited options for capturing video on a Mac OS X backend - firewire connection to a HD settop box, a USB2 capture device and the HDHomeRun (http://www.silicondust.com) have all been made to work (though are perhaps a little 'beta' at the moment).


I don't believe CenterStage or iTheatre allow for any live TV viewing or Tivo like behaviour (unlike Myth). Third party commercial products like EyeTV provide for Tivo like controls but generally don't provide the 'mixed media' experience of DVDs and photos etc. inside the app that CenterStage, FrontRow, iTheatre or Myth give.

kugino
2006-11-15 14:46:42
we've been using our imac + eyetv200 + external hard drives to record tv shows tivo-like as well as archive (cough) our dvd collection as h.264 files. they're extremely stream-able over our 802.11G home network, so i sometimes end up watching shows downstairs on my macbook streamed from our imac upstairs. though iTV full functionality is not yet known, i can't think of very many things it will do that i can't do now...it will surely be a more elegant and easy-to-use setup than what i have now, but it will have to be amazing before i plop down three bill for one.
pauldwaite
2006-11-15 16:08:44
> "Third party commercial products like EyeTV provide for Tivo like controls but generally don't provide the 'mixed media' experience of DVDs and photos etc. inside the app that CenterStage, FrontRow, iTheatre or Myth give."


Er, I believe EyeTV integrates right into FrontRow now. Elgato's web site probably has more on this. It's being slow for me at the moment.


I think I'd pick an iMac with EyeTV (I've used it without FrontRow on my PowerBook G4) if I fancied some of that media centre stuff. Cos I like everything all in one box. As I live in the UK and am not bothered about any pay TV (just Freeview for me), it's suit me down to the ground.


I just can't quite currently justify spending about £1000 on what would essentially be a very fancy and pretty TV. There's not really that much on anyways.

Aehso
2006-11-15 16:24:56
Hey Bruce,
I just recently posted about my mac-mini-centric media center/PVR setup, might be of interest.


Andrew, the latest release of EyeTV co-exists nicely with Front Row to provide an almost complete (if not seamlessly integrated) PVR/media center experience.


iTV seems too broadband/iTunes centric - I for one am not really bothered with it. My existing setup is far more flexible and my better half (a non-techie) can even use it.


I can record tv broadcasts via the EyeTV tuner as well as download via broadband, and I get to choose when to upgrade/install new software whenever I need support for new media formats.

silas
2006-11-16 09:45:08
Forget the retail and OSS options. I've been doing this with a powerbook with a damaged screen (12" works best, since tuned sideways gives it a nice profile with all ports in back and the slot-load optical drive in front) since a year before Apple introduced the Mac Mini or Frontrow. The secret is Applescript.


Just hook up said Powerbook or a Mac Mini to your TV, buy an EyeTV for television viewing and use a remote control that allows for execution of Applescripts... the Keyspan digital remote is pretty good, or you could use some software like Twisted Melon's "Mira" with the Apple remote.


Then just roll your own Applescripts to customize control of individual applications. E.g. when I'm listening to music in iTunes, a single button press will pause the music, open EyeTV, and put EyeTV into fullscreen mode.


Set the screen to turn off in two minutes; while playing music you won't have to worry about it, but iTunes, EyeTV, VLC and DVD Player all conveniently keep your screen on for you while they're in fullscreen. Button presses trigger the screen but Applescripts don't, so just replace the normal iTunes control scheme with very simple Applescripts.


If you learn a little Applescript (my secret is to Google for scripts already written by others, though I'm considering putting up a site with all the scripts I use) you can totally customize this for your particular system.

Michael
2007-01-05 02:28:56
I have been using my iMac as a media centre ever since I moved to the UK back in August. It is my television, music player, radio (with Sky I get all of my radio stations via cable--I don't know if this is done in other countries), DVD player, and DVR. I can't think of anything my old entertainment system could do that I can't do with my iMac now.


I'm very satisfied with it, and I find that most glitches are due to my cable provider. There are two major problems: fast-forwarding in Front Row and EyeTV is painfully slow, and you can't record from an analogue source in EyeTV for more than three hours at a time (not that you should watch t.v. for so long, but it happens).


I would also recommend external speakers. I use JBL's Creature II, which match the iBook and sound phenomenal.


One more point: if you consider the price of those components separately, the iMac setup isn't much more expensive:
17inch tv: £300
DVD player: £40
DVR: £160
Stereo: £100
TOTAL: £600


That's opposed to:
iMac: £700
Speakers: £100
EyeTV: £100
TOTAL: £900


An extra £300 isn't too bad, especially if you also use it as a computer every once in a while!

Ian Hayward
2007-02-11 16:18:14
I thought I would share with you guys a not so successful Mac PVR story. I currently have an Eye TV 200 box connected to my mac mini core duo and it works fine for analog RCA/NTSC connections to my digital cable set top box. But, what I wanted to do was capture/control digital cable right from the Eye TV software, so I purchased an Eye TV 610 box and prayed and hoped it would work in the US. It has a "cableCard" slot and a firewire port. However when I tried to tune the digital channels with the software it basically told me that the box was not designed to work in the USA. I probably could have tuned the cahnnels manually if I knew the frequency AND symbol rate of each digital channel, but I have not been able to find a table that works for me. So I spent a lot of money on a box that I cannot use, no to mention having a friend ship the Eye TV 610 from Europe to the USA for me via Fedex. It would be so nice if Elgato made a digitcal "cablecard" box for the rest of the world.
Björn
2007-07-02 10:46:25
There hasn't really been much buzz about it, but so far the best software for this kind of thing I have found is XHub Media Center (not mentioned in the article). It's way ahead of the competition (Front Row, MediaCentral etc), integrates perfectly with EyeTV and supports most remote controls (Apple, ATI, Keyspan). There's also a remote for Salling Clicker which means I can control my TV, music, DVD, photos, news etc with my mobile phone and actually see the menu options on my Nokia as I walk around the house. It's also very customisable (dozens of skins to pick from!) and easy to use. I recommend it highly.
seymour-z
2008-01-17 03:44:39
I used to use windows but bought a 24" imac recently, I have a usb HDD with hundred of CD albums that i copied from my collection as a back up. Unlike windows i cannot view the album art on the folders when in thumbnail viewing mode or even in itunes cover flow. How do i fix this? Apparently i cant download these album art again from itunes but only after i give them by bank details by opening an account and i dont want to do that. WMP downloads album art automatically.
Another thing...How do i get to watch my virgin cable(digital) on the iMac. The Apple store in London's Regent Street could not help.