Solution Spheres

Using Apple technologies (and possibly others) to create a seamless digital lifestyle for home and business.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

It's the software, stupid!

As I've been collating ideas and theories regarding the Mac mini as a HTPC (Home Theater PC) or Media Center PC (which is a little different, don't let them tell you otherwise), there's always one crucial missing component.


That's what makes the Mac as a platform so nice to use is the tight integration of Apple's components. That is, the hardware and software play nice. Also, the Apple-branded software, like iLife, does a great job of talking to each other, and integrating into a workflow. So you see your pictures in iMovie, your music in iPhoto, your movies in iDVD, etc.

But we have to realize that the Mac as a Media Center is lacking OS-level support for some functions, like PVR functions. That's why Microsoft created a unique flavor of Windows XP just for their Media Center platform...

But now some good lads from across the pond are going to change all that. I hope. The Mac Media Center Project is a grassroots effort to create actual software for the Mac that would turn it into the seamless Media Center it could be.

Yes, we can all look forward to those crazy MS Dancers on our Quartz Extreme-driven desktops soon! I just hope there's a Steve Ballmer version.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Two bits.

Bit one:
With a couple of sub-bits. First, there's a wonderful how-to, complete with pictures, on getting your Mac mini to fit comfortably into your home theater setup at Engadget.

Well, I don't know how comfortable all that is really. Looks a little, er, cramped. But still, a very thorough look at some options. I'm particularly happy about the mention of VNC. I'll cover that later, and show how you can control your Mac via a wealth of devices using VNC.

Second half-bit: another tutorial, this time on getting those horrid, tiny, blurry little camera phone pics (or PDA pics) onto your Mac. Not exactly easy, but not totally hard either. Check it out here.

Bit Two:
Submission time! That's right, as the song says, I simply cannot do it alone. So I'm accepting submissions for the ebook.

What ebook? Well, you could call it the "Do anything with your Mac" book, or "Take control of your home, life, work, entertainment, and education with a Mac" book (except the publishers of the Take Control series would probably be mad at me).

In short, I want to know what crazy things you've done to your Mac to make it more useful. Has anyone used the Mac to control their toaster, and burn the current temp into the bread? How about using the iBook as a robot?

Well, for all you dreamers out there, email me your how-to's or wish-to's and we'll put 'em in a book, for all the good people out there...

You can reach me at

Let's do it!

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Control... everything with your Mac

Today I'm going to show you how to use the Mac mini (or any mac) to control your home's lights, appliances (some), and phones (sort of). There's also a killer piece of software I have to discuss...

Home Automation:
For years there has been a protocol known as X10. Many folks have seen those zany pop-ups. Those are from a licensee, and shouldn't reflect your ONLY choice in the matter. I'll post a better way to rig surveillance cameras later.
I'm talking about primarily turning things on and off. Yeah, that's about it-- ON or OFF, binary. But you could turn on sprinklers to water the lawn, lights to pretend you are home (or anticipate your arrival), and, uh, I guess do other stuff... About as long as the X10 stuff has been out there was Mac software for it. At least until OSX came out. Well, now the good folks at Perceptive Automation have created Indigo, an OSX client for controlling all your wacky devices-- or at least those with an on/off switch. I can imagine some neat-o Rube Goldberg applications though.
Here's the kicker: Indigo is compatible with the next two products!

Phone Control:
There is a great little piece of hardware/software out there called Phlink, by OVOLab (or is it OVOLab Phlink?)... This turns the mac into an automated phone center, with on-screen caller ID, message center, and automated answer-bot! Check out there site for more info. But it's a cool thing. And remember that you can use it to remotely control your home via phone with the Indigo system...

Remote Control Part Deux:
So, you got Indigo, Phlink, iTunes, EyeTV, Airport Express, and a host of other stuff, RIGHT? Well, control them all using Salling Clicker.
This clever little software goes on your PDA or cellphone (check for compatibility) and uses Bluetooth, a wireless technology winding its way into more phones and PDA's, to control all those things.
Imagine walking into a room and having iTunes kick on your favorite song. Salling Clicker is there. Want to turn on the lights in another room? Use your cell phone! Crank the volume using your PDA.
And since all people can seem to do is complain about the lack of adequate remotes for their new Mac-based PVR: use Salling Clicker to control the El Gato EyeTV!

Stay tuned for news on the ebook...

Until next week, keep clicking!

Monday, January 17, 2005

Daring Fireball: Small, Cheap, and Without a Display

For those of you interested in another perspective on the Mac mini (and iPod shuffle), please read: Daring Fireball: Small, Cheap, and Without a Display...

He makes some good points. The thing to remember is that any increase of market share, especially if it gets to double digits (remember 10 has 2 numbers), is good for the Home Computing Appliance Enthusiast.

While there are over 10,000 software titles for the Mac platform, there's a lot that you can't find at Wal-Mart. And that is important... Also this means more peripherals for the Mac as a Home Theater, or gaming platform!

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Seeing text on a TV

I've jacked in my old iBook to a TV using the RCA plugs. It isn't great. Text is pretty unreadable unless you crank the size of the text WAY up, and you can't really do it for the menus in OS X (unlike Windows). The S-Video output would be higher resolution, yet still not adequate for regular text... But there is a solution! If you want to bypass the whole HDTV thing, you can buy the RCA/S-Video adapter for the mini ($20) and continue reading...

To solve the whole resolution problem you'll want to enable Zooming. It's in the System Preferences, under "Universal Access" (although it might move in Tiger, it'll be easy to find by using Spotlight). What does this do? By holding down a keyboard combination you can literally zoom the screen, enlarging everything. Some parts will fall off the screen, but by moving the mouse you can move the focus, and see everything.

It's a cool trick, and always makes my Wintel friends jealous! You can also see a sample of this in my video tutorial on exporting cross-platform movies (meaning no QuickTime required) in iMovie 4 here (for now):
Exporting non-QuickTime content in iMovie 4


Friday, January 14, 2005

Put your mac mini into your car

So there's a turnkey way to stick that second Mac mini of yours into your car!

Check 'em out when they launch Jan 22:

Now the only problem will be copying all your files over to that computer. Unless you can spread your 802.11 network across your town/state/country...

Guess we'll have to wait until the iPod has 802.11 and that Home on your iPod feature...

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Adding Surround Sound

One of the biggest "missing pieces" of the Mac experience has been surround sound. I don't see in the specs for the Mac mini optical audio out, although the Airport Express does have this feature.

Well, leave it to those crafty folks at Griffin Technology to solve the problem. Their FireWave product adds Dolby 5.1 surround to your Mac via the FireWire port. It also includes a FW port of it's own, so you can still add drives, cameras, etc. to the Mac. And it doesn't need to be plugged in to the wall, getting it's power from the FW port (as any good FW peripheral should).

Tack on another $99 for surround!

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

How To: turn your Mac mini into a Media Center PC

Last week at CES Microsoft made a big to-do about their Media Center flavor of Windows XP. Of course, the big news was that this cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, newfangled piece of kit is still inevitably going to give you the Blue Screen of Death at some point. Bill Gates was not amused.

Those of you out there who have been using Apple's new OS X operating system, however, know just how reliable it is, and of course it's mostly immune to the security lapses so prevalent in MS products.

Well, today Apple introduced their first foray into real budget computing, the Mac mini. While the basic unit goes for $499, to create the super-sweet Media PC knockoff I'm proposing, you're going to want to add some extras. Total cost of the base unit will be $1002 under Apple's current scheme.

First let's look at the features from Microsoft's offering. You can review the full set here. So here's our basic feature set:

  • Share and store photos

  • Share and store your music

  • Play stuff like CD's and DVD's

  • Listen to online radio (really? wow MS thanks!)

  • Play games

  • Look up movies

  • Edit and arrange your movies, music, and photos

  • Watch Windows Dancers move to your music (seriously, this is a feature)

  • And of course, act as a DRM-crippled PVR for viewing tv and movies according to MS's whim

Well, aside from proprietary technologies like DirectX, ActiveX, Windows Media Player 10, and crippling spyware, most of the features available on Media Center PC's from MS can easily be replicated on OS X.

So using the following base system I'll show you how to build a Mac-based entertainment center!

First you'll want to custom-configure a Mac mini. Yeah, you could do this with other Macs, but the mini has a very nice form factor for a living room component.

OK, buying a Mac mini with 1.42 GHz CPU, 80 GB HD, 512 MB RAM, SuperDrive (for burning DVD's), Airport Extreme (802.11g WiFi), and Bluetooth, AND the wireless keyboard and mouse will set you back the aforementioned $1002. If you want to stream music into other rooms, buy an Airport Express for each room! This also doubles as a wireless printer connection and WiFi access extension point.

Now, you'll of course be using Apple's very integrated and nice iLife '05 suite, which comes FREE with the Mac mini. That pretty much covers all those Picture, Music, Movies needs. Seriously, we live by the stuff at home.

If you really want to make things easy to share, I suggest going ahead with the optional dot Mac service. It's another $100 a year, but it includes a lot of cool stuff, and is integrated with all the iLife apps. It will increase in usefulness in the future, as with Apple's next OS, Tiger, other app developers will be able to easily connect to your .mac services... You'll see what I mean in a few months, trust me.

Anyway, while you're shopping at Apple, I highly recommend getting the pro version of QuickTime, which enables you to do some pretty cool stuff. I'll explain more in a later post.

No Apple computer would be complete without an iPod, and with all those choices and price points, well, it just makes sense to get one. The iPod allows you to of course play all your music. The iPod photo allows you to store and share your photos on the road. You'll find there are other hidden goodies in the iPod, including the ability to download podcasts, RSS feeds, and more. I'd suggest you check out pod2go, an invaluable tool for your iPod...

If you want to video chat with fellow Mac users (and there will be plenty as people snap up the Mac mini), get an iSight, pretty much the coolest webcam you'll ever see.

Now, an advantage to getting the iSight is the ability to also scan the UPC barcodes of your movies, music, and games, and put them in a really cool and visually pleasing database. This adds another $40, but the software from Delicious Monster, called Delicious Library, can't be beat. It really is very cool and useful.

All right, so you've got a tricked-out Mac mini, wireless keyboard and mouse, some great software, however many Airport Expresses you need, and an iSight. Total cost so far should be around $1500. This will vary depending on the number of Express's you buy, and what flavor of iPod you choose.

But wait! There's more!

If you want to use your mac as a personal video recorder and just plain DVD player, you'll need some more goodies. Also, how are you going to see all this stuff?

The mini is clearly designed for people who have a monitor lying around. Who doesn't have a cheapo CRT sitting in the closet collecting dust? And while you can get an optional RCA/S-Video output dongle from Apple, which allows you to plug in to almost any TV, I recommend instead you find an HDTV with DVI input. Wal Mart sells several decent models. You could, for maximum craziness, buy a projector. But that's just crass, isn't it?

To enable PVR capabilities, there are several options. One of the most powerful is a digital cable box from El Gato. They also have basic analog ones, ranging in price from $149 to $349 for the digital cable version...

At this point you might worry about drive space. Even 80 GB seems anemic when you start recording all those nifty cartoons and whatnot on the TV. So go pick up a Firewire hub (around $40) and as many external hard drives as you can. You can easily chain these together for literally terabytes (meaning HOURS) of recording time.

And no living room system would be complete without a remote. Griffin Technologies makes a very cool RF one, which works through walls! There are other remotes out there from Keyspan, for instance. Also, there's a neat piece of software called Salling Clicker that allows you to use your Bluetooth cell phone or PDA as a remote... It's a very cool thing.

If you get really picky, there are tons of speakers, USB devices, and other things to junk up your living room. Apple has clearly thought about this, and offer a wide range of geegaws to complement you new mac.

One last step. If you're going to make this super-easy, just like Microsoft likes to do, you're going to want to simplify... When you set up your mac, you can create an additional account for general usage, and enable something known as Simple Finder. This makes certain apps really big buttons and the general OS easier to access from across the room.

I've only hinted at the power of this system. Poke around Griffin's site, Apple's site, and check out all the Apple-related sites out there for even more tips and tricks. I think you'll find, pound-for-pound, that you'll get more enjoyment out of a mac-based "digital hub" than a PC-based one. Don't get me wrong, Microsoft has some compelling products and services out there (like those nifty dancers). But OS X, and the next version, Tiger, is really giving them a run for the money.

By the way, the total cost for all this? Around $3000, again depending on your options. Many of the better MS-based Media Centers I looked at (like Alienware) were around $1,500-- JUST FOR THE PC! Never mind a big screen, RF remote, or iPod.

In closing, I'd like to point out I don't work for Apple. I don't own a Mac mini (yet), but neither does anyone else. What I've put together is a system that many others are configuring right now. As time goes by we'll probably see all these things bundled, and packaged, and sold. If I were to do it myself, I'd call it a SolutionSphere. That is my term for this digital ecosystem where everything "just works" and it's fairly easy to move your content around (and create your own content). Motorola will be introducing a cell phone with a mini version of iTunes later this year. You'll be able to move music from your mac to your cell phone very easily. See how the ecosystem works?

Stay tuned for more ways to extend the capabilities of this powerful system, and an illustrated guide!

From the people who brought you the ipod case from a milk jug