Solution Spheres

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

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

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