The Mac Mini
The Mac Mini seems the obvious solution for a Mac Media Center. It’s small design, and low noise and heat make it a great candidate to fit in with your existing mix of stylish audio equipment.The Mini is a great little device, it has a nice processor, a DVD drive, some hard drive space and enough ports to plug it into all the additional equipment you need.The last thing you need is a big ugly tower case, with noisy fans to sit next to your TV and destroy whatever audio fidelity you are trying to enjoy. And the Mac Mini has some sex appeal too.
The iMac is also a good candidate for a Mac Media Center, although its appeal is slightly different from that of the Mac Mini.In a limited space environment the iMac can server a dual purpose. It can be used as a desktop machine by day, and be switched to a Mac Media Center by night.The iMac comes in various sizes, from 17″ to 24″ so depending on the space you have available, and where you want to put it you have a few options. The iMac comes standard with just about everything you will need to use it as a Mac Media Center.
The Rest of the Mac Pac
The Mac Pro, iBook, and Mac Book Pro aren’t really as versitile as the Mac Mini and iMac, but can none the less be used as a Mac Media Center.The 17″ Mac Book Pro would make a nice mobile entertainment system, but not a dedicated media center.Using a Mac Pro as a Mac Media Center is insane. It’s a little like using a crow bar to open a can of beans.You’ll need some hardware to go with the Mac Media CenterFor the purposes of the rest of the article I will use a Mac Mini as an example. I have a Mac Mini and have built a media center with it, so using my first hand experience will hopefully be a little more accurate than speculating on what is possible if you have x…y…z…There are a couple of things you will need to get your Mac Mini up and running as a Mac Media Center.Some of these devices are apple devices and some are generic devices. Some work well and some are just a disaster.
Remotes for your Mac Media CenterThe first device you will need to begin hunting for is remote. Afterall, what good is a Mac Media Center without a remote that the family can fight about?There is the infamous Apple remote which comes with most Mac minis and iMacs.It’s a small remote but works well. It comes in typical Mac style. It’s tiny, does everything you need it to do and has no fancy features. All in all it only has 6 buttons that allow you to control the entire Mac Media Center.
There are also a number of generic remotes available. Logitech have a bunch of remotes, some of which work well with Mac, and some that are PC only.I have a Microsoft keyboard and remote, and have been unable to get them going on the Mac.I would advise using the Mac remote. It small, and with ahlf a dozen buttons is actually quite easy to use.My DVD player’s remote for instance has 47 buttons, most of which I have never used and I don’t have the slightest inclination to find out how they work.You’ll also need a keyboard for your Mac Media Center EditionOf course there are those times you need to input some data into the screen, like in iTunes for instance, you might need to punch in your password when purchasing content.No one wants to keep jumping off the couch to press a button, I mean we barely find the energy to get up for another beer.
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Apple have a nice bluetooth keyboard that you can use from your couch. It looks like a normal Apple keyboard, yet it has no cables and just fits a couple of batteries at the back.This is a must for your media center. From time to time you NEED a keyboard and having to crawl out from under a warm blanket in the middle of winter can spoil the mood.Of course Logitech and a few other have keyboards that would work just as well. But pairing an apple bluetooth keyboard with the built in blue tooth in a Mac Mini is easier than making toast.Add some storage to your Mac Media CenterIf you have ever spoken to anyone about a media center for digital media, the word storage would have poped up a number of times.The Mac Mini at best will only have and 80GB hard drive, and when you are downloading movies, TV shows, music, adding your own CD’s and dumping you digital pictures you can devour disk space rather rapidly.So before you know it, you’ll be hunting for a storage device of sorts.Now you have a couple of options as far as storage is concerned.
You can either connect something directly to your Mac Media Center, like a USB or Firewire drive, or you can connect a Network Attached Storage Device.The difference really comes in, when you consider what it is you want to do with your storage. If you want storage purely for media content and want it to be available only to the Mac Media Center, then a USB or Firewire drive is a great option.But if you have more than one computer on your network, like most housholds today seem to have, you might want to consider a netowrk attached storage device, also know as a NAS.Software you will needOnce you have decided on which Mac you want to use, a Mac Mini in my case, and you have you remote, and keyboard ready, and you have some idea of where you are going with some extra storage in the not to distant future, you need to sit down and consider what software you want to use with your Mac Media Center.
You have a about a dozen options, I’ve looked at a bunch of them, and I’ve narrowed it down to 3 that I think you should consider.The best way to decide on which media center application you want to use is to install all 3, use them for a week or two and then make your decision.My Mac Mini came with front row, and that’s what I decided to use.But here is a break down of the 3 I suggest:Front RowFront row is an apple application, and comes on most Mac Mini’s.It’s a simple interface, looks a lot like an iPod’s interface and has that glass effect. It’s a very cool interface, and makes your TV look like it’s in a league of its own.Center StageCenter Stage is an open source application for a Mac Media Center. It’s a good design and there’s ongoing support and development for it.Center Stage is a lot more customisable than front row, and allows a number of skins to be installed. Center Stage also has aditional plugins to make your Mac Media Center do more.Just a friendly warning when using non-Apple software on an Apple machine, especially when it’s open source. Make sure you run the stable version. Running a beta version could cause unwanted interuptions during your romantic movie which will result in a night on the couch.iTheatreiTheter is also an open source Mac Media Center.
It aims to work on just about every Mac ever. Well maybe not ever, but at least in the last couple of years.iTheater also has the best user interface (UI) out of the 3. It integrates a whole bunch of other features and can also display the weather.Add onsOnce you have your mac mini, you remote, keyboard, storage and UI sorted you need to consider some add-ons to make the whole media center thing a little more enjoyable.DVI-HDMI ConnectorTo enhance your picture viewing quality, and if your TV supports it, get a DVI to HDMI converter. The Mac Mini has a digital output, and if you can keep your output digital, straight into the TV then you will benefit from the video quality.While HDMI supports audio, DVI does not. So using a DVI to HDMI converter will drop your audio, but it will maintain your video. You can just use the audio minijack output from your Mac Mini to get audio to the TV.TVYour TV is not really and add-on, I can’t imagine you having a media center without the TV. Like a car without an engine (I had one of those for a while and it’s not so great).When choosing your TV, make sure your TV has some crucial components to accommodate a Mac Media Center. The most important is your input.
You need to, at the very least have a VGA input. HDMI is preferable but VGA is a minimum.having audio in is another requirement. While you can get away with not having an audio input on your TV it’ll only make your life a little more complicated.Audio out would be the last piece of a really nice puzzle. Being able to connect your TV directly to your sound system will enable you to control the audio volume on your Mac Mini from once central place.I’ll be posting an article on HDTV soon. Have a look at http://www.shawnsweekly.com for more info.iTunesiTunes forms the foundation of your digital content.
I’ve been using Front Row, and it integrates nicely into iTunes. So when I flip through the menus, it’s like flipping through iTunes on an iPod interface.Using iTunes means that you can download movies TV shows and music from the iTunes store.Once the media has been downloaded, you can access it and watch it with the click of a button.This is a very easy integration and is automatically done for you.Using iTunes to add your CD library to your computer is another great feature. And from your media center you can simply click the remote and play your entire music collection.AlternativesFor those of you who are anti-mac, and want to benefit from the Mac form factor, but want to run MythTV or Vista Ultimate, you can do that.Simply download bootcamp from Apple, load your favorite OS, setup your Media Center and off you go.The Mac Mini really offers you the best of both worlds. You can run Mac OSX, Windows, or Linux, and setup you Media Center the way you want.