Sunday, November 12, 2006

Media Center Mac Mini for My Bedroom? (Part 1)

I'm pretty sure I'll be getting a flat-panel LCD for my bedroom soon, probably the highly-thought-of Sharp AQUOS LC-37D90U, a 37" 1080p TV. My original intent was to feed it with one of the new TiVo Series 3 high-def digital video recorders, suitably equipped with one or two CableCards for digital cable reception. But it occurs to me it would be more fun to use some sort of Media Center PC instead.

Media Center PCs are big in the world of Windows-based machines, but I'd rather use a Mac as my media center hub. The ideal Mac for the job would seem to be an ultra-compact Mac Mini, a midget computer-in-a-box to which you BYODKM — bring your own display, keyboard, and mouse.

"How to turn your Mac Mini into a media center" at engadget.com tells one way to do this. It hooks the Mac Mini to two products from Elgato Systems, EyeHome and EyeTV. The article is unclear about which EyeTV model is best. It recommends EyeTV 200 but says it was unobtainable at press time. It also mentions EyeTV 500. Both those models now seem to be obsolete. The one to use seems to be EyeTV Hybrid (see picture at left).

EyeTV Hybrid hooks into a USB port on a Mac and accepts a cable-TV cable connection as it's input source. Using software supplied with it, it tunes into cable channels and allows them to be watched on the Mac's monitor or screen and/or recorded to the Mac's disk drive. The Mac in effect becomes a TiVo. In the picture to the right, the Mac is a portable, but it could equally be a Mini. In that case, the flat-panel TV would hook to the Mini's DVI output via a DVI-to-HDMI cable, and it would serve as the Mini's monitor.

That's how cable-TV video can delivered to the Mac Mini to be recorded, and how it can be watched on the LCD flat panel. But media centers are about more than video; they involve other sorts of content too, such as photos, home movies, music files, etc. Here's where the EyeHome comes in.

Instead of (or in addition to) running a DVI/HDMI hookup from the Mac direct to the flat panel, I can run an Ethernet connection from Mac to EyeHome, and hook the EyeHome to the TV. Using the EyeHome software, I can stream every kind of computer media to the TV and its sound system.

The EyeHome has a menu interface that shows up on the TV screen and is controlled by the EyeHome remote control. From those menus I can select the media files I want to watch and hear. The EyeHome fetches them from the Mac and feeds them to the TV and sound gear.

EyeHome can also do its stuff wirelessly. Instead of an Ethernet cable, it can communicate with the Mac by means of Airport Express. The AE unit is simply set up to extend a network provided by one of Apple's Airport Extreme base stations. I have such a base station already, and I also have a couple of AEs in use.

The December 2004 issue of Home Theater had a review of a similar setup to the one I'm contemplating. Theirs was an EyeTV 200, not an EyeTV Hybrid. They liked the EyeHome, with few reservations. The EyeTV 200 had some drawbacks.

First of all, the EyeTV 200 is (or was) a standalone box connected to the Mac via Firewire, not a "stick" plugged into a USB port. Fair enough — I might go instead with a box-like EyeTV 610. Be that as it may, one hitch with EyeTV is that its program guide is limited to that at the TitanTV website. It's not clear to me how ergonomic that would be — especially since the only way to feed EyeTV with digital and/or encrypted cable channels requires that you hook it to a cable box via an RF connection and let the cable box do the channel selection. So how would I get EyeTV to consult the program guide and to administer the box accordingly?

It would be nice to find an EyeTV model that can accept a CableCard. So far, I'm not sure any of them do.

Nor am I sure whether EyeTV can handle high-definition digital cable channels as such. Unlikely, in view of the RF-only input connection.

More later.

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