Monday, April 7, 2008

My Macintosh! Let me show you it!

Here is another post that I have been meaning to work on for ages. About two months ago, I bought my first Mac to use in my home theatre. It has turned out to be a really great way to share iTunes all over the house, have one big place for photos and it conveniently upconverts DVD's to 1080p (while I wait for just the right blu-ray player). I found a lot of people blogging about their happy experience using Mac Mini's as HTPC's (start here but also just Google {mac mini htpc}. So here is a stream of consciousness about my similar experience.

Gear (Phase 1)
I am starting off with a TV with HDMI inputs. I have not yet decided on a receiver. That does impact how I am plugging in the audio.
  • 2.0Ghz / 1GB RAM / 120GB hard drive Mac Mini - $800. I headed several recommendations to get the faster of the two current models because it does a little better with smooth DVD playing.
  • A DVI to HDMI cable ~ around $30 - It is probably cheaper to get an all in one cable instead of an HDMI cable and a DVI/HDMI adapter. It's a bummer that the Mac Mini doesn't have an HDMI out and the TV doesn't have a DVI in. So, I also got a 3.5mm male minijack to RCA stereo male cable - I actually already had this lying around the house. They're cheap, just get one at Best Buy or Radio Shack. This is the only way the TV will accept separate audio with an HDMI input. When I get a receiver, I will swap this out for a Toslink to mini cable to facilitate surround sound. Here's an example but you can find much cheaper ones.
  • A Bluetooth Apple keyboard - $80 and a Mighty Mouse - $70. I would guess that any Bluetooth mouse/keyboard will work. I also had a USB keyboard/mouse handy in case I would need them to get the computer up and running. It turns out they were unnecessary. When I fired up the Mac for the first time it found both items without a problem.
So, under $1000 for the whole getup. I also bought some other extras that frequently popped up on the blogs.

I got a 1TB LaCie external drive and an Elgato TV tuner. Later, I also bought an Apple AirPort Extreme, thinking it would fix a problem that I will discuss later.

I ended up taking the TV tuner back. It worked great, except that the TV listing software was an epic fail. I guess I just wasn't convinced that was the best DVR and decided to wait. I really would prefer to have one that is integrated into the computer instead of a TiVo or whatever. What am I going to do with 1TB anyway? However, I was dissatisfied with the fact that it had no way of using a cable-card, required a separate IR remote and had no way of consuming or recording HD or digital content that wasn't free over the air. I have yet to figure out a good solution. Maybe one doesn't exist. I have contemplated re-buying it. It's only $150. But at the moment, I have no DVR which, honestly, was a big part of the desirability of an HTPC in the first place.

The external hard drive is pretty good. The one I have is relatively quiet but it takes forever to spool up when it sleeps.

The buying experience
I spent several Saturday afternoons at the local Apple store poking around with the computer and various peripherals. I was planning on buying everything (even the TV, actually) through Amazon. However, it turned out that I would have had to pay tax on the Apple purchases through Amazon (is that still the case?), so since there was no real price advantage I decided to go ahead and buy the stuff from the Apple store. I have to say that I really, really enjoyed buying stuff there. The Apple store is a great retail experience. After talking to an employee about what I wanted, he went in the back and got all my loot. There are no cash-out lanes, so instead of standing in line, I got to peruse around and get more advice from other employees while I waited. He brought it all out to me and set it on a table in the middle of the store. He scanned everything with a handheld, put it all in a bag and then emailed my receipt to me. Stress free, fun, really cool. This is how I would like to buy jeans or furniture or ...

Cool Software
Front Row

Man, this thing alone just about sold me when I played with it at the store! It is even cooler on a 52" LCD, if you can imagine. I freely admit that I like shiny and new. It is the same interface that is used for the Apple TV. It is fun and easy for using on the couch with an Apple remote instead of getting out the mouse and keyboard.


It's like Remote Desktop for Windows. The VNC server is built in to the Mac. For a Windows client, I use TightVNC.

File Sharing
I had some difficulty using SMB. In fact, from a Windows laptop running Server 2003, it blue screened several times. Instead FTP seems to work MUCH better. I use FileZilla as the Windows client.

Things that could be better

Movie rentals on iTunes
I have now rented two movies on iTunes. The real big bummer is that only Apple TV can download HD content. You can only download "DVD Quality" content to a real computer. And then, once it has downloaded you have to watch it in iTunes. I really would prefer to watch it from Front Row like everything else. If you buy a TV show through iTunes, you can watch it right from Front Row. TV shows work pretty well. My only wish for TV shows is for Apple and NBC to work it out so I can download the new Battlestar Galactica episodes to iTunes. >:(

Wireless and Sleep
My single biggest gripe of my Mac is the known bug that wireless doesn't return after wake from sleep. I have found lots of complaints on this on the internet. Apple claimed that OSX 10.5.2 fixed this very problem. Nah. Still here. Basically, when it wakes from sleep it has the hardest time recovering the wireless network connection. I usually try turning AirPort on and off a good dozen times to get it to work. Real pain in the rear. My wife's MacBook runs the previous version (Tiger) and has never had a problem. There is a fun bit to this. You can get a glimpse of how Mac aficionados complain about bugs in Macs. Quite humorous. Google { wireless sleep leopard } and you will find things like this and this. I even went so far as to buy an AirPort Extreme (wireless router) thinking that the whole wireless thing would be fixed by an Apple-to-Apple communication. Nope. However, the AirPort includes a wireless print server which is bonus. It was a hassle to configure from a Windows client. I am used to Linksys products that are configurable through an HTTP interface. This one requires a thick client. But it is all the typical standards (802.11n, WPA2Personal, etc.) so once the AirPort Extreme was all setup, configuring the rest of the Windows and Mac clients (and a Windows Mobile client) was a breeze.

It's great if you pull photos off your camera on to the hard drive manually and then add them to iPhoto later. Pulling stuff directly into iPhoto and erasing them from the camera caused a whole evening of "fun" trying to recover the original pictures. I eventually dug the full size images out of a hidden folder ... { long story cut short }.

My Mac is pretty cool. It is a very reasonably priced and great performing HTPC. DVD's play very nicely. Front Row is lots of fun. There are a few hiccups, but nothing near enough to be of any real concern. I will eagerly post more as I learn more about my Mac. Actually, one of my next steps is to have a go at some Ruby development with it. To close, here's a picture of my wife enjoying the new toy a few days after we got it.

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