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The Icon Bar: News and features: Making a Mac mini media centre
 

Making a Mac mini media centre

Posted by Phil Mellor on 12:00, 17/2/2009 | , , , ,
 
MegatronHere's the plan: take an old Mac mini, blow the dust off it, and repurpose it as a media centre. In particular, I wanted it to:
  • Watch and record Freeview channels
  • Watch shows on BBC iPlayer
  • Play downloaded videos
Here's how I got on.

The Mac

This was an old PowerPC Mac mini: 1.4Ghz G4 processor, 1GB RAM and 80GB 4200rpm hard drive. Although not very powerful by today's standards, it has decent connectivity - USB, Firewire 400, bluetooth, gigabit ethernet, and 802.11g wireless networking.

First I performed a clean installation of OS X Leopard. This left me with about 60GB of free disk space for recording TV programmes. A half hour show takes approximately 1GB of space, so I should be able to store at least 24 hours of TV without any trouble. If the internal drive fills up I'll try connecting a firewire hard drive.

Lovely as Leopard is, I didn't want to use the desktop interface from the sofa. There are several good media centre applications, but few support the PowerPC architecture. XBMC (XBox Media Center) and Boxee (based on XMBC, but with an emphasis on social networking) only support Intel processors, and the (unofficial) Mac port of MythTV has little support for USB TV tuners.

This left me with Front Row. Version 2 comes as part of Leopard and is very similar to the Apple TV interface (although the implementation is rather different.)

XBMC Boxee Front Row

Connecting to the TV

How could something so simple prove so troublesome? The only suitable connection type was VGA (using a DVI to VGA converter), but my Samsung television has notorious problems connecting to it. Sometimes the computer would boot up and display sucessfully, but it would usually either not display anything at all (the TV would give no indication as to the problem, merely blinking its standby light) or flash on for a few brief seconds before disappearing again. This was particularly troublesome if the TV had been switched off for a while but the computer had not.

In the end, I resorted to a hardware hack. I removed pin 12 from the VGA cable, disabling the monitor detection facility. This allowed me to choose a more reliable resolution and frequency (1280x768 @ 75Hz) instead of the default (1360x768 @ 60Hz).

It's still not perfect but switching to a different input source and then back to VGA seems to help.

Annoying.

Control

The old Mac mini doesn't have an infra-red port so I couldn't use an Apple remote with it. This is a shame as the alternatives aren't quite as user friendly as I'd liked.

First I experimented with iPhone apps to simulate an Apple remote. The first, Rowmote (59p), worked reasonably well when the iPhone was connected to the wireless network. Unfortunately the iPhone disconnects from the network after a period of inactivity, causing the virtual remote to cease functioning, and it became frustrating having to prod it and wait for it to reconnect.

I tried a second app, Snatch, which is more expensive (3.49) but comes with a free trial version. This has added usefulness like a virtual keyboard and the ability to use the iPhone screen as a touch pad (like a laptop). Although the touchpad interface was slick, the app proved less than great as a whole - the interface isn't particularly slick when switching between different modes and the interface for creating virtual keyboard buttons was horrible: the editing controls were small and fiddly and there was a complete lack of feedback when recording keypresses. In addition, some of the shortcuts I assigned (such as the one to open Front Row) didn't work at all.

RemoteBuddy AjaxFinally I tried Remote Buddy. This is a powerful Mac application that allows applications to be controlled by many different types of device - including the Wii remote (via bluetooth). This works very well; you simply hold the 1 and 2 buttons on the remote to connect it to the Mac. I didn't find the default button mappings very intuitive but I soon reconfigured it so I could navigate Front Row and EyeTV effectively. It would be nice to use the remote's infra-red pointing facility to move the mouse pointer, but the sensor bar used by the remote to detect where you are pointing only works when the Wii is running.

Remote Buddy also has an Ajax interface which allows the desktop to be controlled remotely via a web browser. This is neat but sluggish, and dead handy for reconfiguring the system when I couldn't get anything to display on the TV.

It's expensive - 20 euros (18) but I suspect I'll bite the bullet and buy it when the 30 day trial expires.

Watching TV

PyeTV channelsThis is the best bit. I bought an EyeTV DTT (35) and it works really well. It comes with a tiny aerial and a little sucker to hold it to the window. It easily picked up a signal for all the Freeview channels. Previously, for the TV, I used a much larger powered indoor aerial which was quite fussy about where you placed it.

EyeTV - Doctor Who searchYou can schedule recordings using the EyeTV 3 software. This is quite neat, particularly the way it creates live searches to record future episodes of shows. The built-in programme guide is fairly comprehensive, although for some reason it seems to have confused Five US with a German TV station. I particularly like that I can log into the tvtv web site and schedule a recording away from the computer. The recordings are saved in MPEG2 format, and you can convert them into iPhone compatible files automatically and access them remotely. (In the end I disabled this feature because the conversion process is very CPU intensive and the poor little Mac mini didn't enjoy the experience one bit.)

It isn't perfect; like a video recorder it doesn't cope well with schedule changes. I tried recording an episode of Being Human but ended up with 15 minutes of overrunning rugby instead. Luckily the guide is good at finding when programmes are repeated (and it can distinguish repeats from new episodes) so it was trivial to reschedule another recording. Hurrah for BBC Three's endless repeats!

There's even a full screen interface which integrates with Front Row thanks to a third party plugin called PyeTV and a bit of funky AppleScript.

Other video

I configured iTunes to share the files from my laptop. This allowed me to play music, TV shows and films through Front Row on the Mac mini. It even worked for DRM-enabled content once I had authorized the Mac mini in the iTunes store.

The Mac won't play most of the popular internet video formats out of the box - for this you need Perian, an open source QuickTime component that adds native support for AVI, DivX and more. The final step was to create an alias in the Movies folder on my Mac mini pointing to the share on my laptop, allowing me to play videos over the network.

BBC iPlayer

I'd like to access the BBC iPlayer too, but I'm yet to discover a workable user interface to it.

Couch Surfer and BBC iPlayerThere's a handy big screen version but it's still hard to navigate the interface without a mouse and it doesn't integrate well with Front Row. I knew I could access web pages using Couch Surfer, but the virtual mouse pointer (controlled using the direction buttons on the remote) was sluggish and awkward to use. The full screen option didn't work within Front Row either, leaving me with quarter-screen sized videos.

The flash player needs quite a powerful CPU to function properly. Unfortunately the G4 1.4GHz PowerPC processor in the Mac mini couldn't cope with the high quality streams.

Conclusion

It was fun to set all this up, but it's all a bit of a Heath Robinson affair and there comes a point when it's easier to buy something that just works. The Mini isn't quite up to spec for the job (a more recent Intel edition would be much better) but I don't want to spend much on upgrading outdated hardware. If, as rumoured, the next Apple TV has an integrated PVR then I'll be first in line to buy one. Until then, I'll continue with this useful but quirky system.
 

  Making a Mac mini media centre
  arawnsley (12:22 17/2/2009)
  monkeyson2 (13:04 17/2/2009)
    Phlamethrower (13:10 17/2/2009)
      monkeyson2 (13:10 17/2/2009)
 
Andrew Rawnsley Message #109350, posted by arawnsley at 12:22, 17/2/2009
R-Comp chap
Posts: 461
Curious as to why you went with analogue VGA connection rather than DVI to HDMI? I have a similar Samsung TV and use it with that setup for HTPC stuff. I left the VGA connection for the 360. Of course, I'm taking audio to an amp/speakers, rather than using built-in tv audio.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Phil Mellor Message #109351, posted by monkeyson2 at 13:04, 17/2/2009, in reply to message #109350
monkeyson2Please don't let them make me be a monkey butler

Posts: 12380
Curious as to why you went with analogue VGA connection rather than DVI to HDMI?
Only because I had a DVI-VGA adapter handy, but not a DVI-HTML one. smile
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Jeffrey Lee Message #109352, posted by Phlamethrower at 13:10, 17/2/2009, in reply to message #109351
PhlamethrowerHot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot stuff

Posts: 15055
Curious as to why you went with analogue VGA connection rather than DVI to HDMI?
Only because I had a DVI-VGA adapter handy, but not a DVI-HTML one. smile
I'm not surprised that you didn't have a DVI-HTML adapter handy wink
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Phil Mellor Message #109353, posted by monkeyson2 at 13:10, 17/2/2009, in reply to message #109352
monkeyson2Please don't let them make me be a monkey butler

Posts: 12380
Curious as to why you went with analogue VGA connection rather than DVI to HDMI?
Only because I had a DVI-VGA adapter handy, but not a DVI-HTML one. smile
I'm not surprised that you didn't have a DVI-HTML adapter handy wink
blushRage
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 

The Icon Bar: News and features: Making a Mac mini media centre