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Behold! My Mac mini media center

For those of you that haven't heard me tell the beginning of this story on the TUAW talkcast, you might recall that my dad the switcher upgraded his Mac mini to a sweet new Mac Pro. So what could I do with an extra Mac mini? Maybe a server? Maybe a doorstop?

I know! A media center!

I had cable service, a DVD player, and a TiVo Series 2. My goal was to combine all of those things into one set-top-box -- the Mac mini -- and maybe even unsubscribe from some of the monthly services.

After I bought the Mac mini from my dad (the switcher), I hooked it up to my old, standard-definition TV. The Mac mini Media Center -- M³C for short -- was born.

The video experience was sub-optimal, owing mostly to my 10-year-old CRT that occasionally turned black-and-white (or lost video altogether). I knew it was time for a new TV. I promised myself that as a reward for finishing a series of challenging home improvement projects (replacing a bathroom sink and installing new floors, to name two) I would get myself the high-definition TV I always wanted.

That TV arrived on Wednesday. Now, I can share with you how to set up the easiest, most awesome M³C of your own -- for less money than you think.

Overview

First, let me start by saying that my entertainment setup isn't exactly complicated. I don't have a fancy surround sound system, and I don't have a Blu-Ray or other high-definition DVD player. In fact -- as I mentioned before -- my goal was simplifying my television setup to eliminate a lot of the extras that I really don't need.

That said, the M³C consists of four major components:

Mac mini: The Mac mini I have is not brand new -- it has a 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo processor, and you can pick one up used for less than $450. New Mac minis start at $600, and have faster processors and better video performance, which is something to consider if you want to use your M³C as a gaming device too. Displaying high-definition TV requires a Mac mini with at least a Core 2 Duo processor, though, so an old G4 Mac mini is probably not gonna cut it.

Sony Bravia 40XBR7 LCD television. This was the new arrival. It's beautiful, but a little spendy, at $2100. The 120Hz refresh rate is amazing, and works great with the Mac mini. (A version with a respectable 60Hz refresh rate is much less at $900.) Full disclosure, though: I got mine through a cousin who works at a Sony plant here locally, and was able to shave nearly half off the price through a friends-and-family sale.

Elgato EyeTV Hybrid. This part is optional, depending on if (a) you want to receive high-definition terrestrial broadcasts and (b) if you want to record them on the Mac mini (like a DVR). For me, the answer to both questions is yes, and the EyeTV Hybrid is an easy way to get your computer to receive high-definition TV. (An Equinux TubeStick is another great option.) The Elgato EyeTV Hybrid is about $130 at Amazon.

Alternatively, if I wanted to receive digital terrestrial television but didn't want to bother recording it, I could connect a digital antenna straight into the TV. Easy peasy.

Digital Antenna. Any kind of antenna would probably work, but the geography of San Diego is a little hard for UHF signals to traverse. I chose a powered digital antenna to try and get the best signal I can from indoors. It's $25 at Newegg. (My homeowner's association won't let me attach an antenna to the outside of the building, but that's a story for another day. If you can set up an exterior antenna, you're likely to get much better reception.)

Connecting it Up


I've heard plenty of stories about difficult HDTV installations. Even with all the right parts, the picture is grainy, blurry, or otherwise definitely not HD. One bad connection in the cable box (or no HD service from your cable provider) can make the whole installation a frustrating nightmare.

I needed two parts to connect the Mac mini's video output to the TV: An Apple DVI-to-HDMI converter, and a short length of HDMI cable. I ordered both the converter and the cable from monoprice.com, and the grand total was a whopping $16.06 with tax and shipping. Eat it, Monster Cable.

The Mac mini, contrary to the experiences of my friends and family, required exactly zero setup, and automatically detected the high-resolution display before I could even tell it was connected. In fact, the Sony Bravia had an on-board ColorSync profile that the Mac mini activated automatically. Once I tuned to the correct HDMI input, the picture was already there, beautiful as can be.

I used a standard 1/8" headphone to RCA cable for the audio. I know this might be sub-optimal for some, but for me it gets the job done. You can pick up one of these cables at Radio Shack for about five bucks, if you can't find one buried at the bottom of the box of cables in your garage.

The Elgato EyeTV Hybrid comes with everything it needs in the box. Start by connecting the antenna's coaxial cable to the EyeTV Hybrid. (Plugging in the antenna to power wouldn't hurt either.) Then, install the included software, and connect the EyeTV Hybrid when prompted. During the setup process, you can search for digital TV channels in your area, though you might not find channels or get a picture right away -- I had to fuss with the position of the antenna (as you might expect) before finding the sweet spot in the window where I got the best reception.

Software

The best part about the M³C is that it's still a computer. You can load whatever software you want to get all sorts of video playable on your TV.

The first thing you'll want to do is install Perian. We've covered Perian pretty extensively, and it works great as a self-described Swiss-Army Knife of video codecs to make sure you can open and play pretty much anything you want. You might also consider installing Microsoft Silverlight, for watching (say) Olympics coverage or using Netflix's Watch Instantly service through the M³C's browser.

Personally, the one app I use the most is Hulu Desktop. I know both Plex and Boxee work (for the most part) with Hulu, but the occasional downtime was enough to get me to use Hulu's official client. I have my subscriptions set up on the Hulu website, and my favorite shows are delivered to me automatically, every day. The picture quality is better than I anticipated. It looked good on my old standard-definition TV, and I always thought that I was going to be disappointed seeing all the video artifacts and pixellation on my new HDTV. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Next is Plex. I understand there's a vibrant debate between the benefits of Plex and Boxee, and to be honest, I really haven't tried Boxee. Plex seems to work great, and I'm happy with it. If you love Boxee, then godspeed and enjoy yourself. Plex has many, many plugins that allow you to pull web video from a whole host of sources. For example, Plex works great with Netflix's Watch Instantly service, which I enjoy as a Netflix subscriber.

Next, there's a whole bevy of apps built into Mac OS X that make watching video on the TV a pleasure. DVD Player works great for DVDs, as does Front Row and Plex. For movies and TV shows I have saved on my iMac, I can play them through Plex, through iTunes, or just by opening them in QuickTime Player. QuickTime Player also works great for live news streams, for example. All of these apps work great with the Apple Remote, something I know Dave enjoys.

Pros

I cancelled cable. Even when the M³C was connected to the standard-definition TV, I was able to cancel my cable TV service about two months ago. This, combined with the service fee for TiVo, saves me about $80 per month. That means the system (excluding the TV) will have paid for itself by the end of the year. If you want to take it further, it will have paid for the TV in another 15 months -- sooner, if you consider that cable TV bills are on the rise nationwide. For many, this plan, of course, is predicated on the fact that cable providers won't decide to implement draconian bandwidth caps on residential broadband internet service. I have a business account with mine, so I think I'm safe (he says, with his fingers crossed), but only time will tell.

I still get all the programming I want to watch (and nothing I don't want, come to think of it) via Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu -- much of it in HD.

It's everything! In one place! While my needs for entertainment may be less than my friends here at TUAW, I'm happy with keeping things simple. Two cables connecting the Mac to the TV, and I'm good to go. I've combined the DVR, digital TV receiver, DVD Player and Netflix device all into one -- and it's still a computer. Web browsing, Dashboard -- it's all there too.

Cons

It's not exactly intuitive for visitors. I didn't exactly expect this reaction, but I can understand it: People don't expect to see a computer running when they turn on the TV. If you have a house guest that wants to watch something, it's a little more work than just tuning to channel 4. Popping in a DVD automatically starts DVD Player, so at least that's intuitive. But starting EyeTV to watch live broadcasts, or Hulu to find a recording isn't easy the first time for people. It is a Mac, though -- so with a little re-education, using the TV is as simple as using your computer.

It sometimes requires a keyboard and mouse. While Apple's wireless keyboard and mouse work great for me, I can't really navigate with just the Apple Remote. Some might think of a keyboard and mouse as the paragon of complicated universal remotes, but it's not that bad. I've found that it's a whole lot easier to slap the spacebar or click the mouse to pause a movie than find the remote and press pause. Also helpful is setting up Zoom in the Universal Access pane in System Preferences. Since I'm much farther away from my TV than my computer screen, being able to zoom into certain parts of the screen to read text is helpful with the mouse's scroll ball.

The Mac mini gets hot. All this high-definition video puts my M³C into something of a fit: Playing video full-screen (especially with Hulu and its Flash-based playback system) kicks the Mac mini's fans into high-gear. Make sure there's plenty of cool air getting to your Mac mini, and it's not suffocating inside a hot entertainment center cabinet. On the other hand, newer Mac minis with more robust video chipsets might not have to strain as hard as my older model.

The Bottom Line

If your entertainment needs are simple, and you have an extra Mac mini lying around, it's a great way to use it. It can even save you money on cable bills. The video output is gorgeous, and takes full advantage of your HDTV's full resolution potential.

However, if you can't live without your Blu-Ray or surround-sound system, you'll want to stay tuned for the results of Christina Warren's Mac mini home theater experiment coming soon to TUAW. It can be done, and she'll show you how.

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