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Ultimate Mac mini HTPC Guide -- Software


Now that you have your Mac mini configured and connected to your home theater system (for a good visual "hook-up" guide check out Robert's Mac mini media center post), it's time to actually put your media powerhouse to use!

Utilities

To really make your Mac mini the ultimate HTPC, it helps to have all the proper codecs (so that you can play everything you need) and assorted media plugins, not to mention a tool here or there to make the experience more comfortable.

Resolution Independence

One of the problems with having your computer hooked up to a large high-definition television is that at maximum resolution, it is very difficult to see icons and menus from the couch. Our 40" Samsung LCD (LN40A550) looks beautiful at 1920x1080 resolution, but unfortunately, reading text and small icons from that far away is less than pleasant. Changing the resolution to 1280x720 doesn't solve the problem completely, but it makes it much better.

That's fine for browsing the web or fiddling with settings, but when I'm watching iTunes Movie Trailers or watching content from Boxee or Plex, I want the resolution to be at 1920x1080.

Changing settings manually is a total pain, and at first, I considered writing a script (or seeking out a friend to write a script for me) to change resolution based on what was being used.

It turns out that this was unnecessary. SwitchResX will do all that for me. SwitchcResX is a really great utility that lets you take more control over the resolution of all your monitors. It was initially designed for computer monitors, but the program was expanded to work with LCD, Plasma and video projectors too.

There are times when OS X might not want you to use the highest (or optimal) resolution for your device. HDTV owners sometimes have that problem and SwitchResX will make sure that your 720p or 1080p TV will actually connect to your Mac at that resolution.

The really awesome feature of SwitchResX is the ability to switch resolutions based on system events. So if you launch a certain program, the resolution will automatically change accordingly. You can also configure resolution changes by invoking a keyboard shortcut or AppleScrpt.

SwithcResX is 14 euros (~$20US) and is free without limitation for 10 days. The program was recently re-written in Cocoa and is Snow Leopard ready. You can download the latest beta here.

Codec Fever

Let's start with making sure you can play all of your content. As Robert mentioned in his guide, the "supercodec" Perian is one of the first things any Mac media user should install. As we've said before, this will let QuickTime play all kinds of files and formats with ease.

Although Perian will cover most of your bases, go ahead and grab the free Flip4Mac plugin so you can play any WMV files you might come across, and install the latest version of Microsoft Silverlight. I know a lot of users dislike Silverlight on sight, just because it's Microsoft, but in truth, it's a great format for streaming high quality video, and some streaming providers (like Netflix) require it.

If you might be playing back the token open source audio file or two, also grab the latest Xiph plugins from Xiph.org. It also never hurts to make sure you have the latest version of Adobe's Flash player.

Media Playback and Management

FrontRow has been a part of Mac OS X since 2005. Although it used to be a really nice interface for easily accessing your movies, photos and music, it really isn't up to the task of being a full-blown media center.

You can't watch streaming web video without using various userland plugins (and the plugins often bring down performance), you can't connect to remote media drives easily to do network wide searches, and it doesn't integrate with a TV tuner setup.

Apple might have some FrontRow enhancements up its sleeve (I'd be happy with a matched Apple TV interface -- just so content could be purchased from the couch), but I have to say, as a Mac devotee, it pains me to admit that out of the box Windows 7 is way ahead of the game for a living-room media UI built into the operating system.

Fortunately, as Mac users, we have a bevy of options that can more than fill the gap.

Individual Media Apps

These are applications that aren't integrated with other media types, but do a great job at delivering a certain type of content or playing back files.

EyeTV -- If you have a compatible TV tuner, Elgato's EyeTV 3 software is simply the best stuff around for using your Mac mini as a PVR. We've written a lot about EyeTV over the years and it remains the best PVR this side of TiVo. EyeTV 3.0 is $80 by itself but it comes with most EyeTV products.

DVD Player -- A standard part of OS X, this barebones DVD player is actually pretty nice as far as software players go.

Hulu Desktop -- Fine, so Hulu would prefer for your monitor to not be your television set, but come on -- the app is clearly designed for the 10-foot experience. You can see my earlier review of Hulu Desktop for more information, but really, if you are in the US, this is a fantastic addition to any media center.

iTunes -- If you want to buy music, movies or TV shows, iTunes can't be beat. But really, what else can I say. You can certainly get music from many other DRM-free sources including Amazon, but the big A isn't providing Mac OS X-friendly video purchases yet.

QuickTime -- Apple's famous all-around media player. The upcoming Snow Leopard version of QuickTime Player looks fantastic.

VLC -- Although Perian should take care of all of your codec needs, VLC is sometimes the best option for playing back odd file types. It's free!

Multi-source Media Management Apps

These are traditional media center applications that can manage and serve content from a variety of sources and from across the network. The brains of your Mac media center, if you will.

Boxee -- Boxee has received a lot of love from us at TUAW because it was one of the first media center apps that really integrated well with third-party web content. Streaming content is still where Boxee excels. Although you can manage your entire media library locally or from a network share, that's not where Boxee shines. In fact, I often wish Boxee was just a tad better as an overall media manager, because it is so great at doing other stuff.

If you're a Netflix subscriber, Boxee's implementation of the Watch Instantly service is the best around.

Boxee has RSS support for Hulu but the Hulu Desktop player is still better. More and more plugins are being developed for Boxee all the time, but if you have lots and lots of digital movies and music, you might not always want to use it as your primary media player.

Plex -- Like Boxee, Plex is based on XBMC. Unlike Boxee, the primary goal of Plex was to act as a FrontRow replacement. In that regard, it comes very close to being perfect.

Plex does a better job of managing large movie and music collections -- especially over networked shares -- than Boxee does. Like Boxee, Plex also has a number of attractive plugins to add streaming content support. Although some of these implementations are wholly unique, there is some cross-over. Plex offers Netflix support too, but it isn't as good as what Boxee does. Fast-forwarding isn't as reliable and if you want to watch a TV season that has multiple episodes, there isn't an easy way to select individual episodes (you can only do that if you view TV shows alphabetically).

Still, Plex does a great job working with iTunes and with video content. As a bonus, you can add a shortcut to the Hulu Desktop player from within Plex, so that Plex can launch Hulu's separate player without having to leave the program. That's nice.

XBMC -- XBMC is the project that spawned both Boxee and Plex. Originally created for the original XBox console, XBMC now runs on a slew of different platforms. Although the Mac OS X build came a little later in XBMC's evolution, this official port is still a great media manager.

On the whole, I find it more stable than Plex or Boxee; while there aren't as many plugins (and certainly not for streaming content), it plugs into networked media shares extremely well and also integrates well with shared music libraries.

The new Aeon skin that XBMC is developing is absolutely amazing and blows the doors off of anything else out there. If you have a lot of content that is already digitized and you don't spend as much time with web content, XBMC might be your best bet.

Like Plex, you can launch the Hulu Desktop app (and any other separate media app) from within XBMC.

Overall, all three systems have their own plusses and minuses. Although I tried to find a way to use just one center, I found myself using all three. If I had to pick just one to go with, I would choose either Boxee or Plex, just because of the web content support.

Controlling your Mac with your remote -- or your iPhone

Having a wireless keyboard with built in trackpad is awesome, but it's not the most ergonomic choice when lounging on the couch. Fortunately, there are lots of great options to enhance your Apple Remote (or third-party remote) when controlling your media center. Do you have an iPhone or iPod touch? Then you can have even more nuanced control with some excellent remote apps.

SofaControl -- SofaControl from Gravity Apps is my remote control godsend. Although you can use it with other remote controls, it's amazing how much full-system functionality has been squeezed out of the tiny Apple Remote, using this application.

SofaControl runs on your Mac mini and lets you have more control over your apps and your programs. One of my favorite features is that you can use it to increase the size of text in Safari, or switch tabs, all with the nav buttons. SofaControl works with a ton of applications, including Boxee, Plex and XBMC.

It's $15US and you can download a trial version that can be used for a few minutes at a time.

Remote Buddy -- Similar to SofaControl, Remote Buddy enhances the power of your Apple Remote or third-party remote. I don't find it as intuitive as SofaControl, but it supports tons of applications, is frequently updated, and also works as a web-based remote that you can use with your iPhone or another Mac to control your mini.

At 20€, Remote Buddy is a really nice program. You can try it out in full for 30 days.

Keymote (iPhone) Tim covered Keymote (iTunes link) recently and I was intrigued enough to try it out. Although it doesn't completely eliminate the need for a mouse and there aren't keymappings for every application, at $3.99US this is still super impressive. Read Tim's take more more details, but this is a good application. More and more keymaps are added all the time, which is a great feature.

Hippo Remote (iPhone) -- Hippo Remote (iTunes link) is hands-down, the best multi-purpose iPhone remote that I have found. It brings the power of Apple's Remote.app, but also a trackpad, an on-screen keyboard and pre-configured profiles for tons of different programs.

Remote Jr. (iPhone) also gives you control over your Mac's media functions and doubles as a full-featured mouse replacement, including a snazzy remote view option to see the screen as you control it, rendered in tiny fashion on your iPhone screen. It's $4.99US in the App Store.

There, a bunch of ways you can control your media, your other applications and your computer all from your phone. Brilliant.

Boxee Remote (iPhone) -- Boxee's free remote application configures easily and works with both the Mac and Apple TV. It's quite similar to some of the features that Apple added to their upgraded Remote.app, but it works with Boxee. Give it a shot.

XBMC Remote (iPhone) -- The XBMC Remote apps works with Boxee and Plex as well, and is the best-of-breed in terms of a strict "media-center control" app. You get a preview of content (cover art, etc.) on screen while navigating through menus, which is a nice touch. At $2.99, it's a good deal, but be aware that setup is less than intuitive for first time users.

Closing Thoughts

So you've got the hardware, you've got the software, you have your accessories and utilities -- go out and enjoy the Ultimate Mac mini HTPC!

Please leave your feedback and suggestions in the comments with details on which products and accessories work best for your setup!

Hardware Guide
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