Mac Mini as a Media Center

A few weeks ago we managed to accidentally fill up the HDTiVo. It's a combination of two things. One was that the Home Repair Project From Hell(tm) ate up a lot of free time and TV time decreased in response. The other was that I was deliberately dragging my feet to build up a backlog in case the writer's strike meant no real new TV in January. Unfortunately, I forgot to watch it and so the drive got full. We lost a few shows. None of them are available on iTunes or via the 360 so I turned to . . . alternative means of acquiring them. And as you may know Bob, if you acquire shows via the internet they tend to be in DiVX or XViD format. Historically I've hooked up my laptop via SVideo, but A ) that sucks image-quality-wise (who uses SVideo anymore? OK, other than Nintendo ;-) ) and B ) it's a minor pain in the rear to do. Well, the 360 got a fall update and is supposed to be able to stream DiVX these days, so I thought I'd try that out.

As far as I can tell it's a vile canard. There's a new version of Connect360 that supports streaming such files to the 360 so I installed it. Had a couple of go-rounds on making sure that the *Mac* could play the files, then had to reinstall the "Optional Media" download on the 360, but ultimately it all worked out. Or so I thought. Everything worked OK in my tests, but it turned out that I could only play about 3 to 5 minutes of a file and then something on the Mac would crash (either Connect360Helper or ffmpeg) and the 360 would freeze. I found even audio streaming didn't work right Ultimately I rolled Connect360 back to the spring version. Still a recommended product and I'm sure they'll get this sorted eventually, but right now I personally found using Connect360 3.1 is the way to go.

OK, I decided, let's try Windows. First in the virtual machine, and then rebooting via Boot Camp into "real Windows" and all the various patching and tweaking that Windows requires. Nothing. It worked for audio, but the 360 kept saying there were no video files on the Windows box. Just in case I wasn't annoyed at Windows I tried to shut down my firewall (Zone Alarm - the built-in Windows firewall isn't trustworthy). Guess what? If you turn off your firewall Windows Media Player automatically and silently disables file sharing. I guess otherwise you might accidentally share a file across the internet. Teh h0rr0rz! Thanks Microsoft for saving me from myself!

This is about the point where I said to myself "OK, screw this. I have a Mac Mini sitting around, it might as well sit in the living room. Heck, that would give me some desk space back!" I needed to buy a DVI to HDMI cable, but no big whoop - Amazon sells those. Ideally you want the cord that converts from regular audio mini-jack to optical as well, so you can get digital audio from the Mini. I have one of those already (I used it when the Airport Express was connected to my receiver), so I'm pretty much set. Last night I moved Horton to on top of the TV. It's running Leopard, so it already has Front Row, and all Mac Mini's have an IR port and come with the little Apple remote, so it pretty much just worked out of the box. Or so I thought.

First issue was that I had to teach the remote commands to the Harmony 880. I expected the Harmony software to have the Apple commands in the database, but it didn't. Annoying, but solvable with the learning function. The more subtle problem was this: when I turned off the display device connected to Horton, the machine went to sleep. You can wake it up if you hit a Bluetooth mouse or keyboard to wake it, but that's not very useful for the remote situation. Turns out there is freeware called InsomniaX that fixes the problem like a charm. Run it and the Mini stays awake even with the TV off.

Front Row is pretty cool, I have to say. The remote is minimalist but you can play pretty much anything that iTunes or Quicktime can play. You can access iPhoto albums, and you can even browse shared content on other Macs. So if I have a video podcast on TinyGod (where I do all my podcast downloading) I can stream it to Horton and play it on my TV with no problem. Oh, and it plays DiVX/XVid files just fine.

I don't know that I'll use this a lot, but it's pretty cool. If anybody has any specific questions about how it works let me know.

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