Defective

My shameful break from the Cult of Mac, and a detailed account of the trouble I went to in order to keep from getting up off the couch.

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Update: As usual it only takes a few weeks after I buy something for the world to release something better and cheaper. If you’re considering setting up a home theater PC, check out the Dell Zino HD instead of a Mac mini; I wish I’d gotten one instead, since I could’ve saved at least 200 bucks.

For somebody who’s been so smug about cutting the cord to live TV, I’ve spent a hell of a lot of my free time (and extra money) getting a functional entertainment center. The problem is that the whole process hits just the right sweet spot at the intersection of TV addict, gadget nerd, and ex-programmer with mild OCD: I’ll jump through all kinds of hoops just for the sake of getting something that works as simply as just subscribing to cable.

But I finally got something that works. As far as cost is concerned, I think I’ve only managed to just barely break even versus my satellite bill. And it’s meant throwing out all my brand loyalties and assumptions about who’s best at handling media — I’m running WIndows! Hulu Desktop is actually pretty slick! There are plenty of “how to make your own home theater computer” articles out there, from The Unofficial Apple Weblog and Macworld and Gizmodo, but they either focus on people starting from scratch, or they’re based on something that just wouldn’t work for me. So I’m posting my setup in the hopes that anyone who’s planning something similar can avoid all the dead ends I ran into.

Hardware

I’m using a Mac mini, because Apple has finally released a version that’s actually usable at the “base” spec (2.26GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB HD). Since I ended up using Windows, I could’ve saved a good bit by just getting a mini PC; check out that Gizmodo article for suggestions. I still firmly believe that the Apple/Wintel price difference is way over-exaggerated, and I’m still firmly in the Macs-are-worth-it-camp for my “main” computer, but if you’re just looking for something to hook up to a television, the Mac mini is still overpriced.

I’d started out with an AppleTV, but it’s designed to be limited, and you’ll run into those limitations quickly. It exists to get you to buy stuff from the iTunes Store — which I’d assumed was fine, since I use the iTunes Store anyway — but if you want to break out of their interface, you have to jump through a lot of hoops. Getting a bonafide computer is more effort, but it keeps your options open.

For the TV connection, I’m using the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid. Again, there’s a “Mac tax:” if you’re building a Windows machine, you can find a tuner from Hauppauge for at least $50 cheaper. It’s not made explicit anywhere, but the EyeTV Hybrid does work with Windows, you just might have to download some drivers and make some simple edits to text files to get it to work with Windows 7. A Google Search for “eyetv hybrid windows 7” eventually led to something that worked on my machine.

I’ve never had much luck with external hard drives in the past, including the Western Digital one I got for this experiment and had it fail after one day. But I returned it for an Iomega Prestige drive, which is silent, looks pretty slick, and has worked flawlessly so far. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

If you do use a Mac, the site Monoprice is the best place to get cables. I needed a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter to connect the mini to the TV and a Toslink to Mini cable to get optical audio to my receiver.

Software

This was the biggest surprise for me, because I’ve been using Vista on my Mac ever since it was released, I’ve hated every minute of it, and I’ve dreaded having to leave OS X to boot into Windows because of it. But whether Microsoft really did fix things with Windows 7, or if it’s just the Mojave effect, it’s finally a workable alternative to OS X. Everything works about on par with its OS X equivalent, except for one thing: Windows Media Center.

Windows Media Center (at least the version included with Windows 7) is miles ahead of anything on the Mac as far as home media’s concerned. I’m sure that part of it is just personal preference, and Media Center’s interface is slicker than Apple’s FrontRow. And if you don’t care about live TV, you may not notice a huge difference. But Media Center’s programming guide is by far the nicest I’ve ever used, including open-source projects and dedicated boxes like TiVo.

Elgato ships their own guide software with the EyeTV, and it’s adequate, but it looks and feels kind of clumsy and pieced-together compared to Microsoft’s. And what’s better: Microsoft’s is free for Windows users, while EyeTV’s TV Guide charges a yearly fee after the first year — only $19, but still, it’s the principle. (I also kept running into a bug where the TV Guide would say my service had expired after one day but then recover with no explanation, which isn’t cool for something you just want to set up and forget about). As much as I complain about Microsoft, when they get it right, they knock it out of the park.

I’m also back to using Hulu Desktop, despite the fact I still believe Hulu is pretty evil. No doubt they will reveal their true evil and start charging for service or something equally sinister, but for now it’s a fantastic interface for watching ad-supported content on a home theater PC. One of the nicest features is the programming queue and subscriptions, so you don’t have to search for the shows you watch regularly. There’s a free Media Center plug-in that lets you launch Hulu Desktop without switching apps, and it works great.

Netflix has been pushing their streaming onto any device they can, and I’ve tried most of them. For me, it’s a toss-up between the Windows Media Center and Xbox 360 support: the nicest interface is on Media Center, but I get the best picture quality on the Xbox. Microsoft is also pushing their Internet TV via Media Center, but at the moment it’s still not quite there; Hulu not only has a thousand times more content, but their picture quality is better as well.

I still use iTunes for the shows that aren’t available from my antenna (which gets High Definition broadcasts these days, I’ll remind everybody); or aren’t available on Hulu; or are available on Hulu, but I want to watch in high definition. And, frankly, the shows that I just feel like paying for because I want to support them, like “How I Met Your Mother” and “Community.”

The new Home Sharing in iTunes 9 replaces the missing sync functionality from AppleTV. I can browse for TV shows, get season passes, and download them on my desktop machine (where they’re backed up, which is important since Apple doesn’t let you re-download purchased files), and then have the Mac mini running iTunes for Windows automatically sync up the new stuff in the background.

I still haven’t found a great way to get iTunes to work within Windows Media Center, or to get it to work with a remote, so I’m still mousing it. (I did buy a plug-in called MCE Tunes, but I don’t recommend it. It’s very expensive for the little it does. And for me, it was a total waste of money, since it’s not yet Windows 7 compatible, assuming it ever worked at all). But on the bright side, the iTunes SDK for Windows has been available for a while, and it’s actually a little bit easier to program add-ons and plug-ins for the Windows version than it is for the OS X version! Plus, Microsoft has released a Windows Media Center SDK which works with their free version of Visual Studio Express, so even hobbyists can start writing plug-ins. I’m trying to write something that will control iTunes from Media Center, and I’ll put it up on here if I make any progress.

Remotes

I’ve been using the Logitech Harmony Remote for Xbox 360 for over four years now, and I never had problems with it. They don’t make that model anymore, but at this point I’d say that any of their remotes would be a good investment. (Back when I got it, I thought it was a ridiculously over-priced extravagance). Considering an iPod Touch goes for $200, though, I’m not sure why anyone would be getting the Harmony remotes that are more expensive than that.

If you’re using a Mac, then Remote Buddy is perfect. It lets you switch between apps, with controls for the most common media-PC-centric apps like EyeTV, DVDPlayer, boxee, Plex, FrontRow, iTunes, and Safari built in. (Plus, they fix a bug that currently exists in Snow Leopard with the IR remote).

On Windows, IR remote support is built into Windows Media Center and Hulu Desktop. Note that for reasons beyond my limited understanding of how all this stuff works, the IR sensor built into the Mac mini doesn’t cooperate well with Windows under Boot Camp. But most “Windows Media Center Remotes” or Home Theater remotes come with a USB IR Receiver which works fine. (I happened to have an old one my brother gave me, I plugged it in, and it worked immediately).

There are also plenty of remote control apps for the iPhone and iPod touch that work over your wireless network to control a Mac or a PC. Apple’s “Remote” app is free and works perfectly for controlling iTunes, but keeping with Apple’s philosophy, that’s all it does. I’ve tried almost all of the other ones, and my favorite is still Mobile Air Mouse. It’s got the trackpad and keyboard support that all of them have, but what sets it apart are the specialized keypads that automatically pop up when you start a recognized app. (The “accelerometer-based mouse” just doesn’t work for me).

Worth it?

In the end, I could’ve saved a lot of time, money, and effort by just getting back into reading books. And any notion I had about weaning myself from the media has long since been abandoned. But it’s nice finally having everything in one place, all working together. And it’s a little bit liberating feeling like I’m not missing out on anything, I can do what I want with the stuff I record instead of having it trapped on some proprietary device, and the only monthly fee I have to pay is for the internet connection (which is pretty much essential, anyway).

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