As part of my 2010 Home Media Center Overhaul and Documentation Festival, I’ll begin by summarizing the current components of our all-you-can-watch emporium. I’m actually documenting two media centers here: the main living room setup, and then a similar setup in the bedroom (albeit on a smaller scale, with no videogames).
- Mac Mini + HDTV: This is the heart of our upstairs/downstairs media centers. Downstairs (in the bedroom) we have a 1.66 Ghz Intel Core Duo with 2GB RAM, and a 32″ Phillips LCD, Upstairs (in the living room) we’ve got a 2 GHZ Intel Core 2 Duo with 1GB of RAM, connected to a 42″ Toshiba Regza. These two Minis started out as clones of one another; while we’ve given each Mini a unique name (so we can identify them on our local network), we use the name user account name and password on both Minis (because it avoids file permission glitches).
I really obsessed over flat-screen HDTVs before buying the Toshiba, which we are very happy with; I’m not enough of a video/audiophile to attest to its miraculous quality of picture and sound, but I really like the fact that I can customize the menu so that instead of saying “HDMI 1”, “HDMI 2”, etc, it can say “HDMI Wii”, “HDMI Playstation”, etc. That has a HUGE quality of life impact. I also love the setting that lets it normalize sounds across all input devices, so we don’t get deafened when we switch from the Mac Mini to the cable box.
- Many hard drives: The living room Mini is connected to 3 hard drives, each of which has 1 TB of capacity. I spent this weekend overhauling the hard drive setup. The current setup is:
- Drive 1: iTunes library, iPhoto library, home movies and hollywood movies (subdivided into “Grownup Movies” and “Kid Movies” folders).
- Drive 2: TV shows, subdivided into “Grownup TV” and “Kid TV” folders”.
- Drive 3: Backup: It has enough room for our Mac Mini itself (i.e. all our applications), our iPhoto library, our home movies and our iTunes library. I’ll back up as much of our downloaded movies & TV shows as I have room for but I’m not particularly worried about losing these.
- Apple Bluetooth Keyboard: One for each room. Mostly great, except that the odds are good that one or the other will be out of batteries at any one moment. The keyboard is small enough to tuck onto the back of the sofa (upstairs) or leave on the nighttable (downstairs).
- Logitech MX Air Rechargeable Cordless Air Mouse: This gyroscopic mouse is THE mouse for home video setups. It’s incredibly annoying to rely on a mouse that has to be used on a surface when the surface is a glass coffee table, or worse yet, a bed sheet. The Air mouse takes a little getting used to, but it’s very handy to have a mouse that you can hold mid-air and point at the screen, and with a handy center strip that you can use to turn up or down your volume.
- iPads: For watching streaming media in any room of the house.
- iPhones: For controlling Plex as an a remote.
- Videogame consoles: Sometimes you want to actually interact with a screen, and not just for work. For this reason, somebody invented video games. We now have the whole gamut: Playstation 3, a Wii, and now an XBox so we could get the Kinect. The Playstation doubles as our Blu-Ray player — in fact, the precipitating factor in our purchase was our desperate need to watch the new Star Trek movie at the highest possible resolution — and we can also use these systems to do things like watch NetFlix. But with an actual computer hooked up to the same TV set, there’s not a lot of video benefits to the gaming consoles, so we mostly use them for actual gaming. The gaming consoles are all in the living room, you’ll be relieved to hear.
- Bookshelf speakers: We sprang for a mid-range set of Creative Labs bookshelf speakers, which plug into our Mini for those occasions when we really care about the sound (i.e. watching movies) or want sound but no picture (e.g. when listening to music on iTunes). Most of the time we just rely on the TV’s built-in speakers, which sound fine.
- Billy cabinets: Our whole media center setup is engineered so that it can be hidden inside the Billy cabinets that frame our TV. With so much tech hardware in our living room, it’s easy for the tech to overtake every other aspect of our décor. But all our components fit inside the cabinet, except the speakers (!!), the hard drives (which we leave out to keep from overheating) and our set-top box. Our set-top cable box is too deep to fit in the cabinet; I took advantage of our living room’s loft area to stash the cable box 10 feet above our TV in the 3rd floor loft, where it’s still in line-of-sight from our sofa. I had to use the tin foil trick to boost the infrared signal in the remote, and you have to point the remote up at the ceiling when you want to change a channel, but it works fine and keeps the box out of the living room.
- Wall mounts: I played an awesome game of Let’s Make a Deal when I got our new flatscreen at Best Buy last December, and got them to throw in the wall mounts and wall mount installation for both of our TVs. The nice installation guys ended up with a case of PTSD from our rather complicated setup, but it is incredibly awesome to have the TVs on the wall instead of sitting on stands. For one thing, they’re far less intrusive; for another, the viewing angle is a lot better, especially in the bedroom, where the installation guy convinced me to mount the TV very high up so that it would be the right angle to see when lying down. The only downside is that I’m now dependent on Stephen Colbert to put me to sleep.
My next blog post will provide a detailed look at some of the niftiest elements in my software setup, but here are the raw ingredients.
- VLC: For video playback.
- Transmission: A bittorrent client for downloading torrents. For the basics on bittorrent, start here.
- Tunnelblick: A VPN client we use to tunnel through to an American server so US-only services like Hulu think we are in the US and serve us up that delicious, DRMed content.
- TVTorrents.com: I use TVTorrents.com to find and download torrents for TV shows, and then occasionally seek out torrents on other sites. My weird version of DRM-era ethics restricts my TV torrenting to shows that I already “pay” for as a broadcast TV subscriber, or those that are simply not available in Canada; I only download movies if I’ve previously rented but never watched them. TVTorrents is invite-only but you can find torrents on other sites; the advantage of a private torrent site like TVTorrents is that files are available sooner and download somewhat faster.
- Plex: Plex is Mac-only software that makes your home media center a lot easier and more fun to use. It’s the latest addition to our setup (thank you, David Drucker!) so I’m just discovering its many benefits. The bottom line: it makes it very easy to browse your media library with just a remote, giving you cover art and episode/movie summaries, so your TV media center feels like…well, a media center rather than a computer. You can control Plex using your iPhone or iPad…or you can use Plex to stream most video content directly to your iPhone or iPad for viewing in another room. Wow!
- Latest generation Logitech Control Center system preference panel: To use the Air MX mouse with Plex, you need to setup a custom configuration for the Air MX mouse that remaps the buttons when you are controlling Plex. Plex is really designed to be used with a keyboard or remote (like the Apple remote), but it’s annoying to switch from mouse to remote when you go into Plex, and from remote to mouse when you quit. It’s easier to set up the Air mouse to work effectively with Plex, but you want it set up as a custom configuration so the mouse returns to its usual key mapping when you’re not in Plex. Only the latest version of the Logitech system preference panel will support a custom configuration.
- Hazel: To help keep our video content organized. I’ll detail how I use Hazel in my next post, which looks at how to create an automatically self-updating media center using Transmission, Plex and Hazel.