The Ultimate Mac Mini HTPC – Part 1: Media Center Software
In my 6+ years journey towards the ultimate Home Theatre PC (aka HTPC) I’ve been trying out several hardware configurations. A couple of years ago I realized that the Intel based Apple Mac Mini was really the best choice despite its disputed limited (internal) expansion options. I have not been able to find such a great combination of extreme silence, power efficiency, small form factor, looks, i.e. family acceptance factor, and competitive price from any other manufacturer. And I was not even an Apple fan at that time.
With the release of the upgraded Mac Mini in March 2009, I felt I had to once again upgrade our living room hardware for future HD compatibility now that Apple finally upgraded the video card – and thought I’d share my experiences with you at the same time.
My first decision was on user interface software and OS, would I dare to go with OS X or still stick to the option of a Boot Camped Windows XP with the excellent open source HTPC software Mediaportal? (there are still no direct benefits from Vista, including MCE, for standard European digital cable DVB-C broadcasts as Microsoft does not support this yet.) So I did my Mac research as I would really like to see some fruity alternatives. My options with summaries below.
I figured Elegato Eyetv 3, MediaCentral from Equinux and recently showing great progress XHub Media Center are the key choices, leaving options like XBMC, Boxee, PLEX and built in Apple Front Row out of the competition for living room visibility as they do not support Live TV at the moment. With the history of using MediaPortal as the family TV for a couple of years already, difficult to use or buggy media equipment do not have a place in our living room (except for in the fire place ;), so the initial bar was set quite high as it had to really outperform Mediaportal to justify the change.
Elegato Eyetv (OS X)
Eyetv 3 from Elegato is a great piece of software with good iTunes and OS X integration. Casual TV viewing on your Mac feels to be the targeted use case. Unfortunately, my goal was not to view TV on my Mac but to use my Mac as the main TV set top box and I really have a hard time seeing this as a winning solution for our living room. For a temporary TV on the go this is an extremely good choice. A positive surprise was the support for different TV tuning hardware for being a Mac software. In addition to Elegato tuners, Eyetv 3 provided the option to use various TV tuners from ATI, Hauppauge, Miglia, Networx, Pinnacle, Terratec, Twinhan, Digital Everywhere, and a few other manufacturers. It also works with both the Apple remote control as well as the very cryptic remote that came bundled with the Elegato EyeTV Hybrid tuner (DVB-C / DVT-T / Analogue). As a summary, “living room usability” was not the first association that came to my mind this solution had no place outside my office.
MediaCentral by Equinux (OS X)
Equinux has a plethora of media software for recording, viewing and placeshifting TV on Mac, iPhone, and iPod. For my needs, MediaCentral (I tested v. 2.8.3) was the best choice as it is actually intended for a living room experience. An additional bonus was the support of Skype, now video calling was available on our living room TV. A big drawback was lack of 3rd party hardware support, I was not able to use the Elegato Hybrid TV tuner nor my Pinnacle DVB-T USB stick (both worked fine with Eyetv). The only supported TV tuner was TubeStick. Fortunately, they do provide also a European standard based DVB-T version of it. Personally, I was not thrilled by spending another €49 + shipping just for trying out the solution. Overall, MediaCentral was a much better experience for the living room than Eyetv and with 3rd party TV tuner support it would have been very close to what I was looking for.
XHub Media Center (OS X)
The XHub solution does not really have integrated TV viewing but is integrating Eyetv for providing a full experience. The reason why I still included it on the list is because is seemed to have similar experience to MediaCentral using the Eyetv TV engine. The interface and experience still feels rather immature and at least I had big issues with the TV engine integration. XHub provided the channel list from Eyetv within the UI, but always switched to the same default channel (the first one in my case) regardless of what channel I selected from XHub. The guide was also provided from the TV engine and was separate from the main user interface so there was a feeling of disconnection when using the solution. Clearly still some work to be done in this area (I tested version 2.3.1, version 3 was in the Alpha stage but sounded too instable for my needs).
MediaPortal has been running as a free open source development project for over 5 years and reached a very stable v.1.0 milestone in January 2009. It provides a very rich feature set ranging from a single seat TV media center and PVR to running a server with multiple TV tuners broadcasting directly to client installations of MediaPortal with no TV tuners. This works both over wired and wireless LAN connections, 802.11n (300Mbs) recommended but even 802.11g (54Mbs) works well for a single client with good connection.
The tricky part is that MediaPortal requires a Windows XP installation, but Apple Boot Camp make that rather simple to achieve. Mediaportal works well in Vista and Windows 7 beta as well, but Windows XP gives the best performance so I strongly recommend it. Newer, higher end versions of Microsoft operating systems also have Windows Media Center as standard but without going into details MediaPortal outperforms MCE feature wise both in case of usability and extendibility.
As a summary, even if I’m very much liking the neat Mac Mini and OS X Leopard and using that as my main home desktop, I prefer using MediaPortal running on Windows XP for the best living room media PC experience. As a bonus, it is a completely free piece software.
In the second part, I’ll give you a ride of upgrading my Mac Mini and configuring it as a HTPC running both as a local set top box under our living room HDTV, as well as serving 2 other wireless clients in our home. Some additional features include up-scaling of standard definition broadcasted TV, DVDs and DivX videos to much better quality and viewing encrypted Pay TV channels on all connected clients separately using a single Pay TV subscription.