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Ultimate Mac Media Center Part 2

July 16, 2010 - Dave Hecei

Part 2: The Hardware To make the mini into the ultimate media server it needs some additional software and hardware. For hardware the mini really should have some additional storage and either a TV tuner or some type of video capture device.

External hard drives are easy. This can be any external USB 2.0 or, what I prefer, a Firewire hard drive. I like Firewire for its stability, plus it is one less item on the USB chain where the tuner will be. Capturing video does take plenty of storage. It depends on the format the device you choose captures in. It will likely be MPEG2 or MPEG4. MPEG2 is the format used for DVDs.If you plan to archive your video as DVD discs, this is the type of capture device you will want find.

One of the best ways to store media files is a NAS, or Network Attached Storage. A simple NAS will look just like an ordinary external hard drive. On the back you will find an Ethernet port. Just hook this drive up to your home network and with a little bit of setup, most have an easy setup wizard to follow, all computers on your network can now access this drive. Most simple NAS drives have built-in media servers, called DLNA. Many will also have the ability to serve files to iTunes. I use a Buffalo Tech LinkStation Live. I chose it for its Mac compatibility and Gigabit Ethernet connection.

Many of the TV tuners and capture devices for the Mac will handle standard definition television, or SD. The good news is that today there are some HD capable devices out there. Where you get your HD video from will guide you to the proper capture device.

If you live in an urban area where you can get HD broadcasts over the air then you will want to choose an HDTV tuner. My favorite is the ElGato EyeTV 250 plus. This little USB device can capture standard definition analog video through either a composite video port or S-video jack, It also has a standard coax port that will pick up digital TV from an antenna, basic analog cable TV, and unencrypted digital cable. Included with the 250+ is ElGato’s EyeTV 3 software. This software will turn your Mac into a TiVo like DVR device.

On my cable system I receive all of the major networks in HD, plus PBS and several cable networks. All told it adds up to only 9 channels of HD. If you subscribe to a cable service and have a digital box, then I have some good news for you. There are two capture boxes out there that should work.

The first one is from Hauppauge called the HD PVR 1212. This device has both component video in/out and composite/s-video in. By using component video, that’s the red-green-blue cable, the HD PVR can record SD, 720p, and 1080i video coming out of your digital cable box. The PVR 1212 on a Mac, it is also Windows PC compatible, can be controlled by ElGato’s Eye TV software. This software is not included, but can be purchased and downloaded from ElGato’s web site.

What is included is an IR blaster device. You plug the blaster into a jack in the back of the PVR box and string the long thin wire to your cable box. At the end of this wire is an IR LED that sends commands to your cable box, just like a universal remote would. With the IR blaster attached, the Eye TV software has control of the cable box allowing it to change channels as needed to record shows while you are away. Essentially this combo turns the mini into an HD TiVo, without the monthly fees.

For a little less money, ElGato makes their own HD box called the Eye TV HD PVR. The ElGato HD PVR is a very elegant aluminum box. It’s just under 5-inches square and only 1.57-inches high. The silver aluminum box has a thin black band around the middle. It really does matches the look of the Mac mini.

The Eye TV box also has component video inputs plus an IR blaster device so it can connect and control most any digital cable box. Just like the other device here, programming is controlled through ElGato’s EyeTV 3 software. While the Eye TV HD box does have HD component video inputs, it does not have any outputs. The video can only be seen on the Mac’s monitor. The PVR 1212 has component video output, which allows you to watch the HD program you are recording directly on your HDTV.

The Hauppauge HD PVR 1212 plus the Eye TV 3.0 software will run you about $260. The ElGato Eye TV HD PVR with software is about $200, the Eye TV 250+ is about $170. Elgato also makes a smaller USB HD tuner , the Eye TV Hybrid, that is about $140.

Another part of the media center that you may overlook is the remote. If you have a universal remote set up and working for your system and you don’t want to bother changing things now (remember, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it), then skip this next part. The best media center remote ever made are the Harmony series from Logitech.

The Harmony remote is different from any other universal remote you have ever seen or used. The Harmony is available in several models that range anywhere from cheap to HOW MUCH?! At the moment I am running the Harmony 550, but I am looking at getting a new one soon, either the 880 or Harmony One. If you have never seen a Harmony in action, please check it out. Calling it a Universal Remote is like calling a Ferrari ‘transportation’.

The very least you will want the little Apple Remote. Up until the last year most Macs came with this little remote. Now it is a $20 option, but it's a nicer aluminum one. Either way, a remote is the best way to navigate through Apple’s Front Row or any other Media Center software.

(Note: Both ElGato and Hauppauge include decent IR remotes with their TV tuners and HD PVR boxes).


Next – Part 3: The Software


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