What Keeps the Couch Computer Busy

 

boxee screen shot

I love Boxee

 

Wow, four months and no posts. So this hasn’t turned into the labor of love I thought it would, but so be it. I use the couch computer so similarly to any other computer that it just hasn’t struck me as worth it to write much about it.

However, it is the go-to piece of entertainment equipment in the house. So here’s just a a few simple links to the stuff that makes it so in-demand around here:

Boxee:
boxee.tv  Boxee is a great tool for playing video over the internet and from the hard drive. New version added Pandora, making it wonderful for music now too. (No DRM support so iTunes purchases don’t play, and I have a lot of those.) Boxee is the easiest interface for poking around for good video content on the web, making it all TV-worthy for more than one person sitting at a desk or laptop.

Miro:
getmiro.com   Just checked this out last night. Puts internet video into an easy to browse and customize interface, like Boxee. Miro’s interface is heavily influence by Apple’s iApps, and isn’t a full-screen, remote-controlled media center. More like an iTunes-iPhoto hybrid for internet video. Interesting, but not quite up my alley. Although these things tend to grow on me over time. We’ll see. If nothing else, it’s a new way to find original, quality content, and Miro has a strong focus on delivering HD video. Can’t hurt.

Evernote:
evernote.com  Nothing particularly couch-computery about Evernote, but again, the couch computer socializes apps and web services like this, and I’m finding that it’s more fun to dig into these things as something that’s on the TV that my wife and I look at together, can show other people, and generally get more out of than sitting at a desk.

iTunes:
Obvious. But it just works beautifully from the couch, especially when combined with Apple’s Remote app on the iPhone. Over the years, all of my music collection has made it into iTunes, and with the ease of access and the 1 TB drive, it’s all available any time. Hours of fun, especially with the visualizer running full screen. 

Echodio:
echodio.com Just checked this out today. It’s in its infancy it appears, but the promise of online syncing of multiple iTunes libraries for use anywhere is pretty intriguing. I haven’t tried it out yet (early adopters get 1gb of storage free for now, with promised discounts when it goes to a pay service at some point in the future). I’m not even convinced I really need this at all, but I like that it’s happening.

Early Integration

Couch computer has pretty much become an integral part of the TV/movie watching and music experience in my house. So much so that I haven’t taken any time to post in the past two weeks. 

I know there are a handful of people out there who are looking forward to following this blog and learning from it, so let me get you caught up on the generalities of how well the mini has fit into the home theater. 

Progress was made with the arrival of the 1 terabyte drive. With that connected directly to the mini, I transferred my main media sources from the old desktop to the new Lacie. That consisted of the iTunes music library, the iPhoto library, a small assortment of movies and TV shows, and some home movies of the kids. All in all, a measly 150gb added to the 1 terabyte capacity.

I did this transfer over my wireless network because I started it late at night and went to bed. It should be noted that 150gb took until the following evening to complete transferring over the wireless. I recommend doing that directly over USB 2.0, Firewire, or wired Ethernet.

With the transfer complete, I organized the media into clearly named folders (Music, Photos, Video/Movies, Video/TV) with the intention of setting up Plex, a beautifully-designed media center interface. That will be the subject of a future post, but what I will say for now is that Plex has some serious potential, but I couldn’t get past the steep learning curve involved with some of the most simple setup issues. Just getting it to recognize media is an arduous task at this point. I’m not giving up on Plex yet, but there are more user-friendly options out there right now.

The first user-friendly option I pursued was about as basic as it gets. For the first several days I just used the mini like a computer. Wireless keyboard and mouse make that easy to do from the couch, and I would launch iTunes, switch on the full screen visualizer, and be done with it. We’d have music on for the night and that was that. WIth iTunes playing, I did some work with iPhoto, and put together our annual photo book of the kids for our Christmas gifts to our families.

So that works, but it’s pretty boring. Keyboarding and mousing on the couch are fine, but there’s that little wireless remote control that the mini came with, and I want to use it. Plus, I have this thing with using a computer at night. I’m on my Mac at work for 8 or 10 or 12 hours every day, and I just don’t really want to do that anymore at home at night if I don’t have to. So for the rest of last week, I started using Front Row, Apple’s built-in media center app.

Front Row does a good job. It plays your media, plain and simple. It suffers from feeling more limited that it maybe is, but it is bare-bones. 

Front Row doesn’t want to find media anywhere except for the Movies, Music and Pictures folders in OS X. However, it is smart enough to pay attention to iTunes and iPhoto and find each library that you have told those applications to use. So if you have set up your iTunes and/or iPhoto libraries on the external drive, Front Row doesn’t mind and will access those libraries. But for video files, it will only look in the main Movies folder in your OS X home folder. So you must employ a lo-tech workaround.

Create an alias of the folder where you actually have decided to store your media, and put the alias in the Movies folder. How OS 9 is that? (Or do I mean OS 8? It’s been a long time since I used an alias for anything. In my operating system I mean.)

So with that workaround in place, Front Row will navigate to all media across internal and external drives just fine. I didn’t test a network drive, but with the network drive connected and the alias method in place, my assumption is that would work too.

Front Row’s main drawback for me is the fact that you’re stuck with that little remote control I wanted to use so badly. I have a lot of music and a lot of photos, and that means long vertical lists of artists, albums, playlists, iPhoto events and albums, images, etc. Lots of scrolling. The scrolling conveniently speeds to warp-drive, but then you invariably miss your target, click your way back up, miss again, and click on down to what you wanted. Mousing around in iTunes is way easier. Typing the first few letters in iTunes is even better.

But then, a few days ago, my inbox surprised me with something very happy: my invitation to join the alpha test of Boxee.

Boxee is so good. Boxee makes this whole couch computer thing even cooler than I thought it would be. Boxee is going to take some time to explain sufficiently, and that will be the subject of the next post.

Storage, Part Two

Quick post for tonight: the external drive has arrived.

A 1 Terabyte Lacie drive (the Neil Poulton design – think Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey) is hooked up to the mini (via USB 2.0).

So far all I can report is that it’s nearly silent and the soft blue glow underneath the bottom edge in front is nice. I was afraid it would be too bright and distracting but that’s not the case.

I now have some major media transferring to do.

The fun really begins now – once all of my media is directly accessible (i.e. not wi-fi) I’m going to start digging into things like Plex and Boxee (when I get my invite to the alpha) and Front Row comparisons, more detailed descriptions of my components and why I chose them, and detailed walk-throughs of putting it all together.

More to come this weekend.

Storage, Part One

Both iterations of the Mac Mini lack sufficient internal storage for what any of us would want to do with a couch computer. Videos, photos, music etc will load up my 80gb model in a hurry.

My original plan with this was to simply utilize my existing 300gb drive in my desktop system, a G4 tower over my network, wirelessly. That works, sort of.

The wireless is proving too slow for anything but music. Even browsing photos in iPhoto is a drag. Transferring files over the network just to move a video to the Mini temporarily is prohibitively slow.

So, this post is named Part One because tomorrow, my solution arrives and I’ll write about that. Simple is good – a 1 terabyte external drive connected to the Mini.

More tomorrow after the UPS man delivers.

The System

img_7275

Here are the components of my system, starting with the brainchild, the Mac Mini:

Mac mini 1.83 ghz Intel Core 2 Duo. 80 gb internal drive. 2 gb RAM. Combo CD/DVD drive.

The Mac is connected directly to my A/V receiver:

Onkyo TX-SR505 7.1 Channel Home Theater Receiver. Lots of details on this thing, check the link if you’re interested.

Couch computer is connected to the system through the Onkyo. Video goes through a Belkin PureAV AV22400-06 6-Foot HDMI-to-DVI Video Cable. I know, there are cheaper options out there, but I was at the Apple Store and so was the cable.

Same goes for the audio: XTreme HD TOSLINK carries digital sound to an optical audio input on the Onkyo.

The display in my system is a Philips 42-Inch 1080p LCD. I’ve loved this TV since the day I brought it home, and it’s even clearer now what a great HDTV this is since the Mac has been hooked up – absolutely no flicker, perfect full-screen viewing of DVDs, video files, iTunes visualizers, hulu.com video, everything we’ve wanted it to do, it’s done superbly.

Here in Cincinnati, we have Time Warner Cable. That means a Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HDC hi-definition DVR. After an absurd amount of early problems which nearly sent us to DirectTV, it’s turned out to be just fine, after a few replacements and a major software upgrade. Besides butt-ugly menus, it does its job.

A Sony 5.1 surround speaker package finishes it off.

Oh, and a Wii. The Mac is monopolizing all my time now, I almost forgot about it.

Welcome to the couch.

The View from the Couch

Thanks to a brand new Mac Mini, couch computing has taken over my consciousness. So much so that I’m bothering to make a blog about it.

Not sure yet what true purpose this will serve. I plan to start out with detailed descriptions of my setup, explaining how I’ve integrated the Mac into my home theater system. This is information that I’ve spent plenty of time googling the past 5 days, and I’m going to add my experiences to the mix.

Going forward, I’ll keep up with what I add to the system, what I learn about using the system, what’s working and what’s not, and just generally share the fun I’m having the couch computer.


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