Hans D. Baumeister

Hans D. Baumeister

Mac Mini Mediacenter - End of an Era

What started out with the goal of attaining the ultimate home media solution is fizzling out as I write this: Using a Mac Mini, combined with an Elgato HybridTV USB device, to concentrate all media activity.

What sounds like the ideal solution (and I still believe it could be that) has turned out to be something that just isn’t usable by normal people.

One problem may have been the upgrade from Snow Leopard to Lion on the Mac Mini. With all the issues I’ve had on my MacBook and iMac with this upgrade (see previous posts), I can’t imagine Lion is not responsible for at least some of the issues we’ve encountered. Also, there are infrequent issues between EyeTV and iTunes, usually with iTunes ending up blocking the sound so that TV sound would only be back on if iTunes was quit.

However, it is my considered opinion that the major problems are sourced from the Elgato EyeTV software and the HybridTV USB stick.

From EyeTV (frequently) freezing up to programmed recordings not working to actual issues wither with the driver for the hardware or with the hardware itself, the setup has been riddled with issues that especially my wife has had to suffer under. To be fair, she isn’t a Mac fan and she’s never really taken the time to learn the inside track on the MacMini setup. On the other hand, setting up such an expensive device should really make any inside knowledge unnecessary.

Very recently, we’ve had the issue of not getting a signal when switching channels (“This station is currently not available”) - unplugging the Elgato hardware and immediately plugging back in fixes this - perhaps, however, this is the reason that some programmed recordings don’t record.

A couple of months ago, we’d already attempted to replace the Mac Mini with a Panasonic digital HD cable receiver with built-in hard drive. Judging by the HD size (160GB), the model was a bit older, but we’d had a Panasonic analog cable receiver before getting the Mac MIni and were relatively happy with the user interface (take the “G” out of GUI for this one!).

As it turned out, however, the total ease of use of the Mac with the EyeTV software really spoiled us, so that even my wife - who was very keen on getting something that would work when I was on the road - agreed that this device was NOT IT. Praise Amazon for an unproblematic return: bye-bye Panasonic.

Last week, I found that our cable carrier offered a digital HD receiver with 320GB hard drive and a smart card for HD reception of most programs for €6 per month - and I bought.

The interface here - quite obviously - does not live up to the Mac either, but it is really quite feasible and simple to use. The search capabilities for programs in the downloaded TVTV database is workable, if not ideal.

Subsequently, the Mac Mini will be phased over gradually into a life of “service” - Lion Server is already installed.
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Solved the overscan problem on the Mac Mini Media Center

After Googling the topic a bit more and reading about other people’s experiences with using a Mac Mini as a Media Center with, especially, Plasma TVs with 1024x768 resolution, I figured out the solution to the problem: Overscan on the Mac OFF and Overscan on the Plasma ON. Pretty simple, really. Now the Picture uses the entire screen perfectly while watching a video, with just a little being shaved off the edges of the MacOS GUI.
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Still no solution for 720p vs. 768 pixels...

Unfortunately, I still don’t have a fix for getting a 1024x768 resolution working on the Plasma.

I’ve noticed today, while doing a reboot after updating to 10.6.4 - when the screen is mostly white with an Apple logo in the center - that I’m getting a certain degree of burn-in on the screen!
Or rather, since the outer border always stays black now, it isn’t being “used” so much.

Not a good thing. Hopefully, I can figure out a way to get a proper 1024x768 image going.
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What’s the best way to work with the MMM?

I did some experimenting of what the best way to use it might be - by that I mean actually working with the unit. I did get the keyboard as a wireless model, which isn’t that easy to find if you’re looking for a model with touchpad. I picked up the ___ (tbfl) which had some decent reviews online and offers a small form factor with good reach and a pretty decent touchpad. In parallel to the touchpad, I’ve added my old LogiTech trackball right underneath the plasma.

The trackball - if you like that sort of thing (I do) - is the better mouse mover, hands down. I have to admit that I thought I was going to use the MMM to surf the web from the couch, which isn’t something I’ve done yet. I have looked up a couple of things about drivers or instructions, of course, but that was while standing in front of the plasma.

Chances are, I’ll never use it to browse the web - I can just grab my MacBook for that - and I can tell you the screen quality difference is really worth the couple of seconds you need to retrieve the notebook.

That is one of the issues I still have, by the way: while the Panasonic was recognized as the monitor, it is just a “Panasonic” monitor, not a specific model. The display settings offer a whole bunch of different resolutions, some of which are pretty ridiculous. Four of them have a little TV icon next to the resolution indicator, so I’m assuming that these are the preferred resolutions to use for the Plasma.

Two of them are 1080 (i and p), both of which produce a horrible picture. That’s to be expected, however, as the specs of the Plasma indicate that it does 720p maximum, everything else is upscaled. The first one is 480p, which is unusable.
Setting the display to 720p gives good results, though I would have expected text (i.e. black on white background) to be crisper - after all, a Plasma has discrete 3-color pixels and should be able to give a relatively good picture.

One thing I haven’t figured out - if it is possible at all - is how to increase the font size in Mac OS. Windows offers this option (even though it usually doesn’t work well in most applications), and I would have though this to be part of the “Universal Access” control - but it isn’t.
For example, the various views in EyeTV could use a much bigger font and still fit on the screen, at least horizontally. It would make things much easier to use, even from the couch. Working with EyeTV (or any other software with lots of text) from anywhere but right up front just doesn’t work well. I’ll have to research that a bit more.

The real problem with the 720p mode, however, is that it produces a picture that is approximately 40” across (on a 42” display) - which is pretty annoying - after all, a 40” TV is considerably cheaper than a 42”. I wasn’t able to find a monitor profile on the Panasonic website, so I’ll have to research that some as well.
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First Update: Mac Mini Media Center

Wow, honestly, I didn’t think I’d enjoy this device as much as I do.
It is - at least for me - a real upgrade in both quality and versatility to what we had before.

First off, let me mention one of the more important aspects: the quality difference even between watching digital cable on a cable receiver connected by SCART (analog signal) to the MMM connected by HDMI is like taking pickle slices off your eyes. It is truly astounding. I tried switching back just to see the difference (the Elgato tuner does both digital + analog) and I felt nauseous viewing the analog signal.

Cable tuners with HDMI and hard disk are only now appearing on the market, but I’m very glad I chose to go with the MMM, since the price difference is marginal!
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Mac Mini Media Center - Still in Beta

Okay, I splurged. I ordered a Mac Mini with 2.26 GHz CPU and a 160GB Hard Disk from Amazon - it was a bit cheaper there than from the Apple store. I also ordered a 500GB 2.5” hard disk, an EyeTV Hybrid and a Mac-compatible wireless keyboard.

The idea was to replace a Panasonic harddisk-recorder and a cable receiver, both of which do not offer HDMI connectivity, and add lots of functionality (useful or not).

The connection to our Panasonic 42” Plasma is via the standard DVI adapter that came in the packaging and a DVI to HDMI cable from ebay (for less than 9€, including shipping!).

The first thing I did was buy a replacement hard disk, as the 160GB that came with the unit would hold the operating system and about 12 movie-length recordings -- not what I had in mind. I followed a couple of the really excellent instructions on the Web for replacing the hard disk in the iMac, which is a bit of an iffy situation from a warranty standpoint. While lots of people argue that if the HD in the unit wasn’t to be replaced by the owner, Apple would have had to mark the case with “no user servicable parts inside.”

To be honest, though, even if that is the legal situation - I guarantee Apple will make a stink about it should I ever have to send the unit in within the 24 month warranty period. After doing the “operation”, I have to admit - I would, too, if I were Apple. The replacement really isn’t for someone with even a touch of fear of what is required... there are a couple of screws that are tough to (re-) position. What really cost me time was re-attaching the Wifi (or was it Bluetooth?) antenna connector to the mainboard - what a job for very small hands! It is difficult, because while you can position the connector relatively well using an angled tweezers (luckily, I have one), that tool doesn’t give you enough pressure to make it click in place.

In any case, the iMac now has a 500GB HD built in, which was really a good decision.

Installing the OS and the EyeTV software for the receiver is - as usual - a snap. I also put Skype on it (incredible: my age-old Logitech Notebook Pro USB Webcam runs without a driver!) as well as iTunes, of course. I’ve also moved my iTunes library from my iMac in the basement office to the MMM.

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