My Mac Mini Media Centre

mac_miniAbout a year ago I bought myself a cute little Mac mini to replace my Blue&White G3 that had died.  Around six months later I ditched the Mac Mini in favour of a more powerful and capable G5 tower which now acts as my primary computer.  Since then I’ve been at a loss to know what to do with my Mac Mini; I tried selling it to people I know, but no one was interested – I had bought it second hand and it just wasn’t new enough or powerful enough to be of interest to anyone.  So it sat in a bag on the floor in the study, feeling sorry for itself.  Until yesterday.

Having bought my wife a new mobile phone I found myself thinking about technical things (to try to quash the feelings of jealousy at her having a nicer phone than me), and after much research I found I could actually make use of the Mac Mini for very little additional cost.  We don’t watch much TV, so it wouldn’t actually be of any benefit to us for me to install a funky internet TV system, but watching iPlayer and YouTube on the telly sounded like a cool idea – much more comfortable than several people trying to cram into the study to watch stuff on my computer.

This, then, is not a detailed tutorial on how to create a media centre, but rather an explanation of what I have done to create my particular system.  It might not be what you need, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers to every question you could possibly have on media centres.  But I will be including screenshots to explain stuff, and hopefully someone will find at least some of this useful, or vaguely interesting.

The operating system and other software

Mac OS X TigerI have Mac OS X Tiger installed on the little box, which actually gives me all the basics I need.  In addition to the basic install I have iLife (for sharing my iTunes and iPhoto libraries on my primary computer) and Firefox 3.  Yes, I could have used Safari, but Firefox comes with some cool plugins that will come in useful, and I’ll come onto that a bit later.

The internal hardware

The Mac Mini is running on a 1.42Ghz G4 PPC chip with only 512MB RAM, which is pretty pathetic by modern standards, and it really struggled when I was using it as my primary machine for work – browsing the web is no problem, but running a dozen large programs all at once really was asking too much from that amount of memory.  However, in this particular situation it should be plenty, and the onboard graphics chip handles video well enough.  And since I’m not going to be downloading massive media like films to play on it I don’t need much in the way of hard disk space either.  iPlayer and YouTube both stream their data so I’ve not had to clear out any space on the hard disk yet.  And if I do find myself needing more space later I can always delete some unwanted programs that I don’t use any more (Adobe Creative Suite isn’t really needed on a media centre).

Control freak

Keyboard ViewerSo, how do you control a computer from a sofa?  The immediate answer is an Apple Remote, but I don’t have one.  Neither do I have a spare keyboard to plug into it.  However, I did happen to have a wireless mouse knocking around.  Of course, there is only so much you can do with just a mouse – a keyboard is a necessity for typing stuff.  At least, that was until I discovered that Mac OS X actually comes with a virtual keyboard, which they cunningly call Keyboard Viewer.  Now I can bring up an on-screen keyboard and type with the mouse!

If you want to find it, you’ll need to go into System Preferences > International > Input Menu, and select the Keyboard Viewer from the list, and make sure you tick  “Show input menu in menu bar” at the bottom of the window.  You’ll get a little icon in your menu bar showing your country’s flag, and in that menu you’ll be able to bring up the Keyboard Viewer.  By default I think it comes up in the small mode; if that’s too small for you to see from the other side of the room you can click the little green expand button in the top left corner and it’ll expand to a bigger size.

DVI to S-video

dvi-videoA TV is not a monitor.  They speak very different languages, and display images in different ways (at least if you have a traditional CRT TV, if you have a flat screen TV it might be different).  However, a search around the net showed that all I needed was a DVI to S-video converter, provided by Apple, and I’d be in business.  I found one at a good price on eBay, and it arrived in the post yesterday.  So that plugs into the DVI connector on the back of the Mac Mini (Macs use DVI instead of VGA, don’t ask me why, but they effectively do pretty much the same thing), and the other end of the adapter provides a phono socket.  Scart adapterYes, all you need is a standard phono cable like you’d use for your speakers and you can connect the adapter to a scart adapter.  Lots of adapters, yes, but it works.  OS X recognises what sort of display you’re using and adjusts its settings automatically when it boots up, so that makes it nice and straightforward.

So, that’s a lot of adapters, but it basically follows this sequence of connections:

Mac Mini DVI port > DVI to S-video adapter > phono cable > scart adapter > scart splitter > scart socket on TV

You might not need the scart splitter, but we’ve got too many devices and not enough built-in scart sockets.

Sounding good

The scart adapter I bought (from Tesco) actually has four sockets – video, s-video, left audio and right audio – but at the moment I’m only using one of them.  I’m sending the video to the TV but sending the audio straight to my sound system courtesy of a 2.5mm jack to twin phono cable, plugged into the headphones socket on the Mac Mini.  Sounds fantastic.  As long as the sound system speakers are turned on.

Getting online

My broadband router is upstairs in my study, where my old PC is connected to it via a traditional CAT5 cable, while my G5 and my wife’s laptop both connect wirelessly.  I do have another wireless dongle, a US Robotics USR805422 54Mbps USB adapter, which I used to use on the PC back when it was my primary computer.  Unfortunately no one has seen fit to make a Mac-compatible driver for it, so that presented a bit of a hurdle for my Mac Mini.  I didn’t really want to fork out for a new wireless dongle unless I really needed to.  Asus WL-167gAnd that was when my next brainwave hit – I could use my wife’s wireless dongle instead (she was out at the time so couldn’t argue).  Some Googling revealed that there was indeed a Mac driver for the Asus WL-167g.  I found a link on someone’s blog to the right software, downloaded it and installed it on the Mac Mini, and after a little tinkering around I got it working – hoorah!!  Unfortunately rebooting the computer meant that the software revealed its flaw – it wasn’t remembering connection profiles so you had to enter the network password every time you logged in, which wasn’t quite what I wanted.  Eventually I found a link to the official driver on the Asus web site, which appeared to be exactly the same software, but I installed it anyway and that seemed to solve the problem.  The Mac Mini now boots up, automatically logs in and connects to the internet.  Nice one.

A few little touches to make things easier

Of course, controlling a computer from the other side of a room has its difficulties – reading what’s on the screen is a bit of a nightmare.  I’ve set the resolution to 1024×768 for now to allow enough room for everything to fit on the screen, but it does tend to make the writing rather tiny.  I know my way around the OS well enough that I can get around without needing to be able to read everything, but there are a couple of things I’ve done to make it a bit easier for other people.

The dock is on the left hand side of the screen to allow for the keyboard viewer which sits at the bottom of the screen, and is set to be pretty big so you can see the icons nice and clearly.  Magnification is on too, so the icons get even bigger when you need them to be.

I’ve also set the mouse cursor to be bigger too, courtesy of the Universal Access options.  Not too big, just a little bit larger so it’s easier to find.  Unfortunately the Universal Access options don’t appear to provide a way to make all the text bigger in the OS, like you get in Windows, but you can zoom in by pressing Control and using the mouse’s scroll wheel.  And yes, that does work if you’re using the Control button on the Keyboard Viewer.

Fast DialIn Firefox, I’ve installed the Fast Dial plugin to give me nine big links when you open a new tab, like Opera does, which I’ve set to go to YouTube, iPlayer and RadioTimes.  Saves typing them in each time or going through a menu of bookmarks that’s too small to see.  This plugin even gives you a screenshot of the site so you can see where you’re going before you get there.  I’ve also installed the Zoom Toolbar which gives me three handy buttons in the toolbar for zooming in and out of web pages – useful if you want to actually read what’s on the web page.

In use

Now that it’s all set up, I’m really pleased with it.  It plays DVDs nicely (and with less interference than with our actual DVD player), plays all the music shared by my G5 computer upstairs, and iPlayer quality looks fantastic on the TV – I’m not using the uber-high-quality version either.  It’s only a 21″ TV and it’s not HD, so I guess any more quality than that would be wasted anyway.

Using a mouse as a remote is a little odd, but I’d get used to it.  It does give more control than a normal remote, but of course it does lack those instant control buttons that would make pausing and skipping chapters a little quicker – with the mouse I have to move it around (to wake it up) and then find the right button the on-screen controls before I can do anything.  Still, that’s a price I’m willing to pay for now.  I could invest in a wireless trackball mouse with programmeable buttons, but I doubt I’d be able to graft those buttons into the functionality of both iPlayer and YouTube.  So, a mouse it is, for now at least.

In conclusion

I only paid around £250 for the Mac Mini in the first place (second hand on eBay), and the only additional hardware I’ve needed to buy is the DVI to S-video converter and a few more cables.  My wife has graciously allowed me to use her wireless dongle with it, on the condition that I set up her laptop to use my old USR wireless dongle while she’s at work so that she doesn’t need to worry about it.  The fruit of my labour is that this morning I sat eating breakfast watching Top Gear on iPlayer from the comfort of my sofa.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

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