When I hooked up my Mac mini media center and started using it, something became quickly apparent. The included infrared remote control functionality is severely lacking! The intel Mac minis include an IR port and the little Apple remote (which is surprisingly functional for only having six buttons) but you can only use it to run and control Front Row and to operate a few included applications like the DVD player, iTunes, and Keynote. If you want to control any other application, you’re out of luck.

There are some excellent third party remotes available for the Mac and I could have purchased any of those and configured it away but I knew some enterprising programmers would eventually figure out how to make the Apple remote do more than Apple provided. Well, I didn’t have to wait long and there are now at least three options available: iRed Lite, Remote Buddy, and my favorite, Sofa Control. They all do a good job of extending the functionality of the Apple remote, but there are some differences in how they work.

The first one to come out was iRed Lite. which is available free. iRed splits its functions on a per application basis (though you can set up more than one set for a specific application if you want) and you can set up any of the buttons on the remote to send a keyboard command or run an applescript. It also recognizes ‘click and hold’ for several of the buttons so you get more than just 6 functions from the 6 buttons available. You call up iRed itself by clicking and holding the ‘Menu’ button for a couple of seconds. Once it’s up, you can move to the application switcher by hitting ‘Menu’, select an application, and then hit ‘Menu’ again to use the remote with the application. Out of the ‘box’ iRed comes with a lot of useful commands and scripts, and I was able to get it to control VLC very well without too much effort. It’s a beta application and it has some stability issues, and I found the control interface to be a little cumbersome even though it is very powerful. It’s worth checking out to see if it meets your needs before you buy something else.

The next one I discovered was Remote Buddy. It’s much more ‘Mac-like’ and intuitive to use than iRed, but it requires all of the actions to be applescript rather than keyboard commands. Applescript is more powerful but it’s harder for a novice to use. Remote Buddy is activated by a single push of the ‘Menu’ button. It provides a way for you to access Front Row so you still have that functionality. When you push the ‘Menu’ button it brings up a somewhat Front Row-esque menu on the screen that lets you pick an application, some system functions, and Input Devices which gives you mouse control over the mouse, cursor keys, or other preset keyboard key sequences. Being able to fully move the cursor around using the remote is pretty cool, but ultimately not actually that useful for a setup like mine. Remote Buddy did a good job overall but the need to use applescript to customize the functionality kept me from customizing it to suit my needs.

The one I have decided to go with for my own setup is Sofa Control. It has similar a ‘Mac-like’ feel to Remote Buddy but it improves on things just a little bit. Sofa Control also requires Applescript to control applications so it’s a bit complex for novices to customize. Sofa Control improves on things by adding an additional per-application menu accessible from the remote. This allows it to offer additional functionality like locating and opening a file with VLC or the ability to change iTunes song ratings. This sort of system allows you to set it up to do pretty much whatever you want in a remote friendly way. The customization is not for the faint of heart but the resulting interface is head and shoulders above what iRed provides.

These three remote control applications let you do a lot more with your Mac mini without ever leaving the realm of the remote, and that’s what having a media center computer is all about, right?

I recently got my Mac mini media center set up and running and it’s pretty nifty but there was one nagging issue I had not yet solved, until now!

I have a Mac mini core duo (early 2006, 1.66 Ghz) hooked up to my Panasonic TH-42PD50U EDTV plasma as a media center. Out of the box, just hooking up all the wires gets you most of the way there but the overscan issue makes it so the picture is larger than the TV screen by enough pixels all the way around to be annoying though still usable. There’s software called DisplayConfigX that lets you set up custom resolutions for situations like this but it’s very complicated and I wasn’t able to make it work myself. Well now the magic of the Internet has allowed me to stumble upon the answer.

To help out any others in need of this same information, here are the settings I ended up using. It’s not a perfect fit for my TV but it’s very close and might be as close as is possible. I may try some other settings later myself but I am more likely to just be lazy and use what other people figured out.

My DisplayConfigX settings:

Horizontal

  • 1224 pixels
  • 136 front porch
  • 80 sync
  • 208 back porch

Vertical

  • 690 pixels
  • 26 front porch
  • 5 sync
  • 29 back porch

Updated Jan 1, 2007 with my most up to date setup!

I had long been planning to buy a Mac mini to hook up to my TV and stereo replacing the DVD player and adding media center functionality, and I finally did just that. Last night I connected the mini’s DVI output to my plasma’s HDMI input and the digital audio output to my AV receiver. The short version of the story is that it pretty much just worked but with a few unresolved issues and some minor hiccups along the way.
As you can see in this poor picture of the Mac mini in my stereo cabinet along with the HD cable/DVR box, the mini is quite small. The 5 year old DVD player it is replacing filled the entire bottom shelf area. I hooked it up to the tv, the stereo, power, and an extra keyboard and mouse and, with much excitement, flipped the whole setup on! The Mac automatically configured it’s video output based on some information passed to it by the TV via the digital HDMI/DVI connection and I was greeted with the sight of a white apple logo on a grey background signaling the bootup process for Mac OS X. It continued to boot up into the initial setup. Here’s the language selection screen. It was actually a bit anti-climactic since I’ve seen a screen like this when setting up several previous Macs. It was just like any other, other than being on my TV.


I went through the set up process and noticed the first issue when the familiar Mac desktop came up. The edges of the desktop were chopped off! About half of the menu bar at the top, half of the dock at the bottom, and some from each side was missing. Here you can see an example. I have Safari open to a baby name website looking for a name for the new addition to the network. We ended up choosing ‘Lucy’.

After some research I realized it’s an issue common to pretty much all ‘computer hooked to a TV’ setups and it’s somewhat surprising that it hasn’t actually be resolved by these software developers by now. I guess it’s complicated because every model of TV is a little different. It’s called ‘overscan‘. I’ve tried several things, including the DisplayConfigX software, to potentially fix it but nothing has worked in my case. If you know how to get it working with my Panasonic 42″ plasma let me know!

UPDATE: I figured out the overscan problem and posted the solution.

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Airport ExpressI hooked up a third airport express to my network and tried out the multiple stream AirTunes. I’m happy to report that it does indeed work. We let iTunes play for a few hours sending the audio out to the computer’s speakers as well as two Airport Express units over the wireless network. The music is synchronized very well and while standing in between two different rooms with streams playing (one over the network and the other local on the computer) it sounded good with no signs of time phasing. I plan to hook two more Airport Express units into the network and attempt to send music to 5 separate sets of speakers at once. Stay tuned!

The number of convergence devices on the market continues to grow. For the time being, I’m defining convergence devices as anything that aims to bridge the gap between digital content stored on the computer and the entertainment system in the living room. Tivo’s Home Media Option is one such thing, though that’s actually an update to the regular series 2 Tivos rather than a new device. Here’s a device that does video and more formats of audio than the Tivo. That one joins this one from El Gato, the people who also make a Tivo-like product for the Mac that combines software with a firewire or usb device, as well as this one and this software for the ps2.

UPDATE: I found another one called Homepod.

UPDATE2: Yet another: Rokulabs.

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Sonos has announced a new set of devices that work together over ethernet to provide digital music to any room in your house (well, every room with the player device) all controllable from a nifty looking LCD remote control. In addition to the controller, you buy the player device that has a built in 50W amp and discrete RCA outputs. You put a player in every room you want music and the controller can control them all at once. They all access the digital music stored on your Macs and PCs on your network. Nifty. Kinda expensive, though.

Finally, a gadget to reduce the size of my wallet! Chameleon
Network
has produced a device that can mimic any magnetic card such as credit cards and those supermarket
savings cards. It sounds pretty nifty, but I think they might have trouble selling it to the average Joe or
Jane. They are pushing it as being more secure than a traditional credit card because it has a biometric
fingerprint scanner and other security features.
xhref=”http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,62545,00.html” mce_href=”http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,62545,00.html”>Wired has some more info on it. I may not
be first in line to buy this thing, but I’m all for reducing the number of cards in my wallet.

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