System administrators in films

I recently watched Cargo (2009), which turned out to be a pretty decent sci-fi film (sort of a cross between Silent Running, The Matrix and Alien). One thing I particularly enjoyed about the film, however, was that a key member of the spaceship’s crew was a system administrator (and a female sysadmin at that!). I liked the way this character was important to the plot, and I was amused by the way the filmmakers gently poked fun at the geeky nature of sysadmins.

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My Mac mini-based media centre

For quite some time I’d been looking forward to building a decent media centre, and after rearranging my flat recently I had a great lounge area, so I went ahead and built it. I’ve read quite a few blog entries about other people’s Mac mini-based media centres over the last few months, and now that I’ve been using my new setup for a few weeks it’s time to write mine!

Audio and video source: Apple Mac mini (Late 2009) 2.26 GHz

I make no apologies for the fact that I enjoy the quality, convenience and power of Apple products, and this was a significant factor in my decision here. If I was a Windows user then I expect a PC running Windows Media Center would have fitted in with my setup much better, but with my music library in iTunes, my photo library in Aperture and so forth, it made a huge amount of sense in terms of interoperability to use a Mac for the source in my media centre.

As well as rejecting Windows Media Center because it wouldn’t have fitted in very well with my technology setup, I also considered the Apple TV and the Sony PS3. I wasn’t keen on either of these, however, because you can’t connect TV receivers to them in order to use them as DVRs. There would also have been a lack of flexibility in other areas due to limitations of these devices. For example, I might not have been able to get to the catch-up websites for TV channels (e.g. iPlayer or 4OD), and with the PS3 I wouldn’t have been able to access my photographs or all of my music library. With my media centre I didn’t want to be restricted – I wanted to have the flexibility to use any media source I fancied, so I ended up ruling these two devices out also.

Research suggested that the 2.26 GHz Mac mini would be fine for full HD content, which was a requirement for this system, and I can now confirm that this is indeed the case, even for 1080p content. So I just bought the basic 2.26 GHz Mac mini with no upgrades, because that was perfect for my needs. I didn’t need any more storage because all my media is stored on my Mac Pro and shared over the network as needed. A few weeks after I bought mine, however, Apple radically overhauled the Mac mini for the first time in its five-year history, and when I was saw this I was initially very annoyed at the timing. When I saw that the price had been increased to an ridiculous degree, however, I was less concerned. I also don’t think the new Mac mini looks as nice as the old one, although the reduced power consumption would have been nice, and the HDMI port would have been extremely handy. Oh well.

Digital TV receiver: Miglia TVMini

I’ve actually had this TVMini for a few years. It’s a small device which connects to my Mac via USB, and a TV aerial connects to the other end of it, and as such it allows me to watch standard Freeview digital TV on my Mac. It does the job very well.

If a decent amount of channels become available on Freeview HD at some point, then I’ll probably sell this TV receiver and get a new one which enables me to watch the Freeview HD channels.

Television: LG 32LH3000

Research suggested that it ought to be possible to get a decent 32″ 1080p LCD television without spending too much money, and this was indeed the case. I was initially bewildered by the huge quantity and variety of televisions there are on offer, but by comparing TVs in Richer Sounds and doing some supporting research online, I eventually decided upon the LG 32LH3000.

For a while it came down to a choice between the 32LH3000, the 32LH4000, and the 32LH5000 (and wow, LG really do give their products some catchy names). The 32LH4000 was, I think, the same as the 32LH3000 but with some extra ports I didn’t need, so it was easy to rule that one out. The 32LH5000 had a 100 Hz refresh rate as opposed to the 50 Hz refresh rate on the 32LH3000, and I spent some time working out whether or not this was desirable. When I compared the two in the shop, I found I actually preferred the 50 Hz refresh rate on the 32LH3000, because the display on the 32LH5000 seemed strangely blurred in a way I didn’t like. Also, research suggested that faster refresh rates on cheaper televisions could actually detract from the display quality. So I ended up going for the 32LH3000, which is great because it was the cheapest of the three, and very good value in Richer Sounds.

Some reviews criticise the 32LH3000 for its imperfect rendering of blacks and dark colours, but I think it looks fantastic (and absolutely amazing for the price). And, as with the sound of hi-fi, there is a degree of subjectivity involved as to which type of screen and picture you like. I think it looks wonderfully crisp and bright, especially with HD content, and I’m very pleased with it. Interestingly, this whole range of TVs already seems to have been discontinued, so I presume these have been replaced with a similar but equally huge and baffling range of new models.

I also took the opportunity to get a nice TV stand in Richer Sounds.

Hi-fi: Epoz AktiMate Maxi active speakers

These are ‘active’ speakers, which means that they have a built-in amplifier and are therefore powered from the mains. There is some controversy over the definition of active speakers, with some people saying that speakers can only be defined as active if they have an active crossover. However, most people seem to use the terms ‘active’ and ‘powered’ interchangeably for speakers with a built-in amplifier, regardless of whether or not the speakers have an active crossover, so I’m going to do the same for the purposes of this post.

Some time ago I figured out that a Mac would make a great audio source with my music encoded in Apple Lossless format, so I just needed to work out what hi-fi components to combine with the Mac mini for my media centre. Accordingly, I wandered into the excellent Bartletts Hi-Fi on Holloway Road. When I explained that I was using a Mac mini with lossless audio as a source, they immediately suggested the AktiMate Maxi active speakers. I did some further research and asked questions in other hi-fi shops, but I didn’t feel that any of them were as knowledgeable as Bartletts or had understood my requirements as well.

I arranged a listening session at Bartletts in which I compared the Epoz AktiMate Maxi speakers with a tradtional setup consisting of separate amp and speakers. There was no contest – the AktiMate speakers sounded fantastic, and incredibly good for the money. The reason these speakers are so good is because they combine components from Epos and Creek, two high-quality British hi-fi brands (although Epoz is actually an Australian company), and because costs are saved due to the absence of a separate amplifier.

Because the AktiMate Maxi speakers also happen to include an iPod dock, wireless connectivity, a radio, and various other hi-tech features which I don’t personally use, they seem to be marketed primarily as ‘computer speakers’ or ‘iPod speakers’, but this is doing them a huge disservice because they’re actually fantastic hi-fi components at an incredible price. I strongly recommend them for anyone considering a media centre setup similar to mine, and they’d generally be extremely good for any hi-fi setup unless a separate amplifier is particularly required. They also come with a remote, which was particularly important for me as I didn’t want to have to get out of my seat just to alter the volume.

The AktiMate Maxi speakers don’t have a digital input, but I plan to buy a separate DAC at some point in the future. At the moment the analogue output from the Mac mini is going straight into the AktiMate Maxi speakers, but I’ve given myself an upgrade option for the future of taking the digital output from the Mac mini into a DAC prior to the AktiMate Maxi speakers, and this will provide more audio clarity.

Even without the DAC, however, the Mac mini sounds absolutely wonderful through the AktiMate Maxi speakers. The sound is huge and incredibly compelling, with a fantastic range of dynamics and frequencies, and a great stereo image. The bass is excellent but not overpowering. They’re a truly great pair of speakers.

I also bought a pair of Atacama Nexus 6 speaker stands to put the speakers on, as these seemed like they would do the job nicely.

Interconnects

As I bought the the TV and the Mac before the speakers, I bought a stupidly expensive cable from the Apple Store to connect the Mini-DisplayPort output and the digital audio output from the Mac to the HDMI input on the TV. As the audio from the Mac now goes to the speakers, I might actually sell this cable on eBay and just buy a cheap DVI-to-HDMI cable instead, since that’s all I need now (as my Mac mini has both Mini-DisplayPort and Mini-DVI outputs for video). Of course, this is even easier with the new Mac minis because you can just use a standard HDMI cable.

As explained above, I’m connecting the analogue audio output from the Mac to the speakers, so that just requires a standard stereo mini-jack to two phono cable. When I get my DAC at some point in the future, I’ll need a cable to connect the mini-TOSLINK digital audio output on the Mac to the digital input on the DAC, then I imagine the DAC will connect to the speakers using a standard hi-fi phono cable.

All power cables and other cables required came in the boxes and didn’t need to be bought separately.

Controllers

I was keen to operate my media centre comfortably with a simple remote control as much as possible, so I bought an Apple Remote. This is a lovely remote control (although they really ought to come free with the Mac mini like they used to). I could have just used a remote control app on my iPhone, but I don’t like the lack of tactile feedback you get with that, plus it’s annoying that you can’t control the media centre when you’re typing out a text or an email.

However, there are times when keyboard and mouse input is necessary, and for this I wanted a wireless keyboard with touchpad, but I didn’t want to spend too much on it. I found the perfect solution in the form of the KeySonic Wireless Keyboard with Touchpad – Mac version. This does the job very well and I thoroughly recommend it.

Software

So that brings us nicely onto software. My Mac mini is running Snow Leopard, which is normally set to run in full 1080p on the TV (although it’s easy to shift the resolution down to 720p if required), and on top of that I primarily use Front Row, Plex and EyeTV, with Remote Buddy as a front-end to allow me to control all of these with the Apple Remote. I’ll now go into more detail on this setup.

I use Front Row (which comes with Snow Leopard) for listening to music and podcasts from my iTunes library, for looking at photos from my Aperture library, and for playing DVDs. It’s also good to have the option of watching films and TV programmes from the iTunes Store should I ever buy any of those. My iTunes and Aperture libraries are on my Mac Pro, so for the iTunes library I just have ~/Music/iTunes as an Alias to the iTunes library on my Mac Pro. For some reason this Alias method didn’t work for my Aperture library, so I went into the terminal and created ~/Pictures/Aperture Library.aplibrary as a symlink to the Aperture library on my Mac Pro, and that worked fine.

When I first discovered the Plex media centre software, I thought it had great potential as an all-in-one media centre controller. Unfortunately, however, I don’t think that potential has really been fulfilled in the year since I wrote about it. I find its interface for viewing photos and listening to music too fiddly and annoying, and that’s why I’m using Front Row for those purposes. However, Plex is still excellent for managing and viewing a library of your ripped DVDs, so that’s what I use it for now. The interface looks lovely, and the control and information that it provides is superb.

I think Boxee has caught up very quickly as an alternative to Plex, however, and it seems really nice now. I still prefer Plex to Boxee, but not by much, so I’m not using Boxee currently but that may change in the future. Both Boxee and Plex provide plugin architectures to provide access to third-party sites such as YouTube and iPlayer. However, I frequently find the plugins in both applications to be unstable and ineffective, so I don’t tend to bother with them. It generally seems better to just visit the websites for those sites directly. Both Boxee and Plex are free.

EyeTV 3 by Elgato is the software I use for watching live TV, listening to live radio, and for using my Mac mini as a DVR. It’s paid software and it works very well for the purpose. I’ve tried The Tube by Equinux as an alternative, but I found it more fiddly to use and the picture quality wasn’t as good as EyeTV.

So, Front Row, Plex and EyeTV are all controllable with the Apple Remote, but it’s obviously far from ideal if you still have to use a mouse or a keyboard to start these applications in the first place. This is where IOSPIRIT’s Remote Buddy comes in. It’s a utility which allows you to control many aspects of your Mac with your Apple Remote (or other types of remote control). You can use it to start applications, access additional control menus from within applications, and perform other tasks such as putting the Mac to sleep. It looks good, it works well, and it’s highly configurable, so for most of the things I do on my Mac mini there’s never any need to use anything other than the Apple Remote. It also has a handy feature where it forces the mouse pointer to stay in a part of the screen where it won’t interfere with any of the software you’re using.

This gives access to EyeTV and Plex, and also enables you to eject CDs or shut down the Mac. Front Row isn’t on the menu because that’s accessible simply by clicking the Menu button on the Apple Remote. All of this is configurable within Remote Buddy. When selecting an application – EyeTV, for example – it takes you into a submenu which enables you to start the application. When you’ve finished with the application, just quit from it, then you’re back into Remote Buddy to choose what to do next.

Every so often I’ll want to use something that’s tricky with the Apple Remote, such as Last.fm, Spotify, YouTube, iPlayer, 4OD or something else on the Web, so when that happens I just grab the KeySonic wireless keyboard, start up a web browser or other application as required, and off I go. When I’ve finished that I quit the application, put the keyboard away, and I’m back to Remote Buddy and the Apple Remote again. It’s a system that works very well for me.

Conclusion

So I think that pretty much covers it all. The end result is a media centre that’s great quality, very easy to use, and extremely powerful and flexible. Here’s a picture of my new media centre in all its glory. In the foreground you can see the Apple Remote, plus the remotes for the TV and the speakers (which are only used for turning the TV and speakers on and off and altering the volume):

mediacentre

The Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition

I recently visited the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was interesting and fun, and the enthusiasm of the scientists and their impressive achievements left me feeling very uplifted and optimistic. The information being presented was fascinating, but it was also intriguing to see how they presented the information. A wide variety of methods were used, and some were more effective than others.

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