I decided to revisit my old “Mac Home Media Center” page with the thought of updating it again as my system has matured and evolved. Then it occurred to me that I’ve changed it so much from the original vision I might as well start over. So here’s how my Digital Home Media Center is currently set up. Oh, and a word of warning, I use several Apple products for this. It is not a slam against Microsoft. I just happen to prefer Apple computers. I’m sure only a few substitutions could convert this to a PC based system.
What I already have:
- Samsung 50″ plasma HDTV
- Yamaha 5.1 surround sound system with HDMI
- Wireless-G home network
- 20″ Aluminum iMac
So off we go…Let’s start with getting rid of the physical media. I own roughly 300 movies, 3 complete television series, and about $2500 of anime on DVD. I have a lot of discs and they take up a ridiculous amount of room. To solve this I got a 1TB USB hard drive. I went with a SimpleTech drive. It’s inexpensive and works really well. The first thing I did was connect it to my iMac and use Disk Utility to reformat it to HFS. Now I should have plenty of space for my current media library because it takes roughly 1GB per hour of video. If you need more space, you may want to consider spending a bit more money on something like a Drobo (which will be what I eventually upgrade to).
Now that storage space is no longer a problem, you need to consider management. Since I’m using an iMac, I decided on iTunes. The tight integration makes it a natural choice and allows me to watch my movies easily on the computer and share it on my network. To accomplish this I moved my entire iTunes library to the external drive. I only have about 10GB of music and audiobooks so there’s still plenty of space for the videos. There are plenty of other options for this but iTunes on a Mac just works…I wouldn’t recommend it for Windows users because the iTunes experience there is…well…it sucks. If you plan on using any iTunes content with your XBox360, I suggest getting Connect360 or Rivet. Both programs will let you share iTunes libraries and selected folders with the 360 and both are right around $20.
The next question is how does one get the movies from the DVD to the hard drive? That’s another easy one: Handbrake. There’s really no other option worth considering because Handbrake is free, it works great, and has presets for almost every possible way you might want to save the file (AppleTV, XBox360, iPod, whatever). However, this is only the first step. After you go through all the trouble of ripping these movies, it’s nice to have cover art, chapter names, descriptions and other assorted information. You could enter it all by hand or you can just use MetaX. It’s another free program. Just configure it to also pull information form TagChimp since it usually has the best cover art and most accurate information. You can even set Handbrake to automatically send the file to MetaX after the rip. Then you can set MetaX to send to iTunes after adding all metadata. Neat, eh?
So now you have a digital library. It’s stuck on this one computer, though. That’s easy enough to fix. First you need a home network, but who doesn’t have that these days? I’m not going to cover putting one together…just Google it. But there’s still the question of playing these files on your nifty HD television. Now my decision here is probably not the first choice for many people but I got an AppleTV. This decision was driven by a couple of factors. One, I use an iMac and iTunes which the AppleTV will integrate with effortlessly. Two, it has HDMI out which is a must for me (and why I didn’t get a Mac Mini). Third, it’s cheaper than a PC or Mac Mini. Sure, the processor is a bit underpowered but I have yet to find a video stream from my iMac it can’t keep up with. Just hook it up to the television and to your home network and join it to iTunes on your main system and there you go.
This particular configuration has several advantages. One, everything integrates with very little effort. Two, it’s all done for less than $450. Three, there’s no stupid DRM to deal with. Four, should occasional DRM not bother you, both the AppleTV and iTunes give you the ability to buy/rent shows from the iTunes Store seamlessly. I’ve purchased several movies on sale and it literally is ready to start playing in 30 seconds or less.
What I bought:
- Connect360 ($20) – Optional…for XBox360 sharing only
- 40GB AppleTV ($249)
- 1TB SimpleTech USB HDD ($93 on sale, $149 regular)
Next up…replacing cable television with broadband internet