These fans inventing the home theater Mac

Note : this article has been originally published in the french magazine named Univers Mac, issue 160, dated May 2005. As of the time when I publish this online, the magazine is widely available in France. I reproduce the article here in english exclusively with the authorisation of Univers Mac publisher Bernard Montelh and editor in chief Eric Larcher, and with the help of Catherine Marchive, english teacher in Rambouillet, France.

Replacing a video recorder, a DVD player and the hi-fi platen of the living-room (and maybe other technological devices) by a Mac linked to the television one can use from your sofa, a dream ? After the successful launch of the Mac Mini hundreds of people volunteered to make that dream come true.

Nigel PearsonEd WolfNeil CurryOn January the 11th 2005, the Mac Mini is the star of Macworld show in San Francisco. Apple’s news created a great emotion. Many users immediately started to imagine it, being first place, under their TV, in the place of the video-recorder, the DVD player, and the PlayStation, like a true Media Center similar to the Media Centers PC users, with Windows or Linux, are used to. They are still under the great exciting impression caused by the rumours announcing the launch of an iHome, a Mac putting in all together the sources of digital leisures at home. As Apple didn’t do it they will do it themselves.
Barb Dybward is one of these users. Editor for Engadget, he has published the first step-by-step guide indispensable to understand and to achieve the transformation of the Mac Mini into a Media Center : ” The idea appeared before January 11th as soon as the very first rumours about the coming of a screenless Mac spread. ”
Barb DybwardZeno CivelliBarb Dybward as an example is not the only one. As Apple was breaking the news about the Mac Mini, Ed Wolf first year computer engineering student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York State, created iTheater, a project aiming at sharing photos, music, and videos of his Mac with his family, friends from a sofa : ” I posted a topic to the forums on SpyMac.com to get a feel for how people felt about the idea. After getting a lot of positive feedback, me and my friend Greg started the project. ” Neil Curry who is crazy about Mac and who is railway conductor, created the CenterStage Project, a similar enterprise : ” I was inspired to create the Mac Media Center Project. The purpose of the project is to create an intuitive and powerful media center application for the Mac platform. ” On his part, Zeno Crivelli, who is a software engineer from the Federal Polytechnical School of Lausanne started a Wikiproviding clear information about the metamorphosis of the Mac Mini into a Media Center. Bryan Greenway, project manager in a firm specialised in custom audio and video installations and Jonathan Green (marketing consultant) have launched the MacHTPC web site : ” the second I saw the Mac Mini I thought home theater. ” Through their website the two partners wish to explore the means to make the Mac Mini a system for home digital leisures.

A fantastic enthusiasm

These initiatives are just the visible part of a phenomenon engendering an incredible movement of passion. Marcus Müller, IT consultant and project manager, being at the origin of a USB module to emit and receive IR signals, baptised IRTrans, noticed an increase by 50 percent of the sales of its Mac version. At the very start of their website MacHTPC, Jonathan Greene and Bryan Greenway were satisfied with the traffic on line which was far beyond their expectations. “We thought it would be popular but without reaching such a point. It is no longer so important but it is still quite satisfactory. The website happened to top three thousand visits a day. Today they will reach one thousand a day.”
After his article on Engadget, Barb Dybward asserts that he has received more than one hundred and fifty commentaries, most of which being really positive or negative. The latter, so, the negative ones, coming from very anti-Mac people, unable to consider a computer replacing their digital video-recorder as something useful and positive. Ed Wolf also noted a great number of enthusiastic reactions as concerns the iTheater project : ” it seems to me that all the people would like to have an application like the Media Center for their Mac ! ” His website has five hundred registered visitors.
The very day he started launching the CenterStage project, Neil Curry ” had to set up a special site because he consumed 1,5 GB a day . Since then things have changed, decreasing slowly but we still have three thousand visits a day and ten to fifteen thousand connections a day. ” And we are not just talking of people who keep an eye on the project but also of people who are on the point of committing themselves to the project. ” I am still stunned by the large number of qualified people who decided just to help us, happy to take part in this open source project. ” Neil Curry is fully satisfied, through this type of recruitment, with the director of the development of CenterStage, Antoine Duchâteau, a thirty-one-year-old engineer from Brussels (Belgium). ” But Antoine is certainly not the only contributor “, he says.

The right product at the right moment

To generate such enthusiasm Apple may have launched the right product at the right moment. ” The Mac Mini is a cheap lovable machine, which can make a performing Media Center. And today this concept is not only for a small number of geeks. More and more people listen to MP3, have and use a digital camera, watch DVDs, and a digital video-recorder “, says Zeno Crivelli. Unfortunately we cannot know the right number of people using, choosing this kind of solution. Neither official study nor survey can help us have details about this newly born market ; neither the numbers for software downloads, nor the sales of the very few publishers of commercial solutions can really be taken into consideration. Whatever things may be, to Barb Dybward’s viewpoint, this incredible wave of enthusiasm is fully justified : ” ten years ago, very few people had a digital camera, which has radically changed (today, most of the time people have got one, being part of their mobile). It is so easy nowadays to produce and keep in store digital data of all sorts, that our electronic equipments need a computer to organise them properly. The Mac Mini seems to take these elements into account at the right moment. ” More simply, Jonathan Greene and Bryan Greenway think ” it is the proper modern piece of furniture for the living room. All its advantages make it a perfect guest at home or better the most reliable new member of the family : silence, small size, power, shape, reliability, price.” In fact, priced at 499 euros, the Mac Mini has no real competitor.
Besides,Zeno Crivelli underlines the fact it needs very little energy : ” 20 watts whereas a PC-Windows may need up to 160 watts. “

Just a kit

However, the Mac Mini is not the most perfect technological device to put in a living room because many things are missing. Bryan Greenway underlines the lack of a digital audio output indispensable to have all Home Theater functions. To make it work without it, Jonathan Greene thinks of the adaptor Transit of M-audio or Firewave of Griffin Technologies. Barb Dybward agrees that the M-audio can be a good solution but he also thinks of the multimedia Eye Home terminal from Elgato . On their own website, Zeno Crivelli and Neil Curry refer to these solutions too, adding M-audio Sonica and Sonica Theater. The way the Mac Mini was conceived and made makes it ready for all these accessories .
Its connection to a television or a flat screen is quite easy with the DVI/S-Video/composite adaptor for less than 20 euros by Apple. The multimedia Eye Home terminal d’Elgato or the Photobridge HD de Roku Labs gives the opportunity to view on a TV screen the videos recorded on the Mac. The latter, that is to say the Photobridge HD de Roku Labs appears to be the only means to see on your TV screen the videos MPEG-2 high definition : the Mac Mini is not powerful enough to broadcast 720p or 1080i videos. TV acquisition and recording of TV shows can be solved thanks to Evolution TV by Miglia equipped with integrated MPEG-2 and DIVX compression chips, or the Eye TV boxes by Elgato. One can find them for the digital television, the satellite, the cable, and the TNT. The website of the CenterStage project and the Wiki Mac mini Center give the list of most of the available solutions to start and use a Mac : Digital Media Remote and Express Remote by Keyspan, IRTrans, Keypoint USB Controler by Mac Ally, Air Click USB by Griffin Technologies and even Remote Wonder by ATI. Remote Wonder by Ati can also be found in France by Micro Application in its remote control for PC .The storage capacities of the MacMini can also be improved through external hard disks connected USB or Firewire or via NAS devices like D-Link NSLU2 and the enormous, stupendous RAID solution Terastation by Buffalo and G-Raid by G-Tech.

Daily use

Barb Dybward uses his Mac Mini as a Media Center, every day just like Nigel Pearson. Contrary to him Zeno Crivelli and Jonathan Green are not quite satisfied. For them an “all in one” application is still missing ; this type of application making things “far more easier for everybody”, especially for the average consumer. Jonathan Green wants to reduce the system to an ordinary tool, which could enable you to access nearly all the data from the remote control : ” Some people do not mind using the keyboard and the mouse but I think that, in that case, the system looks too much like a computer as opposed to the set top box I am longing for. You may find it and me a little crazy too but I want to reach that goal : to use the power of a computer in order to make the access to the data in store easier and the way to use the whole of it as well, through my home cinema. We could make my dream come true in the coming years thanks to some projects showing us we are on the right way. ” Whatever future may have in store, everything is ready to fulfil these expectations, craze and passion included.

A CONTAGIOUS ENTHUSIASM
MORE THAN 30 000 internauts, Mac and PC together regularly took part, mid March, in forums dedicated to all in one multimedia interfaces, all types of computers considered.
MORE THAN 1500 internauts, Mac only, were registered in the middle of March on the forums of the projects of development of all in one multimedia interfaces for a Home Theater Mac, just two months after the launch of the Mac Mini by Apple.
FROM 10 000 TO 15 000 is the average number of connections a day on the CenterStage project website. Some messages have been read more than 33 000 times .

A GUI that’s trying to find itself
At the very moment of printing, CenterStage and iTheater environments called to transform the Mac Mini into a multimedia set top box are at the stage of their first pre-versions of development. MythTV, their unixian equivalent, doesn’t really work properly yet on Mac OS X where in particular the live TV support which could help is still missing. To put the Mac at the heart of the living room, many users recourse to separated applications like iTunes associated with the plug-in Jewel Case 1.6 for music, iPhoto for images, VLC or MPlayer for the DivX, Matinee for the DVDs, iTele for the television and Cocoa JT for TV shows in streaming on Internet. Nevertheless, if the projects CenterStage and iTheater don’t give any precise day or month they are making progress very quickly.
The last stages of the port of MythTV could be boosted by the wave of passion generated by the Mac Mini. Already the solution includes FireWire and USB TV Tuners. Nigel Pearson who is at the origin of the first experiments of adaptation finds it a real source of hope. He also underlines the fact that making progress on these points is part of the elements I feel really concerned about.

Apple, the great missing one
Until the launch of the Mac Mini, some people believed in the birth of a iHome, a sort of Mac at the heart of the digital leisure controlled by remote control; a clever and artful video helped the rumour spread. Unfortunately hopes vanished very quickly. Today Apple is standing apart from the adventure of the iHome. So strange and unexpected, as the manufacturer has been building for several years his strategy after the concept of ” Digital Hub ” insisting on the fact that ” computers are at the meeting point of our new digital way of life. ”
NIGEL PEARSON who is at the origin of the MYTHTV port under Mac OS X confesses ” I am very sad and disappointed and may be a little angry. Apple has already conceived and created machines for this market, a few prototypes but also the MacTV, the LC/Performa 580 and the Power Mac 5×00 which were sold with a TV card and a remote control. With products like iTunes and iPhoto, Apple shows its interest for the digital leisure market but I think Steve Jobs has a grudge against the television and the remote controls. In fact I fear it might be too late for Apple if it (ever) wakes up ! ”
For others, like BARB DYBWARD form Engadget, there’s no doubt about it. ” Apple is going to disclose new multimedia solutions (software and hardware) in a near future. The Mac Mini is just a first step. ” According to Barb Dybward, ” Apple has everything indispensable to play a quite major part in the digital home market because it knows how simple and clear the user interface and the installation of the equipments on the network must be. ” The father of the iTheater project, ED WOLF, agrees with that statement . ” It’s just a question of time. ” And certainly the solution coming from Apple will be the best one for most of users. ” For ZENO CRIVELLI who is at the origin of the Mac Mini Media Center Wik, there’s nothing to worry about. ” The best products are not always the very early ones. For example, Google came much time later after Yahoo! And many MP3 portable players were already existing when Apple launched the iPod. If Apple must launch a product like an iLife Media Center Edition it can be nothing but excellent. “

GENESIS OF MythTV ON Mac OS X
MythTV was at the origin a multimedia solution for Linux imagined and created according to a special model based on client/server architecture. So it allows if necessary several computers to share their multimedia data in storage. The family link existing between Mac OS X and the world of UNIX made many fans crazy about the future Mac Mini, even before its launch. Nigel Pearson started an experiment as soon as may 2004 as concerns the port of Myth TV on Mac OS X : ” I told myself it would be interesting to try to compile the frontend (NDLR: client’s part which permits to access and control the functions and data hosted by the server) to see what would happen. I noticed that nearly 50 percent of the code worked properly and I concluded that this task was feasible. ” After a month, Nigel Pearson managed to compile all the frontend of MythTV on Mac OS X and he began to dispatch the modifications of the code indispensable to this adjustment. ” The very first days of June many users contacted me and the demand was already very important. ” In August things quickened as users got their hands on the documentation about the build and integration of the code supporting the audio functions, given by Jeremiah Morris.
Since then Jeremiah Morris has re-written the video functions in order to use QuickTime and to improve the performances of the whole system. At the beginning of February 2005 Isaac Richards, the author of MythTV officially announced the first version of his solution 100 percent Mac OS X compatible concerning the client part. ” I am likely to buy myself a Mini to add it as a frontend in my bedroom ” he says on his website. Today the three fans are joined by the members of the project Showtime, entirely dedicated to the port of MythTV on Mac OS X.