A write-up of my current entertainment / media setup

Discussion in 'Apple TV and Home Theater' started by desenso, Jul 5, 2007.

  1. desenso macrumors 6502a


    May 25, 2005
    Hi everyone. Apologies for the long post - read if you're interested in the nitty gritty, photos are at the bottom.

    For about 2 years, I've been searching for the "ultimate" home entertainment setup. Here are my criteria for a good setup:

    - Everything fully on-demand
    - Ubiquitous content, accessible from every room / television
    - Easy to set-up (no MythTV, etc)
    - Live television, DVR
    - Content quality (HD whenever possible)

    What I've achieved so far certainly doesn't meet all of these conditions. Like most, my biggest constraint is financial. With that said, this isn't a cheap setup either, and I don't claim it to be. I've put most of my spare change into building what I have now, and as I've said, it took several years, and selling my PowerMac, to achieve it.

    Here's the hardware and software that I use (with a rough cost estimate) to achieve my current setup. This DOESN'T INCLUDE TELEVISIONS, since most people have these to begin with.

    1x Intel Core Duo Mac Mini ($600 @ Apple)
    1x Elgato EyeTV Hybrid ($135 @ Amazon.com)
    1x AppleTV ($300 @ Apple)
    1x 750GB Seagate External HD ($250 @ Newegg.com)
    1x Visualhub ($23 @ Teachspansion.com)
    1x Handbrake (FREE)

    ~ $1308 total for a 2-television setup

    I hook this up to regular, non-digital Comcast cable. This is the main source for my non-hd, day-to-day content. My current apartment is a high-rise, and surrounded by other high-rise buildings, which means that I can't pick up OTA HD signal with the EyeTV Hybrid.

    I acquire my content via three primary sources:

    - Ripping DVDs. Just graduated from college, where I would generally rip most people's DVDs. Have a collection of roughly ~150 of them. I own about 80 of these in DVD form. I don't buy regular DVDs anymore because I have an xbox 360, so I only buy HD-DVDs that are worth it... netflix the rest for one-time watching.
    - Recording TV with the Hybrid
    - Download some TV

    Obviously, some of you may have some moral objection to the third. However, since I'm pretty much downloading network television in HD, to have better quality, I've learned to live with myself. Once the iTunes Music Store starts selling television shows in HD, I'll buy the ones I want.

    The Mac Mini is not used as a personal computer in the traditional sense. I have a MacBook Pro for 100% of my computing needs. The Mac Mini serves *only* as a media center and file conversion system. It's very useful to have a separate computer for doing this, as I'll explain in my iTunes setup.

    Where I am currently living (my girlfriend's apartment for a few months), we have one HD-capable TV and one regular, fairly old TV. Because of this, I hook up the AppleTV to the HDTV in the living room. If both were always synced this would be fine, but as I'll allude to in my drawbacks section, this can sometimes mean a delay on content where the AppleTV resides.

    The Mac Mini has both the Seagate external and the Elgato EyeTV hooked up to it. It sits in the bedroom, and is hooked up via the DVI -> composite adapter that I bought for my MacBook Pro. The latest EyeTV software is intelligent, in that it allows you to flip between full-screen television and Front Row using only the Apple remote. What this means, as you'll see in the photo, is that the Mac Mini is hooked up to the TV with no keyboard or mouse. Everything is controlled via the remote, or via VNC from the MacBook Pro.

    The Mac Mini is where all the content resides. Because I have way more digital content than could fit on the Mini, it's all stored on the Hard Drive. I used to just create aliases to the external HD within the Movies folder and, in combination with Perian, watch pretty much any video file from the Mini. This stopped working when I decided I wanted a similar setup in my living room without buying another Mac Mini (AppleTV being the only alternative). I have no interest in opening up my AppleTV and hacking it apart, so I decided that anything I watch on the AppleTV would have to be H264 streamed from the Mini.

    For this reason, iTunes on the Mac Mini is obviously set to auto-open, and all of the content is _not_ organized by iTunes (one of the options in the preferences). This is the only really tedious part for non-EyeTV content, because you have to add it into iTunes and name it properly. At the moment, I do this with VNC. Once I hook these up to my own HDTV (which has HDMI) and bedroom LCD (old, converted monitor) I might hook up a keyboard and do it directly on the Mini, since I'll be able to achieve resolutions greater than 640x480.

    Setting up the AppleTV is simple - it just streams media off of the Mac Mini. Obviously, I have it set to sync some of the latest TV shows and such, but for the most part due to the quantity of my digital media collection I usually just browse through the Mini's media library. The Mini obviously just has 802.11g, but despite this, content syncs just fine with no delays or skipping.

    The biggest issue I had with adding the AppleTV to this setup was dealing with DivX content. As I mentioned, I had no intention of busting it open and hacking in DivX compatibility (if they ever add a USB-only system that doesn't break the warranty, I certainly will do it). A chunk of my original movie rips were in xvid (forgive me, I sinned), and most of the TV shows you download these days are still DivX or xvid. I still wanted to access these on the AppleTV, however, so I bought a copy of VisualHub which does an amazing job (well beyond my expectations) of converting content to AppleTV-compatible H264. I've converted about a third of my archived, downloaded TV shows, just by running a big VisualHub queue at all times on the Mini. It really doesn't impact performance, from what I can tell.


    Overall, I love this setup. I've been waiting a long time to have the spare money to build this. Eventually, when I realized that I was using my MacBook Pro for all of my computing and my PowerMac G5 Dual 2.7 was becoming an expensive piece of modern metallic art, I looked on eBay to see what it was worth. I was stunned to find that after almost 2 years it had retained about 2/3rds of its original value. I sold it and bought the Mac Mini, the Apple TV and the external hard drive with some change to spare. Well worth the trade, I think.

    Is it perfect? No. Using EyeTV and Front Row from the Apple remote is admittedly clunky. Given the limitations of the remote, it does pretty well, but it's far from perfect. I also haven't figured out how to automatically have EyeTV encode everything it records -- if anyone knows how to do this, please let me know.

    Also, the AppleTV's inability to play DivX content, and content outside of the iTunes library is disappointing and pretty annoying. This basically requires two things -- one, is that if you want to have the full breadth of your media collection available at all times, and if that collection is larger than the AppleTV's hard drive size (which it would have been regardless of which model I purchased), you have to have the hosting computer turned on at all times. This is fine, unless your computer also can't store all of your digital content (which my MacBook Pro, for instance, cannot). This isn't such an issue for me, since the Mac Mini acts both as a media center, and as a hosting device, but for others who don't have this luxury, but have a large media collection, it could become a nuisance - especially when you deal with hundreds of gigs worth of media content in your main computer's iTunes library.

    With that said, this is a great setup. I tried a number of less expensive alternatives, such as MythTV and pretty much every single Windows home-theatre PC software. None of them even begin to compare to the Front Row, and CERTAINLY don't compare to FrontRow 2.0, or whatever you want to call the Apple TV software.

    Software wise, the biggest thing I miss in the various FrontRows is the ability to shuffle video playlists. I still find myself watching television shows that I have ON DEMAND on actual television, with commercials, because sometimes I just want random television fed to me. I'd love to be able to group all "easy to consume, mindless TV" into a playlist and have it shuffle me episodes out of order (think Seinfeld, Friends, Two and a Half Men, and King of Queens on random shuffle, non-stop... fantastic!).

    I also need to find a way to sync my iTunes music library on my MacBook Pro with the library on the Mac Mini without managing these additions in iTunes. If anyone knows how to do this, I'd also love to know how.

    I've included some photos. Apologies for the crappy quality, I couldn't be bothered to whip out my camera so I used my iPhone.

    AppleTV hooked up to the "main" HDTV.

    Mac Mini, EyeTV and Seagate hooked up to a regular, older TV

    Another shot of the cable mess...
  2. pjac macrumors regular

    Jun 20, 2007
    I see you have two TVs:

    * 4:3 TV using a mac mini (running FrontRow)
    * Widescreen TV using an Apple TV (running 'Front Row 2.0' aka 'Back Row')

    Both are controlled with Apple's cute little remote controls.

    How similar are the apple GUIs? Which do you prefer etc?

    I'm asking because my old TV is 4:3 and doesn't have the right connections for the Apple TV, but I could buy a Mac Mini instead...
  3. ftaok macrumors 603


    Jan 23, 2002
    East Coast
    I didn't read the whole thing completely, but I did want to point out that you might be able to get the HD local channels with your Basic Cable subscription. If you had a QAM tuner, you'd probably be able to get ABC-HD, NBC-HD, CBS-HD, PBS-HD, and maybe MyNetwork-HD and CW-HD.

    The Hybrid does not have a QAM tuner, but the Miglia TVmini HD does. The catch is that the TVmini HD does not have an analog tuner for the SD cable channels. Miglia has been promising the TVmini HD+, but it has not yet shipped.

  4. topher5 macrumors newbie

    May 30, 2007
    I have a similar setup with a few differences:

    I have 2 AppleTVs
    I use the Mini as a dedicated server with no direct TV access
    I have a elgato turbo264 to speed up my EyeTV conversions.
    I use the Miglia TVMiniHD for OTA HD signal, no cable access.

    I'd agree that it is a great setup. A little pricy but not that bad considering I'm about to drop my cable service all together.

    I have some questions though. For your EyeTV recordings, what's the delay before they are ready to be viewed on the AppleTV? With the turbo264 I'm looking at approximately the length of the program on an old G4 1.4Ghz Mini. So a 30 minute show that ends at 8:30 is ready on the AppleTV at 9pm. I assume you are seeing a similar delay?

    Also I haven't tried this yet but do you have any problems recording a show while converting another recording?
  5. desenso thread starter macrumors 6502a


    May 25, 2005
    Converting from EyeTV to the AppleTV is one of the downsides, as I mentioned, because I haven't figured out if EyeTV lets you set this automatically. Also, the default conversion tends to be a little over the top (650 megs for a 30 minute show?)

    Anyways, the delay is long. It takes a couple of hours to convert a half hour show, more for an hour-long show. I also ordered the turbo264, should be here on Monday, specifically to try and speed this up.

    I converted & recorded last night at the same time... it didn't seem to cause a big issue.
  6. desenso thread starter macrumors 6502a


    May 25, 2005
    The FrontRow2.0/BackRow GUI is, in my opinion, far better than FrontRow1.0. Scrolling, nicer interface, and it seems snappier.

    With that said, the mac Mini makes a good purchase, especially if some of your content is not purchased from the iTMS. It's also very easy to hook up to an older TV. Definitely recommended, and if you ever do buy a new TV, you could do a similar setup with a AppleTV...
  7. pjac macrumors regular

    Jun 20, 2007
    This guy also prefered the Apple TV GUI:

    When using the Mac Mini on the 4:3 TV, did you have any issues with underscan/overscan (as nicely illustrated in that ArsTechnica article)?
  8. topher5 macrumors newbie

    May 30, 2007

    In EyeTV you can set each scheduled recording to automatically export for AppleTV. I believe you can also automatically add it to a playlist of you are so inclined. Works great for me, I don't have to do anything for new shows to show up on the AppleTV (since I stream content).

    I've only found a couple problems that I haven't solved yet. The latest release of EyeTV has changed the episode descriptions to populate the comments field instead of the description field. From what I can tell, AppleTV only shows you the description field so it ends up being blank. This wasn't the case in the older version. The second problem is that depending upon how you set it up, you have to manually remove at least the original MPEG2 file and in at least my case another copy of the converted H.264 file as cleanup. I can't figure out a way to do it automatically short of a unix or applescript.
  9. Scarpad macrumors 68000


    Jan 13, 2005
    Elgato has sent me the 1.1 version of the turbo 264 app, it now has alot of customizable options for creating your own templates, unfortunately it's also terribly buggy, encoding fails from alot of the vobs I'm feeding it, so I'm still using the earlier beta for my encodes. For most stuff I stay with the Ipod High Profile, it give mes a pretty good TV image and still the file is Ipod Compatible. I do use the Apple TV Profile for some stuff thou.
  10. gkarris macrumors 604


    Dec 31, 2004
    "No escape from Reality..."
    Am I hearing correctly that Leopard's "Front Row" will be more like :apple:TV? (other articles).

    I looked at Front Row on my Mini and I think I would prefer :apple:TV's.
  11. imlucid macrumors 6502

    May 3, 2007
    Yes, FrontRow 2 on Leopard shares the same UI with Apple TV.

  12. desenso thread starter macrumors 6502a


    May 25, 2005
    I'm confused - you've found a setting somewhere that will automatically set it to export to the Apple TV if you add a recording? So you can add a recording from within the full-screen menu, and it will schedule it to export to Apple TV?

    I kow that on repeat schedules, and from the schedules section of the Control window, I can select Apple TV for each of my scheduled recordings, once those recordings are done, but I cannot find a way for it to export a new schedule recording without me specifying that each time

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