These are my experiences setting up a home media centre.
A couple of years ago I decided to upgrade to digital TV. Since this would mean replacing all of my existing components, I decided to perform a complete review of the options.
These were the requirements:
- Record TV for later viewing (time shifting)
- Play internet video
- Manage and play a music library
- Easy to use
- Easy to expand and upgrade
- Stylish (does not look out of place in my lounge room)
Hardware / Software
Looking at the various PVRs (eg: Tivo, etc) I found that they did not have all of the features that I required, especially being able to expand and upgrade. There also seemed to be lots of gaps and limitations with the functionality.
So I started looking at using a media centre package. This meant having a computer in the lounge room. Now while I would be quite happy to share my lounge room with a server cluster, most non-geek people would object, so any computer would have to look the part.
There were two basic choices for hardware: A small form PC, or a Mac Mini. While the availability of stylish PC hardware seems to have improved significantly over the past couple of years, back then there was not much to choose from. Also software for the PC was an issue. The options were Windows Media Centre or a custom Linux solution (which involved a lot of configuration). Again, I am sure the situation has improved now that more people are doing this, but back then it was still very much an ‘experimental’ area. As the Mac Mini certainly looked the part and the software would all work ‘out of the box’, I decided on that option.
The Elgato EyeTV Diversity Dual-Tuner DVB-T stick was the recommended as the TV tuner, and it came with EyeTV PVR software.
The Mac Mini only had a 120GB hard disk, which once the software was installed, did not leave a lot of room for video, so an external hard disk would be required.
The actual TV was the easy part. As I live in a fairly small apartment and I was expecting the media centre to do most of the work, a basic 80cm LCD TV would suffice.
The only other problem was to get an internet connection into the lounge room as the ADSL router was in the study at the other end of the apartment and running a CAT-5 cable was not an option. I could have used WiFi but I already use that for the laptops and did not want to flood the router capacity by streaming video, so I decided to use a NetComm Homeplug ‘Ethernet Over Power’ solution.
I bought all of the Mac stuff from Computers Now in Malvern, who were very helpful.
The TV I bought on special from Harvey Norman, which is where I had my first problem. It was partly my fault, but the sales guy could have asked the obvious questions. I had read in Choice that HDMI cables could be very expensive and that the cheap cables were perfectly acceptable but could be hard to find. Sure enough the cheapest cable at Harvey Norman was $85 (Choice suggested about $20). So what I saved on the TV, I paid on the cable. Unfortunately when I went to put it all together the cable did not fit the Mac Mini, and I had to go back to Computers Now for an adapter. Which was a waste of a journey as Harvey Norman had the right cable on their shelf that they could have sold to me in the first place.
Despite never having used a Mac before, setting up the Mac Mini and installing the tuner was easy; within a couple of hours I was watching TV. I connected a 1TB drive as extra storage and used a 320GB drive for Time Machine backups.
Time Machine would have to be the easiest backup solution I have ever used. As soon as I connected the external drive, it asked if I wanted to use it for Time Machine backups. Selecting ‘Yes’ configures the drive and starts the backup, everything then happens automatically. And as it is a standard part of Mac OS X, it is free.
I used my existing HiFi for the sound, which had the added facility of being able to copy my old cassette tapes and vinyl records to digital MP3s using Garage Band. As I had already ripped my CD collection to iTunes, I could now play all of my music library on the HiFi using the Mac Mini.
This is when I started having problems. The TV reception to the Diversity tuner was fine until I connected the TV and the FM radio in the HiFi, then they all had poor reception and interference. Trouble shooting found that connecting one of these directly to the socket on the wall was fine, but the problems occurred when the four way splitter was connected. I do not have a signal strength meter that covers the TV band so I could not confirm this, but it appeared that the signal was weak and there was cross coupling between the devices via the antenna cables. So there was a quick trip to Dick Smith for a TV Splitter Amplifier, which improved things. However the signal still seemed to suffer from interference. Removing the TV socket from the wall revealed that the rear of the socket was completely rusted away and the coax was connected more from habit than anything else. Everything was much better after another trip to Dick Smith for a socket.
Setting up the NetComm Homeplugs was very easy and worked perfectly when I tested them in the study (next to the router). However when I moved one end to the lounge with the Mac Mini, there was no signal. I tried a few things with zero success. A bit of research on the internet found that the Homeplugs will not work properly with many types of power board. I should have realized this; many power boards contain electronics and line filters to prevent over loading and for over voltage protection. These often block the high frequency signals used by the Homeplugs. Plugging them directly into the power points on the wall solved this problem and I was able to get an internet connection to the Mac Mini.
The next problem was when I tried to connect the old VCR recorder so that I could convert tapes to DVD; the EyeTV software would not show the VCR no matter what I did. The TV could receive it without any issue. After much head scratching, the penny dropped. The Diversity stick has dual DIGITAL tuners, whereas the VCR has an ANALOG output. The TV has a combined digital/analog tuner, so it worked fine. Back to Computers Now for a Elgato EyeTV Hybrid digital/analog stick. This was actually a bit of a bonus. Apart from being able to record analog signals, it also meant that I could record three TV programs at once and never need to miss a show again.
The complete solution is fantastic. The Mac Mini looks the part; even my non-geek female friends like the look of it. Though they do wonder a bit about the wireless keyboard and mouse on the coffee table.
Watching YouTube or ABC iView over the internet is just like watching the broadcast signal.
The EyeTV PVR software is very easy to use. Recording and playing back programs does not take more than a few mouse clicks. One problem is that if the EyeTV software crashes (which is not often) the only way to start it again is to reboot the Mac Mini. There must be some process deep in the background that needs to be killed but I have not found it.
The other problem was that, unlike all of the other stations, the Nine Network (Nine, Nine HD, GO!) did not broadcast a program guide via DVB. I have no idea why this is. There was quite a bit of discussion about it in various forums, but no answers. I do not know how Nine expect us to watch their programs if we do not know what they are broadcasting. I got around this issue by writing a Java application to download the program guides from the OzTivo severs (here).
Using the VCR and Hybrid tuner I was able to convert many old VCR tapes for family and friends to DVDs. This proved to be very easy, but there was one problem.
Burning the DVD from EyeTV using iDVD was very slow. The complete process would take up to four hours for each hour of video. It seems that the issue was that EyeTV had recorded the video as MPEG-2, where as iDVD needed a DV format, so it did a conversion. Then to burn the disk, it converted it back to MPEG-2. After a bit research, I found that Roxio Toast had better integration with EyeTV. Not only was this a lot quicker, but much easier to use as there was a Toast button in EyeTV that did everything for you.
I am very happy with the final result. All of my requirement have been met and I can even record three programs at once.