Monday, November 10

DIY Home Media PC Mac on the Cheap (free if you already have the hardware)

Last week, a friend of mine (wink wink) finally bit the bullet and cancelled her cable TV service and switched to entirely on-line content delivery for her viewing entertainment. Here's how she pulled it off.

Hardware

Mac Mini

She had an old Mac Mini (PowerPC) sitting in her closet collecting dust. Now it's sitting under her TV collecting entertainment.

Remote Control

I think all Macs now come with built-in infrared (IR) remote control support, but her old Mac Mini predated that standard. She already had an apple remote that came with her not-quite-as-old laptop, so she just needed the IR receiver. A quick Google suggested that Twisted Melon's Manta TR1 was the popular choice, so she picked one up.

Software

BitTorrent

If you want to download shared media you need a peer-to-peer client. She chose Transmission as it seemed to be the simplest and cleanest alternative for OS X and it has an option in the Preference panel to "Ignore unencrypted peers" which means any nosey gnomes in your pipes aren't going to be able to see what you're downloading.

Torrent Episode Downloader

Now that you have the means of downloading torrents, you need a way to find them. Enter TED (great name, by the way) which goes out and finds your shows for you, and keeps up on them, grabbing new episodes as they are released. Keep in mind that shows don't usually appear on the torrents until the morning after they air so you're not going to be able to participate in the water-cooler conversations at the office.

DivX

Most of the shows are encoded in a video format called DivX, which Quicktime doesn't natively support, so you'll need to download and install the freely available codec. Unfortunately it includes a lot of other crap, like its own proprietary player, but you can ignore or delete it.

Hamachi

One of the reasons she could no longer justify her cable bill is she's rarely home; she travels a lot. When she's on the road she likes to check in on her media Mac so she needed some means of communicating with it. If you've got the time and ambition, you can get yourself a hackable router and some open-source firmware and register a domain with a dynamic DNS provider and... blah, blah blah. She wanted something dirt simple. Hamachi is the right tool for that job; it's an idiot-proof virtual private network (VPN) system. You install it on your target machine and on any other machines you wish to use for remote access and you're golden.

Front Row

Your Mac comes with Front Row. You can use it to listen to music and view photos but what you really care about here is watching shows. If you configure the aforementioned torrent downloading tools to save their files into your Movies folder, Front Row will automatically find them. And, of course, you can use your remote control to run the show from the comfort of your couch.

Miscellany

Security

For the sake of preventing herself from inadvertently screwing anything up on her system, she created a separate non-administrator account on OS X named "tv" and configured it to automatically sign-in. So when the box reboots after a power outage or a patch install, it goes right back into the "tv" account.

Convenience

She also added TED and Transmission to the start-up items list for this "tv" account so they run automatically.

Disk Space

Her old Mac Mini has a very small hard drive so disk space is an issue. The first thing she did was grab Monolingual and remove all the non-English resources files she wasn't ever going to need. This cleared up a good bit of space. But she also has to regularly go in and delete old/watched shows before the disk fills up - sadly you can't delete shows from Front Row.

4 comments:

Michael Nordness said...

Wow, perfect timing I am doing the same thing this weekend. I'll let you know how I screw it up.

Allan

Herval said...

why not xbmc? http://xbmc.org/

Teflon Ted said...

xbmc is x86 only.

Don said...

I too am thinking of trying but have read that the video quality, even on the 2 GHz model, is not very good (jerky motion, pixelation, etc). Has anyone seen what happens when a high-def video is played though DVI/HDMI interface?

Dave