How I would do a Mac Media Center

For the past few months, I have been bitching about Apple’s choice – along with MicroSuck, whose DRM policies are getting to the point of needing a monetary smack from consumers – for entertainment center software and hardware. Unfortunately, bitching about something and not offering a good solution isn’t all that cool.

Understand that this is my opinion, and that most people won’t agree with me. Also realize that, although this is more specified to the Mac, it’d be nice to see in Windows and Linux-based media centers. All of them have flaws that are pretty common, and the sooner we all get on the same page, the better.

What I’d like to see

A Media Center machine, to me, should be 3 things: Simple enough to use, powerful enough to do what I want, ready for the next challenge. When I come home, the last thing I want to do is swap between different tasks just to have entertainment. Unfortunately, no one gets this right.

When I look at what the current media center software can do, I am extremely disappointed. granted, the machines are capable of being DVRs, and even capable of multitasking, but where’s the capability to go to a show’s website while watching it on TV and chatting with my friends, either via video-chat or instant message, at the same time? What about being videos off the internet? Sure, some of this can be done – using separate apps. Most of the time, the machines have to be underpowered, meaning it’s not good enough for PC gaming.

I shouldn’t have to sit in front of a computer desk to get all of this, nor should I have to rely on an extra box for this. It should be a simple matter of hooking up the audio outputs to an amplifier, video hookups to the TV, and power hookups. After that, charge the batteries to the remotes, if need be, fire it up, and pull that collection of films out of your library.

Yes, you PC people can argue that you can do this, but with a lot of catches. First, you need a separate program for game-launching – you’d think one of the companies that actually knows how to make a console would incorporate this, but unless it’s been incorporated and not talked about, It hasn’t been done. Then there’s the DRM issues – you can go for one of the 3rd-party Media center options, but then you lose on capabilities involving DRMs that may be incompatible. OR, you can go the Microsoft route, and get a cannon-load of DRM force-fed with a huge spoon into your mouth. Open wide!

I shouldn’t have to have a half-dozen appliances hooked up to a receiver and a TV – just one. A recording device so that I don’t miss my favorite shows, a super-capable media player, including games, a front end that’s worth a damn no matter what it is doing, a browser and chat client for doing other activities from the comfort of my couch while watching the latest killer DVD, and a seamless flow into and out of games.

So, the goals are:

  • Digital Video Recorder.
  • Built-in radio – including XM and Sirius – so that I don’t have to have separate components for that.
  • Multiple TV tuners with picture-in-picture.
  • Media player (Movie, audio and picture files).
  • Web Browser built-in.
  • Chat client with video and audio built-in.
  • Game Launcher with access to old and new titles that I have bought.
  • Minimal amount of hardware

Hardware

The thing I have always disliked about the Mac is their one-way design. You only have 3 desktop and two laptop styles, and if you want something in-between, you’re SOL. Only one machine – the Mac Pro – has expandability via internal cards, and all are PCI-E slots, of which there are only 4. To make matters worse, unless you build a custom case, none of the current Macs – including the Mac Mini – are ready for a true media center. This is one of the few places PC’s have an advantage.

In terms of media center hardware, PC’s have a huge advantage: There are a number of things unique to PCs, and that expand beyond the normal system. They have a lot more internal cards for tuners, whereas there’s only one internal Card for the Mac, and it’s PCI-based, meaning you can’t install it in a new Mac Pro. Most of the tuners for Macs now, to make it worse, are USB-Based, meaning in some cases you need an external plug-in, requiring yet an extra outlet. (At one time, they were mostly firewire, negating a lot of that problem.)

Tuner Cards aren’t the only concerns for Mac-Based media centers: With Vista just around the corner, New cards are going to be introduced within the next few month, capable of using the latest technology on Windows, DirectX 10. This is important on the Mac because Macs, in spite of capability, mainly use Mac-Based cards with special drivers – I might be able to use a card new card inside the Mac for Windows Vista, but it won’t work in OS X.

One area I wish I could test beforehand is sound – While OS X does a good job with handling noise with analog hookups, I don’t know if this is true for the digital hookups, or if it’s true for XP or Vista. Personally, I’d like to add a Sound Blaster X-Fi card to the machine, but there are limits with card space.

PC’s have 2 other things the Macs don’t have: Cases designed for an entertainment center and peripherals that make it easy to do. Some machines – particularly the gaming variety – have external radiators for water cooling – normally a gripe, but because there’s simply no space for it inside, I can deal with it. Other things add functionality: Sony and Niveus has multi-disc changers that hook up via firewire and can hold 200-300 DVD’s. Unfortunately, there’s no software for these machines on the Mac, meaning – more likely than not – if I don’t design the drivers myself, I am unlikely to be able to use these with any Mac. (Of course, I could use Windows Media Player, but that defeats the purpose of using it on a Mac, doesn’t it?)

Remotes are only a problem for one reason: None of them I like. They’re either two simple, like the Apple remote, or too complex, such as the ATI remotes. This applies to both the PCs and the Macs, as does another complaint I have: No Cable-card hookups. This is more the fault of the Media companies, who are afraid of letting us make Hi-definition recordings off of cable and satellite systems. This is why, if you see component-based PCI Cards, they’re expensive, and why most HDMI-Input cards are designed for editing, not viewing. (At least on the latter, their being new, there’s a shot someone will fix this. Who wants to hook up their PS3’s and XBox 360’s via S-Video?)

The one bright side is with wireless components: Macs and PCs are similar enough in that aspect that I won’t have to worry about what wireless gamepads, keyboards and mice I use. Great for web-browsing and chat, or for nuking your buddies who are stuck at their desks!

The other bright side is storage: with the Mac Pro, 3 Terabytes of storage is very reasonable. While I wish there were more space, and that cooling was done better, this is one of the cases where I shouldn’t have a problem for a couple of years. Even better, When I do finally decide to add more storage, I can do it via networking and have little to no problems in doing so.

How to fix:

Machines: The best things Apple could do is to add a fourth line, featuring expansion slots while using Intel Core Duos. The Xeon processors used in the Mac Pro, while wicked cool and would be capable of doing most of what I want, would be overkill even for my needs. Also, the Macs need more expansion slots, better compatibility with video, sound, and tuner cards, and more of a push to get more PC users to the Mac. With the capability to run Windows on a Mac, Apple should negotiate a deal with MS to allow them to sell machines preloaded with both OS X and either XP or Vista.

Remotes: For me, finding an older PDA capable of adding Bluetooth or Wi-Fi – if it doesn’t have it already – Is key. If I have to, I can find a new PDA with either of these features, but there’s software out there to handle what I need. Until someone figures out how to combine the simplicity and looks of the Apple remote with all of the functions of a multi-function remote, I guess I’ll have to do it on my own.

Video Cards: In The Mac Pro, Using an ATI 1900, an upgrade in the videocard area, is a great idea; however, I still think this is something where OS X should adopt XP and Vista standards for compatibility with their cards.

Tuner Cards: Without expandability, the tuners are still going to be external. I hope they go back to Firewire, though – I hate the idea of using a USB Expander on top of a bunch of cards that will use their own power plugs.

Sound Cards: Again, expandability is key here.

Changers: I’d have to do some shopping around, but there WAS at one time a firewire-based DVD/CD Changer that did work with the Mac originally – it looks like the company either went out of business or stopped making them. They should be able to be found used.

The next solution is to buy a 6-10 firewire hookup, gut it, and use the electronics in conjunction with new DVD-Rom Drives. The bonus here is that I could easily integrate Blur-Ray and HD-DVD as they become more prevalent.

The last solution was already mentioned: writing my own drivers for one of the new machines. Hopefully someone beats me to the punch on that.

Other: There is one thing that hopefully gets added to the next Macs to come out: Flash RAM on the motherboard. No one wants to wait more than 5 seconds for a machine to boot up, and I don’t want to put excess drain by putting it to sleep all of the time.

Software

As I described above, when I get home the one thing I don’t want to fiddle with is a computer. Sounds funny, yes, but I work on computers all day – even I have my limits.

That said, I can’t use the work computers for my personal business, such as blogging, gaming, or grabbing email – any of these, according to the rules at work, is a sure-fire way to ask for your walking papers. (There are exceptions, but for the most part, I don’t want to step over the line too many times.) While graphic modifications and real work, such as my stories and such, should remain on a desktop computer, for most entertainment purposes, a desktop machine is just too uncomfortable.

So what would hold me back? Software, particularly a front end. On Both Macs and PCs, there are a number of options, both from the main company and from other third-parties, to accomplish a media center front end, and for what they do they’re all right. Almost all of them are similar in a few areas:

  • No Built-In Web Browser or Chat Client,
  • No Game Launcher, and
  • Digital-Rights management, or DRM.

Most people won’t think the chat/web stuff and game launcher ain’t important, but then, most aren’t going to want to chat with their friends while watching a show either. Then again, here’s a scenario that would be wicked cool:In the main portion of the screen, you have a game or movie running – Super Bowl, Lord of the Rings, whatever. To each side lies 4-8 cameras of your buddies, who are watching the same thing. At the bottom is the web site to the show or event you’re watching. As you’re watching the show, you’re watching and getting reactions from other people viewing the same thing – at a Star Bucks, in their home, at the library (shhh), etc.

The problem is, there is no single program to do this – you either have to run multiple programs, or do without.

Now, I don’t need to say the obvious advantages – not having to clean house right away, not having to worry about stuff going missing or getting broke by having a number of guests over, saving money on food and drinks and not making anyone unhappy because you didn’t make something they don’t like. Simply turn on the machine, sit down, select your buddies and the show/event, and have it set up.

The game thing should be simpler and better. As I mentioned before, yes, I’d like to have the latest and greatest consoles – the PS3, Nintendo Wii, and XBox 360 – at my disposal, but what about older stuff or PC games? A game launcher within the media software – which should be really easy to do – could allow a person to load games in a similar fashion to loading DVDs and movies stored on their machine: standard Preview and Go. No breaking interface to go back to the OS, no need need for issues, just up and go.

With the Mac, there’d be two problems: the limited number of games means that anything other than Mac OS-based software would require virtualization (something that simply is a no-go with todays virtualization software, which doesn’t emulate enough of the hardware for adequate WOW or Half-Life 2 gaming) or emulation (for anything such as older console systems such as the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo.)

The biggest problem with all of this, however, is Digital Rights Management, or Let’s-Hold-technology-Back-so-that-the-consumer-is-screwed. Because DRM is almost a requirement for any Media-Center-based software, Sharing a copy of the latest “Desperate Housewives” with someone who either could not, or ran into issues with, recording it is not allowed – they call that piracy. So, too, is the above movie scenario – if one or more of your friends does not have a copy of said movie, they can’t join on and watch what you’re watching, and none of the machines will be synced so that everyone is watching the exact same thing at the exact same time. As for gaming, forget about hosting a multiplayer session from your copy of the software – if they don’t own, they can’t play. And – just to make things more difficult – we’re going to kludge you down with an interface that, even when simple, is going to make you wish you just stuck to a simple DVD player with multiple boxes.

I respect that all of the media companies want their fair share of the pie, but the solutions deserve a big bitch-slap amongst the lot of them. Can’t use a MOV file with Windows Media Player, can’t use iTunes-bought stuff with anything other than itunes and an iPod, can’t use Zune-Marketplace stuff with anything other than Zune stuff, etc. When stuff is compatible within the same machines, there are issues: A disc burned using Windows Media center can only be used with that copy of Windows Media Center. (Unless they changed that – last I heard, THIS was the case.) Anyone who tries to change this is circumventing law, which, if caught, could get you in deep doodoo monetarily and otherwise.

The best way to fix this, of course, is to get everyone to work together to find common solutions that allows everyone to use it without the possibility for piracy. Because of money, though, no one wants this – someone has to be screwed, so why not make it the consumer?

The next-best is to boycott all of this stuff and use open standards. Because the newest games and movies often require DRM, however, this isn’t a good solution either.

The third solution is to break the law and make your own. Of course, not everyone has the money or resources to do this, so this don’t work. Yet, if those things become available to me, that’s exactly what I am going to do.

What about the automobile?

Unlike a home entertainment center, where all of the pieces could be assembled to do what I suggest, a car is more adequate for the solutions available today. While the integration of a TV Tuner and a web-browser is a great idea for their uses in emergency situations, most of the time people are going to watch movies and listen to Movies, and the uses are going to be limited with most vehicles, which are worse with proprietary standards than PCs are. I’d press for better integration with cars, but nothing big or fancy is needed – since many states make it illegal to look at the screen and drive at the same time, most screens are of a limited size.

Conclusion

There was a time when I was looking forward to days like today, where sharing thoughts and ideas are simplified, entertainment easy, and our lives easier. Unfortunately, greed, not technology, prevents much of this, as we have all of the technology available today to do exactly what I suggest.

Apple needs to to reconsider its policies, especially in regards to a media center machine. They are more than capable of making a product that could easily kick a Media Center PC’s butt, and do so with minimal difficulty. Since, however, they have chosen the path of the megacompanies, however, the only company with a shot of doing the consumer right is getting us in our rears as well. To rephrase a favorite movie quote,” Help us, Apple Computers, you’re our only hope.”

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