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Hands on: Connecting my mini to a TV


We bought our Olevia 47" on Black Friday, 2007. It wasn't a particularly well rated TV. But it was a Black Friday deal that we could afford and it gave us far more screen space than we'd thought we'd be able to purchase. It has served us well through the years, hosting any number of gadgets with its generous ports. The thing supports HDMI, composite and component, with multiple attachments for each. The back of the TV looks like a sea of cables and connectors.

Its VGA connector has not seen much use over the years and I've been dying to give it a go. A lack of spare computers was our problem. When my Mac mini died this past winter, I replaced it with a fresh new current-generation mini, which we all love. The dead mini languished until I realized that I needed a Snow Leopard machine for testing during the SL beta. I ended up doing some home brew fix-it with an absolutely minimal 80GB disk bought from Newegg and a few tweaks. And for the last few months, Rome (as in the baking apple) has been my primary 10.6 beta desktop system.

That all changed on Friday. Snow Leopard debuted. And I was finally free to re-purpose this system. Read on to see how.

I have been through several Apple TV units. In retrospect, most of my time was spent trying to hack those Apple TVs into what were essentially Mac minis. With Rome, I could finally install the real mini media system I've been dreaming of, without compromise. All the Apple TV power. All the mini flexibility. I wasn't going for the ultimate Mac mini home theater, just providing an Apple TV-style substitute that brought the normal power of Mac mini to the table.

Hooking up the Mini

Today, I finally connected Rome to my Olevia TV. It was just fabulous. Talk about plug and play. It literally took a couple of minutes to get it all going. One power cord. One DVI-to-VGA cord. (It's an older mini.) One mini-jack to RCA audio cord. Done.

The system is running at 1080p and the screen appears crisp and very watchable. This crispness holds from very close up to way across the room and into the kitchen. I thought viewing would suffer from proximity but I could honestly use that HDTV as a work monitor. It's that reasonable.

I've hooked up my travel-mouse (a wireless Logitech unit) to the mini. The beautiful SL Keyboard Viewer means that lightweight typing can be achieved without a keyboard. I also have a physical USB keyboard available that is currently shared between the mini and our Nintendo Wii. That being said, direct OS interaction remains awkward, especially from the couch without a surface to work with.

To handle those moments that require more intense interaction, I've enabled the system's remote access features (System Preferences > Sharing > Screen Sharing). This gives me access to Rome from my normal work desk, allowing me to manage the mini without sitting on a couch.

I'm using QuickTime/Perian for my primary viewing software right now, using a standard Apple remote for playback control. I'm feeling tempted to transfer my EyeTV hardware into the living room. EyeTV offers its own remote control system and viewing features like 5-second rewinds and 30-second skips. There's another cable outlet there in the living room but I'm not sure I want to give up the convenience of my in-office EyeTV. I use it constantly with the iPhone and various other devices for recording live video.

If in a few months, I'm still as happy with the Living Room setup as I am right now, I'll probably buy another EyeTV hybrid tuner. And again, that's something that sets apart a bog-standard vanilla mini from the Apple TV. A mini can become its own real source of video capture and playback, not to mention library management. Apple TV can't, unless you hack it to within an inch of its life.

Sharing Media

Sharing music involves little more than enabling iTunes sharing. Choosing iTunes > Preferences > Sharing > Share my library on my local network provides Wi-Fi access to my music and TV shows. You don't have to enter a 4-digit pass code or jump through hoops. Again, it just works (although you can add an optional password if you're concerned about access).

Since I don't like the lags for serving video across Wi-Fi, I've been copying shows over directly rather than sharing them through iTunes. A 500 MB video took just a minute or two to transfer, even on my antiquated 802.11g network.
I made sure to set iTunes so that it doesn't copy over data (iTunes > Preferences > Advanced > Uncheck "Copy files to iTunes Music folder when adding to library"). With only 80GB to work with right now, I want to keep my system lean. Copying to the desktop, adding, playing, then deleting ensures I won't lose storage space with media imported into the vast iTunes maw of doom.

So where do I go from here? I'm keeping the EyeTV/native tuner idea in the back of my mind but I'm probably going to sit on the current configuration for a few weeks to see how things go. I've been playing music via Front Row for the last hour and it feels just like Apple TV. But better.

Got any things you want me to test? Drop a note into the comments. Got any suggestions of where I can push my system? Let me know. And to summarize? Seriously, everyone should have a 47-inch screen for the Mac mini. Everyone.

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