Cutting the Cable: Software and Remotes
This is the fourth post in a series about abandoning cable/satellite television in favor of HD broadcast TV combined with a web-connected computer acting as a media server. To start with the introduction, click here; links to the rest of the series are at the bottom of the post.
By this time you know how to choose an antenna, figure out the best option for getting broadband to your television and various other information you need to connect a fully-functional, web-connected Mac Mini to your home entertainment system. Now it is time to talk about what you need to make all this gear usable for your family.
Remotes. You’ve got a lot of them if your system is going to look at all like mine: TiVo remote, television remote, Apple remote, Roku remote, and an
HDMI switch remote. You may also have additional remotes for a Blu-ray player and your sound system (I’m still using my television speakers; shameful, I know). Wouldn’t it be great if you could combine all these remotes into a single device that—with the push of a single button—would trigger all the steps necessary to watch TV or use the computer or watch a DVD? It would. And that device has existed for years: the Harmony Remote from Logitech.
The Logitech website linked above lists all the different versions of this remote, and you need to choose the one that’s best for you. All of them are expensive, but the big price jump comes when you need the ability to use radio frequencies (RF) to communicate with components hidden in cabinets where infrared remotes can’t talk to them. All these remotes are well-made, and Logitech support is impressive.
So how do they work? You install a program (included with the remote) on a Mac or Windows machine and then tell it about your components. The program then goes out to the internet and finds all the IR commands the dedicated remotes for those
components use. You then string together commands to perform certain actions (the program does all the heavy lifting here) and jack the remote into the computer with a USB cable to complete the set up.
To give you a simple example, the Watch TV action will turn the TV on, send a signal to the HDMI switch to select the proper feed coming from the TiVO, and then make sure the right TV input is selected; you don’t have to do anything but press a single button from the comfort of your couch even if the last thing you were doing was playing a game on a Wii. After this, the remote functions just like the TiVo remote or an Apple remote or a Roku remote depending on the device you are using. Not cheap, but slick. And anyone in your family can use it regardless of how complex your system is.
There are also some interesting programs out there making use of iPhones and iPod Touches to remotely control various components in your system, but I haven’t found any to be as user-friendly as the Harmony Remotes. You can find some reviews here if you are interested.
Controlling the Computer. Because you absolutely have to be able to type text into the computer, there is no great way to do this other than with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. I imply this method is not “great”
because (1) you have to have a keyboard and mouse near the television, and (2) it is not always easy to see what you are doing unless you get close to the television. I bought an inexpensive tray at Pier 1 Imports like one you would use to have breakfast in bed; it holds the keyboard (a small Apple Bluetooth keyboard) and mouse nicely, and when I’m not using it, it sits relatively inconspicuously on top of a row of books beside the television.
As with the remotes, there are a number of solutions available that allow you to control the computer via your iPod Touch or iPhone via a server you download to the Mac Mini. After you’ve done that, you can control the computer and even type in text from your iPhone. You can find a good run-down of these options here if you are interested. I’ve tried a few, but none are as convenient as the keyboard/mouse combo.
Mac Mini Software. The software you choose to use will to a great degree be a personal choice, and there are a lot of options to choose from. You can use media center applications like Boxee or Plex which attempt with varying degrees of success to make all the media on your computer available in a single location. Or you can just try to set up your desktop in a way that makes all the content on the computer and the internet as accessible as possible.
Because everyone in my family is computer literate, I’ve found it much easier to use a great program call DragThing to create single buttons on my desktop that link to all the content we use. It’s $29, easy to set up and easy for anyone in the family to use; you can find a review here.
The best thing about DragThing is its flexibility. It will place a window (or windows or tabbed windows) of any size you want on your desktop, and you can place buttons in those windows that are links to any file or folder
on your computer or any web address. The buttons can be text or icons or both, and you can label them however you want, arrange them in any way you want and use any font size you want. I’ve set it up with a single big window that has two columns of text buttons that take me directly to the movies directory on my hard drive (for movies I’ve ripped), to specific folders where iTunes television shows have been downloaded, to my Amazon video library in the cloud, to Hulu show-specific sites, ESPN3 sport-specific sites, etc. When I want to watch something on the web or content from my hard drive, I simple click on the right DragThing button, and I’m off.
I find DragThing better than Boxee or Plex as a media-center nerve-center specifically because of its simplicity. The interface is familiar, you can label content in whatever way you want, and the stuff I watch is always front-and-center rather than buried inside some other program. Having said that, if you want to recreate a channel-surfing experience, both Boxee and Plex can provide something that approaches it and both can be operated using a remote; the DragThing solution is still dependent on the mouse/keyboard combo.
Getting the Right Resolution on Your Television. I’m not even going to attempt to discuss all the resolution permutations for various HDTVs because there are so many. Suffice to say that when I hooked my Mac Mini up to my television, I could find no resolution that fit my screen properly. This drove me do do some research which drove me to SwitchResX. This shareware application lets you create screen
resolutions for external displays that are either not recognized by your Mac or simply not supported. It works really, really well, but it’s not easy to use. If you find you need it, take a look at the tutorial here and be prepared to spend some time (an hour or so) messing around with it to get the resolution right. The process sometimes requires restarts, so you may want to plug in a wired keyboard and mouse before you begin to avoid having to sync up your Bluetooth devices each time. And please read step 7 in the tutorial before you begin. I’ll copy it for you here: “If ever you go horribly wrong and go from having a misaligned picture to having no picture at all, you'll have to delete the override installed by SwitchResX. Boot the computer into Safe Mode, launch the SwitchResX Control app again, and click the ‘Factory settings’ button, then the ‘Apply’ button, and reboot.” Yikes! As I said: it works, but it ain’t necessarily easy.
Other Posts in This Series
Network Hardware: Setting It All Up
Getting the Media Content You Need
On-Going Frustrations: One Year In