Media Centre time

The time has come. My old and beautiful DVD player – a Pioneer DV-717 for which I paid £600 a long time ago – is starting to fade. It lost the ability to play CDs some years back, and it’s now regularly having problems with the scratches on rental DVDs as well, while other drives play them just fine. It was time to replace it. I could, of course, have bought a replacement at the supermarket for half the price I once paid for a region-free mod for my Pioneer. But they don’t make them like they used to – anything looks like a piece of junk when placed next to the 717. And, anyway, DVD’s are so last-decade….

So yesterday I went off to the Apple store to get a Mac Mini for use as a DVD/PVR/jukebox/digibox.

I already had one of Elgato’s splendid firewire TV tuners, but I needed to buy a DVI-to-S-video adapter to connect the Mini to my TV, and I also got an external DVD writer. Why bother, you may ask, when the Mini has its own superdrive? Because I have a lot of DVDs from the US as well as the UK. When I started collecting, the choice was much greater on the other side of the pond. Now, sadly, getting firmware patches to remove the region lock on DVD drives ain’t as easy as it used to be. But if you have two drives, you can use one for each region. The LaCie is also a more capable drive, and the package is a reasonably cost-effective way of purchasing Roxio Toast, which integrates nicely with the Elgato software. But I do hope those nice people who came up with the region-coding system will burn in hell for all eternity, or come to some other suitably sticky end…

In general, my first impressions are good. This is a 1.66GHz Core Duo machine, and it’s very speedy. Apple’s Front Row software is very slick, and Equinux’s MediaCentral is a good clone with some extra features for those of you who don’t have Front Row. It now also works with the Apple remote control if you have one.

It’s a pity that Elgato’s EyeTV software isn’t integrated in some way with Front Row. This is Apple’s fault, not theirs, I’m sure. But at present it means that I need two remotes for the one machine.

The other thing I’m finding is that packages which, unlike Front Row and MediaCentral, aren’t really intended for viewing from the other side of the room, can be quite challenging on a TV. I don’t have any reason to get rid of my perfectly functional old TV at present, and it may last for several more years. Which means that for a while I’ll be using a conventional GUI at a resolution just below 800×600 on a screen which was never designed to display crisp text. This won’t be an issue for those with new flat panel TVs connected via DVI or VGA, but it’s a bit of a challenge for me.

There are starting to be some alternative programs which interface with EyeTV, and I can always VNC in and control it from another machine, but in the meantime I’m finding the keyboard-controlled zoom feature quite useful!

Otherwise, things are looking good so far. I’ll keep you informed…

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Sorry to here the Pioneer is dying. My Panasonic A350 is still going strong, along with it’s mod chip that Dave Clarke fitted when we were at the lab. I’ve even found a use for the spare remote that was left behind when the lab closed, it now controls my bedroom light!
Have fun with the Mac.

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