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Putting An Apple at the Core of Your Home Theater
It's not just for creating video anymore...

By Jim Fisher

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The line that used to exist between home theater hardware and computer hardware is gone. Today's computers are more than just stand-alone devices for work and play. It isn't uncommon to see a computer function as an integral component of a home theater system.

Microsoft's most recent iteration of the Windows XP operating system was dubbed "Media Center" and has been installed in many living rooms across the world. PC manufacturers are producing computers that replace your TiVo, DVD player and CD player with one device.

So, where does that leave us Mac users? The very thought of being forced to use Windows is not an appealing one. After all, who wants to miss "Lost" because your computer encountered a "blue screen of death" or "fatal exception" before you got home on Wednesday night?

Fear not, a solution is at hand. A lot of users seeking a media center solution have flocked to Apple's Mac mini as their media center computer of choice. The mini is well-suited to harmoniously bring together the rest of your components into an impressive digital media center. The computer ships with Apple's Front Row multimedia software and features a remote control which allows you to navigate through your media from across the room. Front Row gives you ready access your music, video and photo libraries and can also play DVD movies.

The small but mighty Mac mini is the core of many home theaters:

The computer can connect to most televisions via the use of a simple adapter without the need for any special software. Owners of higher-end HDTVs will be able to connect the computer via a digital connection for excellent video quality. Home theater enthusiasts will also appreciate how quiet the mini is. The computer is cooled by a whisper-quiet fan which minimizes noise pollution.

Ok, I'm sold. What do I need?

A Mac mini is a good start. It will replace your DVD and CD player, allow you to entertain guests with iPhoto slideshows and give you instant access to the Internet, allowing you look up trivial facts from the comfort of your living room. While the mini does include the Apple Remote, it doesn't come with a keyboard or mouse. Your best bet is to go with the Kensington Wireless keyboard and mouse which communicates with the computer via an RF-enabled USB interface. If you prefer a standard 2-button mouse, consider the MacAlly BTMicro Mouse; it even offers the added benefit of being rechargeable.

The Mac mini itself does not offer any sort of DVR or TV tuner functionality. DVR and TV tuner functionality is easy to add, courtesy of the TVMax by Miglia. A DVR is a must-have for any home theater. With it, your social schedule doesn't have to revolve around your favorite shows. The TVMax features the simplicity of a USB 2.0 interface for single-cable connection to the Mac mini; just plug it in and enjoy. The TVMax looks just like a Mac mini. It's compact and sits comfortably underneath your mini and doesn't ruin the aesthetics of your home theater. It features a TV tuner and analog video inputs, making the TV Max perfect for use with an analog cable connection.

Digital cable and satellite subscribers will often find they are already supplied with a DVR solution. TVMax can be an excellent complement to those DVRs, allowing you to output your recorded programs from your set-top box to the TVMax by standard analog outputs.

The TVMax includes its own remote control for channel surfing and recording, an on-screen Electronic Program Guide and EyeTV 2 software. These tools let you pause and rewind live TV and schedule recordings. These are features that you've come to expect from a DVR. The TVMax does one better; it also features tools to export recordings for use on your iPod with video.

Miglia also offers the TVMini HD, which features the same software as the TVMax, but can only receive HD signals broadcast over the air. A version of the TVMini HD without HD support, appropriately dubbed the TVMini, is also available. It's something for users on a tighter budget to consider, but lacks the capability to capture video from an analog camcorder or other video source that the TVMax includes. Both the TVMini and the TVMini HD include a remote control and the same software bundle as the TVMax.

Now, you're going to find yourself wanting to record everything. You'll record things you never would have thought about watching. The Mac mini is a nice little computer, but it doesn't give you a ton of hard drive space. Recorded video will chip away at that faster than you can say iPod. If you find yourself wanting to record a lot of shows (and you probably will), you may want to consider an external hard drive to augment the mini's internal hard drive.

LaCie makes a series of external drives that share the Mac mini's design and form factor. The drives sit underneath the computer and are available in sizes ranging from 80 to 500GB. Increasing your storage space would be a good idea if you plan to record a lot of shows or keep them for a long time.

What about HD, Digital Cable and Satellite?

While the mini and TVMax combination is great for analog cable users, some slight changes have to be made for HDTV owners, digital cable subscribers and satellite subscribers.

HDTV owners should be aware that the TVMax does not support HD signals. The TVMini HD mentioned above is a good choice for HDTV owners whose satellite or cable provider doesn't offer local channels in HD. Make sure to check the inputs on your television. Depending on your set, you will find either a VGA, DVI or HDMI port or a combination of the three. The mini features a DVI port and comes with a DVI to VGA adapter. HDTV owners will still need a cable to run from the mini to their TV.

It's also necessary to address the needs of digital cable and satellite subscribers. Digital cable subscribers may still benefit from the TVMax. Subscribers usually receive the analog signal as well and the cable box is only required to view digital channels. If you're a cable subscriber, you can still use the TVMax to augment your DVR storage. It will also let you convert your recorded programs to iPod video format.

In Closing...

Adding a Mac mini to your living room will open up a world of possibilities for your home theater. All your digital video and music not just your CDs and DVDs -- will be at your fingertips. Record your shows, play your music, put it all on your iPod. Make the line between entertainment and computer disappear.

B&H has put together a few custom kits for anyone who is interested in a "one click" solution for adding a Mac-based media center to their home theatre. We recognize that everyone has unique needs, so if you have any further questions regarding the configuration of your own Mac-based media center please don't hesitate to contact us.

Please email feedback on this article, or suggestions for future topics, to emailfeedback@bhphotovideo.com.