Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mac TV and iTunes movie rentals

After I got my new iMac I decided to try using my old Mac Mini as my DVR & DVD player.

I bought an Elgato eyetv 250 cable tuner/converter. The tuner/converter works well, but the remote that came it seems cheap and isn't very reliable. You have to hit the buttons multiple times and point it exactly right, even though I'm only about 6 feet from the TV. And many of the buttons on the remote are either labelled very cryptically, or not labelled at all. (just colored!)

One of the reasons I've resisted digital cable and set-top boxes is that you end up (in most cases) with a single "tuner" and the only way to change channels is through the box. With my old fashioned analog cable I have a tuner in the tv and one in the eyetv so I can record one channel and watch another. And since eyetv has it's own tuner it can change channels to record the right one. (Much more difficult with a separate set-top box.)

I'd heard good things about Elgato's eyetv software. I can't say I was too impressed. It works, but the user interface is the usual confusing maze. But I haven't used any other software so it could still be better than the others.

Although the form factor of the Mac Mini is ideal for this, it soon becomes obvious that it isn't what the system is designed for. I don't want update notices popping up in the middle of a movie. And although you can do just about everything without a keyboard, you tend to get pop up warnings about no keyboard connected. And although a wireless mouse and keyboard are pretty much essential, the battery life sucks. So your movie also gets interupted by low battery warnings!

I wanted to use the new tiny wireless aluminum keyboard, but it was quite a struggle to get it to work with the mini. Eventually I got it connected.

Meanwhile, Shelley has yet to try using this setup. I don't blame her - booting up the Mac, getting into the software, etc. is not trivial. At least she can still use the tv as usual.

There are other advantages to having an internet connected tv. It's nice to be able to watch videos from the internet on tv instead of sitting at my computer. And I have access to my music and photo library. Although, I don't have it connected to my stereo so the sound quality is crappy. But if I connect it to the stereo then I'd have to turn that on to watch tv.

Another motivation for all this was iTunes movie rentals. I was excited about this when it was announced, but then it was US only and it was slow coming to Canada. Recently I went to check and found it had come to Canada back in June. Strange they didn't make a bigger deal out of it - I hadn't heard anything and I was looking for it.

My first experience with iTunes movie rentals was pretty much perfect. I went into iTunes, picked a movie, clicked Rent, and started watching. iTunes already has my credit card into so it was a painless process. The quality was great, indistinguishable from a DVD (on my ancient tv), and there were no pauses, lags, or choppiness. The price is about the same as local video rental ($3.99 or $4.99) but I don't have to pick it up or return it. I was sold.

Unfortunately, my second experience was not so good. For whatever reason, the download rate was incredibly slow. And since the download was slower than watching speed it was impossible to watch and download concurrently. It still worked and I watched the movie the next night, but the instant gratification was gone.

I'll try again and see which experience is typical. The nice part is that I don't have to sign up or make any commitment, I can just use it when/if I feel like it.

Although Mac Mini's are relatively cheap, it's still an expensive DVR/DVD player. It's definitely a place for a special purpose device. The Apple TV box is close, but it has no DVD player and it has no facility to connect to regular TV. I'm sure these were deliberate choices, but it means you still need other devices as well. I want a single device.

I have mixed feelings. It's definitely not the ideal setup, and it pretty much requires a geek to operate. But at the same time I've become hooked on some of the features it provides.

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