Replacing the Tivo

I loved my Tivo. However, after seven years chugging away under the TV, I decided I not only wanted a PVR (personal video recorder - of which Tivo is an excellent example), but also a decent DVD player, and a decent media server, allowing me to play movies of a file server. All in HD of course (as soon as I get the wife to agree to a new TV, of course). So, here in Yurope, Tivo only sold version 1 players (so no networking - officially - though 9th Tee did an ethernet card) - which of course dont do HD..

Friends tried to get a windows media player to work, but their marriage only just survived. So I'm not putting any shonky MS software below my TV, thank you very much. If you have that solution working - your a better person than I.

So what could I do. A Mac Mini seemed the right route. Small, practically silent, and has a DVI output (and DVI->RGB and DVI-DH leads). So far so good. What about recording TV ? Digital TV ? Well, a wee device for 70 euros - a TubeStick - seemed to do that well. And what about providing a nice easy-to-use user interface ? Media Central - by the same folks as the Tubestick - seemed to get decent reviews.

A brief eBay frenzy (Mac Mini for £360 - including a copy of iWorks) and a DVI->RGB cable from Apple for £15, a new S-Video cable and a half-an-hour rummaging in the huge boxes of 'spares' in my barn, and we were in business. I even rescued an external USB 500gb hard drive which wasnt really being used. So its now landed below the TV, and doing sterling work as a media server. The Tubestick TV stuff is pretty good (a couple of seconds of lost lip-sync at the start), picture quality is excellent. Its still not replaced the frankly confusing Humax Digital TV recorder. A matter of time, and tweaking software, methinks.

One of the pleasing side-effects of having a Mac below the TV is that the Mac remote-control software allows us to take over the machine from any one of the three Macbooks (or Pro's) that litter my living room, so we dont have to use a bluetooth keyboard or mouse (yet - its coming). Another pleasing side effect is that since we missed Dr Who on Saturday, we could just fire up Safari on the Mac Mini, and use the excellent BBC iPlayer service to watch it again - streaming live onto the TV. SWMBO of course wanted to see how to do this, and since the remote control is built right into Finder, an absolute doddle to use.

Lessons learnt:

  • Dont tell the missus whats going on till its all working...

  • The resolution out of a normal tube-based TV (in this case, a 15-year old top-of-the-line Sony) is frankly shocking. Okay for movies and TV, not good for actual computer use. Get a nice new plasma/LCD panel, and run proper HDMI leads to it. Run the color calibration from a normal viewing position - trying to do it with your face pressed against the screen (USB keyboard) wasnt good.

  • The Mac Mini is a dual processor 1.8ghz Celeron processor. So it's fine doing streaming or surfing. Just dont try and do anything else at the same time. It only ships with a 40gig or 80gig hard drive - so get yourself a small, silent exernal hard drive to go along with it. I also have it running time-machine backups to this drive, and have shared the drive so we can all just connect to it and watch stuff on the laptops. Which is nice. And now reduces the reliance on the windows 2003 server in the house to Zero. I suspect *that* will be a Linux box real soon now..

So all in all, a nice addition to the household. Not quite there with the PVR / TV stuff yet, so perhaps another week to figure that out properly. Worth doing ? Absolutely. And the amount of mac knowledge required to do this ? Practically zero.