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The computer in the living room: setting up a Mac mini media center

Christopher Breen | May 8, 2013
Trot back to the 16th century and corner famed prognosticating monk Nostradamus, and it's quite likely that when posed the question: "Will those living in the year 2013 be able to call up any media programming they like from a single box?" he'd respond with an enthusiastic "Mais oui!"

Before these were commonly available in wireless form, incorporating a computer into a media cabinet screamed "kludge!" It forced you off the couch and to the floor where you'd tap away on tethered input devices to locate the media you wanted.

You can, of course, control some media applications with the $19 Apple Remote, but it doesn't allow you to manage the Mac's entire interface. A better option is Bluetooth input devices--keyboards, mice, and trackpads.

What makes such controls even more acceptable is something that allows you to gang together an Apple Wireless Keyboard ($69) and Magic Trackpad (also $69) into a single unit. If you're handy in the workshop, you can probably cobble together a controller tray, but for $30, Twelve South provides the more elegant MagicWand, a rounded half-cylinder (not shown in the image below--it's under the cylindrical top edge of the keyboard and trackpad) that accommodates the battery end of both of these Apple wireless devices. When placed snuggly together, the two input devices become one unit, which can be used on your lap.

Turning to iOS

If these devices still seem too bulky, you may instead choose to use your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad as a controller. One of a variety of apps can turn your iOS device into both a wireless keyboard and trackpad.

For example, both Evan Schoenberg's $5 Rowmote Pro and Edovia's $5 TouchPad turn your iOS device into a virtual keyboard and trackpad. Paired with the mini, these apps let you control its interface much as you would with a real wireless keyboard and trackpad.

If instead you want to tap on your iPad as if it was the Mac's screen, you can choose a VNC app such as the $25 iTeleport, $10 Splashtop Remote Desktop, or $20 Screens. These apps mirror the Mac's interface to your iOS device and allow you to control your computer remotely. Each of them requires that you install and run free server software on the Mac, which allows the iOS client to make the connection and project your Mac's screen to your iOS device.

Add a media player

Remote control is certainly one major challenge of using a computer as a media device. The other is making that control family-friendly. While you, as the techie of the clan, may feel perfectly at home with the system you've set up, other family members won't touch it because they find it too complicated. For this reason you should simplify the interface as much as possible.

At one time you could do this with Apple's Front Row technology, which allowed you to impose an Apple TV-like interface on your Mac. While it did make browsing media easier, it was almost entirely limited to the media in your iTunes library. Apple appeared to have no interest in opening it up to streaming media from other companies.


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