Toward a Perfect Mac Media Centre: Remote Magic
I’ve gone on another Mac Mini media centre bender. This seems to happen periodically; I get sick of how my 21st-century media experience is turning out, and I try a bunch of different stuff to see if I can’t improve the system. I’ve just tried out a few utilities designed to extend the power of the Apple Remote, as doing more things with your remote is a must if you want to get the most out of your media centre Mac.
Along with Mira, the Apple Remote extender I was using off and on, I’ll tell you about the competition: Remote Buddy, and Sofa Control.
My mini is hooked up to the TV and I use Front Row to play shit back – movies and music both. This machine also functions as a torrent hose, and that’s what set off this latest round of testing – there is a lot of fussing to be done before a downloaded torrent is ready to be played in Front Row, stuff that I have to screen share in from my MacBook Pro to do, while I’d rather do it with the remote, from the couch. Namely, I want to do some limited file management with the remote – unpacking zips and rars, adding music to iTunes, and moving files to different directories.
What do these things do?
By default, the Apple Remote is more or less tied to Front Row. It can control iTunes too, and DVD Player. But it can’t switch apps or playlists or do anything elaborate. The idea with these extenders is that when you press ‘menu’ on the remote, instead of Front Row starting, you get a pop-up menu with a bunch of different choices. This is implemented a bit differently in each app, though.
I had been using Mira. It’s got a whole slew of applications pre-programmed with remote controls. You can customize your initial pop-up menu, and you can re-map buttons in any app that already has actions defined. You can even assign applescripts to buttons – more on that later.
Anyway, for one reason or another, I’d stopped using it. I decided I’d bust it out again, so I checked the site for the latest version and discovered to my horror that it hasn’t been updated since forever and is having issues with leopard. Well, that won’t do.
Remote Buddy is the quicksilver of the apple remote: it can do just about anything, if you can figure out how to convince it to. It can control any app, can browse through your media collection or file system, has a virtual keyboard and mouse, and can be scripted and expanded.
It’s also relatively expensive at 20 Euros, and is unfortunately too ominous and complicated for my girlfriend to use. For example, the default action when you press menu is to show a menu with tasks for the currently active app. To get to the ‘main menu’, you have to click left to navigate back up to it. Seems simple, but since you can browse your music (in a clever way BTW), it’s possible to get several menu screens in, and when you click menu to hide Remote Buddy’s display, it doesn’t revert to the top level when you press it again. So my lady would have to keep hitting left about seven times to get back to where she could choose front row. Which she’s not going to do; she gives these things about three seconds to explain themselves, and then shrugs and walks away, and I’m trying to encourage her to use the technology, not scare her off. However, if you’re flying solo or the SO is a crazy nerd like you, I’d give this one a shot. You’ll be using your Apple Remote to launch tactical nuclear strikes once you’ve figured it out.
Oh yeah – I should mention that Remote Buddy not only supports a variety of different remotes, you can also use a Wiimote or iPhone to control your mac with it. Bitchin’.
This is another Apple Remote extender – in fact, it’s remarkably similar to Mira. In fact, I don’t know which one to recommend to you; they’re the same price and do much the same thing. Mira’s menu is more customizable than Sofa Control’s, but then again, Mira’s having issues with Leopard. Sofa control does have a virtual mouse feature, which Mira lacks and which can come in handy in a jam. And it allows for customization via scripting, so pretty much anything you could do with Mira, I’m sure you could do with this one. But I haven’t bought Sofa Control yet and so haven’t tested it enough to know it rocks fer sure.
Back to Mira; and some dull details that should nonetheless be noted
Upon seeing how similar Sofa Control and Mira are, I concluded that I might as well stick with the app I already own, so I went back into mira to see if I could make it work. The answer is: yes, with some button remapping and a lot of help from Automator.
I am starting to love Automator. I tried to love Applescript before it, but it was far too complicated for a brain like mine (I’m “creative”, okay?). Automator is where it’s at. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me start with a simpler problem and a solution that doesn’t need automator.
Problem: I sometimes forget to stop all the downloadin’ before I get on Xbox Live to play with my homies, and then it’s lag city and I have to get up off the couch (outrage!) and screen share into my Mini to pause downloads in Transmission.
- add Transmission as an app in Mira preference pane
- assign play/pause button to keypress “command-option-period” (pause all in Transmission)
- assign next button to keypress “command-option-slash” (resume all in Transmission)
- add Transmission to the Mira main menu
- profit! Or, at least, stay on couch!
Now how about something more elaborate that requires Automator.
Problem: newly downloaded video files need to be moved into the Movies directory before Front Row will see them.
Solution: First step is to create a passable way of navigating around the finder. We’re going to need to mod the ‘finder’ control set in Mira. I’ve set it up so that up and down on the remote use the “duoPress” thing in such a way that up makes your selection move up one, and holding up triggers command-up aka move up one directory. I’ve made the play button ‘open’, and the back button sends a file to the trash.
You’re going to want to add common directories to Mira’s main menu, too. Add your downloads folder, that way you can easily navigate to it and then select the files you need. You may also want to add your home directory and the finder itself. I’ve also added the Movies directory in case a video isn’t playing well in Front Row and I want to launch it with something else.
Now, create an automator workflow that has the following steps: “get selected finder items”, “move selected finder items” to the Movies directory. That’s it. Save it as an app.
Finally, put this in your Mira main menu, or assign it to a button in your finder control scheme.
I saved the right button in my finder setup for a slightly more complicated but far more common task, which is adding music to iTunes. Same deal as before, but the automator actions should be as follows:
- get selected finder items
- get the contents of this folder (and any subfolders)
- filter finder items to those of file extension .mp3 (this is to avoid adding image files or .m3us that might be in the album directory)
- add to iTunes library.
So with all of these controls set up in mira, I can now do all the routine file management stuff that used to require a screen share.
(The smart reader may point out that folder actions could handle these chores automatically, and while that’s theoretically true, I’ve had little luck with folder actions myself. They run whenever files are added, which can potentially be while the Mini is already shuddering under the weight of HD video, and they are frequently confounded by partially-complete torrent downloads. But I’m still exploring this. I’m definitely considering an action on the MBP that will scan my MBP’s downloads folder for torrent files and move them to a folder on the Mini that Transmission watches for torrents, auotomating a lot of the stupid busywork that goes along with, you know, not paying for stuff.)
Finally, I should add that while my Mira experience under Leopard is relatively painless, there are still periodic problems. Ghost presses are sent, and sometimes one press results in two. I’ve contacted the developer as he hints on his site that workarounds are available; I hope this is the case as until I get them and/or he updates Mira for Leopard, I can’t really recommend it to you, as much as I’d like to. I would say that you could certainly set up either of the other apps I’ve mentioned here to do much the same thing, should you want to.
Next, I’ll have a look at XBMC for Mac, a Front Row replacement, and Sapphire Browser, a plugin for Front Row. Both scrape the net for metadata in really interesting ways, but both seem to have their share of problems, too.
UPDATE See this more recent article, which points out that Mira now works with Leopard.