Towards a Perfect Mac Mini Media Centre: Front Row, Amped or Replaced
As part of an ongoing quest to get the most out of my Mac Mini media centre setup, I took a couple things for a spin recently: XBMC for Mac, a Front Row replacement, and Sapphire Browser, a plugin for Front Row. Be warned: both of these apps are in beta, and aren’t polished final products. But they are certainly interesting.
One thing I was specifically looking for was something that handled HD content a lot better than front row. The mini is no slouch processor-wise, but it ain’t no Mac Pro, and perian -enhanced Front Row seems to have issues playing back HD files – dropped frames, curtailed fast-forwarding use until the entire flick is loaded, and worst of all for me, it outputs surround sound as regular old stereo. So I have to play files out of VLC if I want to give all my speakers a nice workout.
XBMC for Mac
Hell, I don’t even know how I got into this one. I guess I saw on Lifehacker that there was a new beta that supported the Apple Remote, and I figured I’d give it a shot. It’s the open-source media centre developed for the oldschool Xbox and now ported to Linux and Mac. It’s got a lot going for it, which I will sum up in delightful bullet point form:
- plays 5.1 audio properly
- plays HD video very nicely
- extremely feature-laden
- if you treat it properly, it will scrape IMDb and suchlike for rich metadata about your media. Once this has happened, you can browse by film poster, call up plot summaries and cast and even then browse by cast / director / what have you
- will tell you the weather, for fuck’s sake
- is free.
HD playback is a huge advantage right there. The Mini lifted 720p like a champ; word on the street is that it will sometimes have trouble with 1080p files, although I didn’t have any to test.
Unfortunately, the audio is another matter. I couldn’t get surround working at all. This has to do with the amp itself – mine refused to decode whatever XBMC was putting out. However, most people apparently have no issues, and the feature is going to see improvements a couple betas down the road, which might be a couple months away.
XBMC supports skins, and there are a few nice ones out there – to my eyes, nothing as refined as Front Row itself, but not bad and hell, you could make your own skin if you were really fussy. And that’s the nice thing about XBMC – it’s an open source project, with all the advantages with go with it.
XBMC has a lot of detailed configuration parameters, and there is great power and versatility in them. You can fine tune the details of your playback down to the scaling algorithms, and you can even do this while playing something back.
But, alas, with great power comes great… complexity. Who’s kidding who, it’s pretty complicated to set this thing up properly.
A note on the concept of “library” in XBMC. This must have been an evolutionary layer that grew on top of the original, simple XBMC interface. The library is the mode that scrapes the web for metadata (something not apparent to me at first glance), and it isn’t enabled by default. Until you figure that out, the XBMC interface is completely bereft of visual frills, even lacking thumbnails of the videos: something that is undoubtedly awesome to get working on an Xbox, but pointless on a Mac with a hardy competitor in Front Row built in.
Once you get the library thing sorted out, things are a bit better, but you’ll be impressed by one feature, annoyed by another. Possibly the biggest strike against XBMC is that it doesn’t recognize your iTunes metadata, so all your carefully-curated album art is out the window and reconstituted, badly, by a lengthy allmusic scrape. The cover art for DVD rips and such looks great though, and the plot summaries and cast & crew details are great to have.
Ultimately, I set XBMC aside because the surround sound issue was too important for me. I’m going to keep an eye on it, though; the app is under active development and seems to be progressing well, and I may well be using it heavily in a couple months.
Sapphire browser is a Front Row ‘plugin’ that will do all that scraping for you right within Front Row, giving you the film/TV show art, summaries etc. just like XBMC. The idea is beautiful, and if I could review the idea, I’d give it top marks.
However, the reality don’t live up. I won’t bother getting into too many details, but the scraping process did not work well at all. It takes forever, hangs repeatedly, and ultimately messed up some fairly easy categorizations. When sapphire hits upon a file it doesn’t know what to do with, it asks you to identify the correct name out of a list of results. Unfortunately, it chooses whether files are ‘movies’ or ‘tv shows’ automatically and doesn’t let you correct it other than saying ‘this isn’t a movie’ – you have no way of saying ‘this is a TV show’, so your show won’t show up in its listing at all. Only one out of six Star Wars films actually made it through this failed screening process, which is a pretty sad result. To say nothing of the several different seasons of different shows I had to click through saying ‘this isn’t a movie’ for each episode.
Again, Sapphire is in beta, so it may very well improve in the future. But right now, I can hardly recommend you try it unless you really enjoy repetitive and fruitless clicking.
So that’s it for this latest bout; personally, nothing sticks this time around, but your needs may be different. And regardless, I’ll be keeping my eye on both of these, especially XBMC. The Mac version developers have recently liberated themselves from the main project, so more good things could come of that. I’ve pretty much exhausted my look at mac mini media centre apps – there’s still MediaCentral to consider, but the price is a little steep for me. Maybe someday!
UPDATE See this more recent article, which takes a look at the new XBMC for Mac, now known as Plex, and the new app Boxee.