We’ve recently set up a home entertainment centre, consisting of a 40″ Samsung LCD TV, a Yamaha 6.1 audio setup and a Mac Mini.
In order to drive it all, I was after a full-screen media center suite (movies, music, DVD, etc), to hide the fact that it’s a computer – we don’t wanna see that muck!
It had to have a high usability, and a high WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor…Actually, partner, but you know), which means no hardcore key combinations, or dropping to terminal to kill -9 anything. I’m looking at you, Xhub.
It had to be relatively fast – no waiting around for five minutes for the music library to appear.
…And it had to offer some moderately easy way to share screen-time with EyeTV, the digital TV viewer/recorder.
So here were the options, with my summary of each.
The easiest choice, as it’s essentially built in (although I had to use enabler as it’s an older mini). Pretty, and well integrated.
However, it requires a apple-escape to get into it every time, and once you’re in you can’t switch out without getting all the way out. No easy switching to EyeTV – you gotta get out of Front Row, click or alt-tab to EyeTV, then apple-escape to enter EyeTV’s fullscreen menu. Then to get back into Front Row, you have to click on Finder or something, as EyeTV steals Front Row’s keyboard combo. Yuck.
Front Row is also extremely sluggish, especially when browsing through videos, as it has to load each one under the cursor for a video thumbnail. On the poor 1.25 Ghz PPC mini, this is unusable.
iTheater is free, which is a good price. Very, very fast interface, and easy to switch to/from with alt-tab – no screen-hogging. That meant it was easy to integrate with EyeTV – with Quicksilver, I set up F1 to activate EyeTV; F2 activated iTheater again.
Unfortunately, after getting the 40″ LCD (running at 1200×768), iTheater suddenly couldn’t play videos at full framerate – they were hideously jerky. On the 1.25Ghz PPC processor, it really should’ve done better. Quicktime and Mplayer handled the video fine, so I could see no excuse for iTheater.
Out it went.
CenterStage for me was a failure right from the start.
I installed it on both my MacBook Pro and the Mini, and it didn’t even launch on either. I read on, and found that lots of other people had the same problem.
Not immensely impressive…
MediaCentral looked promising. It started up very slowly, but that’s a once-off. It ran ridiculously slowly, though – until I read somewhere that someone turned off the online content setting, and sped it up. Sure enough, the menus started behaving themselves better.
It offered an in-built digital TV module, but that interfered with EyeTV. Turned off, I could have probably done the Quicksilver trick with F1 and F2 again.
All was looking good until I actually tried to play a video – it was the slowest of the lot. Very jerky playback, and broken up audio.
Ah, mMedia…Dysfunctional to the extreme.
The menus didn’t even work, and it was quite ugly. There wasn’t a chance it was going to work for me.
Not entirely sure why this one is even listed as…well, anything.
GenieCommands looks like it was made in Powerpoint or something.
It’s meant to be a remote control application to control all the other apps, but it works appallingly.
Clicking (no keyboard) on iTunes brought up iTunes in the foreground, for example.
I can’t believe this is for sale! (For $20 USD, too).
And now we come to Xhub. Fast and pretty, with plenty of customizability in its looks. It behaves as a front-end to other apps, and integrates relatively well with DVD Player, iTunes, and iPhoto. Video playback is acceptable, and happens at the full frame-rate with a customised mplayer. Best of all, it offers an integrated front-end to EyeTV.
In theory, it sounds perfect. In practice, it falls short – it’s extremely buggy, crashing every second or third time I go to play something. A force-quit with cmd-option-q restores the desktop, ready for a relaunch back in, hopefully for greater success the next time.
When it isn’t crashing, it’s losing keyboard focus, unfortunately – often I’ve had to go through a sequence of force-quitting to get the keyboard back after starting a video. The same thing happens with EyeTV, and it also changes the keyboard commands – no more jumping 10 seconds back/forward with the arrow keys – you have to hold down the keys now to rewind or fast forward at 4x. That means a minute or so of holding down the right arrow to skip ad breaks.
So, amazingly, there are no good media center applications for Mac OS X that I’ve found. They’re all buggy (at best) in their own ways. Perhaps if I had a faster machine MediaCentral or iTheater would be viable, but it’s insane that they require more power.
It looks like I’m sticking with Xhub for now, because at least it comes close to doing what I want, unlike any of the others. Although it crashes constantly, I don’t have to reach for the mouse or terminal to remedy the situation – it brings up a dialog after force-quitting asking if you want to relaunch. Then it’s just the cmd-option-enter hotkey to relaunch and try again.
Lets hope these applications develop!