Why Your Next iMac may be an Xbox

Posted by:
Date: Monday, October 17th, 2005, 10:34
Category: Consumer Electronics

Apple’s first steps into home media management don’t have to be yours too. There are a variety of methods out there to watch your videos, view your photos, and listen to your music.
Front Row. Center Stage. Elgato’s EyeHome. All are mac-centric ways to get media into your living room.
My leap into home theater integration with my iLife has led me to an unlikely place – the Microsoft XBox. Before you get too squeamish, keep in mind that Microsoft loses money on hardware sales, and if you’re buying an Xbox for a project like I’m recommending, and you aren’t especially interested in playing games, building an XBox Media Center is a great way to stick it to the man.
Apple’s Front Row isn’t a bad first try. The downsides are that it doesn’t support many formats for content you come into contact with every day, and you can’t buy it without getting an iMac included. While the iMac is a swell computer, and a lot of people are going to love Front Row, if you weren’t in the market for a new iMac, you’re probably not going to think of getting one just because it has Front Row.
Good for you.
Click the headline for the rest of Emory’s story…


Apple’s first steps into home media management don’t have to be yours too. There are a variety of methods out there to watch your videos, view your photos, and listen to your music.
Front Row. Center Stage. Elgato’s EyeHome. All are mac-centric ways to get media into your living room.
My leap into home theater integration with my iLife has led me to an unlikely place – the Microsoft XBox. Before you get too squeamish, keep in mind that Microsoft loses money on hardware sales, and if you’re buying an Xbox for a project like I’m recommending, and you aren’t especially interested in playing games, building an XBox Media Center is a great way to stick it to the man.
Apple’s Front Row isn’t a bad first try. The downsides are that it doesn’t support many formats for content you come into contact with every day, and you can’t buy it without getting an iMac included. While the iMac is a swell computer, and a lot of people are going to love Front Row, if you weren’t in the market for a new iMac, you’re probably not going to think of getting one just because it has Front Row.
Good for you.
There are a lot of options on the market to get your “iLife” onto the big screen. I think most of them are arguably better than Front Row merely because most people probably have a monitor in their living room big enough to not require everyone be in the “Front Row” to see it!
First off is the required mention of Center Stage, from the Mac Media Center project. Center Stage is a suite of applications designed to let you turn a Mac into a full-fledged media center for your living room.
Center Stage is beautiful.

Using Center Stage is a great way to put a Mac in the living room. They list various connectoids to get your Mac onto a TV, add TV tuners to your Mac to make your own PVR, and all sorts of other “glue” for your home theater. Its all there.
Six months ago, my household purchased an EyeHome, from Elgato. What this box does is pretty simple.
You simply plug it into your AV processor or surround receiver. Digital audio, component video, S-Video, composite – its all there. The thing weighs about as much as a deck of cards and talks to the Macs in the house by way of a little Application you install to serve up files.
Really, all the EyeHome is, is a tiny PC with an embedded OS and a web browser. It also has a media player to allow it to view photos, play music, and watch video files. This includes what your EyeTV has been recording for you if you have one. Since TiVo is falling all over themselves to shove advertising at their users and are now telling you how long you can hold onto recordings you make, you really have to consider getting an EyeTV or two. If nothing else, getting yourself an EyeTV 500 will let you record non-restricted HD content onto your Mac. That alone is something that could be worth a lot to you if Congress completely loses its mind.
Or, if you’re like me, and bought an HD television in 1999 before HDMI and Firewire connections became standard. I have an analog HDTV, and there are people that think I should be screwed because of that. Unless they want to stop over and drop off a USD$6000 check for my TV so I can buy a new one, they can suck it.
The EyeHome is a snap to setup and works out of the box with the Macs in my house and requires no tinkering. The software you install announces that its there, the EyeHome lets me hop from Mac to Mac listening to music and watching videos. It supports most codecs out there though can’t play back any MPEG-4 H.264 in my experience. A real drag.
The EyeHome is also a little buggy at times, and I have to power cycle now and then when it gets wedged. This doesn’t happen every time someone uses it, but it is rather annoying. I’m also disappointed that you must use an application (which is really just a Web server of sorts) to get things to the device, since this means you have to have a user logged in on the Macs you want to watch movies or listen to music from. Their software doesn’t support being run “headless” like that. This also means you always have an EyeHome icon staring at you in your Dock. It is a big unblinking eye. Kind of bland.
Another weird thing about the EyeHome is that you can’t fast forward or rewind to save your life. You can try, but when you’re watching a movie it just chops and stutters and hangs while it figures out where it is. The hack is to use the left-right controls on our remote to pick a slice of time to jump to. Nudging once to the right increases your place in the video one percentage point. So maybe I’m at 4% of the video file, I nudge it, and it bumps to 5%, then rebuffers for a moment and plays again. Usually. Sometimes it also brings back the audio but leaves the video off. Then I throw a tantrum that involves a big loud sigh, and some EyeRolling.
Center Stage, Front Row, and the EyeHome both rely on storage on the Macs in your house for their content. They aren’t self-contained devices, but will bridge your Macs to your home theater, or have you dragging your Macs directly to it.
Where I took a strange turn however, was when someone in my office was commenting on Xbox Media Center. I was thinking about this and it made perfect sense. The Xbox is a remarkably cheap device. You can buy them second-hand and refurbed for around USD$100. They play a lot of games and also have some fascinating characteristics.
They can be modded – or changed – to allow for third-party applications to be installed on them. You don’t even have to buy a mod chip or whip out your tool belt, my Xbox was modded in a matter of minutes using a $14 copy of Mech Assault I bought from my local record shop and a saved game that executes a buffer overrun and boots Linux.
Once that was done, I downloaded XBMC (Xbox Media Center) via BitTorrent and FTP’d it to my newly modded Xbox. Install time was around two minutes. I rebooted the Xbox, and started up Xbox Media Center.
XBMC is amazing. You cannot believe the quality of this product considering that the software is completely free. It is light years ahead of the Elgato product, and much more capable than Front Row. It is more polished than Center Stage, and has the added bonus of running amazingly well on very, very cheap hardware.
Some of the features I have been most impressed with about Xbox Media Center are the following:

  • Beautiful user interface. The default is gorgeous. You can customize it however you want using skins (themes).
  • Outstanding playback of content across the network. It makes liberal use of caches to accelerate video playback. It also has smooth-like-buttah fast forward and rewind. Elgato be damned. These developers figured out a way to make it as if you had it local.
  • You can have it local! You can copy videos, music, photos, right to the Xbox if you want. Hack your Xbox more and shove a 400GB drive in there. If you play your cards right, that’d be around 600 hours of video.
  • You can archive movies to DVD’s and play them back on the Xbox. Home movies don’t have to live forever in ~/Movies. Nor do they have to be huge MPEG2 files. Copy MP4 video to DVD, and pop it into the Xbox when you want to watch them on the big screen. You can even sit in the back row.
  • Audio playback is flawless. Much less stammering than the EyeHome. You’re able to make playlists, upload playlists, or just have XBMC talk to your iTunes. Yup. Thats what I said.
  • XBMC can play content off SMB shares. If you’re running Panther or Tiger, just turn on Windows File Sharing and your Xbox can reach your content. This step requires minimal tinkering.
  • It can upconvert your video to HD resolution.
    That last one is the real doozy. XBMC can, and will, spit video at my TV in 1080i. Granted, it isn’t as nice as putting actual HD on it, but it is quite amazing to see. The Xbox doesn’t have a CPU strong enough to lift HD around – you need at least a G5 for that in the Mac world. You should bring two! HD video requires a lot of horsepower. But those TV shows from an EyeTV can be converted into XviD, DviX, QT MPEG4 or a variety of other formats and then played back beautifully at high resolution on your HDTV.
    This also applies of course to content you download from The Internet Movie Archive. There are tons of things there worth checking out, and all available in formats supported by all of the packages mentioned here today. This includes the amazing short film, How to Survive a Zombie Epidemic, by the talented editor Gabriel Koenig.
    All told, if you’re moderately handy you can pull off self-modding your Xbox and installing XBMC. Admittedly I didn’t do my homework and had a mild problem with my own modifications that my co-worker was all-too-happy to correct for me (Thanks mdavis!) and I was fortunate to have someone riding shotgun and holding my hand where I was squeamish. What can I say, I don’t know much about the ins and outs of the XBox.
    For those who want to take the plunge themselves, there are many resources, such as Xbox-Scene, which has horrible search and navigation but pretty good guides and pointers to useful information. Like I said, you don’t even need a mod chip anymore, so there really is no reason you shouldn’t mod your Xbox unless you play games on Xbox Live. (And even if you do, you can bounce back and forth from modded to un-modded easily enough.)
    And don’t forget, if you don’t want to soft-mod your Xbox, you could always buy an actual mod chip and put a big ol’ drive in there while you’re at it. For my money and needs however, I’m quite pleased with relying on the existing mass storage on my home network.
    The home entertainment industry has a lot of offerings for briding your computer to the livingroom. Xbox Media Center hits that perfect sweet spot of function, cost, and has features the big commercial offerings don’t offer.
    Resources:
    Google search: soft-modding xbox.
    Excellent soft-modding guide!

    Recent Posts