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#650: Mac Treat #108: Change Your Startup Image, The Best Device For Your Digital Media, Mac mini vs. Apple TV Feedback, Don's Top 10 Gifts
We got the first substantial snowstorm of the season on Wednesday and that ties the record here in Vermont for the latest date of a snow accumulation. Ed got caught behind an 18-car pileup on the Interstate as all the commuters that had delayed getting snow tires and forgot how to drive in the snow were slipping all over the place. Thankfully, everyone was OK.
I am still on cloud nine from my visit to the White House last week. I was able to shake the President and First Lady’s hands and convey greetings from Vermont. I spent a lot of time wandering around the East Wing and talking to the Marine guards that were eager to talk about the history of each room. And yes, the food was awesome!
Tonight is the first night of Chanukah and I’ll be taking out the menorah and lighting the candles, especially when my grandkids come over. I got their wish lists and Khadija made one for Grace (Umama) and one for me (Gramps) and mine had the cool stuff with URLs and 800#s, too. Gotta love it.
Note: That’s a previous snowstorm in my picture. Fantail is looming large over the snow piles!
|MAC TREAT #108: Change Your Mac's Startup Image||By Kali Hilke|
Here’s a simple Mac Treat that will make you look like you’re a power user. You know that standard image you see when you boot up your Mac? Well, you can change it—no Terminal commands involved—whether you want it to suit your personality, identify your machine or just because you’re bored.
10.5 Leopard and 10.6 Snow Leopard:
Upon restart, you’ll see your customized image!
Note: If you are using 10.4 or previous (I think this is applicable back to at least 10.2), this trick will still work. However, the name and location are different; go to Your Hard Drive > Library > Desktop Pictures and replace Aqua Blue.jpg.
Note #2: This may go without saying, but you will need to make sure you’re the admin user to you know, go changing things and stuff.
|Best Device to Consolidate and Play Back Digital Media||By Ed Shepard|
The following article is written with Mac users in mind, though much of it also applies to PC users. It’s a long article, but there are many variables to consider here. This is all based on my quest to create a central, easily accessible library for all the the media I purchase, create, and download. Ideally this media library would be connected to my home entertainment system, where it can be played back on a big television in the company of my family and friends, as well as synced up to my iPhone, iPods, and MacBook Pro as needed.
This is part of a larger goal of streamlining my digital life. I don’t want to waste money, energy, or environmental resources on overkill solutions. Then again, I don’t want to waste money or time on solutions that don’t meet my needs, or will be quickly outgrown. As with all tech-related purchases, it’s a fine balance between overspending at the bleeding-edge of technology, or mistakenly investing in a solution that is critically limited or nearly obsolete. Finally, it’s important to consider a backup strategy that doesn’t leave redundant files scattered across several hard drives.
My situation might be similar to yours. I have hundreds of gigabytes of movies, music, photos, and TV shows, most of which I never or rarely watch. I don’t want those files cluttering up my MacBook Pro’s internal drive, but do want to keep them properly organized. Previously I used an iMac to store those files, but I sold it to (again) streamline my digital life and cut down on computer clutter.
Currently I use Netflix for renting DVDs as well as streaming movies and TV shows from their excellent “Watch Instantly” service. I subscribe to a few TV shows via iTunes. This allows me to watch them on any of my Macs, my iPhone or Apple TV, any time I choose. It’s affordable and reliable. I occasionally (but rarely) rent HD movies from iTunes. There’s a Blockbuster a few blocks away from the house; it’s faster to go there than download a movie, and the video quality is slightly better. I have a PS3 that has a connection to the Playstation Network, which (like iTunes), allows for purchasing TV shows and purchasing and renting movies. However, in my opinion the service and user experience doesn’t come close to the convenience of the iTunes Store. Plus, you can’t easily move these files to a computer, iPod, or iPhone.
An ever-increasing percentage of the media we consume (music, movies, TV shows) is downloaded directly from the Internet. Likewise, most of the media we individually produce (photos, home movies, music) is created, shared, and stored on our computers, never leaving digital form, never even burned to DVD or CD.
There is a huge amount of programing available for streaming and downloading over the Internet. Hulu.com, Netflix.com, and many individual cable TV channels allow streaming of selected programs and movies directly from their websites. Since these sites stream video, there are no files to store or catalog. Of course, these media streams can move or go away as licensing changes, and streams can be interrupted by bad Internet connections or server-side issues. Streaming media can’t be moved to an iPod or iPhone for watching on the go (though new iPhone apps are allowing for this in limited situations). And many online media streams are embedded in websites, meaning they have to be watched in a web browser, often interrupted by ads (ads which keep them free, of course).
Meanwhile, iTunes is one of the easiest, most reliable ways to purchase or rent a large diversity of digital media, including popular television programs the day after they air. These are downloaded and managed via iTunes, and can can be synced and shared on authorized Macs, iPods, and iPhones.
Ultimately, along with creating a central media server, I plan on discontinuing my paid cable TV service completely. Mac|Life ran an article in August (Build The Ultimate Mac Entertainment Center) showing that, even including the cost of an Apple TV or Mac mini, it’s easily possible to save money streaming shows and buying 8 – 10 TV show season passes from the iTunes store vs. the typical cost of a cable bill. The New York Times just ran an article on this very topic (Cable Freedom Is a Click Away).
Of course, not every show is legally available in iTunes or streaming online. And it’s frustrating that it’s still not easy to get live, streaming sports coverage over the Internet. Some services are closing this gap; a web-based version of the MLB iPhone app with streaming video would be ideal. I’d pay to subscribe to that. On the other hand, if I can’t easily watch sports at home, that’s just an excuse to head out to the local sports bar!
Only in the past couple of years has it become relatively easy to get digital media off our computers and onto our big televisions and central sound systems. Easy, but still frustrating because there is still no single silver bullet for centralized storage, streaming, and playback of digital media in its many different formats.
There are a variety of devices that allow you to stream media stored on a computer to an entertainment system; the WDTV Live is a popular model, but it doesn’t play iTunes video content, and will only stream a limited amount of content directly from the Internet, including YouTube, but not including Netflix or Hulu.
The Apple TV is a very popular and easy-to-use device that wirelessly syncs music, video (uniquely, including TV shows and movies purchased from iTunes), podcasts and photos from a Mac or PC’s iTunes library to play back on a central entertainment system. You can also purchase and rent TV shows and movies (including HD content) from the iTunes Store directly from Apple TV. Like the WDTV live, a very limited amount of media can be streamed directly from the internet, including from YouTube, Flickr, and MobileMe, but not from popular sites such as Netflix and Hulu.com. Apple TV is largely a window to the iTunes Store, as well as an iPod for your television.
It is easy to “hack” the Apple TV to get greater functionally such as video streaming from a large number of websites. This is not supported by Apple and may offer a subpar viewing experience. The Apple TV’s rather old 1GHz processor is optimized for playing back video stored on its internal drive, not decoding and streaming video directly from the Internet.
Boxee is a free, popular user-installed software package for Apple TV, as well as any Intel Mac or most PCs. Boxee provides a clean, easy to browse interface for dozens of streaming and downloading services. Boxee claims to be “the best way to enjoy entertainment from the Internet and computer on your TV.” In my limited experience, this is true. All browsing happens via remote control, rather than keyboard. It’s almost as easy as browsing a Tivo menu, just with many more options.
In January, Boxee and D-link will be offering a device simply called the “Boxee Box by D-Link.” This is a promising device that, though important details aren’t yet released (including price, drive capacity, ability to such media from a Macs’s hard drive), could offer much of what’s missing in AppleTV. Of course, the Boxee Box does not play video purchased from iTunes, or other DRM-protected media. It should play iTunes Plus audio.
Some people simply connect their iPhones or iPods to their televisions to play movies and TV shows. It’s easy to connect an iPhone/iPod to most televisions with the Apple Composite AV Cable. This is how I currently watch TV shows purchased from iTunes on my LCD television. The image quality is quite dark and the resolution is very average. But it’s easy, and cheap since I already own the iPod.
Finally, many people connect a Mac directly to their home entertainment system. This allows video streaming from any website (including Hulu, YouTube, Netflix, etc), use of the Boxee browsing interface (and other apps like Boxee), full use of the iTunes Store to subscribe to TV shows and rent movies, mass centralized storage of video, music, photos and podcasts, and full 1920×1080 HD video out to a flat screen TV. Unique to any of the solutions listed above, a TV tuner can be used with the Mac mini. This means you can watch and record free over-the-air TV programing (including HD programing) live over the air. I’ve used the El Gato EyeTV Hybrid with success in the past; click here to read a review. Also unique to the devices above, the Mac mini also has a built-in DVD player. It’s not a Blu-Ray player, but it’s perfectly adequate for watching and burning SD videos. Since it runs full OS X, the Mac mini is easy to back up with Time Machine. It can even be wirelessly backed up via Time Capsule. You can play games on the Mac mini, as well as use it as a regular Mac to check email, iCal, browse the web, etc. Even without Boxee (again, a free download), Apple’s Front Row media playing application looks great on a big TV.
So why isn’t the Mac mini the perfect digital media hub? As a full-featured computer, it’s probably overkill for most people who simply want to consolidate and watch their digital media. Also, since it’s a computer, it’s also relatively expensive—$599 in its least expensive version, though for a media hub, it’s recommended to upgrade the internal drive to at least 500GB and add 4GB of RAM, adding about $215 to the cost. Its optical drive won’t play back Blu-Ray movies.
Still in, in the end, I decided that I will mostly likely ultimately invest in a Mac mini as my central media player/server of choice. As it is today, the Apple TV doesn’t offer enough features to bring me closer to my goal of canceling cable. If I cancel cable, that will pay for the Mac mini by the end of the year. I’m intrigued by the Boxee Box, but access to iTunes and the iTunes Store is important for me, because those products work well for me.
I am going to give it a couple more months to make the plunge, though. I’m hoping that Apple updates the Apple TV, or introduces a new device in between the Mac mini and Apple TV. In the meantime, I will continue with my current set up: a central iTunes library on an external drive, accessed by an old 12-inch G4 PowerBook (which is barely up to the task). I’ll continue watching iTunes media on my large TV via low-res iPod touch. I’ll continue to be distracted by the clutter and files scattered about.
Then again, maybe I’ll just treat myself to a Mac mini for Christmas…
|Mac mini vs. Apple TV - User Comments||By Ed Shepard|
A few weeks ago we asked which digital device people preferred for playing back digital music, movies and TV shows on their central home entertainment systems: Apple TV or Mac mini? Or do people simply prefer to connect iPods, iPhones or Apple notebooks to their entertainment systems to play back media? Does anyone simply watch TV and movies on an iMac? Here are some of the responses.
Editor’s note: Many users refer to the Apple TV as “ATV” in the following comments.
“I’ve been watching the rumor mills for about a year. I’d like to move to an ATV; however, there just seem to be too many drawbacks; like
When we purchased our large HDTV, I researched the various models and technologies and made a decision that we’ve been very very happy with.
Next, we researched the choices and quality of data for the TV in our area, and went with over-the-air. Again, we’ve been very very happy, and save quite a bit every month. The quality of the picture from over-the-air and the big screen are a joy. By the way, we compared picture quality between cable and over-the-air before dropping cable, and over-the-air wins by bunches as far as we’re concerned. 15 to 30 miles to the nearest over-the-air broadcaster, and we use an indoor antenna to get our super quality.
Now, back to the ATV; if Apple created one that combined massive storage, DVD/CD drive, touchpad, networking, and a program viewing/recording metaphor like Tivo, then my viewing room would be blessed. Just the fewer cables/cords would be a blessing. It needs to interface with our network, the TV, and our Bose sound system.
Let me know when they release it, and I’ll stand in line the night before to be sure I get one.”
Matt M., Waynesville, OHIO
“I have a 52” Sony LDC with a 5:1 audio system and a Digital Video Recorder. I regularly hook my MacBook Pro to the receiver by HDMI and put the video on the big screen to see photos and videos and as well use the remote to control playback.
However I have been unable to get the audio to work so I’ve added a small audio system that I’ve plugged into the audio out of the laptop (incidentally the remote controls this as well). I have had no joy getting help from either the big box store where I bought it or from Sony.
Recently I have been giving some thought to getting an Apple TV or a mini to free up my MacBook and hopefully get the proper audio connection.”
Ron H. – Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia
“I just got an Apple TV and after a couple of weeks wish I had gotten it when it first came out. I love the quality of the downloaded HD movies and the convenience of being able to sit on my couch to watch podcasts instead of my desk chair is simply unable to appreciate until you do it. Also, the iphoto screen saver is something that I plan to display proudly during my birthday party that is tomorrow. I intend to always have one. The Mac mini was just too much for not much more then the Apple TV as far as I am concerned.”
“Not a side-by-side comparison, but a few thoughts on the Apple TV and why I opted instead to just get a mini-DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter…”
“I was reading your newsletter while configuring my Apple TV again for use with Boxee. Without Boxee, the ATV is not all it can be. Unfortunately Apple doesn’t make it easy to add Boxee. Upgrades always break something.
ATV on its own is a great way to have music and slide shows in another room or larger screen. I don’t rent or buy movies but use Netflix and wish ATV would do Netflix on demand. Some claim the processor isn’t fast enough for streaming movies. The mini doesn’t have this issue. My main issue with the mini is the video connection. Perhaps the key is a DVI-to-HDMI adapter.”
“I use an HDMI connection from the back of my present G5, to an HDMI connector on my 40” Panasonic Plasma Flat Screen. I have been doing this for around 6 months and love watching programing from the net.
I will upgrade to a new tower Mac and then I will be able to upgrade on the programing input as some are only compatible with the new chip Macs (not the old IBM chips of my G5).
I think if I wanted to copy the incoming movie, or program (like the ABC presentation of “V”) I would just purchase a program to copy the incoming and then burn it onto DVD for my personal movie/program collection.
As long as the Apple TV can not accept the sources of my choice, I cannot use it.
In 2010 I will purchase a new Mac Pro and then terminate my Satellite service, using only the net as my programing source.”
David P. – San Jose CA
“Great topic! I too am right in the middle of the debate/question about whether to get one or the other or neither for my upscale audio/video system. I’ve read tons of articles and reviews on both; visited the Apple store twice to discuss it; and solicited feedback from numerous owners of both in two Apple user groups.
I’ve read the pros and cons of the Mini and I see the incremental improvements in the Apple TV. The potential for ATV to become the media integration center for my system seems to be a possibility, but not yet a reality. The ATV continues to be restricted to iTunes offerings, limited HD movies, limited movie resolution and lacks full access to other online media (like NetFlix, HULU, etc.) that I am looking for. I hope you have some useful insights into this issue.”
Mac C. Bellingham, WA
“I’ve been using Apple TV for about two years now and have enjoyed it a lot.
The majority of the time I watch podcasts. I subscribe to about 10 Mac-related Podcasts—both video and audio. A few times I will view other Podcasts online and watch them via streaming.
I rent movies from Apple about twice a month. Perhaps once a month I will scan through the Movie Trailers to see what’s coming up soon.
I do have one digital movie loaded onto the Apple TV, but have not taken the time to view it yet.
When Apple announced the Mac mini Server a few weeks ago, I perked up a little bit wondering if this might be something I could use for more video stuff, but I think not. I’d have to purchase a regular Mac mini. So, I will be reading your words very close to see if this is something I could use for viewing more videos, maybe TV shows, etc.”
Wes R. – Lawton, OK
“We have an Apple TV (purchased at the Burlington Small Dog store, of course!). We have it connected to our 60” Sony SXRD Rear Projector display, along with a Blu-Ray player, and a Series 3 (HD) TiVo.
By far, the TiVo gets the most use, which is pretty understandable as we get a decent array of HD programming via Comcast. With the premium movie channels, we find we are usually willing to wait for movies to come around so we can grab them with TiVo to watch at our leisure, and this has meant that we don’t rent as much as we used to.
I mention this because I see the Apple TV as primarily a video rental platform at this point in time. Buying movies on iTunes is not very attractive because iTunes HD movies are 720p, not full 1080p as with Blu-Ray, and yet they cost as much as most Blu-Ray disks via Amazon. Frustratingly, the movie studios seem to have arm-twisted the rental outlets (including iTunes) into a 30-day delay on new DVD/Blu-Ray releases, so we could buy Star Trek (the new movie) for $19.99 on iTunes today but cannot rent it until next month. That is one I wasn’t willing to wait for so I bought the Blu-Ray disk.
It is also worth noting that there are rental options on the TiVo as well, via Amazon, Netflix, and Blockbuster. We occasionally have used Amazon for rentals.
Finally, I find the Apple TV to be frustrating for the amount of manual conversion necessary to show my own collected material. In a very un-Apple-like gaff, iTunes lets you sync video to the Apple TV which it cannot play… I still shake my head at that one every time it bites me. I have to manually make sure that the format of videos is compatible or I get an infuriating message later when I try to play it, which requires a trip upstairs to my office to convert the video and re-sync it.
For the Apple TV to be truly useful, it would need to be able to take the place of our beloved TiVos (we actually have 3 HD units, one in each room with a TV), and the Apple TV would need to be 1080p capable, with iTunes selling/renting 1080p content.
Of course we do use it as an AirTunes outlet, but we did that previously with the much cheaper AirPort Express with an optical link.
I am happy enough with the TiVo HD for the moment that I have not really explored the necessary bits to use a Mac mini as a home theatre media device, but since it would be impossible to plug CableCards into it, I think it would suffer from some of the same shortcomings as the Apple TV (i.e. a limited set of features). Perhaps it would output a 1080p image, and it might play more media formats without requiring conversion, which would be a bonus, but that is something Apple TV should be able to do anyway.
If I were advising a friend who had access to HD on cable, I would say get an HD TiVo and an AirPort Express and you’ll have virtually all options open to you, without having to engineer the system from assorted bits yourself.”
Lou K. Green Mountain Software Corporation
“I have both a Mac mini and an Apple TV hooked up to my 50” Samsung HDTV. I thought I would be replacing the Apple TV with the mini, but I find I like them both. I use the Apple TV to stream content (movies, TV shows, picture slideshows etc.) from my office Mac, and I use the mini to watch Hulu.com and pick up TV shows I’ve missed, as well as doing training online through lynda.com. It makes it convenient for me and my husband to watch in comfort at the same time. I haven’t yet gotten apps such as Boxee or Plex to manage content; I’m pretty simple right now with it.
I also purchased the ATV Flash to upgrade the Apple TV so that I could add a browser or access other content online or Divx movies, but I find that I don’t like to keep installing it and I never used it that much anyway. I love the simplicity of the Apple TV menu and downloading from the iTunes store. I find both a great addition to my home theater setup. I can also stream Netflix through the mini, or through my Blu-Ray player. I’m pretty well set for now, and I wouldn’t give up either device.”
“Hi there, I’m a great fan of Kibbles & Bytes and Tech Tails. We simply attach my iPods (classic, nano, touch) to the auxiliary input on my household stereo. Works great.
What I’d really appreciate is a thorough review of using the Mac as a DVR. For those of us who opted out of cable TV (and don’t want the monthly fees associated with TIVO) but want the ability to record PBS programming, the Mac is a logical option thanks to Elgato EyeTV Hybrid 2009 and similar devices.
Admittedly, there’s some baggage attached to the “free” alternative: the cost of purchasing the hardware and software, connecting the laptop in preparation to recording, maintaining the optional external hard drive for recorded files, and dealing with the recorded programs (e.g. compressing, editing, etc.). There are probably more issues I haven’t even considered.
The good news is the considerable power saved by NOT having the conventional DVR box always on. Another plus is the money saved by not having to “rent” the box and service (our local cable company charges $20/mo ~ $240/yr for DVR service in addition to the monthly cable charge).
We’re not big TV users and couldn’t justify purchasing either an Apple TV or a Mac mini to address the scenario I’ve described. That being said, however, shouldn’t diminish the potential of a newer MacBook as a viable household media center. (We love connecting it to our flat screen TV and stream NetFlix movies from our queue.) But conventional TV via an antenna? There must be an easy (Mac) solution.”
Nick V. – Southern Oregon
“I have both; I think I prefer the mini because of its greater ability as a computer, so I can do Hulu and my own content.” – Via twitter: @debonnaire
“Still holding out hope that Apple TV will get some updates to truly compete, until then it seems mini is the way to go.” – Via twitter: @scottmccracken
“Mac mini because it plays back more file formats also boxy Netflix and hulu or any site with video or audio.” Via twitter: @billstreeter
|Don's Top 10 Holiday Gifts for 2009||By Don Mayer|
#10 – iPod touch 32GB – The top hand-held gaming and information appliance with lots of room for your music and video collection!
#9 – 3M MPro120 Portable Projector – This tiny projector can display video or photos from your computer or with the included cable you can show them from your iPhone or iPod Touch (a perfect companion to gift # 10 above). It is battery powered with 2-4 hours of battery life. Stick it on its end to show movies on the ceiling while you lay horizontal!
#8 – Chill Pill Audio’s Chill Pill mobile speakers – This is the gift of the year and the perfect stocking stuffer. Available in Black, Silver, Red or Blue, the Chill Pill is the ultimate in portable speakers. Think of your kid’s transformers and watch while this compact device separates into two powerful speakers with integrated retractable cables and a long-life rechargeable battery.
#7 – 27-inch Wide Screen iMac – With 4GB of RAM, a one Terabyte drive and the new Apple Magic Mouse, this is one awesome Mac for the home. Watch movies, surf the net, do graphic design, balance your checkbook all on the beautiful widescreen 27” display.
#6 – AppleCare for anything – Give the most precious gift of peace of mind with AppleCare. AppleCare for a Mac extends the 1-year hardware warranty to three years but equally important it extends the free technical support from Apple from 90-days to three years, too!
#5 – Time Capsule 1TB – You need this device! It gives you all of the advantages of a state-of -the -art wireless access point with simultaneous dual-band 802-11n but also gives you a 1TB wireless backup unit so that you can take full advantage of Time Machine’s automatic back-ups.
#4 – MacBook Pro 13-inch – This compact aluminum unibody MacBook Pro combines power and versatility. If you buy this MacBook Pro and AppleCare we will ship it for free and you will have your choice of an all-in-one HP Printer for free after rebate or a 500GB LaCie back-up drive for only $20. Note: this promo is good with any Mac and AppleCare purchase!
#3 – MacBook 13-inch – Save a few bucks and get this MacBook with white polycarbonate unibody construction.
#2 – TruPower IV for the iPhone – This cool device is always in my bag. Not only does it provide you with a back-up battery for your iPhone but it is one of the few that will also charge your iPhone. Not only that but it also will let you charge another USB device and includes a flash for your iPhone camera!
#1 – iPod nano 16GB in Purple – Yes, it must be purple! The iPod nano now features a video camera to take those spur of the moment videos while you rock out to your tunes. It also has a built-in FM radio if you want to listen to NPR.
See all gifts at Smalldog.com/holiday!
|Brenthaven ProStyle II-XF||By Don Mayer|
I decided that my old Ogio bag was getting a bit long in the tooth and ragged in the seams so I asked our friends over at Brenthaven to give me a case to test. We have recently added the Brenthaven x-ray-friendly bags to our selection so the ProStyle II-XF seemed like a good choice.
Harvey Stone, the owner of Brenthaven is renowned in Apple circles for his energetic presentations at Apple Specialist conferences. He likes to put his laptop in one of his bags and then to the gasps of the audience, drop it from heights or toss it across the room. He obviously has a lot of confidence in the construction and protection offered by his products. (Harvey is apparently also an expert at making animal noises, but I have yet to hear his imitation of a hippo.)
The way an x-ray-friendly bag works is that it has a separate section for the laptop that can be spread out in the belt without taking the computer out. Since it is the only thing that is in that compartment, it cannot shield anything else (which is the reason that TSA wants you to take your computer out of your bag).
Brenthaven also has a “zero impact” policy in which they promise to invest in Green projects to offset any impact their products have on the environment. That certainly fits well with Small Dog’s commitment to planet!
The bag itself features high quality construction with high density foam to protect your computer, a great ergonomic shoulder strap and plenty of pockets and compartments. I find the bag to be very comfortable to carry and it definitely keeps its shape much better than my older bag.
The best part was walking through the lines at the airport without having to get an extra grey tray and take out my MacBook Air every time I went through the security lines. Brenthaven offers a lifetime warranty on their products and I can wholeheartedly recommend their ProStyle II-XF.
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Thanks for reading this issue of Kibbles & Bytes. I hope that you have a wonderful December weekend!
Your Kibbles & Byes Team,
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