Mac Media Center – Quick Note

I was at Best Buy today and noticed that SimpleTech has apparently reworked their external drive offerings. As a result, the old model of the 1TB external USB drive that was $259.99 is now on clearance for…get this…$92.99! The online store still lists the full price so I suggest that if you are in the market for a huge external drive for pocket change, stop into the store and see if they’ve got it marked down. It’ll be the silver drive with the sloped front (the enclosure, not the box it’s in).

Also remember that if you use a Mac then you will have to format it because it comes as NTFS which will only give you read access. If you aren’t sure how that works, just fire up Disk Utility (in the Utilities folder) and select the drive. From there select the Partition tab and click on Options. You have to make it a GUID partition table or else the format will fail. After doing that you can format the drive using Mac OS Extended (Journaled). Give it whatever name you want and click Apply. In moments you will have a fresh drive ready for mass quantities of digital goodness. (Important note: There is a backup utility on the drive that you will need to copy off first if you plan on using it. I prefer to just use Time Machine so I didn’t bother.)

Personally I made two partitions so I can have one for Time Machine (200GB) and one for my movies (731GB, you lose some in formatting). I’m still waiting on Time Machine to finish the initial backup and then I’m going to copy the movies I’ve already ripped via Handbrake over and see how it works with the Xbox. When I get it all up and going I will update the Mac Media Center page with the details. Oh, and if you are worried that USB 2.0 won’t be fast enough, let’s just say I’m getting better than 1GB/min transfer and since the movies are about 1GB per hour…there should be nothing to worry about.

Edit: I fixed the reduced price. I incorrectly reported it as $96.99.

Organization Will Set You Free

I don’t know about the rest of you but I have friends that like to borrow things. These things are usually in the form of DVDs or books. With my memory not exactly being what it used to be, I really have a hard time remembering who has what. Heck, I’ve loaned stuff out that stayed gone so long that I forgot I even owned it. This is where Delicious Library 2 comes in if you have a Mac.

Delicious Library 2 is a program that will catalog pretty much anything and everything you own. Yes, I am aware there are lots of programs that will do this. Let me tell you the joys of why DL2 is superior. Probably the best feature in my opinion is the barcode scan ability. All you do is hold the book or DVD or whatever’s barcode up to your iSight camera and it will read it, look the item up on Amazon, and download all information about that item into your database (including current sale value!).

DL2 also integrates into your Mac’s address book which will let you drag an item you loaned to that person’s entry so you can keep up with who has what. It’ll even put an iCal reminder for the due date you set. See? Bad memory is no longer a problem. And speaking of friends, DL2 will use Bonjour to show you the library of other Macs on your network. It’ll even let you find libraries of your friends that are published to the web. Did I mention you can publish it to the web (using either .Mac or iWeb or even FTP)?

There’s a whole host of other things you can do including a simple three click process to sell an item on Amazon but for a full list of everything it can do I would suggest just going to the website. You can download the program and put up to 25 items in it before you need to purchase it. The cost is a very reasonable $40. Actually, next to the $20 I spent on Connect360, I think this is the best investment I’ve made in my iMac.

Home Media Makeover Part One: DVD Library

Technology abounds in every aspect of our lives. Computers are usually the center of a great many media types that we experience throughout the day. You can buy a computer pretty much anywhere these days for really reasonable prices. So the question on my mind has been, why are most people still using the old components of yore for their home theaters? Why not leverage some of this wonderful computer technology and versatility for the home theater experience?

Yes, I know there are HTPC options out there. Most of them run well over $1500 for the base model. I also know you can roll your own HTPC/DVR for about the same price. What I’m talking about is using a more distributed model, preferably leveraging systems you already have in place…just extending them to the HDTV in the living room. For my personal project, I have a 20″ iMac on my desk and a Vista laptop that usually sits on the coffee table. There’s a 50″ Samsung plasma TV in the living room that I really want to use to watch my media such as streaming video from the web with an XBox360 under it.

Ideally, I want to get rid of the DVD player and replace the set-top box from Comcast with my media system so I can drop the cable television service and thus save myself over $1000 a year. Now I realize that for my particular desires, I will not need a PVR/DVR setup and can thus skimp on some hardware. Actually, for step one of my media center makeover, I just want to stream ripped copies of my DVD library so my 360 will play the part of extender. For this setup, storage will be the biggest concern with network bandwidth running a close second. With today’s prices for hardware, neither of those should be a challenge to satisfy on a budget.

Let’s start by making sure there is plenty of storage for my media. My eventual completed media system will hopefully house rips of every DVD I own so I can just fire up my extender and select the title that it will stream to the plasma. For this I’m going to need something really large because I own a lot of DVDs. I will add an external 1TB USB hard drive to hold my movies. I will probably add a second one later on to house my anime. This is the nice thing about using external storage. I can add/remove/swap at will even while the system is running. These drives start at just over $150. So that’s reasonable.

Next I need to worry about network bandwidth. Everything in my house is running wirelessly on 802.11g. I was worried that video streaming would saturate the bandwidth, but after testing it last night with Pirates of the Carribean, I am confident that the G network will be sufficient for everything I will be doing in phase one. This is wonderful because I don’t have to spend the money on a new router and adapters for every system in the house. I now have more budget to work on other areas.

Now we have storage and bandwidth taken care of for less than $200. Time to hit software. I already have Handbrake which will handle the rip/convert process for my DVDs. I also have Connect360 ($20) to let the XBox see my iMac. Now I just need time. Handbrake 0.9.2 has a large selection of presets for different types of devices. Since I am using my Xbox360, I selected the presets for that device. It works wonderfully. Handbrake also has presets for everything from the iPhone to a PS3. It is a wonderful little program that costs nothing.

If you are using Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate, you have what you need to connect to the 360…Windows Media Center. That would just leave the ripping/converting software. Many people take the inexpensive route of ripping the DVD with DVD Decrypter or DVDShrink to a single VOB file then changing the extension to MPG. Media Center will let you stream the renamed file to your 360 with full DVD Quality. Details for this method and some caveats are here. There is also TMPGEnc MovieStyle ($39.95) which can encode to different playable formats.

Do not be fooled. Ripping and encoding a full length movie is not going to happen quickly. It took nearly four hours for my iMac to get finished with Pirates of the Carribean. This is not a project for the impatient. You will easily spend a couple of weeks working on rips if you have a large library. I have about 400 or so DVDs from movies to anime and television series. I fully expect this conversion process will take me about two months. On the bright side, unless I lose a drive, I won’t have to worry about it ever again and adding new movies that I purchase will be mostly painless.

Now that my DVD library is taken care of in this design, time to hit up my other wants. I want to be able to stream from video sites such as SurfTheChannel and Hulu since this is where I get a lot of my television series fulfillment. That will be in Part Two.

iMac vs XPS

I’m the first to admit that Apple’s upgrade pricing is completely insane (though it has been toned down some since the iMac refresh). But I am so tired of hearing that Apple hardware is way overpriced for what you get. Quite to the contrary, Apple’s systems are right in line with similar systems from other manufacturers. Let’s compare the 20″ iMac with a Dell XPS all-in-one system and see what we get:

iMac – $1349

  • Intel Core 2 Duo (2.4GHZ) Processor
  • 250GB SATA HDD (7200RPM)
  • Wireless Mouse and Keyboard
  • SuperDrive 8x (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
  • ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT with 128MB memory
  • Integrated 802.11 b/g/n
  • 10/100/1000 Ethernet
  • Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR

XPS – $1299

  • Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 (2.2GHZ) Processor
  • 250GB SATA HDD (7200RPM)
  • Wireless Mouse and Keyboard
  • DVD±RW Slot Load Drive
  • Integrated Intel Video
  • Integrated 802.11 b/g/n
  • 10/100/1000 Ethernet
  • Bluetooth 2.0

Now since the iMac has FireWire built in, a faster processor, better graphics, a dual layer DVD burner, and better bluetooth…I can understand a $50 price difference. I also consider Vista Home Premium to be a close equivalent to OSX Leopard with iLife in terms of tools and functionality. Vista has Media Center and OSX has FrontRow. Both offer similar (and for the record…similar does not mean identical) features and interfaces and both work with remotes (which you get with the iMac).

So tell me, how is Apple overpriced? Wait, let me guess…you think my comparison is bogus because the XPS isn’t exactly the same specs, right? Let’s see what happens when I choose a higher level for some improved hardware…

iMac – $1478

  • Intel Core 2 Duo (2.4GHZ) Processor
  • 320GB SATA HDD (7200RPM)
  • Wireless Mouse and Keyboard
  • SuperDrive 8x (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
  • ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT with 128MB memory
  • Integrated 802.11 b/g/n
  • 10/100/1000 Ethernet
  • Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR
  • iWork ’08

XPS – $1799

  • Intel Core 2 Duo E6550 (2.33GHZ) Processor
  • 320GB SATA HDD (7200RPM)
  • Wireless Mouse and Keyboard
  • DVD±RW Slot Load Drive
  • ATI Mobility Radeon HD 2400 Video Card (memory not listed)
  • Integrated 802.11 b/g/n
  • 10/100/1000 Ethernet
  • Bluetooth 2.0
  • Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition
  • Hybrid Analog/Digital TV Tuner with Remote Control

Oh, wait, there’s not option for a TV Tuner on an iMac. That must be the reason for the $321 price difference. And if you want to complain that iWork and Office aren’t reasonable counterparts, Office ’08 for Mac is only $149. So if you substitute that in place of the $79 iWork you would still only get a total of $1548 for the iMac leaving a difference of $251 between the systems. Surely that is explained by the TV Tuner which I can pick up at best buy for less than $100…right?

So get off the old and now invalid argument people. That was years ago. Apple is not this super expensive elitist computer manufacturer the hype makes it out to be. They make good systems that perform well running either OSX or Vista and in many cases run Vista better than machines from the other guys. For the price of the bulky and ugly XPS, I can get myself a sleek iMac and still have enough left over to buy a copy of Vista to run in BootCamp or Parallels. Think about that the next time you get ready to buy a machine.

Parallels Desktop Bundle

Just a quick update, all of the applications in the MacUpdate Parallels Bundle have been unlocked. That’s right, for 64.99 you can get Parallels with nine other apps. These are the full versions of said software and the cost is less than the price of Parallels alone. So, if you are in need of Parallels and think you might be interested in some of the other applications in the bundle, hurry over to MUPromo and snag a copy. Move fast, the bundle is only available for four more days.

A Mac Software Deal

MacUpdate is currently running a software bundle special. The MUPromo bundle has 10 full versions of shareware apps for the price of 64.99. Most notable is Parallels Desktop. This is the application that lets you run Windows in a virtual space inside of OS X. Other applications include handy tools from file management to programs that integrate iCal into your menu bar clock. Now, since the total cost for these applications separately would run somewhere over $250, one might wonder if there is a catch. Well, the answer is yes and no.

Yes there is a catch of sorts. Three of the applications are “locked”. That is, they do not come with the license keys for the full versions. What happens is that as more of these bundles are sold, these applications become “unlocked” and everyone that has purchased the bundle get the license key sent to them for the full version. Once 5,000 are sold, Sound Studio will be unlocked. Then you get BannerZest at 10,000 and finally Parallels at 15,000. This should not be a deterrent to getting the package. On the contrary, it should encourage everyone with a Mac to pick up the bundle.

Apples aren’t all roses

Don’t get me wrong, I love my new iMac. It’s sleek, fast, and easy to use. Every program I use regularly at home on my Vista laptop has an OS X counterpart. But I do have a bone to pick with Jobs’ company about one thing. While the overall prices of the base models are in line with the cost of PC’s with similar specs…prices on the upgrades are somewhere in the realm of stupid.

Have you priced memory lately? The iMac uses PC2-5300 SODIMM RAM chips. I can buy 4GB of RAM (2x2GB sticks) for less than $80. I can get it for less than $65 if I don’t care about branding. So tell me, Apple, why does the 4GB upgrade cost $500?? Exactly what kind of crack are you smoking? Going from a 250GB to 500GB SATA HDD is an increase of $149. The retail cost difference is less than $30. As a matter of fact, a 3GB/s 500GB SATA HDD is less than $100. So tell me what the hell is wrong with you people?

I understand the basic concept of capitalism. I know that all companies are out to make money. But these prices aren’t reasonable. They aren’t acceptable. They’re insane and outrageous. I will gladly buy a new iMac when this one becomes too underpowered for what I want to do. But listen to me, Apple. I will not purchase any of the upgrades for my system from you as long as you insist on applying these ridiculous price gouging techniques. I know how to plug in a SODIMM chip so I will be buying my memory from which will save me over $400 and leave me a 1GB chip to toss into my Vista laptop.

It’s things like this that continue to perpetuate the idea that Apple is a pompous company that is entirely too full of itself. If you ever want to shake this image and quite possibly begin seriously eating into desktop marketshares…you have to change your pricing structure. Since you haven’t changed this downright idiotic pricing scheme, I can only assume some people are dumb enough to use your upgrade options. I won’t be one of them and neither will anyone I send your way to buy from you guys.

Nothing about the design of your systems is worth the “Upgrade Stupidity Tax” you guys impose. This is by far a much greater affront to me than the “Microsoft Tax” you pay when buying from another company. So wake up, Apple. Stop feeding the fire of the “fanboys”. Get your prices in line with the rest of the world and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find that you can sell more systems.

Life with an iMac

So I had the DOA Superdrive replaced. It was as easy as dropping it off Monday afternoon at User Friendly, the local Apple service center and then picking it up on my way home on Tuesday. Don’t let their website fool you, these guys are a full blown Apple retailer that really knows their stuff. I spent about an hour in there on Tuesday talking shop. I know that we are getting an official Apple Store in the Jackson, MS area, but I think I will continue to give the guys at User Friendly my business. There’s a lot to be said about a friendly atmosphere of knowledgeable people that don’t pressure you into purchases you may not want or need.

Anyway, I have since been completely re-ripping my CD collection. I wanted to have a clean and organized digital music collection without all of the fluff and chaos that has existed in my old folder. After all, I have not done a thing to straighten up the old library that I have been migrating from computer to computer over the last five or six years. It is an unholy mess and it needs to be buried. I am happy to report that the new Superdrive is working wonderfully.

As for the user interface, that is taking a little getting used to. Having no “maximize” button is definitely causing a shift in my thinking…much more so than having the windows controls (close and minimize) on the upper left corner. I am also having to remember that there really is not an equivalent to the Windows Start menu. The Dock, however has made that fairly easy since I have more than enough room for my commonly used programs.

I do like how the programs are installed as “packages” in a folder on the drive. If you want to uninstall a program, just delete the package. Simple. See, a package is like a cross between a zip file and an executable (EXE) file. Everything for that program is stored inside the package and you can browse it like one might do a zip file. But to run the program, you just double-click the package and it runs like an EXE in Windows would. This modular approach prevents the problem in Windows of remnant files and setting being left after a program is removed from the system thus avoiding the inevitable slow down of the computer over time.

I believe I mentioned that my employer is an almost purely Microsoft shop (with the exception of that one Linux system running for spam filtering). That is not a problem either. OS X can easily be configured to use a VPN connection provided by a Windows Server system without any additional software. Then with a quick download of the Microsoft Remote Desktop Client for Mac, controlling the work PC is as easy as three mouse clicks.

Did I mention that I am using this system over my wireless connection even though I am only 8-10 inches from my router? I really hated the knot of cables that used to weigh down my desk. I am also able to connect the iMac to my AT&T Tilt over bluetooth for sharing photos and music between the two systems. It is not quite as easy as using WMDC on my Vista laptop, but that is to be expected. I really would not expect an iPhone to connect and share services with a Vista computer as easily as it would with a Mac.

I have discovered that most of the software I actually use like FullTiltPoker, The GIMP, OpenOffice and Firefox all have OS X versions that function just like their Windows counterparts. That was the only real worry I had when I decided to take the plunge into the world of Mac…learning new applications. It was an unfounded worry because so much software is written for both platforms and use very similar interfaces between platforms. Open Computing is very nearly upon us. By that I mean that regardless of the OS you finally choose, you will have the same application suites available to perform the tasks at hand. All we need now is some sort of ActiveX VM for Mac and Linux so all those sites work the same cross-platform and Open Computing may very well become a reality. And isn’t choice the ultimate goal?

iMac – First Impressions (updated)

As I mentioned previously, I am not a Mac user. I use Windows and Linux for my computing needs. But now my iMac is in and I have been playing with Mac OSX Leopard for a few hours. Let me just say to Microsoft, this is where the Wow is.

The initial setup of OSX when you first turn on the iMac is as simple as you could ask for. It finds your network, wireless or wired, and prompts you to input any necessary configuration information to connect to said network. It asks you to create an account password and picture (using the built in iSight camera…more on that in a minute) and then let’s you into the desktop. It quite literally took less than five minutes to get the entire initial setup completed. Are you listening Microsoft? I really don’t need Vista taking in excess of 15 minutes on the initial startup. It’s a waste of my time and I don’t have all that much to spare.

The desktop is clean. You have the application bar at the top and the dock at the bottom. Think of the dock as a quicklaunch bar. Icons for the programs you will use the most should be here. The application bar will be somewhat confusing to longtime Windows users. See, programs in OSX do not have a menu bar with the familiar File, Edit, etc menus. The application bar changes to reflect those. This will probably be the hardest thing to learn when moving from a Windows environment to OSX. As for a taskbar showing a little button for every running program…you won’t see that here. However, changing between windows is just a squeeze of the mouse away. Yes, I said squeeze. The Apple Mighty Mouse has left and right click, a scroll ball (for smooth vertical and horizontal scrolling…a wonderful little bonus), middle click, and squeeze. If you squeeze on the two side tabs, all active windows shrink and spread out across the desktop so you can see all available programs. Click on one and it becomes the active window.

If you middle click, you get the Dashboard. This is a pseudo desktop that overlays the current desktop. On the Dashboard are widgets. Think of them as the gadgets in Windows Sidebar. I am not getting into the argument over which company or group came up with these things first, I am simply describing what the Windows equivalent would be for easier visualization. The Dashboard starts with a calculator, weather, clock, and a calendar. You can add, remove, and relocate widgets across this desktop to better fill your needs. If you don’t see a widget for something you want, there are many many more available online.

The iSight camera is simply amazing. The pictures are clear and the video is smooth with very little blurring even during fast motion. I probably played with my position in front of the camera for four or five minutes when OSX just wanted me to make a picture to associate with my user account. I was just that amazed with the quality it provided. I plan on playing with it a lot more over the weekend.

Sound on the iMac is both loud and surprisingly clear. The speakers are built into the system and are hidden behind the lower part of the bezel on either corner. There are no holes in the bezel to denote that sound is coming from there, which caught me off guard. I did not expect so much noise to come from so small a package without it sounding tinny or distorted. Somehow, though, Apple managed to put together a wonderful system capable of making happy about ditching my old Creative speakers and further uncluttering my desk.

My only gripe so far is the length of the USB cables for the mouse and keyboard. At this point I am going to have to completely redesign my desk to accommodate the skimpy length. The keyboard has maybe two feet of cable and the mouse about one. Now I can understand the thought behind the choices. If you have the iMac on a flat desk, the cables are adequately long enough to accommodate comfortable use since the mouse plugs into the keyboard’s USB hub. but if you have a keyboard drawer under the surface of your desk and you want to use the mouse on the surface…well, let’s just say you need to start working on new desk designs.

Anyway, the point is the hardware is impressive as is the ease of setup. I haven’t had enough time to really dive into the applications yet, so that piece will have to wait a few days whilst I delve into the Steve Jobs Kool-Aid…

UPDATE: Well it appears my Superdrive is DOA. I suppose it’s off to the service center next week so I can get it replaced. Isn’t that just a wonderful start to my life with an iMac. And it only cost my one of my favorite CD’s to discover the horrible truth of the refurb.