Back to the Mac Part I: Mac Mini in the Living Room

I’ve been using computers for over 25 years now. The first computer I ever had any involvement with was a DEC PDP-8 in the Tech Institute at Northwestern University in 1980. Ah, using front panel toggle switches to input a program register by register… how happy I am that those days are long gone. The first word processor that I used was an IBM DisplayWriter, then later a Wang terminal. The first PC that I ever used was an IBM PC XT, with a 5MB hard disk. And the first computer that I purchased for my own personal use was an Atari 520ST in 1986.

In 1987, I was working as a project manager on “Harvard Graphics for Macintosh” (which never saw the light of day) and my office computer was a Macintosh II. That was the first personal computer I ever used that I was actually truly impressed with. In 1988, I bought a Macintosh SE, which I used for the next 5 years. The 90’s saw two more Macs, augmented by PC after PC. In 1996, I sold my last Mac – a Centris 610 – and switched full time to using PCs. The last Mac OS I used was, I think, 8.0.

So, about a year and a half ago, I bought an HP Media Center z545 PC for the living room. I had recently converted all our music to MP3s, and wanted a centralized place to play all our music from. I also wanted a video-capable PC in the living room for surfing the net, etc. I’ll leave my critique of Media Center for another day, but let’s just say I’m very glad I didn’t get rid of my Tivo. I sold off the HP after about six months of trying all kinds of ways to get to work at least somewhat seamlessly with my Panasonic plasma HDTV (don’t ever bother), and decided that was that for a while.

Until I saw a Intel-based Mac Mini running Front Row. Now that was impressive! That’s what I was looking for. And this new Mac could even run Windows if I needed it to. I figured even if Front Row didn’t work out, at least I would have a nice small computer for the living room that didn’t make any noise. I ordered a Mac Mini directly from Apple, maxing it out with a Core Duo and 2 gigs of RAM. At the same time, I ordered the Apple Bluetooth wireless keyboard and mouse.

The first amazing thing was the setup. There wasn’t any. I plugged it into the wall, plugged the DVI cable from my plasma display into the back, and turned it on. From booth to able to click on something…. took less than 30 seconds. And after filling out my user info, etc. my boot time is more like 15 seconds. Astonishing.

No anti virus software to install, since the Mac is immune to them (so far… knock on wood). No settings to copy over… everything just worked. This is exactly the way a computer should be. It seemed that almost every decision that I thought I would make, the machine already made the same decision. It found all my music, imported it off my PC drive, and organized it. Connected to the Internet. Played DVD’s without forcing me to switch the resolution on the monitor (a major DRM pain on Windows).

After two days, I decided to give up syncing my iPod to my PC, and switch it to syncing on the Mac. Suddenly a bunch of new features made themselves available! The iPod automagically recognized all my photos in iPhoto and asked if I wanted to copy them to the iPod as well. Did I want contacts and appointments from ICal?

Another week, and I was using Camino, the very nice Mozilla-based internet browser optimized specifically for the Mac OS X. All (well, almost – no plug-ins) of my favorite Firefox features in an even friendlier and Mac-looking package, with tabs done exactly right.

This is a fantastic computer, just the best. I can’t recommend this enough. But, there are two areas that Apple – or some enterprising 3rd party – really need to deal with. Those two areas are digital television support, and a proper “laptop friendly” keyboard/pointer device of some sort.

Needed: Digital Television and HDTV Support

This is, without a doubt, the (nearly) perfect living room computer. The Big Hole is, of course… no TV programming. For me, this wasn’t too much of a problem, since I used my HD DirecTivo for both HDTV and DVR purposes. Yes, I wish there were a proper Mac solution, but there is, in fact, absolutely no all-in-one TV solution available yet. There are some USB gadgets that will record some analog TV, others that record over-the-air digital but not cable, some that will record some open cable analog but not digital, and none that will record any type of satellite digital or HD. In short, for the moment, if you want your digital and HDTV, and you want to be able to time-shift and store it, your only choices are either a cable company’s DVR or DirecTV’s HD Tivo machine.

I did try the myTV.PVR from Eskape. Short story, It won’t work for me. I only have DVI and RGB composite video cables running through the wall to my plasma display. If it’s not an HDTV or a digital signal, there’s no way for me to get it there. And the myTV device only supports S-VHS and component video, so I couldn’t even get it to connect to my display. In addition, I have to say this was a pretty cheesy device overall.

Needed: An All-In-One Wireless Keyboard and Mouse Device

The other area where there is a serious need for help is the keyboard and mouse. Why doesn’t someone, somewhere, make a proper wireless keyboard and pointing device combination? If I’m going to be sitting on the couch driving the computer, I need an all-in-one solution. Basically, the keyboard portion of a laptop, separated and working over Bluetooth. The HP Media Center came with a pretty good one, but there is no such device available anywhere for the Mac – believe me, I’ve looked! I even found a pretty decent Microsoft wireless media center keyboard – but it will only work with PCs. Apple, Logitech, or somebody needs to get on the ball here and produce such a device. Balancing a keyboard on your lap while trying to use a mouse on the arm of a sofa is extremely difficult. It’s especially annoying seeing as how laptops have solved this problem for over a decade now: a track-pad right below the keyboard. Why isn’t there one single device out there that just copies this simple, tried and true solution?

The Mac for Everything?

I began to seriously consider using the Mac as my prime computer platform. I almost ordered another Mac Mini, but then decided I’d rather wait until Apple came out with a proper desktop machine in the new Intel format. But then the MacBook came out… and I found myself at the Apple store in West Palm Beach the day after they shipped.

In the second part of this article, I’ll cover my purchase of the 13″ MacBook, installing Windows and Boot Camp on the Mac, and the delights of Macintosh software in general.

To Be Continued in Back to the Mac Part 2: The MacBook

This entry was posted in Technology. Bookmark the permalink.