The Making of a Media Center

This guide is intended to let me (and you) quickly set up an Apple computer as a media centre. I’m currently using a PC running Windows Vista Home Premium as the media centre – it’s native media centre functionality works quite well but, given my hope to move to a more Mac-centric environment, I want to see if it’s possible to actually use something like a mac mini as a media box. For the purposes of this guide, the media centre has to do the following:

  1. Be reliable! No weird and unexpected crashes. Moreover, I don’t want to be servicing the damn thing on a semi-regular basis.
  2. Be fairly easy to manage. I’m not going to have a lot of time to futz around with this thing come September.
  3. Be simple! If it take a lot of work to maintain, my hopes of spreading that work around are doomed to failure!
  4. Be as good as Vista Home Premium! While I really do want a dominantly Mac environment, I’m not willing to do so at the loss of overall functionality.
  5. Access media from my Fileserver (this, really, is what makes this whole thing a pain in the ass).

Now that we’ve identified the conditions for victory, let’s go and investigate how to do this!

Hardware/Software Requirements

Listed are the items that this has been tested on. Hopefully I’ll be able to add to this when I actually own some of the hardware myself grin

The Setup

First, head to the above linked software/scripts and download them. Make sure that you’ve updated your iTunes to at least version 7.6. Once you’ve done that, we’ll proceed through them (as a note: this whole process can potentially take a lot of time. Give yourself an afternoon or more if you are going to be adding a substantial library).

  • Install Perian, let it update itself automatically. This give you the ability to play most video formats in Quicktime.
  • Install flip4Mac WMV; this will let you want WMV files in Quicktime.
  • Drag the Moveie2Tunes script to the Applications folder. Then drag a copy of it to the Dock – this will save you a lot of time later on. Trust me on this.
  • Drag the ‘Find Album Artwork With Google’ script to [username]/Library/iTunes/Scripts/. If there isn’t a ‘Scripts’ folder there already, just create a New Folder, name it ‘Scripts’, and place the script in the newly created folder.
  • Follow the onscreen instructions for ‘Doug’s Enter Long Description Text for Selected’ script.

Now that we’ve done the easy parts, let’s get a bit closer to actually getting ready to play your precious, previous media grin.

Mount Yer Volumes!

As it stands, I’m currently running a (crappy) Windows XP fileserver. I should be honest – all I’ve done is load up an old PC with a buttload of HDDs, assigned them unique names, and share out the volumes across my network. I know – it’s not the best or nicest method of doing things, but it’s what I had at the time. Consequently, I’ll be laying out how to easily automount Windows NTFS-formatted drivers. Once I move away from the present system to external drives made available through the Time Capsule that’s in my future I’ll update how to access that. Until then, however….

Share out your Windows XP HDDs. Find the folders/drivers and set up sharing. Check out either Microsoft or the Computer Digest to figure out how. There are other places on the ‘net to do it as well.

The grunt way of setting this up (i.e. the ‘I don’t want to use Applescript, and you can’t make me!’) is a bit of a pain, but not all that painful. First, ensure that you assign static IP address(es) to the computers that are sharing files across the network. While I haven’t run into problems with DHCP, it’s probably better to be safe. After you do that open Finder and press Command + K. This will let you connect to your server(s) – just enter the names of your server(s) here and access the shares that are presented to you. Once you’ve mounted that share open Accounts and click on ‘Login Items’. Drag your shares into the list of items that will open automatically when you log in.

Log out, and log back in. Make sure that your volumes have mounted as they were supposed to.

Adding the Media!

Great – now our gigs and gigs of video, music and TV are available through Frontrow! Because we’re on a Mac we can just drag and drop all of our media into iTunes and we’re done, right? Oh, young padawan, you have so much to learn about the ways of the Apple…

Because we really belong in the Apple digital environment, our benevolent pomum-dominus has tried to ‘assist’ our choices by limiting us to items purchased from His iTunes music store. While that’s . . . great . . . sometimes a bit of choice is actually a good thing. While I don’t mean to upset the Godhead (i.e. Steve Jobs), I think that this is a case where more choice is good. That said, because iTunes is designed to be a neatly locked pen, it requires a bit of work to escape it. Fortunate the scripts that we’ve downloaded are going to help with that.

Brain Rot – Movies and TV

If you tried to ‘drag and drop’ the TV shows and movies that are on your mounted volumes and were disappointed that it didn’t let you automatically add them to iTunes, you’re not alone. Fortunately we can create .mov reference files using the Move2iTunes script. All you have to do is drag your .avi, .wmv, etc files onto the script that you’ve conveniently placed in the Dock and give yourself some time. Depending on the amount of media you have, this could take a while. Once you’re given a notification that everything has been referenced open up iTunes and click on the TV and Movies links in your Library. You should see that your video content has been moved – yay! Unfortunately, you’ve probably noticed that there is a file extension after the name of each item (i.e. Capote.avi shows ‘Capote.avi’ instead of just ‘Capote’ as its name).

Here’s your first afternoon task: going through all of your library items and removing the extension-part of the name – just Get Info for the file, and remove the offending extension from the ‘Name’ and input the genre and date produced. This sucks, but if you’re as anal retentive as I am about these things will make you smile once its over. Finally, hit up the Internet Movie Database and search for the movie in question. Once you find the movie, copy the summary and, in iTunes, click on the newly imported movie, click the Apple Script menu item, and ‘Enter Long Description Text for Selected’. Paste in the summary. This last part is important if you want to have summaries of each movie in Frontrow.

Follow the same process for filling out your TV collection. You’re now seeing why this could take you a while – if you have anything larger than a 1TB collection all I can say is ‘sorry’, but I’m sure that the Godhead has a good reason for forcing us to go through this process. Perhaps it prepares us for the joy we’ll experience when actually seeing a film?

The Siren’s Call – Music

Now that our brains are as mushy as porridge, let’s shift gears a bit and import our music, eh? Before just dragging and dropping all your music into iTunes, and assuming that you are already storing your media elsewhere (a Volume, external drive, etc), open ‘Preferences’ in iTunes, select the ‘Advanced’ tab, and make sure that ‘Copy files to iTunes Music folder when adding the library’ is not checked. Now that we’ve done that, you can select your (presently blank) Music library, open the File menu, select ‘Add to Library’ and select the folder/volume/directory where your music lives in.

Now that we’ve waited for God-knows-how-long while your library was imported we can try to automatically download your missing album art by selecting ‘Get Album Artwork’ from the Advanced menu item. Open up your drink and enjoy . . . look, it’s just going to take time if you have a large stash of music. Get a case of beer and enjoy the next few hours in drunken bliss. That state of mind is going to help soon.

Now that we’ve taken some of the Godhead’s knowledge and added it to the iTunes installation in front of us (read: now that the most obvious album covers have been added to their corresponding albums) we’re ready to make some more brain-porridge. The first thing: consolidating compilation albums.

Consolidating Albums

If you’re like me (or other people too, I suppose), you probably listen to a fair number of albums that are compilations of various artists. Unfortunately, this often means that the Dance Mix 2008 album you’ve been enjoying is currently split into a dozen or so different ‘albums’. This sucks, especially if you want to use the Cover Flow view. Here’s how we fix this:

  1. Select all of the items in your library that belong to the same library.
  2. Right click on the items and select ‘Get Info’.
  3. Type ‘Various’ or ‘Various Artists’, or something like that for the Album Artist and under ‘Compilation’ choose ‘Yes’. Click OK. Note: If the divided album isn’t a compilation album, but rather is an album by a single artist, insert their name in the Album Artist field. While you’re there, you can also fix up the Genre and other information as you see fit.

Now that we’ve consolidated the albums, we can move on to adding album art that is missing.

Adding Album Art

Remember the Doug’s Find Album Artwork With Google script that we installed? It’s going to get a workout now! Select a song from an album that lacks cover art, open the Applescript menu item, and click on ‘Find Album Artwork With Google’. Find the appropriate image in the browser window that opened. Right-click on the selected on in iTune, choose ‘Get Info’, select the ‘Artwork’ tab, and drag-and-drop the album artwork that is in your browser window. Click OK. You’ve now added the artwork for your album!

Now go do it for the other items in your library. If you’re into dance/techno/anything that isn’t iTunes-popular, I’m sorry for the time that this will take. At least you’ve still got beer, right? Right?

The Hybrid Threat – Music Videos

Adding in music videos is only a little bit lengthier/annoying than adding movies (that gets you excited to add them, eh?). We’ll begin by assuming the following:

  • You have your music videos on an external drive/volume/etc.
  • The Move2iTunes script is working for you.
  • You still have time to keep doing this.

First, drag your Music Videos on the Move2iTunes item in your Dock. This will place your videos in the Movies or TV Shows sections of your iTunes Library. Find them, right click on them, click ‘Get Info’ and select ‘Music Video’ as their Video Kind. Now click on the Info tab, and fill out the correct name for the video and the artist’s name. You could probably fill out the Year if you wanted to, though I don’t think that it makes any real difference. Now click on the Sorting tab and make sure that the Name and Artist fields both have the information from the Info tab. Click Ok.

Your music videos should now be available in Front Row; access them through Front Row by clicking ‘Music’ and then selecting ‘Music Videos’. Everything should be sorted by artist.

Enjoy Frontrow

Now you can finally enjoy using Front Row with the media that you already own. While I don’t think that it’s a direct competitor to the Windows Media Theater experience (yet), if our Great Godhead decides to let us add our media in a more open fashion I can certainly see it taking at least a little marketshare.

The Wrap-Up

Remember the five criteria at the beginning of this article? Let’s briefly revisit/respond to them.

  1. Be reliable! No weird and unexpected crashes! Moreover, I don’t want to be servicing the damn thing on a regular basis!

Though there is an ugly initial time investment, after that’s been ‘paid’ the system is technically stable. Of course, if the Great Godhead and his minions of joy (i.e. Apple Coders) make substantial changes to iTunes and/or Frontrow I’m totally not going to be responsible for your hours of dedication being ‘improved upon’ by our Apple overlords.

  1. Be fairly easy to manage.

It’s easy to get going, once it’s going.

  1. Be simple!

Well…it’s reasonably simple to get working, and has a relatively short process loop once things are running. That said, adding hundreds or thousands of, well, anything all at once is going to be ugly.

  1. Be as good as Vista Home Premium’s media center.

This is a real hit and miss for me. I’m in Canada, so I get bupkis as far as extra go. The nice thing about WHP’s media center: it dynamically adds content when add it to a volume. That said . . . I’m on Vista if I’m using MS’s media center, and that’s not a lot of fun. Ultimately, however, I really think that the Mac media center is only almost as good as the Vista one. A big plus: You can easily buy media, can easily look at movie trailers, and the remote comes with older macs. That almost counts for something, right? right?

  1. Access media from my Fileserver

Done and done.

The Conclusion

So, would I recommend this to others? Probably, actually. I like the Mac OS (and have for some time). I’d just love to actually have the hardware (a mac mini would be perfect!) to set one of these up for myself grin.

2 thoughts on “The Making of a Media Center

    • I suspect it would run well. I’ve had boxee running on an HP Slimline for a few months, and just recently received a boxee box for Christmas, and absolutely love it. The UI is much better than that provided by the built in mac system; If I were doing this today, I’d go with boxee, XBMC, or Windows Media Center rather than Apple’s stuff.


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