Do I really want to do this?

An initial foray into blogging.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mac Media Center Software

I got my first HDTV! I feel spoiled. I feel even more spoiled because I'm not quite satisfied yet -- one of the things I want to be able to do with it is to watch the video files on it that I usually watch on my MacBook. Here's what I want to be able to do:

From the couch, with no keyboard and no mouse:
1. Locate the video file in my Movies folder that I want to watch
2. Open it with VLC
3. Go to fullscreen mode in VLC, turn subtitles on and off, and skip forwards and backwards in the movie
4. Launch and browse iPhoto, and launch and manipulate iTunes

That's it for the short list. VLC is a requirement because I often find VLC's performance to be better than Quicktime, with files they both support, and VLC supports a lot more file formats. I have several matroska files with subtitles that I want to be able to watch, and VLC is one of the limited number of Mac tools to support those. Nearly all of the available options seem to do fine at manipulating iTunes and iPhoto, so I focused my testing on VLC.

I first looked at the AppleTV and Media Center type applications. The AppleTV is right out, though, because it does not launch VLC, and will only browse files that Quicktime recognizes. The same problem applies to the Media Center apps -- though they often support more file formats, most don't support matroska with optional subtitles. If you don't care whether you use VLC, they might be excellent solutions. Ars Technica has a good review of them.

The next thing I looked at was software to harness the Apple remote to do useful things. This is where I found my solution. Here's the software I looked at, in the order I looked at them.

mira ($15.95)
This was the one I wanted to like the most. I'd tried it out last year during a free software promotion. It is slick, but it is not a way to control things from start to finish. You can program the buttons of the remote on a per-application basis, like all these sorts of tools, but there is no file browser, which was a necessity for me. Also, there is no "Open..." or "Subtitles" action available for VLC. So this was out.

iRed Lite (free)
This was my next candidate, because it's free, and you can program the buttons to do whatever you want. There's no built-in file browser, but my grand plan was to set up a quicksilver trigger to bring up a content menu of my Movies folder, and then have the remote keys move through the menus and launch a file. But it only halfway worked -- I couldn't get iRed Lite to communicate well with Quicksilver. It kept randomly launching Quicksilver multiple times in a row. I eventually gave up on this one.

Sofa Control ($14.95)
I'd not heard much about Sofa Control, but something on their web page made me take a closer look -- it mentions that it can be used as a media center, and that you can browse files, which is what I wanted. I downloaded it and looked at their tutorial, in which you use the remote to flip through a multi-page pdf in Preview. The tutorial is very well done and I felt like an expert in five minutes. It's not perfect -- for some reason the "Open..." option in VLC doesn't work, and long filenames are truncated in the menus, for example. There's a minor problem in that the mouse cursor initially appears at the top left of the screen, and if you enter VLC's fullscreen mode without moving it, the menubar will show up on top of your movie. Also, if you don't like the application presets, you need to be able to edit AppleScript to change them. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage -- for me, it's an advantage, because I can hack my way through it, and it is as flexible as possible.

The killer feature of Sofa Control, though, is the application-specific menu. Six buttons can only handle so much, after all, and you'll have to remember or look up what the buttons do. But in Sofa Control, the "menu" button on the remote brings up an additional menu with all the application-specific actions that did not fit onto the remote buttons. It is the perfect place to stick the subtitle controls for VLC, which the developer did. (Holding the "menu" key down brings up the global Sofa Remote options.)

So, Sofa Control left a very favorable impression.

Remote Buddy (approximately US $28)
I'd noticed that RemoteBuddy looked a lot like Sofa Control in action (they both mimic Front Row in style), but cost more. It looks like it might be a more polished, easily customizable version of Sofa Control with more features, on the surface. It can take advantage of other remote controls you might own, plus the iPhone. It has an on-screen keyboard, so you can type URL's into Safari, for example. It seems to have more sophisticated iTunes controls than the other software did.

RemoteBuddy requires installation of a kernel extension, which made me a little nervous. And in practice, the things I wanted to do didn't work as well out-of-the-box as they had with Sofa Control. You are a little more limited to the functions you can program onto your remote buttons -- there is an extra application menu, but it only contains things that you've programmed the buttons to do plus a few global things, like "Hide" and "Quit". I had to edit the preferences to set up a subtitle toggle in VLC, but at least it was there. It's a little difficult to get started with RemoteBuddy; I had to add an option to the default behavior to bring up the global menu (isn't this a no-brainer? Is there some magic way I don't know about to get to the global menu?) I kept running into stumbling blocks which frustrated me.

While there is a "Movies" option from the RemoteBuddy menus, it did not find the matroska files in my Movies folder -- or in fact, any movie files. Possibly if I fiddled with it some more, I could have figured out how to make it work, but at that point I was ready to commit to Sofa Control.

Now my only problem is, should my next major purchase be a Mac Mini to attach to the TV permanently, or should I buy myself a new MacBook Pro and use the old MacBook as my media PC? :)


At 10/04/2008 7:11 PM, Blogger Martin said...

Yours is the first really useful comparison of the main solutions for extending the mac remote I've come across in my google searching so far!

I'd got an iMac about a year ago and EyeTV , instead of a new TV, which I've been very happy with and have also been frustrated by Apple Remote and Front Row not recognising non-Quicktime files.

Also have VLC files but more recently have switched to Realplayer as it seems more stable with downloaded clips than VLC. Haven't seen any mention of it in reviews so far though.


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