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Building a Mac Home Media Center, Part 1: How To Get iTV Capabilities Today, For Less

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Apple's forthcoming iTV promises to place all your digital media on your TV. But what if you don't want to wait months before enjoying your iTunes music and video or iPhoto pictures in your living room? And is iTV really worth the price? Ryan Faas looks at the options that exist right now and tells you why you might actually be able to spend less money and get a more rounded solution today.
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The idea of the Mac as the heart of a home media center originated years ago when Steve Jobs first announced the idea of the Mac as a "digital hub" connecting you to your photos, music, and video content—and the devices that create and play all your digital media. However, the true potential of this concept is only now fully realized with the inclusion of Front Row on almost every Mac that has shipped in the past year. And also the preview of iTV, a set-top box due sometime in the first quarter of next year that promises to stream music, video, photos, and more directly to your TV. The three articles of this series examine how to expand on Apple’s digital hub concept to create the best Mac media experience in every room of your house.


Apple’s preview of the iTV in September illustrated some of its potential and its interface, but left many details to speculation. So let’s examine the basic facts that Apple presented and that have slipped out from reliable sources. First, we know that iTV (or whatever Apple ends up officially naming the product) won’t ship till sometime next year. Although many people expect it will be announced as a shipping product at MacWorld in January, there is no concrete evidence that this is the case. Apple has avoided making non-Mac specific announcements at MacWorld in recent years, so it’s quite possible that we might not see the iTV release until a later press event. Saying quarter one 2007 could mean that we might not see it before the end of March, which gives Apple ample padding for any snags in the product’s final development.

We also know that iTV will be managed almost exclusively by an Apple IR Remote and that it will feature an interface very similar to Front Row. In fact, one could easily speculate that its interface is actually Front Row 2, which is expected to ship with Mac OS X Leopard (also slated for release in the first quarter of 2007). Other facts that have come out indicate that iTV will be a single Mac solution, meaning that the setup of the unit is most likely done from a single Mac and that the Mac will be the only source of digital content that iTV can access. This prevents easy access to content on a broad range of computers.

Beyond the interface, we know the form factor (a half-height Mac mini enclosure) and the ports that it will include: HDMI, S-Video, Composite Video, digital optical and stereo component audio, Ethernet, and USB. The first three are for connecting to various video inputs of a television (be it analog or digital), the second for connecting to a home theatre stereo receiver or a television’s audio input, and Ethernet for connecting to a wired home network (along with wireless connectivity of an unspecified variety).

We also know that the iTV will sport a small internal hard drive. This drive likely won’t be used to actually store any digital content over the long term as an iPod does. Rather, it will probably be used as a buffer solution, storing content as it is streamed from the computer until either all the content is stored for playback (similar to how QuickTime and other video files embedded in a web page are downloaded to the browser cache and played from there after a significant portion has been received) or it will store just a segment of upcoming data to smooth out any potential jerkiness or stalling due to slow network performance.

Although this hasn’t explicitly stated, it has been implied that iTV will enable streaming of content only in your iTunes and iPhoto libraries. This means that if you have video stored outside of iTunes or stored in formats that iTunes doesn’t allow you to import (such as Windows Media and DivX), you won’t be able to view it through iTV. Although in many cases, you will be able to convert content using the appropriate software (such as VisualHub), doing the conversion can be time-consuming and might not always be successful.

Finally, we know that the ultimate price of an iTV will be $299.

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