One of the best things about owning a Mac is that Apple has always put it at the heart of your entertainment needs – from iTunes and iLife through to products like Apple TV and AirPort Express.
It's all about getting your music, movies and photos where you want them, how you want them, when you want them. It's all about placing your Mac at the centre of your digital life and home.
We're going to look at how you put all these options together, what the benefits and pitfalls are and even some next steps you might consider to really get the best from your Mac-centric digital home.
The obvious place to start is with the Mac itself. The latest generation iMac is perfect digital home material – it comes with a large widescreen display and even the £799 20-inch version ships with a 250GB hard disk drive – enough for a decent-sized iTunes library, with plenty of room left over for your photos and home movies.
That 20-inch widescreen could be used as a substitute study or bedroom TV – provided you're prepared to watch programmes or films online, or to invest in a TV tuner – you can find out more in the box titled Watch And Record TV On Your Mac, page 73.
The best home-oriented Mac is the top-of-the range iMac (from £1,389). Not only does it boast 1TB of storage, but it also comes with a gorgeous 24-inch widescreen display. For the ultimate digital home solution though, something from Apple's Mac Pro line is the way to go. True, they're less living room friendly, but the Mac Pros have four hard drive bays for massive storage. They're also impossibly quick – perfect for multimedia use.
In reality, almost any Mac you own is suitable for a digital hub, provided you're running a recent copy of Mac OS X, plus iPhoto and iTunes. All you really need is a decent amount of storage and some flavour of Wi-Fi – with 802.11n networking via AirPort Express (£65), AirPort Extreme (£119) or Time Capsule (£199-£329) being the preferred option.
Let's say your needs are relatively modest. You have a Mac in your study or bedroom, but would like to be able to listen to your iTunes library in the lounge – a pretty common requirement. There are four different ways to approach this…
1. Streaming your iTunes library to another mac
The simplest solution is to turn sharing on in iTunes. You can do that by going to iTunes > Preferences > Sharing. Make sure the box marked Share My Library On My Local Network is checked and then pick exactly what you'd like to share – your entire library or specific playlists.
You should now be able to discover that shared library on another Mac – a lounge-based MacBook, say – by also firing up its version of iTunes and selecting iTunes > Preferences > Sharing > Look For Shared Libraries. What you should see now is a streaming version of the contents of your iTunes library, listing either playlists or the whole shebang.
2. Stream your iTunes library to your Hi-Fi
If your interests are purely musical then you can stream suitable content to an old school hi-fi system using AirPort Express. Whether you own the older 802.11g version or the newer 802.11n one, the results are largely the same.
To make it work, plug the AirPort Express into a power socket next to your hi-fi, hook it up to the back of your amp using a suitable analogue or digital audio cable and then stream your audio using the relevant AirTunes option that appears in iTunes.
The only downside is that you won't be able to control what your hi-fi is playing – you'll still need access to your iTunes library. That could be a problem if your Mac is upstairs rather than right in front of you. However, you can pick up third-party products such as Keyspan Express Remote (£31 online), which works with AirPort Express and AirTunes to overcome this.
Or you could simply stream and, crucially, control iTunes audio from your Mac using Logitech's Squeezebox Duet (£279), which comprises both a receiver and remote control with 2.4-inch colour display.
3. Use your Mac's shared Folder
Streaming content from one place to another is great, but what if you want more control of your iTunes library – to add content stored elsewhere, or to share the same library among different users on the same Mac? Your best bet is to copy your iTunes Music folder to the Shared folder on your Mac.
By default iTunes places the iTunes Music folder in Home> Music > iTunes > iTunes Music. To change it, simply go to iTunes > Preferences > Advanced, then pick your iTunes folder location. In this case it would be Macintosh HD > Users > Shared > iTunes Music. The next trick is to move all your media from iTunes' default music folder to the new location by picking File > Library> Consolidate Library.
You may have to wait a while while it does this. Also make sure you've checked Preferences > Advanced > Copy Files To iTunes Music Folder When Adding To Library. Then simply make sure other versions of iTunes – being used by different people on the same Mac, or on separate Macs – are all pointing to the same location.
Now this is where is gets slightly tricky. Remember we said only to copy your iTunes Music folder? That was to avoid the possibility that other users might mess around with your playlists. To help ensure this doesn't happen you need to keep the iTunes Library ITL and XML files in their original location – this way everyone who accesses your iTunes Music folder will run their own version of iTunes.
The downside is that iTunes music sharing in this way isn't true multi-user. If you or someone else adds, edits or removes content in the iTunes Music folder you'll need to re-index the entire library using File > Add To Library. You can simplify that process by choosing to update the relevant files if you know what they are. It's a little irksome, but it's doable.
4. Using an external drive or Airdisk
The same rules apply if you keep your iTunes Music folder on an external hard disk connected to your Mac, or on a drive connected to the USB port of your AirPort Express, or AirPort Extreme wireless router (where it's known as an AirDisk). The other option is to keep your iTunes Music folder on the hard drive built into your Time Capsule – assuming you don't use all of its storage for wireless Time Machine backups, of course.
If you plan to store your iTunes Music folder via this route, though, there's another caveat: trying to copy hundreds or even thousands of media files wirelessly to an off-board disk drive will take an absolute age. Seriously, go out for the day, book yourself into a spa or visit some relatives for the weekend. The quickest way is to hook the external drive to your source Mac via Ethernet, USB or FireWire first and then hit Consolidate Library.
Assuming you've done all that then, how well does it work? Of all the options covered here, copying your iTunes Music library to an external hard drive connected to an AirPort Extreme probably works out to be the worst – it's noticeably less responsive than sticking music and movies in Users > Shared on your main Mac, especially if you plan to be doing other things, such as surfing the web, while also serving up DVD-quality movies and music to anyone on the network.
You'll notice that audio and video playback can skip or drop frames, compromising your enjoyment. Mind you, you'll notice that too when different users try to access the same iTunes or QuickTime movie at the same time wirelessly, no matter where your content is stored. For this reason, it's best to work out a set of sharing rules among users.
5. Share your photos, print anywhere
So far we've really focused on iTunes sharing, its benefits and its pitfalls. What about giving everyone access to your photos? Luckily, many of the concepts we've explained so far are relevant for iPhoto too. To activate sharing in iPhoto '08, simply go to iPhoto > Preferences > Sharing and click the Share My Photos checkbox. As with iTunes you can choose what to share and what not to share.
The other option is again to make your iPhoto library truly share-able by copying it to a location where everyone can access and edit the content. The difference this time is that iPhoto expressly warns you when someone is in the middle of editing a photo you're trying to access. This may be a good or a bad thing, depending on how much of a control freak you are – after all, it's not nice to discover that someone's drawn glasses, a big nose and a moustache on every picture of you, even if you have those physical attributes already…
Finally, don't forget that you can use your AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express or Time Capsule router for wireless printing anywhere in your home. Simply hook your printer up to the relevant USB port, install any required drivers and then add it to your range of printing options by selecting K > System Preferences > Print & Fax, where it should pop up automatically.
Your Mac as part of the true digital home
Although Apple has made tremendous efforts to deliver the digital home experience to ordinary Mac users, the truth is that it's still a minnow where truly multi-room home automation and integration is concerned. While this would never be admitted, it's partly Apple's fault – its insistence on the cross-platform implementation of FairPlay DRM effectively prevents third-party systems from using afflicted content; but it's also the nature of the beast.
Companies such as AMX, Crestron and others would much prefer that you spend thousands, or even tens of thousands of pounds on their proprietary solutions – chiefly because custom-installed, robust, wired connections are still preferable to anything wireless, and not just because of concerns over the quality of streaming media. Indeed, true home automation and digital home integration encompasses practical applications as varied as heating and ventilation, blind and curtain control, home security and lighting.
Having said that, there is some meeting of minds: Sonos makes the most Mac-friendly multi-room solutions by far, enabling you to hook up its range of Zone players, amps and speakers to the Mac so that you can pipe iTunes audio to up to 264 rooms in your home (although we doubt Bill Gates has this particular setup). You can buy a Sonos Bundle 150 starter system comprising two Zone players and an iPod-like remote control for £699.
We tip our hats to Denon, too, whose high-end AVC-A1HD home cinema receiver (£3,800) has been expressly designed to be platform-agnostic – and that just happens to include FairPlay-free iTunes AAC files. It even supports photo streaming from your Mac to large, flat panel TVs.
Most solutions are focused on using the iPod as the source of all content, with hi-fi companies such as Arcam, Denon and Harman Kardon selling iPod docks that dovetail into their audio and video solutions.
It's quite possible that DRM (Digital Rights Management) won't be with us that much longer, however. The iTunes Store is already offering some music tracks as DRM-free under the banner of iTunes Plus. They are more expensive, but recorded at a higher bit rate than standard iTunes tracks. Steve Jobs is no fan of DRM, either, but since Apple doesn't own or control the music on the iTunes Store, the company is at the mercy of the "big four" record labels.
Watch and record TV on your Mac
Apple may not build TV tuners into its Macs any more (hello black Performa 5400), but that shouldn't stop you from watching and recording your favourite shows on your Mac.
Aside from watching streaming content via the internet using BBC iPlayer and others, there are a growing number of TV solutions for you. The biggest name has to be Elgato, which makes a range of analogue TV, hybrid analogue/digital TV and digital TV tuners for the Mac.
These usually slot into a spare USB port and include a coaxial socket so that you can pipe TV signals straight from your TV aerial into your Mac – our pick is the EyeTV DTT Deluxe (£60), an impossibly small digital terrestrial tuner that can be slotted into the USB port next to the MagSafe power socket on your MacBook or MacBook Pro.
All Elgato TV tuners ship with its EyeTV 3 software, which includes a searchable electronic programme guide (EPG) and enables you to record programmes using the H.264 video codec so you can share them with other members of your household. Alternatives to Elgato include the Miglia TVBook Pro Express (£85 online), which uses the Express Card slot on the MacBook Pro, or the spanking new PCTV nanoStick Ultimate (£50) from Pinnacle – a USB tuner bundled with Mac-friendly software.
Where does Apple TV Fit in?
Ostensibly a media adaptor on steroids, Apple TV is Apple's first serious assault on the living room space. Available in two flavours – £199 for 40GB and £269 for 160GB – it's been designed to be hooked up to a flat panel TV via HDMI (for the best possible picture quality). It can be used either to receive steaming music, movies and photos from other Macs in your home network, or to store them in their entirety onto its built-in hard disk.
Apple, of course, would like to source most of the content from the iTunes Store. However, there's little to stop you – legal and copyright issues aside – from also using it as a depository for ripped CDs and DVDs, copied to it from your main computer.
Perennial bugbears include the lack of a built-in optical disc drive (what, no Blu-ray?) or even a built-in TV tuner so that you can turn it into a personal video recorder. For what it does do, Apple TV works very well. But we hope and suspect that Apple has bigger plans for this device. Only time will tell.
First published in MacFormat, Issue 203
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