Why Plex makes me finally use a media center, and how to watch overseas television without limitations using VPN

As I explained in an earlier post, I have set up a Mac mini in my living room that primarily acts as a server, but it is also connected to my home entertainment system to function as a media player. I confess that I did this merely because I could. Like I said back then, I am not a heavy user of media playback software. I have no movie files stored on my harddisk (as downloading movies is too much of a hassle in countries that do not have movies available in the iTunes Store, like The Netherlands), and I never rip DVD content to disk. I don’t use the Mac to play DVDs, as I think that my Blu-ray player does a far better job on this, and is easier to operate. And I also don’t watch or record television on the Mac, as this job is perfectly taken care of by my cable company’s HD settop box with PVR. The only media related activities that I used the living room Mac mini for were playing music, and occasionally watching photos.

Plex and its alternatives

However, due to a number of reasons, as of lately I am hooked to a brilliant open source Media Center initiative that is unique to Mac OS X called Plex. Triggered by my new Harmony One remote, of which I wrote in great detail in my former post, I had a closer look at the Plex software because of its unique capability to work brilliantly with the Harmony, bypassing many of the limitations of the 6-button Apple Remote. And what I found was that this software greatly enhances my TV watching choices, and on top doing so in a slick and very well designed manner. The reason for my shift? Online content.

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My favorite indy Mac software

This time I couldn’t resist the temptation that every Mac-blogger faces sooner or later. Today I will not give an insight into Apple’s latest wanderings, but an overview of my personal favorite pieces of software. To make things a bit more interesting, I will omit the “obvious” tools from the big companies (assuming that most know that wordprocessor from Microsoft or that excellent piece of music management software from Apple), and I will instead focus on software from the smaller companies. In the Mac-community, many of those developers are well respected for the quality of their work. (If you are interested in the why’s and how’s of the Mac’s indy development community, and the very interesting ways it is socially organized, I highly recommend the thesis Indy Fever by Dutch researcher Michiel van Meeteren).

This listing ranges from handy, but very focussed system add-ons and utilities, to full-blown productivity tools. They are presented in no particular order.

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Can Snow Leopard end the Mac cloning problem?

When computers for personal use were introduced in the 1970s, it was common practice that the computer’s hardware and its main operating software (which, back then, usually involved not much more but a simple command line driven interface for standard I/O operations or a BASIC interpreter) were delivered by the same company. As a full package, the combination of hardware and software made up “the computer”. Even during the 80s, when computers became much more powerful and hence useful to end users, computer companies from the early days still hold true to the basic principle of developing their own hardware and software. Think of the Mac, the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST or the countless other computer systems of the time, all of which were made unique not only because of their hardware specs, but mainly because of the things the computer’s operating system would let the machine actually do.

There was of course one other company, which thought up a business model that was rather different. This company solely devoted itself to developing only the operating system, which it would license to any hardware manufacturer that was willing to pay for it. Obviously, this company’s flagship product, MS-DOS, became rather popular and soon evolved into the defacto standard for computer operating software. Although the system was among the least advanced of all operating software efforts of that time, as a result of not capable of doing much advanced stuff it required inexpensive hardware to run on. This quickly lead to a huge growth in sales, and hence in the availability of third party sofware. Microsoft laid the groundworks of its imperium, and formed the foundation for spin-offs of their popular DOS operating system in the form of its many Windows iterations. The companies that sold these DOS- and Windows-compatible computers (increasingly refered to as “PCs”) basically had no possibilities to differentiate themselves from their competitors on other things but price.

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Gimme iTunes for pictures!

If you want to manage your photos on your Mac, there are generally two ways to do so. The first one involves manual copying of the pictures from your camera’s memory card to a destination on your harddrive. The second one is by using Apple’s sophisticated picture management program iPhoto.

iPhoto offers a lot of very, very neat features. Its ways to quickly browse trough thousands of images it impressive. You can quickly “skim” over a group of pictures by rolling your mouse over the image that represents the group, resuling in a quick glance of all the pictures that are in it. Besides these image viewing and organizing features, iPhoto offers a lot of other neat functions, like the ability to quickly publish photos to an online MobileMe gallery, sharing pictures to and from other users on your local network, perform simple image correction tools, directly order printed materials like photo books, and the creation of very nice and sophisticated slide shows.

But most importantly perhaps, iPhoto is deeply integrated into the Mac OS X experience, and as a result into a lot of other applications. Every program on the Mac that allows you to do something with an image (such as adding an image to a web page in iWeb or pasting a picture in a Word document) generally offers you access to OS X’s media browser, directly showing you thumbnails from iPhoto, ordered in the same way as they are ordered in iPhoto itself. Furthermore, the iPhoto library directly syncs to the iPod and iPhone, and is available for viewing from Apple’s media playback application Front Row.

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How I put my Mac mini to use as an all-purpose server

About two years ago, when all of my main desktop and laptop machines had long been transitioned to Macs, I was still running a Windows PC to act as my server. I used it mainly for e-mail running Kerio Mailserver, and furthermore it acted as a file server. As my willingness to keep this Windows system in good shape by applying all sorts of patches and updates degraded at almost the same speed as to which my desire to replace the last piece of Windows equipment with an Apple-solution grew, I decided to buy one of Apple’s only affordable “headless” desktop systems: a Mac mini.

Trading up to a Mac to use as my server gave me a lot of other advantages (apart from no longer having to keep a Windows system safe and secure), the most obvious being Apple’s excellent integration. Now, I can far more easily take over the server’s screen from my work-iMac, it is automatically backed up, it contains the same passwords for apps and website as my work machine, and it offers some other advantages all of which will be explained below in this article.

My Windows server was located in an unused room in my house, due to its ugly appearance, but most of all because of the sound generated by its fans. When the Mac mini came, silent as it is, my friend Martijn suggested to put it in the living room next to my entertainment equipment, “because it is too beautiful to hide away”. As always, he was right. We soon realised that by placing the Mac mini next to my TV and amplifier, and due to the “allways on” nature of a server, it could also be used for other purposes more focused on delivering audio and video content.

In this article, I want to give you an overview of all the things that I use my Mac mini for. Partly to inspire others, but mainly because I hope that readers will inspire me by giving me suggestions on how to even better put the machine to work.

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There is only one Apple, and why this is so hard for some to acknowledge

Apple is on a rise. The company enjoyed an incredible growth in the past decade, climbing up from being nearly dead to eventually become the rising star of the tech industry that it is today.

For me as an Apple-enthousiast, this is a good thing. The more people who jump on the Apple bandwagon (either by using an iPod, an iPhone or a Mac), the better. I have explained this before in a previous post: more users means more income for Apple, which might spend even greater amounts on R&D than it does today, resulting in even more an better products for us to enjoy.

I think the growth of Apple’s market share is the direct result of more and more people recognizing the benefits of using its products: its extremely easy to use user inteface, its gorgeous software design, but most of all, the way everything is designed to work seamlessly together, from the hardware to the operating system to its core applications to its web services and now even to its companion devices like the iPhone.

There is only one single company in the entire world that offers its computers as completely in-house designed products: both hardware and software are designed by the same people. This is completely the opposite to how all other computer manufacturer’s work. They buy a generic operating system (which in 99% of the cases is Microsoft Windows), and build a PC using generic parts to run this OS. This leaves them very little room to differentiate themselves from each other, which generally comes done to competition purely on price.

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Apple to embrace DisplayPort, now what?

With the introduction of the new gorgeous “unibody” all aluminum 13″ and 15″ MacBooks, Apple made the move to DisplayPort in favour of DVI. What gives?

Despite the generic sounding name, DisplayPort is a new standardized connector and protocol designed to connect computers to digital displays. It was developed by VESA, a group of companies working on defining various display-related technologies since the Super VGA era in the 80s.

In many respects, DisplayPort is a competitive technology to DVI and HDMI. The DisplayPort group claims various technical advantages over DVI, such as the protocol being packet based (similar to the TCP/IP protocol that is driving the Internet and most other networks), it is scalable so that it can be enhanced in the future without breaking compatibility, and it can daisy-chain multiple displays over 1 connector at the computer’s end. Most importantly, they claim lower cost, due to the lack of a step-in fee (like the $10,000 required for HDMI). And because of technical reasons that go beyond the scope of this blog and certainly my technical expertise, it requires less components in a display monitor, as the digital video format can be sent directly to the LCD panel, further reducing cost.

However, most of these improvements are bearly real advantages to general users, and I expect more political reasons to be the real motivator fot its supporters to push this standard over the DVI and HDMI conntectors. A different share of the IP fees and licensing are more likely reasons.

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