So I Replaced My Microsoft Media Center Set Up With an AppleTV

Apple TV

Last month I replaced the last remaining PC in my home with a MacBook Pro. I used to have three PCs in my house. Now we are officially a 100% Mac family (two MacBook Pros and a Mac Mini). I decided to replace the last PC (my Media Center PC) when it stopped working in regular mode and could only be used in “Safe Mode.”

I thought about getting another PC. But there were three reasons why I didn’t.

1. I wasn’t happy with the errors that I’d consistently get on my PC (including this most recent problem of it only working in “safe mode”).

2. Media Center never did a good job managing my large digital library.

3. I needed to rethink my home media strategy as I didn’t like the idea that Microsoft likes to bone you $60 for each media center extender you play netflix on ($180 a year in my case — and really short-sighted thinking on their part when everybody else lets you watch it on their devices for free).

I’ve been super happy with my other two Macs and find them much easier to use and less error prone than PCs — so I decided to replace my dying Media Center PC with a MacBook Pro and get AppleTV to work as my new Media Center strategy.

So here are the Pros and Cons of this new setup.


1. Music worked perfectly right away. My old Media Center extenders (XBox 360s) sometimes would hang for 15 minutes or more before the music would start. Not AppleTV. I simply turned on sharing on my Mac Book Pro and AppleTV effortlessly allowed me to navigate to my 5 star smart playlist and played the music immediately. For some reason none of my album art ever seems to show up, but hey, getting the music going quickly and easily with a library of almost 105,000 mp3s is *huge*. Good job Apple.

Netflix on Apple TV
Netflix on AppleTV

2. $99 for a media player that streams Netflix for free is a good deal. A Roku would have been cheaper, but I don’t think a Roku necessarily would have played as nicely with my Macs and I wasn’t sure about what music and photos would look like on a Roku. It’s nice also that Apple doesn’t feel the need to charge you a $60 per year tax on their device in order to watch the Netflix content that you are already paying for like Microsoft does.

Slide Show Transitions on Apple TV

3. Once you get the photos to actually work (more on this below), the Ken Burns interface is very elegant. There are a lot of interesting transitional effects that can be randomized and used for watching your photos on AppleTV. Also for whatever reason, my photos feel like they look better on AppleTV than they did on Windows Media Center. Cleaner. Crisper. Sharper. Less Noise. I’m not sure if they are being streamed at different resolutions or if this is just in my head, but the photos seem to look better on AppleTV.

4. It’s nice that I can set a default playlist to my slide shows. With my old Media Center PC I had to start up my music. And then go start up my photos. Twice the work. With my new AppleTV I can just start up my photos and have it remember the main playlist that I set up by default (my 5 star playlist).

5. Netflix is super slick. Best Netflix interface I’ve seen yet. Much better than the Netflix interface on the Xbox 360 or the wii. In addition to my queue, it has new releases, suggestions, genres and lots of other ways of elegantly looking up things to watch by the cover art.

6. The kids love YouTube. I didn’t think I’d care much about the YouTube integration, but this is the thing the kids are most excited about and so far have watched the most. My son Jackson really likes watching skateboarding and yoyo videos. There is no shortage of these on YouTube and he loves being able to watch it on the big screen. The kids are already very comfortable with YouTube on the computer, so it was an easy transition for them to the TV. Some of the YouTube videos though wouldn’t load and gave me errors.

7. Movie trailers. It’s nice being able to see all of the movie trailers currently playing in the theater in an easy one page format — this will come in handy when the family is sitting around on Thanksgiving trying to figure out what movie to go see.

8. Design. Both the remote and the unit itself are tiny! I really like that I don’t need yet another big bulky box or big bulky remote control in my living room. Exceptional design from Apple as usual — not only great design, but the device is perfectly silent — unlike the XBox 360 which, although quiet, does make some noise when it operates. I’m guessing that my tiny black AppleTV uses less power than an XBox 360 as well, but have no idea on this really and haven’t looked into the power consumption.


1. Getting my photos to play was an absolute disaster. There are two ways you can share photos for Apple TV (both go through iTunes). You can either point iTunes to a folder full of photos or you can point iTunes to an iPhoto library. Obviously I have a lot of photos. When I first tried setting it up, I tried pointing iTunes to a master photo folder (all JPGs) of mine with about 30,000 photos in it. When I’d launch photos in AppleTV it would act like it was going to load and I’d get a spinning wheel for about 1 minute and then it would just crap out. Nothing. No error message, no explanation — it just wouldn’t load my photos and would go back to the screen it was on before I’d tried to start.

I then changed my setup and pointed it to a folder with only 5,000 photos. Certainly AppleTV can handle streaming 5,000 photos no? No. I had the same problem here — same behavior — it just refused to load the images. I tried this with both a wifi connection and actually plugging in an ethernet cable into my AppleTV box. Neither one could get my photos to load.

I posted on this problem in an Apple Forum, but the post went unanswered. Apple should offer some sort of disclaimer that unless you are trying to share 20 or 30 photos that pointing directly to a folder on your hard drive might be ill advised — certainly it couldn’t handle folders with 30,000 or 5,000 photos in them.

So I gave up on trying to import my photos from a folder and instead begrudgingly decided to attempt to import some of my photos into iPhoto. There are two ways that you can set up iPhoto. By having it create a “Managed Library” or a “Reference Library.” With a managed library iPhoto actually makes a copy of every single photo of yours and includes it in the library. I started out this way but aborted as my iPhoto library was at 50GB and getting larger and larger and I didn’t want to deal with this sort of a mammoth library file, or the space it was taking up on my hard drive.

I then set up a Reference Library (not copying original files into my library) and was able to get iPhoto to import 5,000 photos (and later another 25,000 photos). Unfortunately these photos don’t appear in your iTunes right away to share. You have to wait several hours *after* the import is complete before iTunes can actually see them in iPhoto. If you want to set up a smaller “reference library” instead of a “managed library” in iPhoto, go to Preferences, Advanced and uncheck the box that says “copy items to the iPhoto library.”

All in all, I spent about 48 hours screwing around with trying to get photos to work in AppleTV before getting 30,000 or so of them accessible. It still isn’t 100% though and performance is still a bit spotty.

After getting photos working on Sunday night, when I tried to see my photo library on Monday morning it had disappeared again. I rebooted my AppleTV, rebooted my Mac, launched iTunes and iPhoto and then in a few hours it showed back up again. I’d have expected more from Apple in this regard.

2. There seems to be no way to fast forward a song while you are watching a photo slideshow. I like that the remote is so small and elegant with just a few buttons. Unfortunately skipping to the next song while watching a slideshow with music is something that I’d like to be able to do (and would seem like pretty basic functionality) and I can’t figure out a way to do this on AppleTV.

My 5 Star list has all kinds of songs in it. Black Flag’s “Rise Above” is definitely a 5 Star for me. But if your 5 Star list is playing during a dinner party, it might be nice to be able to fast forward it to something a little more mellow, like Damien Rice or Peter Gabriel or Neil Diamond or some other such thing. Same goes for that 5 Star Eminem song where he’s swearing his head off and talking about murdering his ex-wife. Sometimes not the best song to play if you’re hanging with the kids in the living room. I can’t believe that there is not a way to fast forward songs while in slide show mode on AppleTV.

3. AppleTV doesn’t have an option to show song information when songs end and start. One of the things that I loved about my Media Center PC, is that I could turn on a feature that would allow song, album, artist, album art thumbnail information to show on the screen for a few seconds when songs started and ended. Sort of like an MTV video. Unfortunately AppleTV doesn’t seem to allow this and if you want to see what song it was that was playing you have to completely abort the photo slideshow to see it.

4. No LastFM or Pandora. AppleTV does have some digital radio stations, but no LastFM or Pandora. That’s too bad as I love both of those services. I’m not sure if this is Apple locking out these two interesting music channels, or if they don’t want to develop for AppleTV. I’d suspect the former. Why is it that I can have Pandora on my Mac, Pandora on my iPhone, even Pandora on an iPad, just not Pandora on an AppleTV? At least my XBox 360s supported LastFM.

5. Some of the prices for digital content feel high. $5 for a movie download? Really Apple? No thanks. It’s cheaper at the Redbox down at the 7/11. $5 is too much to pay for a movie. $.99 is about right for a TV show — but should all TV shows be treated equally? I might pay $.99 for an hour long episode of Mad Men — but for a 22 minute episode of Zack and Luther that the kids want to watch? Children’s programming and programming less than a half hour should be discounted. Or even better, maybe Apple should offer a bulk discount package. 15 hours of TV (regardless of content) for $10 or something like that.

In fairness, maybe this rant ought to be directed more at Apple and iTunes than AppleTV, but since AppleTV locks out all other ala carte content competitors, it seems appropriate for me to mention it here.

6. You must have a TV that has HDMI inputs. A lot of older flat screen TVs don’t. This was not a problem for me in our living room where we have a newer 64″ plasma. But it will be a problem in the bedroom where the old 42″ Pioneer plasma went that doesn’t have an HDMI input. I was able to find this thread about converting component video connections to HDMI, but it feels like a daunting task.

An Evolution from Windows to Mac

mceThe above photo is the very first photo I ever uploaded to Flickr on January 2nd, 2005. At the time it was my home set up for my Microsoft Media Center PC. I’ve stuck with a Media Center PC in the home now for six years, upgrading with each successive version of Windows. Is now the time to switch the last remaining PC in my home to a Mac and try something new? Fortunately for me, my photography has come a long way since 2005. 🙂

Back in 2006 I wrote a blog post about making my first switch from Windows to Mac after using PCs for 15 years. At the time I was using a Dell laptop as my primary computer. I was tired of all of the stupid little problems I was having with it (I couldn’t disable tap to click on it for example) and I was tired of just all the general errors it seemed to have daily.

It was sort of a difficult move for me to make, as like most people I’d gotten stuck in my ways, and it meant thinking about my computing differently. But in the end I ended up making the switch and moved my primary day to day computing to a MacBook Pro.

I was really happy that I made this change and three years or so later when it came time to upgrade, I replaced my old MacBook Pro with a new 17 inch model. I couldn’t be happier with this decision. Despite a few hiccups here and there, my MacBook Pros have been far more reliable for me than my old Dell laptop (or any previous PC) had been.

And so last year when the PC in the kitchen came down with a virus (even though I try to train my kids not to install things, they were installing crap anyways), after spending about 3 hours trying to fix the PC (this virus was particularly mean and even disabled the DVD drive preventing me from reinstalling the software), I just said screw it and went out and replaced it with a Mac Mini. Again, I couldn’t be more happy with that decision. Only I know the password to the Mac Mini, which means that I get to review anything that’s installed. It’s remained virus free and has performed very well for a computer that is mostly just used to access internet on, email and other light use in the kitchen.

So two of the 3 PCs in my home have now been replaced by Macs.

Now my final PC in my home is going out and I have to make a decision what to do next. Yesterday, for some inexplicable reason, my Media Center PC just started going super, super slow and even freezing. After a while the screen would turn totally black and the only way to get it back was to reboot it. Then I’d reboot it and it would work for a few minutes — but eventually freeze up again. It will last longer when I reboot in safe mode, but I can’t get it to run normally in regular mode at all.

At present I use this PC for three things. I use it to manage my finished JPG photos that I upload to Flickr. I use it as a Media Center PC to stream media to 3 XBox 360 Extender units in the home. And my wife uses it to edit her photos on in Lightroom. My kids also use it from time to time to browse the web.

So I’m thinking of kicking out the final PC in my home and replacing it with an iMac. I’ve been reluctant to do this for a while because I haven’t wanted to spend money on a new iMac, plus I’ve felt like I’ve needed the PC around to read two drobos which are formatted NTFS. (I was able to install Google’s FUSE yesterday and can now access my NTFS Drobos on my Mac — but it’s slow, thanks Tim!)

I bought a new Drobo this morning and two new Western Digital 2TB drives. I think what I’m going to do is to format this new drobo FAT32 and then start my PC in safe mode with networking and transfer all of my files from my main photo archive Drobo over the network to this new Drobo. I should probably have done this anyways a while ago. The old Drobo is a first gen USB2 Drobo and as much as I use these files, it would probably be better to have my Mac Book Pro handle these images with a faster FireWire 800 connection. Once this transfer is complete I can reformat the NTFS first gen Drobo as FAT32 and use it for more archive storage, which I access much less frequently.

I’ve also used this PC as my Media Center and replacing it would involve revisting my home media strategy.

My Home Media strategy is a bit more complicated though. I do like being able to use Media Center on the three XBox 360s. But I think it might be time to replace Media Center with something else. I’ve been disappointed that Microsoft charges me a $60 per year tax to stream Netflix on the XBox 360s and I’ve never been happy with Media Center’s ability to handle my large mp3/photo collections. Having to wait 5 minutes for my music/photos to load at times has really been annoying to me.

But the question is then, what do I replace the Media Center PC / Xbox 360 extenders with? AppleTV? Will it stream my large digital photo / music library through iTunes reliably? Or will I get hit with the same performance problems I saw with Windows Media Center?

Do I wait for GoogleTV to come out? (it’s almost here right?) Will GoogleTV even stream photos and video? And what about watching live TV and using a PVR? At present I use an HD HomeRun HDTV tuner with my Media Center PC and have it record a lot of OTA HD content for me to stream. Can I use an HDTV OTA tuner with an iMac/AppleTV combo? Can I use my existing HomeRun dual tuner? What about GoogleTV? Or should I be looking at something else entirely? Is TiVo even in the game anymore for home streaming?

Or should I just replace the final PC in my home with another PC and *hope* that my next experience with a Media Center PC is a little better. I bought the very first Microsoft Media Center PC the very first day it came out back in July of 2004 and this current PC is my third box running Media Center. Maybe the fourth time’s the charm?

My thinking right now though is that it’s time to kick the final PC out of my home. I’m sick and tired of the unreliability of Windows. Macs can have problems too, I know that. But my experience over the last several years have been that my Macs are far more reliable than my PCs ever have been, and even when I have problems, it is nice to know that I can always set an appointment with a Mac Genius and have someone with a little more know how than me help me troubleshoot things in person locally. So maybe I just do this and then figure out my home media strategy from there.

We’ll see how things unfold in the next few days.

Microsoft’s $60 Netflix Tax/Toll Sucks

XBox 360

I’ve had a Microsoft Media Center set up in my home now for several years. I’ve got a media center PC in the basement which is connected to three XBox 360 extender units. One in my bedroom, one in my sons’ bedroom and one in the living room. These units stream OTA HDTV that I get from a TV Tuner. They also stream my music and photos. I like this functionality with my XBoxes.

I also use the DVD drive in my XBoxes to play movies that I get from my Netflix subscription.

What I don’t do with my XBox 360s is play games. I have no time for video games. I’m trying to publish a million photos before I die. When I’m not spending time with my family or shooting or processing or doing other internet stuff, I’m definitely not gaming. My kids play games a little, but even then they are not *that* into it, they certainly don’t use XBox Live. What we mostly use our XBox 360s for is for streaming media in our home. And while I understand that this is not really the primary reason why this device was created, they work well for this generally speaking.

One thing I *hate* about my XBoxes though is that Microsoft forces me to have an XBox Live Gold account in order to stream my already paid for Netflix content. Sony Playstation doesn’t require an XBox Live Gold subscription to stream Netlix. the wii doesn’t require an XBox Live Gold subscription to stream Netflix. The Roku doesn’t require an XBox Live Gold subscription to stream Netflix. Apparently there are tons of other devices, blue ray DVD players, etc., none of which require a tax to stream Netflix. I’m guessing that the new streaming options on the upcoming Google TV and Apple’s new revamped Apple TV aren’t going to require an XBox Live Gold account either.

It seems like Microsoft is the only company that wants to screw over Netflix subscribers. So why does Microsoft insist on boning me $60 a year to watch the Netflix that I already pay for on their device? They were charging me $50 a year to watch my already paid for content but then two days ago I got this friendly greedy email from the XBox Live Team rubbing salt into the wound letting me know that they were going to start charging me even more:

Dear thomashawk22:

Thank you for being a valued member of Xbox LIVE Gold. We hope you are enjoying the many exciting and exclusive features that are included in your membership. We wanted to let you know about an upcoming price increase for your Xbox LIVE Gold subscription and how you can lock in your current price to continue enjoying everything you’ve come to love about Xbox LIVE, plus all the upcoming additions, including ESPN and Hulu Plus.

Besides launching the new features and titles, we will also be increasing the price of Gold membership on November 1, 2010. The new prices are as follows:

Old Price New Price

1-Month Gold Subscription $7.99 $9.99

3-Month Gold Subscription $19.99 $24.99

12-Month Gold Subscription $49.99 $59.99

If the renewal date on your current subscription is on or after November 1, 2010, your subscription will automatically renew at the new price, charged to the credit card we currently have on file for your account.

In my case, I’m generally happy with using the Microsoft Media Center platform to consume media in my home. But I’m not happy about paying a Microsoft tax in order to consume already paid for content.

So I won’t be renewing my XBox Live Gold account. I want to put my XBox 360s up for sale on eBay, but first I have to figure out a better overall media streaming strategy for my home. I’m hoping that Google TV will actually do a lot of what I’d like to do as my life seems to be moving more and more to Google products anyways.

I might even be able to put up with Microsoft’s lame $60 tax except for the fact that they insist on charging me $60 per year for each unit. Yes, that’s right, $180 per year to consume paid for Netflix content on these devices. This greedy move on Microsoft’s part is short sighted. I’m sure I’m just a blip on the radar and they probably don’t care one iota about screwing over home media non-gamer enthusiasts with their tax.

Netflix Watch Now on Your Microsoft Media Center PC, But No Extender Support

Cupcake LoveWell Microsoft probably just incorporated my number one Media Center feature request into Media Center, unfortunately though they have decided *not* to include this support for the Media Center extender. Beginning immediately Windows Vista Media Center users can watch Netflix “Watch Now” programming on their Media Center PCs.

I am a *huge* fan of Microsoft Media Center’s Technology. At present it allows me to consume free OTA HDTV (along with a killer DVR), access my entire music library and playlists, access all of my photos in my library, and access some of my home video files (unfortunately the Media Center doesn’t support video files from the new Canon 5D M2 and I haven’t gotten around to figuring out how to convert these files yet — Apple does support these files in Qucktime by the way). All of this great technology is done on my Media Center PC in my attic. Then, best of all, I can stream all of this content seamlessly to XBox 360s extender units in my living room, bedroom and kitchen (you know, sort of the places where you consume this kind of media as opposed to up in my attic).

Now, a bunch of sites are abuzz this morning about Netflix Watch Now coming to the Media Center PC. But what’s so great about this? Personally, if Microsoft won’t let me consume this content on an extender unit, what good is that? If I want to watch Netflix Watch Now on an actual PC, I can just go directly to the Netflix page and watch it. While it’s probably a tiny bit better to watch it in Media Center (saves me a step or going directly to a website) it’s really not that big of an advancement.

Now Microsoft will probably say, yeah but… you can already stream Netflix watch now on an XBox 360. But there are several problems with this technology as it stands now.

1. Not everyone is using an XBox 360 as an extender unit. Other extender units are left out in the cold.

2. Streaming Watch Now to an XBox 360 requires a lame Microsoft Live Gold membership. I don’t want a Microsoft Live Gold Membership. I don’t do any gaming. I hate the fact that I have to pay for this membership that I don’t want in order to see my Netflix Watch Now service that I’m already paying Netflix for.

3. It’s a pain in the ass to have to log into my Live Gold membership every single time I turn my XBox 360 on before I can get to my Netflix Watch Now Service.

4. It sucks that it is *extremely* difficult to watch Netflix Watch Now on multiple XBox 360s. The only way to do this is to go through a cumbersome processing of reclaiming your existing gamer tag on a new box. Since there is no keyboard with my XBox 360s, this involves me going through about a five minute process of entering in passwords, email addresses, and lots of other information with a little XBox 360 game controller just in order to say watch a movie in my living room instead of in my bedroom. It frustrates my wife even more than me.

Now if today’s announcement also included a promise that Microsoft is still working on extender support and hopes to have it in the near future I’d be very happy. But there is no promise that we will ever see Watch Now support on Media Center extender units and so today’s news in my opinion is worse than no news or feature at all.

My own personal belief is that Hollywood and the studios do NOT want you to have Netflix Watch now in an easy way to consume on your television set at all, ever. They make much more money off of you by showing you TV with commercials or making you watch the content on DVD than they do when they revenue share streaming money with Netflix. By giving you Netflix in Media Center (but only on the PC where you could just as easily just watch it on Netflix’s site) they’ve given you really nothing at all. Without a promise of future extender support today’s news is pretty disappointing to me actually.

You can read the official Microsoft page on this news here. The more interesting conversation though is happening over at The Green Button here — where the hardcore Media Center geeks hang out.

The great promise of Media Center extender technology was that it would bring anything you could do on a PC to quieter, easier devices connected to your television set in the networked and connected home. By crippling this important technology and restricting it from Media Center extender devices this is a step backwards. Heck, I’d even pay Microsoft the same $50 a year to have this on my extender than I pay for the lame XBox Live Gold Membership that I’ve got now.