Hello Low Enders! It’s been a while, so I’m going to enlighten all of you with a great new series on using the Mac as a media hub and how it has evolved over time.
As we have gotten newer Macs throughout the years to integrate into our home theater setups, serving as our digital music and video library hubs, there has been a natural progression that has made this experience better and better, but the latest and greatest experiences now come with a big catch. We’ll get more into that later in the series, but considering that we now have 3 major generations of Macs (broken down by era) that can act nicely as integrated media hubs along with several generations of video (SD 480i/ED 480p, 720p/1080p HD and 4K), here are a multitude of options to consider if you want to get the optimal media hub setup with your Mac and whether iTunes is the best option or not (and if so, which version). These eras are broken down nicely into 3 time periods (2000-07, 2008-16 and 2017-present). I break down some history, some suggested Mac types, display options (given the scenario), sound setups that need to be considered, preferred video library method and ultimately choose the best Mac to repurpose as a Mac Media hub for the content of that given era.
Join me on this amazing journey through time and take a look at where you currently sit with your hardware. What could you possibly piece together for your next Mac media hub??? Without further delay, let’s begin with part 1 that includes Macs from 2000-07.
First Generation Mac Media Hub – Broadcast SD and DVD Quality Video (480i/480p); Stereo and “Lossy” Discrete 5.1 Audio:
When Apple first began offering films and TV shows for download through iTunes in 2003 with the introduction of the iTunes Store (on 4/28/03), Mac computers running Mac OS X 10.1 “Puma” and later that met the general system requirements for iTunes Purchased Video content could now enjoy this new feature (generally at the time Apple had suggested minimum requirements to be a single 1.0 GHz G4 CPU with at least a Radeon 7000 and 512 MB of RAM, but this was not a hard requirement – videos could play on slightly slower systems but not optimally and dual CPU desktop models performed very well). With later updates to iTunes 4 and the introduction of iTunes 5 in 2005, video content in general could also be added to your iTunes library.
Most PowerPC G4 Macs and all early Intel Macs Models introduced between 2000 and 2007 are ideal candidates to build around a video library concentrated on SD/ED content as these machines either easily met specifications for digital video playback or could be upgraded to do so. While many G3s (and even some earlier PowerPC machines) were capable of playing DVDs, the processing and graphics power just wasn’t there for using one of these ideally as a digital video hub for 480i/480p SD/ED video, but it’s technically possible – especially with a G4 upgrade (the Altivec feature of the G4 CPU truly makes a major difference for video). For the sake of a sure thing though, let’s focus on the machines built 2000 and later.
Suggested Display/Sound Setup:
For this era of video, the ideal display hedges upon the aspect ratio of the content your media library is concentrated on. Almost all display types will work fine for this content, but video will look relatively poor/washed out on modern 4K displays due to much greater pixel density and stretching of 480i/480p content.
Note: In the early days of HD (High Definition) video, 480i was always commonly referred to as SD (Standard Definition) and 480p was referred to as ED (Enhanced Definition). In modern times the two are generally just bundled together as being “Standard Definition”, but for the sake of this article, I will keep them separate.
Best display choices for 16:9 480i(SD)/480p(ED) content for a paired display:
Widescreen video of this era is really best viewed on early plasma TVs (many are widescreen 16:9 480p native at around 854×480), which will be nearly pixel perfect when viewing 480p widescreen content. You can find these older plasma displays commonly on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and other local for sale ads (considerations – these are heavy and can be over 100 lb in the 50-60″ sizes and plasma TVs have a finite lifespan and are susceptible to burn-in if you keep static images on these displays so when using with a Mac a dynamic screensaver with no still images is a must). Any other widescreen display with a native resolution greater than what you are sending it will downscale the content, but a good rule of thumb is that any widescreen display that is 480p capable and up to 1080p native will work well with 16:9 SD/ED content without distorting the content much. DVDs and DVD quality video falls into this category.
Note: When watching 4:3 content on a 16:9 display, you wind up getting a “pillar-boxed” view (black bars on the left and right) unless you choose to stretch or zoom the image if those options are available to you, although this can result in a less desired viewing experience.
Best display choices for 4:3 480i(SD)/480p(ED) content for a paired display:
As mentioned, you wind up with a pillar-boxed view on a 16:9 display when viewing 4:3 content and that’s not ideal for 4:3 video. What if you wanted to purpose-build a PowerPC or early Intel Mac as a digital media hub around a 4:3 content? What are your best display options??? The questions here are whether you want to go big or go small and whether you want to be able to view 480p content properly or not.
For smaller displays, there are plenty of choices for a native 4:3 aspect in a multitude of CRT and flat panels that work great with VGA and DVI connections, but that’s not so great for watching shows and movies, and you typically max out at 21-22″, for these, so where do you go from here?
That’s where a 4:3 aspect HD CRT, a presentation monitor and even a 4:3 aspect Plasma TV can really shine, but they all have their limitations. While HD CRTs are very common, they don’t play nice with a Mac in HD resolutions, so a scaler or converter winds up being needed in many cases to get proper video display and playback. These TVs were also generally built to scale everything to 1080i, so even if you can get a scaler and have things dialed in nicely, it’s not true 480p. This is the case with my Sony Trinitron KV-36HS420 that I have paired with a DVIGear DVI-3551a scaler. It also weighs 235 lbs though.!!
The problem with a 4:3 aspect 480p plasma display (such as the Pioneer PDP-V402) or presentation CRT monitor is that they are extremely rare. I was lucky to snag a presentation CRT monitor that I wrote about a while back – an RCA MM36100, but it’s a needle in a haystack. Think of it as winning the retro display lottery if you find one! They too are heavy. The RCA MM36100 I have weighs 190 lbs, and while 45 lb. lighter than the Trinitron, it’s still a heavy, bulky lift that needs 2 people to move safely!!
If none of those options work out for you to get a 4:3 480p setup and you still want to focus on 4:3 content, you can grab any old 4:3 display (rear projection, CRT, etc.) in any size and as long as your Mac has a “TV Out” option on your graphics card, 480i will work perfectly fine. The best option for 480i when using a Mac is generally S-Video. While Component Video is technically even better on 480i SD TV sets that have it, there are no Mac video cards with native Component video output, so you’re back to a converter of some sort (from VGA or DVI) which are easy enough to find for cheap however. The good news with iTunes SD video is that there are not separate versions for 480i and 480p like there are for HD video at 720p and 1080p, so you don’t have to be picky when downloading the SD versions on iTunes or loading your library with your own homemade digital copies of movies.
Best Sound Options for 480i/480p Era Content
With this era of content you always had mono or 2-channel stereo soundtracks on films, and of course could just choose to use the built-in speakers on your TV or 2-channel speakers if using a monitor without built-in speakers, but there also was generally a “lossy” 5.1 AC-3 (Dolby Digital) soundtrack, so you could really max things out if your Mac has a combined optical out audio jack like a PowerBook G4 1.67 GHz Hi-Res and you have a capable AV receiver with optical audio input and appropriate 5.1 speaker setup to enjoy the 5.1 sound. There are also ways to add optical audio output to Macs that don’t have it. As a couple blasts from the past, take a look at these 2 articles I wrote back in 2010:
- Apple’s DVD Player vs VLC Player (in terms of enabling 5.1 audio through iTunes – DVD and iTunes Digital Video have similar behavior)
- Better Audio Output from Macs without Digital Audio
Again – go with what works best for your environment, but a well-placed 5.1 setup, capable AV receiver and Mac that has optical audio output is truly one of the best setups you can go with if you want to build a library from a Mac of this era.
Best Video Library Method for 480i/480p Playback
I could go around and around with this looking at various things like XBMC, VLC, etc., but at the end of the day, I can’t say enough about iTunes 10.6.3. It’s still my favorite for organizing media on a Mac. It has the additional visualizers when playing music, it runs on supported G4s and G5 running Leopard and is still supported with the iTunes store (for how much longer – not sure and you can’t change your payment method in this version now if you want to buy content through the store – you need another Mac running iTunes 11 or later or a supported iOS device to modify your payment methods). Regardless of purchasing challenges emerging and the question of long-term support, iTunes 10 still has the features in spades. It was the last to retain Cover Flow and provides the iTunes Library Sharing feature, while content can be remotely played over your network with navigation and current playback selection able to be controlled with another device on your network such as an iPhone (ideal secondary use for an old iPhone). It can run on Leopard 10.5.x (PowerPC/Intel) through Mavericks 10.9.x (Intel only), so it’s really diverse. Even if Apple pulls the proverbial plug and purchased content becomes a no-go one day, iTunes 10.6.3 still for me remains the best option for curating a homemade digital SD/ED video library.
Best Mac Media hub for this era:
And the winner is… Mac Mini 1,1 and 2,1
Aren’t there better options?? Yes, of course there are better and more powerful options, but if you wanted to fully repurpose a Mac for SD/ED video only, these are perfect. These Mac Minis used the dreaded GMA 950 Graphics, which is not good for gaming and not very useful for a lot of other things anymore, but is a good reason why people practically give these away now. You can find one commonly for under $50 and I’ve seen them as low as $30 with power supply and they don’t take up much space, which makes them good to integrate as a SD/ED video hub. They consume very little power and have the combined analog and optical audio output, which gives you options for using both with analog audio input or with an AV Receiver for better audio. They also have Bluetooth 2.1 and at the very least a DVD/CDRW Combo (the Core 2 Duo models had a Dual Layer Superdrive), have Gigabit Ethernet and of course these will run iTunes 10.6.3 nicely. The CPU can be upgraded all the way to a T7600 (2.33 GHz Core 2 Duo) on all models and the DVI port on these is DVI-I, so you can run DVI, VGA, HDMI, as well as Composite/S-Video (with the DVI to Video adapter – now found on eBay for around $12 shipped) from these. SATA 2.5″ drive bay can let you quickly upgrade to a modern SSD, which are becoming a commodity at this point (1 TB drives can be found for under $100).
The runner up for this era is (and a close one)… Mac Mini 2005 1.5 GHz
While the Radeon 9200 64 MB graphics solution under the hood of the Mac Mini 2005 is actually better than the GMA 950 in the early Intel “Core” models introduced in 2006 and 2007, you are limited to PowerPC era only software, while the GMA models run Snow Leopard giving you quite a bit of early Intel video applications along with PowerPC compatibility through Rosetta. On the flipside of that coin, if you wanted to do gaming with Mac OS 9 on this unit, it may be your #1 choice (these have been found to be easily modded to run OS 9 natively). It’s a tough call, but I still say the early GMA models are better overall purposed for SD/ED video watching due to having just a bit more CPU oomph and the fact that they can easily be upgraded for cheap (plus use internal SATA drives which are commonly found for cheap). For SD/ED video though, this PowerPC 1.5 GHz is still up to the task and has almost all the same features enjoyed by the GMA graphics 2006-07 models.
Stay tuned for part 2, when I determine what the best options are for your HD capable models!