Review - MediaCentral 2.5
by , 9:00 AM EST, February 15th, 2007
The Mac is a perfectly good option as the hub of a home entertainment center, and Apple has already shown that with its Front Row application. If you want to take that to the next level, however, it's time to look at MediaCentral from equinux.
MediaCentral recognizes iTunes audio and video content, displays your iPhoto library, goes to the Internet for online movie trailers and clips from Google or YouTube, streams Internet radio stations, plays DVD movies, plays games, and even works as a TV viewer for supported devices. The one thing it can't do - and this is a limitation of Apple's FairPlay DRM technology, not MediaCentral - is play content you purchase at the iTunes Store.
The MediaCentral interface is easy to figure out and navigate. It kind of reminded me of TiVo, but without the annoying menu features, like going to TiVo's Find Programs menu to see your To Do List. What were they thinking? Luckily the coders at equinux are much better at organizing logical menus.
If the interface isn't to your liking, you can choose from several different styles, or create your own. The menus also include subtle background music that you can change or disable depending on your tastes. I liked the menu music because it gave me an extra audible cue that I was in the menu system when I wasn't looking at my display.
One of the greatest features of MediaCentral is that it can truly be a single point of control for your digital content, streaming Internet content, and television. OK, the TV part does need some qualification: This feature works with the terrestrial-based wireless television standard DVB-T.
DVB-T is a really great and convenient way to watch digital television in many parts of the world, but not in the United States. Until the U.S. develops a more forward thinking approach to TV broadcasting, you'll have to go to Europe, Asia, or Africa to experience DVB-T.
That said, it would be really cool if equinux added support for non-DVB-T Mac-based cable adapters like those from Miglia and Elgato.
Movie watching is a simple process. MediaCentral recognizes standard DVDs, VIDEO_TS folders on your hard drive, QuickTime-compatible files, Windows Media files via the Flip4Mac plug-in, and RealPlayer content if you have RealPlayer installed. The DVD support works just like a stand-alone DVD player with access to movie menus, subtitles, and alternate languages.
MediaCentral includes a fairly extensive list of Internet-based video and radio stations, but you can always add more if you like. That's a handy feature since Murphy's law says you are likely to have some favorite station that isn't on the list.
The Games menu includes four Flash-based 80's style arcade games: Alien Invaders, Astroblast, Ping, and Snake. Like Internet video and radio streams, you can add other Flash games to the menu. Just be sure the games you add can be controlled with your Mac's arrow keys and space bar.
If managing your media isn't enough for you, MediaCentral also works as an interface to Skype. It shows your contact list, lets you initiate calls, and lets you answer Skype calls, too. Before you can use MediaCentral with Skype, you have to activate the feature in the MediaCentral Preference Pane.
Which brings up one of my complaints: all of the settings for MediaCentral are in a Preference Pane instead of in the application. Splitting out the settings as a Preference Pane felt counter intuitive to me, although some people may like the idea of managing settings without having to launch the application.
A digital home entertainment hub isn't useful at all if you have to wait every time you select a menu option. MediaCentral performed just fine, even on a 1.67GHz PowerBook G4 with 1.5GB RAM. I chose this system instead of a newer Intel-based Mac specifically because I envisioned some users pressing an older Mac, like a 1.5GHz Mac mini, into service for their home theater setup.
Startup was a bit slower than I expected, but still totally acceptable. The delay was caused by the initialization of each MediaCentral component. But instead of leaving you to wonder if the application may have locked up, it displays a progress bar telling you which component is currently loading.
Once MediaCentral finished loading, I didn't experience any latency. I tried to push my Mac to far by running Mail, Safari, Address Book, Photoshop, and a handful of other applications to eat up my processor, but MediaCentral still performed just as it should, even when playing movies or streaming audio.
Sitting on the couch without a keyboard on your lap sounds to me like a much better way to watch movies, and MediaCentral comes through there, too. It supports the Apple Remote that ships with Intel-based Macs, the ATI Remote Wonder and Remote Wonder II, and any other remote capable of sending regular keystroke signals.
I have this thing for trying to trip up applications with old hardware, so I dug out my ancient 15 button Keyspan presentation remote control. Sure enough, it worked perfectly with MediaCentral.
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