Mac Media Center

After seeing the Windows Media Center 2005 presentation at Digital Life I officially re-caught the bug to get something similar working at home. I’d certainly heard about the Eyehome digital media player previously, but had not had a chance to really figure it all out until this weekend. I am very happy with the results and thought I’d share for anyone else looking to do something similar.

The Eyehome box is a small silver set-top box measuring just over 8″x6″x1″. It comes with an IR remote for control and can connect either directly to a Mac via ethernet cross-over cable or directly to your network through your router or switch. For linking up to your TV you can choose either Composite (HD), S-Video or Standard component (RCA). Audio connections include Component (RCA) or S/PDIF (digital optical). I am fortunate to be able to support the highest quality connection to my TV and stereo and very pleased with the results. Sound comparison to my SliMP3 (the original model) is definitely crisper and cleaner. There is also considerably less latency — Eyehome is much more responsive. You’ll need to set the box volume to about half to avoid distortion though, which is an interesting difference since my Slim could and seemed to want it’s volume to the max.

Set-up is very simple, you just connect the box to your stereo, network and TV, install the software and you are done. Assuming you have a DHCP network, the IP settings get configured correctly as they are detected and your Eyehome finds any computer (and as many as you have installed the software) via Rendezvous (zero conf for non-Mac people). The only glitch I ran into was that my router fed some lame name server info to my Eyehome and it was unable to connect to the mothership for some firmware and graphics updates. Once I manually entered that info, it was a snap to connect, download and update things. This box initially was released in January of this year and I am quite sure the one I purchased at Tekserve had been in the initial shipment so there were several Firmware updates as well as a graphics system update to download. It was pretty quick to to and easy to find from the settings menu.

Getting Going

Once you have everything installed, you’ll need to choose a computer with media currently available. I have an iMac and a PowerBook here and both show up when the Eyehome turns on, or when you press the (person) button on the remote. Any files you have within the default locations are ready for use. Your entire iTunes, iPhoto library, photos in your Pictures directory and movies or video files within your Movies directory are all viewable. You can also use aliases or symbolic links if your content is stored elsewhere… iTunes and iPhoto do not have to be running as the box just reads the library file, but they can run and will update the Eyehome if you add or change things as you go.

The EyeHome hardware runs at a native 480p (720 by 480) resolution. It can scale this to 720p (1280 by 720) or 1080i (1920 by 1080), and the scaling is high quality. You pick the resolution you want in the EyeHome Settings screen. You can also choose standard TV resolutions.

Only video that is 480p or less will play. EyeHome cannot play HDTV video from EyeTV 500 or any other source, due to its higher bitrate and resolution above 480p.

When displaying high resolution photos from your iPhoto library, like multi-megapixel JPEGs, EyeHome first scales the image down to 480p. From there this 480p version will be scaled to the current display resolution. This means that you won’t see your picture at full resolution, even if you pick 1080i. You’ll always see the 480p version scaled up. [Eyehome FAQ]

While this may sound a bit funky, it actually works quite well – at least in my set-up. There are certainly higher end ways to deal with this kind of stuff, but you will most certainly pay for that privledge and may even require a (gasp) PC.

What it can do

You can play MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX¨, 3IVX and XVID video files and AIFF, MP3, WAV or (unprotected) AAC tracks as well as Ogg Vorbis and unencrypted WMA files will also play. I’ve also found that .VOB files play, but they don’t link automatically so you’ll need to play with various tools I won’t go into here in order to convert content from DVD to play. You might try this page for a way to handle things…

Eyehome goes beyond your local network content and as a connected device it also contains a browser. I would not recommend too much web surfing as it’s not a great browser, but certainly capably for digging deeper as you browse RSS feeds which are pre-programmed as content within the UI. Any bookmarks or folders of bookmarks within your Safari bookmark bar are displayed.

How it works

I am very pleased with how this box works and would recommend it to you as a very easy way to extend your media library to any room in your home with a TV and a stereo. Picture and sound quality are excellent and I’ve tested content that was linked to both my powerbook (connected over Airport Extreme) as well as the iMac (connected over ethernet) and both were able to stream their music and video files without issue. I have a few issues and recommendations after my first day of use, which I think can all be resolved with software updates to both the Mac software and the Eyehome’s firmware.

The Eyehome’s software could definitely use a few finishing touches to make it even more friendly.

  • Right now you can’t listen to music while browsing any other screen like what else you might like to listen to, view your movies, photos or read RSS. You actually have to press stop in order to leave the screen. This actually sucks and is a flaw that needs to be pressed out in the next release pronto.
  • There is no active playlist or way to add tracks to a playlist as you browse (see previous point). This is a must have for me as well.
  • When browsing music the menu system needs to be much more dynamic. My library is much too large (over 22,000 tracks) and going simply by alpha is not very feasible for long. Data entry on the remote is not that great, you can currently search using the alpha/number keys like on a phone, but you can’t skip to T for example by simply pressing 8 once. Please, please fix this.
  • When viewing photos, I’d like to see the option to add a custom track of music to a slideshow, rather than using the default from iPhoto (though I gather that’s part of how the thing works to begin with…). It’s as if the Eyehome is a Mac on your network since it plays most anything your Mac can and sees the other machines in the same way.
  • I’d love to see headless operation. While it’s nice to use the TV’s large screen, it’s not necessary for Music and since you don’t current see album art (which I would like to see added), or a photo slide show (also something I’d like to see added) it’s unnecessary for many applications. The software that runs on your Mac is actually a local webserver that runs on port 8000 – http://localhost:8000 and this would be a great way to manage the Eyehome if it was in a different room or if you had more than one. You might also be able to relay and sync content from one to another.

I think it’s fair to say I am very enthusiastic about this addition to my Home Theater. The box was only $189, which seems like a steal given the current set of capabilities. There is a unfortunately surprisingly small community out there… I’ve searched quite a bit and was unable to find any active forums or lists so I set one up (with just me in it for now) on Yahoo Groups. If you own one or are just interested in learning more, please come stop on by…

21 Replies to “Mac Media Center”

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  2. Hey DAlex –

    Thanks for stopping on by!

    Actually on mine they only goes to 9 as well. Those screen shots are directly from El Gato since it was much easier to use them than to try and photograph my TV…

    No idea where 10 went!

  3. Dalex,

    Thanks for the review. Found you through a google seach.

    Do you know if the EyeHome can display text subtitles for Divx/Xvid? I have a lot of fansubed films (unrealsed foreign films that have been subtitled by fans), and this is a dealbreaker for me.

    Also, can another remote be used with the device. In the reviews I have read, the remote is said to be of low quality.


  4. I believe it can do subtitles, but I have not tried that myself. You might want to send a quick email to directly.

    I use a Harmony 688 remote with mine… no issues. You just have to have a smart enough programable device.

  5. Great review! I’m very interested in this box. To you know if the firmware/software has been updated since this review? Also, do you know of any way to get around the protected AAC iTunes playback? Stupid DRM, that is such a bummer!

    One last one. With downloaded Bit Torrent files, I’m assuming that as long as they are under 480p and supported filetypes, they’ll stream to the EyeHome fine?


  6. Great Review!

    Do you know what type of HDTV it is.
    Did you use it with a wireless connection ?


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