Need help with my future HTPC setup... - AVS Forum
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post #1 of 14 Old 08-26-2012, 10:15 PM - Thread Starter
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Hello all. I know a lot of different things are discussed about this topic, but I'm still a little confused after a week of reading. So I thought I'd start my own in hopes that there are some simple answers.

I just bought a mid 2010 Mac Mini from a friend because it was rarely used and I wanted to start the process of cutting my cable bill down by getting rid of their dvr and go to basic cable. I installed Plex and added a bunch of the plug-ins. (Some of which don't really work like ESPN3 Live games and others) However, I was really surprised and love all of the options that Plex offers. I'm probably going to get a subscription to Netflix and I was thinking of keeping basic cable mainly to watch games on the sports channels (FSMidwest, ESPN, Golf, etc.). For this I was going to add a dual channel HDHomerun in order to watch and record live tv. Then I heard it only accepts ATSC and QUAM but no NTSC which I'm guessing most basic cable channels are, since, according to SiliconDusts website, most of the channels aren't on their list. I was hoping this would work because I was going to try to watch recorded shows and other content from something (not sure what yet) connected to other tvs in the house.

Soooo, my questions are:
1. Are there any other TV Capture devices that anyone would recommend for my situation? (I've heard EyeTV is great, but I also heard you have to pay for a TV Guide subscription if you want a guide. Again, I'm trying to cut my bill down.)
2. Is there anything other than Plex that might be better? (I would really like to keep everything together in Plex or something else.)
3. The Mac Mini came with Parallels, but not Windows. And I have 2 other Macs and an iPad, so I'm not sure I want to run Windows on the Mini... unless it really is that much better, then I might consider it. (Guess that's kind of a comment and question in one.)
4. Any suggestions on a remote controls or mini keyboards? (I currently run my regular home entertainment system with a Harmony 880.)
5. Would a Roku or ATV2 work with Plex? (Hoping not to have to jailbreak anything either.)

Here's my setup:
• Mac Mini - 2.4 GHz Intel C2D - 2 Gb Ram (Should I get more?) - 320 Gb HD (Could add external or might attach one to the usb port on the Airport) - Nvidia GeForce 320M Graphics w/ 256Mb DDR3 SDRAM
• Cable internet / Router is Apple Airport Extreme (Latest version)
• Probably won't use these for any HTPC stuff unless it helps somehow, but I also have a MacPro and MacBook
• I have an iPad, but I rarely use it as my wife is usually using it. So another option for a remote would be great.
• Might get a couple of Rokus or ATV2s for the other tvs. Suggestions?

So that's it. I know it's a lot to digest, but any and all suggestions are welcome. And thank you very much in advance.
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post #2 of 14 Old 08-27-2012, 05:00 AM
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I know a lot of different things are discussed about this topic, but I'm still a little confused after a week of reading. So I thought I'd start my own in hopes that there are some simple answers.

HTPC is a vast subject, all of your questions have been asked and answered hundreds of times, and have been discussed over and over for years; it will take you a lot longer than reading for a week to figure out what's best for you. So realize that this is going to be a gradual process, it'll require a lot of effort and maintenance and frustration on your part and that you'll probably make a few wrong decisions along the way. You won't really figure things out for a good long while. There are rarely simple answers.

The 2010 mini is an extremely nice and capable machine, go to 4 or 8 GB of RAM.

Netflix instant watch is well worth it, in our house we watch it on iPads and Apple TVs, though, not through our Mac HTPCs. (Personal choice, it's fine on the Mac, I just like controlling it through the aTV better.)

Some here use Plex, others use XBMC. I started with Plex and for the past few years have preferred XBMC.

Most of us use EyeTV and here we discuss what's possible in OS X. Yes, there's an annual fee for the TV Guide after the first year. Peruse the Windows HTPC forum to see what's possible on that platform. The most significant differences, i.e. what you can do with a Mini and Windows versus OS X in an HTPC sense, largely come down to Windows support for certain new CableCARD tuner models, whereas there's no support for same in OS X.
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I was thinking of keeping basic cable mainly to watch games on the sports channels (FSMidwest, ESPN, Golf, etc.). For this I was going to add a dual channel HDHomerun in order to watch and record live tv. Then I heard it only accepts ATSC and QUAM but no NTSC

Actually, both ATSC and QAM are what you'll want to be able to record, analog tuning and recording isn't of much value anymore, and the HDHomerun can record from an antenna (ATSC) or QAM (cable coax) but what's important for you to understand is it can only record what is not encrypted by your cableco, what's known as "clear QAM." In my area with that tuner and "limited basic" I can only record the major national networks like ABC, NBC, PBS et al. You most likely would not be able to record or watch your sports channels live at all via an ATSC/QAM tuner because cablecos encrypt those. A good way to figure this out--plug your bare cable coax line into your TV, whatever channels you can tune on the TV without any cable box or adapter is what you can record with EyeTV and that tuner. It may not be much, but for many it covers 80% of what you might want to record.

Cablecos are trying real hard to encrypt everything, even the locals in HD, and take clearQAM completely away, so the long term value of an HD Homerun isn't certain.

Options:

1) the Hauppauge HD PVR and the EyeTV HD record over the component out of your cable box or DVR and connect to your Mini over USB, many users here have gone this route because as long as that "analog hole" stays open, you can record every channel you subscribe to. How long until cablecos successfully lobby to shut down or restrict component out? Who knows...

2) do the CableCARD tuner in Windows thing a la the HD Homerun Prime or Ceton.
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Any suggestions on a remote controls or mini keyboards? (I currently run my regular home entertainment system with a Harmony 880.)

A Harmony can control your Mini, there are some great remote control apps for the iPad, you can screen share in with your laptops, you can set your Mini up to access Plex or XBMC with one button press on the little Apple remote, in short, there are hundreds of good possibilities. Try them all and figure out which you prefer.

We also have 3 AppleTVs in the house, an aTV1 running XBMC, a stock aTV2 and a stock aTV3, and have iOS devices at our disposal, iPhones, iPod touches, iPads. We quickly outgrew just having one iPad in the house, I'd recommend you get one for yourself, it will vastly improve your Mac and aTV experience. It's worth it just for Airplay and remote control functions. Perhaps wait for the 8" iPad?
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post #3 of 14 Old 08-27-2012, 05:41 AM
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I wanted to start the process of cutting my cable bill down by getting rid of their dvr and go to basic cable.

Oh, one more thing, go the HTPC route because you want to, because there are many good reasons and advantages to do so, because it irks you paying so much to the cableco, because you dislike the control the cableco exerts over you and want to take some of that control back, but not to save money.

You may save maybe $50-60 a month by dropping down from a Digital cable tier with a leased DVR to limited basic but there's very little cost savings by starting down the HTPC road if you care about quality audio and video: you'll very quickly spend that $600 and a whole lot more on the Mini, aTVs, tuner hardware and software like EyeTV, hard drives and storage, cables and connectors to tie everything together, Hulu+ and Netflix, apps and content from the iTunes and Mac app stores, essential apps like MakeMKV that are still free in beta but will eventually cost $, more $$$ for better faster Internet access, etc. Even if you plan to download a lot of content through questionable means I think you'll find you still spend every dollar of what you're saving on your cable bill.
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post #4 of 14 Old 08-27-2012, 06:00 AM
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There a few of us that use the Mini as a HTPC. On another forum, there is a thread I did on my experiences with the Mini, you may find of some interest. It's about five pages long: Linky

As for the HDHomerun, yes it's true it doesn't have NTSC, but that's analog anyway, and OTA does not do analog. Yes, cable and satellite companies do analog, but they have a way more digital channels. If you have a newer TV, I suggest connecting your cable directly to your TV, do a channel scan and see what you get. Anything that does not end in 0, such as 2-0 or 155-0, is digial such as 2-1, 4.2, 44-5, 75-3, and so on are digital. That will give you let you know what channels you will get on the HDHomerun. I have limited basic cable through Comcast, and I get plenty of digital channels with the HDHR2.

Also, you're going to get basic cable, you're probably going to want to get a HDHR3-CC, which is the one that accepts a CableCard. Just make sure your cable company uses them, and make sure they'll give a M-card, since that is the one the HDHR3-CC uses. There is a HDHR3 that does not have the cablecard option. Im presuming your cable company does not include ESPN Gold, Fox Sports, and so in the limited basic, which is usually just local channels such as that NBC, Fox, CBS, PBS, ABC, and CW affiliates and maybe a couple other channels.

I haven't tried EyeTV. I didn't like I couldn't try without paying. For OSX, it's said to be best. The TV guide subscription is only $20 a year. I tried SageTV and it was ok. I was one of the few people who had issues with the 5.1DD audio. There are two other TV applications I couldn't get to work. One is MythTV. I don't remember the other.

Plex is excellent software. You may want to check out XBMC too. Plex came from it. They're similar to the eye, but in the back ground very different. Personally, I use Plex. I really like it's server function with the use of front end clients. Plus, the streaming to other devices is pretty darn good. This will let you use something like the Roku, AppleTV, iPad, and so forth to consume your media beyond a PC. I'm not up on XBMC like I use to be. It's rock solid and works very well. XBMC can be limited to what other devices it will work with, but there are plenty of options nonetheless. It does not work with Roku. With Roku, you don't need to jailbreak; I don't think you need to AppleTV, but I would double check before quoting me. I use the Roku with Plex.

As for remotes, it's going to really depend how you think you're going to use the Mini. If set up right, the Apple remote may be perfect for you. Since I consume a lot of video online, I needed a keyboard. I use the Logitech DiNovo Mini. It has it's faults, but it's designed is prefect for me. There are other similar stuff to it as well. You could also get some kind of usb infrared dongle to be able use your Harmony.

The hard question is in regards to Windows. I went to Windows. One, I have been using it for over ten years. Two, I rarely used OSX, so it's quirks were driving me crazy and made is significantly harder to diagnose problems. There were things I did like about it, just not enough. Although, you can find an application in OSX to do what you want, in Windows, there are way more choices. The stuff that is there, usually has more new feature developed or being developed. Windows 7 does include Media Center, which is a very good DVR and includes the guide. There are plenty of people who have made mods for Media Center to be Plex/XBMC like in regards to media file playback and scraping metadata. Silicondust does include software to watch live TV is you choose not to use Media Center; no DVR. There are other programs you can get such as SageTV. XBMC is developing something for DVR functionality. I do know Plex has a plugin for the HDHomerun, but it's still in beta and only good for live TV (Windows and OSX). If you want to do direct blu ray playback, there are several options; although, I would recommend using a stand alone player over a PC. It's also easier for ripping blu rays with something like MakeMKV or AnyDVD HD; I believe you may be able to rip blu rays with MakeMKV in OSX. You definitely have more choices in blu ray drives.

I couldn't recommend using WIndows 7 just to get Media Center because a single license is $100 or more. I was able to get the upgrade version with three licenses for $120, and since I had three machines, it was only $40 per machine. I just find Windows to be more HTPC friendly.

On a side note, I use my HTPC more like PC that hooked up to a 55" display. I just use it for limited applications such as Plex, Hulu (which has an excellent desktop app), and more sports than you can shack a stick at.
In this video, you can see HDHR2 with a local channel playing (cleanQAM) and an online video of NFL (Game Pass). Media Center seems to choke when I play another HD content at the same time, but by itself it's fine. But you can also see I don't have everything setup in a 10' inferface. Mainly because I use a VPN, but I also do some gaming via OnLive.
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post #5 of 14 Old 08-27-2012, 06:17 AM
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Originally Posted by chefklc View Post

Oh, one more thing, go the HTPC route because you want to, because there are many good reasons and advantages to do so, because it irks you paying so much to the cableco, because you dislike the control the cableco exerts over you and want to take some of that control back, but not to save money.
You may save maybe $50-60 a month by dropping down from a Digital cable tier with a leased DVR to limited basic but there's very little cost savings by starting down the HTPC road if you care about quality audio and video: you'll very quickly spend that $600 and a whole lot more on the Mini, aTVs, tuner hardware and software like EyeTV, hard drives and storage, cables and connectors to tie everything together, Hulu+ and Netflix, apps and content from the iTunes and Mac app stores, essential apps like MakeMKV that are still free in beta but will eventually cost $, more $$$ for better faster Internet access, etc. Even if you plan to download a lot of content through questionable means I think you'll find you still spend every dollar of what you're saving on your cable bill.

I agree for the most part. It'll take probably 18 to 36 months to recoup costs from what your save. I already subscribed to Netflix and Hulu Plus, so that wasn't a factor for me. I already had faster internet service, so I did not need to bump up; I did consider it though. I already subscribed to many sport packages. It was a good 16 months to recoup all my costs and save money. Granted, when I was done, I went from playing $100 for TV service to $18. All those stupid boxes and HD service on each, what a joke.

I personally switched because I thought it was ridiculous for me to spend $100 plus dollars for TV service when, because of work, I was asleep when anything was on, and when I was awake, it was news, Spanish, or informercials, so I was having to use various VOD services. Plus, with a VPN, I unlocked what I wanted to watch anyway..sports, sports and more sports. I give the finger to blackouts.

Plus, if you like tinker with computers, there is always something new to try, or something to tinker with. HTPC can be a bit sketchy on the WAF; it's easier if she not a total tech tard.

Not so much on HTPC, but I will let you know one thing. You may have that must watch stuff you want. You will find, you will adjust your TV to whatever content your available. I've lived with no cable/satellite where I got three channels clear, and three more snowy. I've also had every channel cable offered. No matter what, there was always something I could find to watch.
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post #6 of 14 Old 08-27-2012, 03:47 PM - Thread Starter
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Hey chefklc and lovekeiiy. Thanks for the extremely thorough replies.

First thing first, I am going to try this HTPC thing both because I hate paying the cable co so much money for a lot of channels I don't watch and because I want to have a lot more control with the box that is hooked up to my TV. (The Mac Mini.) Also, the reason I posted this is because I have actually researched about this for the past year or so (the "week" comment before was since I got my Mac Mini) and I would have thought by now most things would have been really ironed out with what software and hardware are the best to use for HTPCs. It kind of stinks that I'll still have to do a lot of trial and error when this has been around for so long. Probably because there are so many different ways to go about it and nobody focuses on just one.

Either way, I've tried Plex out a few times so far, but will definitely install XBMC and try that as well. Hoping that one of them can control live TV somehow some day. I'll look into Netflix Live. As far as the channels I get when I plug the cable coax directly into the TV, there are quite a few of them. 50+ channels at least, but I've also heard that you don't always get all of the channels through the HDHR as you see coming into the TV through coax. Maybe I'll just have to buy one and some other brand (Haupauge, Elgato, etc) and try them out. Or maybe I won't need to try it if you can explain to me what VPN is and how it works lovekeiiy. Any experience with TitanTV? Someone told me about that too, but it looks like it might have ads or something.

I am going to check out all of the solutions for remotes/keyboards mentioned above, but definitely the Harmony first... since I already have it. And I'm also going to get a wireless keyboard and mouse from my mom who doesn't use hers from her iMac. (She likes the bigger keyboards for some reason.)

As for internet, I think I'm okay with what I have, but tell me if I'm wrong. I have 15Mb DL and 3Mb UL although with a wired connection I often get around 25-28Mb DL speed. Maybe 19-24Mb on wireless, depending if I'm on 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz.

Thanks again so far!
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post #7 of 14 Old 08-28-2012, 04:39 AM
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VPN = Virtual Private Network. The idea beyond it is to have a private network rather than some public one you get with your ISP. You still need your ISP, but your traffic funnels through it. Many business use them. Another very popular use of them is to circumvent national firewalls such as China and UEA. A lot of VPN advertise it as opening up the internet. Another use is to spoof your IP as if you're somewhere else, such as the USA when you're Russia so you can access Netflix or Hulu.

I use it to spoof myself outside the USA. This lets me me circumvent the blackouts that online sports packages--MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA, etc--have because of television contracts and I don't get those channels with my cable subscription (no EPSN, Fox Sports, Comcast Sports). It should be noted, doing this is TOS voilation with all these sports packages. Generally if caught, they'll cancel your subscription and change an additional fee, usually around $200.

When using the VPN, it will slow down your internet connection. It makes sense because the data is having to travel more distance from point A to B. So don't be surprised to see a drop in speed.

There are a few factors to consider when choosing a VPN. Don't pick a fee public one. They'll have no speed. And it's true, you get what you pay for in the VPN world. If you're going to bit torrent you're not suppose to and try to hide, don't use a VPN headquartered in the USA. They're bound by law to have logs of who is connecting. There are some in other counties they don't have to log. Beyond that, you want one that has been around for awhile. It helps establish they're trust worthy and not looking at your data; it may be secure from the outside, but still have the internet risk. Two, you want one with a lot bandwidth. Some provide access on smartphones. Some offer the use of different protocols. Others offer several servers you can choose to use any time; think of it as "which county to I want to be in today"

I personally use ExpressVPN. They're been around for around five years. In VPN reviews, they're usually in the top five. They are USA based, but I don't hide my bit torrent traffic. Unlimited bandwidth, multiple severs, smartphone use. The biggest knock on them, you'll never talk to a live person. It's all done through IM chat or email. They're very good about responding to emails within 24 hours. In my experience, unless it's complicated, I usually got an answer within two hours, if not sooner. Plus, I like I can use any credit card and pay annually. I pay like nine dollars a month.

On a side note, the video above is the NFL Game Pass service. During the season, it's not available in the USA because of the DirectTV contract states they have the exclusive rights to show multiple games in any location. In that video, I was spoofing my IP in Europe.
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post #8 of 14 Old 08-28-2012, 05:35 AM
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That's a nice summary of using VPN, lovekeiiy, thanks.
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the reason I posted this is because I have actually researched about this for the past year or so (the "week" comment before was since I got my Mac Mini) and I would have thought by now most things would have been really ironed out with what software and hardware are the best to use for HTPCs. It kind of stinks that I'll still have to do a lot of trial and error when this has been around for so long. Probably because there are so many different ways to go about it and nobody focuses on just one.

Since this is a forum about OS X, it's really not surprising we're still waiting for the "one front end to do it all" because 1) home theater PC users are niche, and Mac HTPC users a niche of that niche, 2) the two worthwhile front end options in OS X, Plex and XBMC, are free programs which means development of those programs move at a different pace according to different priorities than "paid" software options on the Windows side, and 3) the content owners and their relationships with content delivery systems are still so divided, competitive and fearful of change, as a result, it's more complicated now, not less, than a few years ago. Can't iron out something that's increasingly more disparate.

In OS X, besides no support yet for the new HD audio formats (not a dealbreaker for me) and no CableCARD tuner support, the "watching live TV thing through a front end" is still a bit of a sticking point, you can do it through EyeTV itself but that isn't integrated smoothly yet within Plex or XBMC. Also not a dealbreaker for us because basically we watch nothing live via the HTPC and anything we do record we usually end up watching through XBMC. A lot of HTPC is figuring out how to do something in the least awkward, least irritable way...and what irks me may not irk you.

You have to do trial and error because where you live, what cableco you subscribe to, what HDTV and AVR and home network you have, how many rooms you need audio and video in, how many people will access your system and which devices they'll use to access it are all variables unique to you. You have to do trial and error because reading and researching are not the same thing as doing, as actually living with your system. You won't know how well you're going to like using the Harmony to control your Mini until you try it for a while. Same thing with trying to use a wireless keyboard in your living room. I gave up both of those options within weeks, neither was even close to adequate for me as remote controls, but you may love them. You have to do trial and error because what works for me glitch-free may not work for you.

Some people strive for that single interface and single remote control that enables anyone in their family to access everything, you have to figure out if you're gonna be one of those guys. Me, not so much. In real world use I find I invoke XBMC solely for video content I've ripped, movies, recorded TV and most often use the Apple remote to control it or apps on my iPad, the only time I use XBMC for music is to listen to FLAC before conversion to ALAC and import into iTunes. Netflix I do through the aTV with an Apple remote or remote app on an iPad. Music I handle through iTunes most often accessed with the HDTVs off and controlled with an iPad. Now, I can centralize all this, but I value the way I can choose how to interact with the various aspects of home theater differently, depending on my mood. My wife has been using Macs for 15 years and loves her iPad and iPhone as much as I do mine, that she's Apple savvy made my job a lot easier. Basically, what all this comes down to is you have to figure out what your goals with HTPC are...me, when I started in 2004 I couldn't understand the folks here at AVS who were focused on getting music only to multiple locations, I wanted all my video and music accessible everywhere I had a display, then when the iPad was released I wanted everything accessible on it, and so it goes. Once you start down the road, you'll find your own path.
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post #9 of 14 Old 08-28-2012, 06:41 AM
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As for HDHR, the only channels the TV gets that it does not, are analog. I've only had it didn't get, and it was only one PC. It should be noted, I have the HDHR2, so I can only get the ClearQAM channels. The HDHR3-CC is suppose to get the QAM channels after you active your cablecard. Unless your TV provider or channel rights owner doesn't want it accessable through things like HDHomerun, you should be able to get it. Silicondust has a nice page that should give you an idea of what you should expect to get.

The only other reason is if the channel's signal is weak. That shouldn't be an issue with cable. If it is, have then run a directly line to that room from the main distribution box. Oh, don't use cheap splitters either.
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post #10 of 14 Old 08-28-2012, 07:52 AM
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As for HTPC in general and things just "working" it's more of a numbers game and how tech savvy people are. It's a lot easier to just create a set top box than create a bunch of software for various hardware combinations. Plus, I think there is still a bit of a negative stigma about having a pc attached to one's TV in the living room. Yes, a set top box is a PC in a limited form, as well as hooking a one's smartphone or tablet.

At this point, you're going to find it hard to find some kind of set top tox with or without custom firmware that will be able control live TV. I haven't kept up on it, but I know there are people working in XBMC trying to get DVR function into it. I assume if it can do DVR, it'll do live TV. I know one person did something in Plex for live tv with HDHomerun. It was real basic. There was no EPG. You cant channel surf. But it did play programs channels. I have no idea about the Xbox 360, but it may do live TV since it can be media center extender.
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post #11 of 14 Old 08-29-2012, 04:24 PM
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(cough) TiVo HD and//or TiVo HDXL (cough) w/ "pyTiVoX" for Mac☞TiVo, and "TiVo Transfer" for TiVo☞Mac.

I know it's not quite the home-theatre-personal-computer thing one thinks of when trying all of this, but in my experience, I have absolutely no problem transferring HD TV shows, recorded either via OTA or Comcast onto the TiVo, to my Mac for long-term storage, and transferring them back when I want to view them. Also, no problem transferring ripped movies (via MakeMKV or Ripit) from the Mac to the TiVo, as long as I give it enough time in advance to complete the transfer(s). The TiVoHDXL is quite intuitive, works great with my Harmony 880 (and its own remote isn't too bad, either), likes OTA & cable (Comcast HD, currently, with a cable card)...

If you google "mac to tivo" and/or "tivo to mac" you'll find an unbelievably big number of hits. Apparently, the important thing about sending rips to TiVo is to convert them to MPEG2 (I assume piTiVo does just that, on the fly, which may be why it takes a while to transfer) first.

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post #12 of 14 Old 08-31-2012, 12:08 PM - Thread Starter
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Okay, so I haven't been able to work a lot on this for a couple of days, but I have also installed XBMC onto the mini. I notice that it has a lot of different plugins and not many channel plugins for things like ABC, NBC, CBS, etc which I think makes up for having no onDemand. Plex seemed to offer that, and I would have thought XBMC would too. Maybe I'm missing something and I'll have to dig around a bit more. I know, a lot bit more actually. Thanks for the suggestion about that though. VPN sounds like a very interesting idea. It might be a little over what I'm looking for right now, but I will definitely keep it in mind as I keep moving forward with this. Sounds really cool and thanks for the in depth explanation. I'm going to try out a couple different capture devices soon and will let you know what I think of them, if you care to hear my opinion anyway. I know you've been through this a lot. As for the Tivo, not sure I want to go that direction. Seems like it might be a hassle transferring things back an forth between the two machines. Plus, I really want to have everything accessible (tv shows, movies, music, etc.) all in one device connected to my home theater. Thanks for the input though. Who knows, I may come back to that sometime. Haven't had a chance yet, but I will definitely google the mac/tivo thing.
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post #13 of 14 Old 09-01-2012, 08:59 AM
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There probably those channels in XBMC. You may have to do those manual addons. Check the XBMC forums. They probably have some kind of thread or wiki on available channels and which kind of addon they are.
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post #14 of 14 Old 09-07-2012, 12:24 PM - Thread Starter
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Just wanted to chime in really quick to let everyone know the reasons for some channels not working. If you don't already know this, make sure Flash and Silverlight are both up to date. Still testing, slowly but surely. Be back later.
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