Are You Listening, Steve Jobs?

Practically since the moment the Mac Mini was announced, the online Macintosh communities have been ablaze with commentary from people who’d like to use one of these suckers as a DVR and A/V hub. From DealMac to AVSForum to PVRBlog, there’s a sizeable cohort of tech-savvy folks who look at the Mini-Mac and say, “That belongs right next to my friggin’ huge HDTV.”

Unfortunatley for all those folks (myself included), the Mini just isn’t built for that task. The hard drive is too small and too slow (it’s just a 4200 rpm laptop drive), and the video card and G4 processor don’t have the horsepower to play back HD video. The current models of Minis are designed to be either second computers for Mac owners, or first Macs for Windows users who’re fed up with Microsoft and want to see how the other side lives.

But. That’s just the first model. Who’s to say there won’t be an A/V Mini coming down the pipe from Cupertino in the future? Noted tech historian Bob Cringely (real name Mark Stephens, who was briefly one of Apple’s first employees) thinks Steve Jobs is working a deal with Sony to make a set-top Macintosh that’ll act as a video server for downloaded movies.

Personally, I think that’s a neat idea, but what I’d really like to have is an affordable Mac that can act as a high-definition ReplayTV–and that’s ReplayTV, not Tivo, folks. Tivo imposes way too many MPAA-demanded limitations on content for my tastes. I want a box that will schedule, record and play back HD programs, and will also allow me to edit and permanently record that content to removable media, preferably some form of DVD. I can do all that now for standard definition with my Replays and my 2001-era G4 Mac tower, thanks to DVArchive software.

It’s theoretically possible to do all of the above in HD with a G4-class Mac and ElGato’s EyeTV 500 Firewire box–but only in theory. The ElGato box is designed to need a dual-processor G5 Mac for full HD playback, and that’s a dang sight more powerful, expensive, and bulky a computer than the new Mini-Mac. It’s alleged that one could overcome the Mini’s lack of juice by playing back HD video through a set-top HD converter box with a Firewire port, but I haven’t found an example of anybody who’s actually done this, and even if I did, I suspect the process is too ungainly for casual use (i.e., my wife would hate it).

Still, if all the EyeTV 500 box needs is the processing power of a set-top box, what’s to keep ElGato from building that in to a prospective EyeTV 600, plus a heftier hard drive? I don’t think we can count on Apple to produce an HD-PVR-ready Mac anytime soon; after all, Jobs himself is the CEO of a major (and very successful) movie studio, Pixar. He’s not going to cross his fellow moguls with a pre-broadcast-flag HD PVR system… but I wouldn’t be if a future video-hub Mini does arrive with some kind of DRM built in, a la the iTunes music store.

Until then, though, Apple’s best customers are shouting about what they’d love to be able to buy from the company. If Jobs isn’t listening, somebody else almost certainly is. Stay tuned.

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27 Responses to “Are You Listening, Steve Jobs?”

  1. bluedog4791 Says:

    I know this is off topic as I agree with the main premise of your post and would love to see an Apple/Sony link-up of some sort. However, could someone please explain to me how “Tivo imposes way too many MPAA-demanded limitations on content for my tastes.” I own two Tivo’s and have not once felt constricted but some overriding ploicy to limit my watching and/or keeping content. I have just seen this in the blogosphere lately and would love someone to enlighten me.

  2. Will Collier Says:

    Tivo makes it extremely difficult to extract recorded data from your unit’s hard drive. There are multiple barriers, including until recently no USB or ethernet ports on a Tivo, plus software encoding on the drive to prevent copying even if you can get to it. All these things can be overcome with user hacks, but those hacks are fairly painful to implement even for a tech-savvy user. Tivo is sufficiently scared of being sued over people doing this that they lean on Tivo web sites to ban any discussion of video extraction.

    ReplayTV, by contrast, has had ethernet ports on all their units for years now, and doesn’t do anything to prevent you from moving data around between Replays or to your computer (I do it all the time).

    The MPAA hates the very idea of people easily moving around digital recordings, even for personal use, and they basically sued Replay out of business to shut down Replay’s pre-bankruptcy ability to share shows between users over broadband connections. The new (post-bankruptcy) owners of Replay turned off that capability in new units, but you can still grab shows off any Replay and transfer them to your hard drive.

    Tivo very recently implemented a limited, buggy, and very restrictive version of that capability called “TivoToGo,” but they’re still petrified of openly defying the MPAA. And what the heck, given the example the studios made out of Replay, I can’t say I blame them… but I’m still not giving up my own Replay sets.

  3. Adore-Design.net Says:

    Well, I’m glad to find that the people running this blog are such big mac fans. The way I figure, why not buy it when TIGER comes out– that way you get the new OS and ILIFE which will (essentially) take the cost of the hardware itself down to $300. It’s a REAL cheap computer if you look at it that way.

    Would you be able to play high-def movies if you ran them off an external firewire 400 drive I wonder?

  4. rosignol Says:

    but I wouldn’t be if a future video-hub Mini does arrive with some kind of DRM built in, a la the iTunes music store.

    iTunes DRM is, um, trivial. All you have to do to beat it is burn the songs to audio CD, and then rip them back to mp3, and the DRM markers are gone.

    Would you be able to play high-def movies if you ran them off an external firewire 400 drive I wonder?

    Depends on how much bandwidth it needs. A Firewire 400 bus can handle 50 megabytes a second of data (less some overhead), but most of the drives plugged into it can only sustain 10-20 megabytes a second of output (sustained, not peak). Depending on how much bandwidth HD playback required, it might be possible, but I don’t expect it to be easy or cheap. Your typical consumer isn’t up for setting up FireWire RAID…

  5. Will Collier Says:

    It’s not a matter of drive speed/size per se. You could probably play back an HD movie on a 4200 rpm drive, but it’d be a near thing. Firewire-400 would be plenty fast enough. The limiting factors on the Mini are the processor and video card much moreso than the drive (although it’s still way too small).

    Rosignol, that’s exactly what I mean about iTunes DRM. It’d have enough to pacify the MPAA, but not so much as to royally piss off users (see Sony’s POS iPod clone for an example of the latter).

  6. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: Will Collier
    RE: HDTV

    I suspect that Jobs was not targeting the HDTV demographic. He was targeting everyone else. Seriously, how what percentage of the population has HDTV sets?

    If this dingus sells well, he’ll probably come out with another version for the HDTV ‘set’.

    Regards,

    Chuck(le)

  7. rosignol Says:

    The limiting factors on the Mini are the processor and video card much moreso than the drive

    Well… you’ve got to keep the target market in mind. The mini is Apple’s attempt to price a product at a low enough price point to tempt people to switch platforms- not a premium gadget for audio/videophiles, which seems to be what you’re in the market for.

    Taking something indended to be used for one thing and doing something else with it is one of the finest hacker traditions, of course… but I wouldn’t expect HD-DVD playback to become a standard feature on the Mini until HD-DVD players (and HD-DVD movies) become relatively common.

  8. jmaster Says:

    Will,

    Your dream box is barely a technical challenge, but it

  9. Downtown Lad Says:

    I think he is going after the video market. Sony’s Blu-Ray is a few years from really taking off, and by then the mac-mini will have the bandwidth to handle this type of stuff.

    In the meantime, I’m considering getting one, if only because it looks so cool, and at this low price, what’s there to lose?

  10. The Moderate Voice Says:

    Around The ‘Sphere

    Our occasional collection of interesting reading culled from sites representing ALL viewpoints. Opinions expressed do not necessary reflect the opinion of The Moderate Voice. ARE JOURNALISTS KILLING JOURNALISM AS A PROFESSION BY IGNORING A PUBLISHED C…

  11. rosignol Says:

    I think he is going after the video market

    Hm, let’s see. Apple invents FireWire and puts it in *everything it makes*, puts DVD burners in everything but the low end products, and gives away decent consumer-level video editing software (iMovie) with it’s computers… yeah, you might be on to something. ;-D

    Apple’s big pro-level market has traditionally been creatives in desktop publishing and multimedia. Steve thinks video is going to be the next big thing- I’m skeptical*, but even if he’s wrong, a computer with the processing power and bandwidth to handle video editing will be able to do a lot of other things, too.

    *video is old media- uninteractive ‘sit there and be passively entertained/informed/whatever’. IMO, the next big thing will be at least as interactive as blogs are.

  12. The Moderate Voice Says:

    Around The ‘Sphere

    Our occasional collection of interesting reading culled from sites representing ALL viewpoints. Opinions expressed do not necessary reflect the opinion of The Moderate Voice. ARE JOURNALISTS KILLING JOURNALISM AS A PROFESSION BY IGNORING A PUBLISHED C…

  13. Pixy Misa Says:

    Actually, a 4200 rpm drive can dish out multiple HDTV streams at once without any trouble. Compressed video just doesn’t use much bandwidth compared with the speed of modern disk drives. DVD standard speed is 1.5MB/second; the older 40GB 4200 rpm models can deliver twenty times that.

  14. Pixy Misa Says:

    Rosignol, I get over 25MB/second off my external Fireware drive – and that’s a 5400RPM model I bought in 2002. Sustained, read or write.

    Modern disk drives are fast for sequential transfers. They suck for random access as they have always done, but sequential transfer rates are amazing. (Unless of course you have the sort of driver screwup currently afflicting my Windows box, which reduces my D drive to 3MB/s half the time.)

  15. Pixy Misa Says:

    I checked the EyeTV specs. They do say you need a dual G5 for full HDTV playback, which seems excessive. They also say you need 8GB for an hour of video. Thats just over 2MB per second, which is nothing (as far as transfer rates go).

  16. the other JD Says:

    Will,

    I DO make OTA HDTV recordings and play them back using my 400 MHz G3 Pismo(!), Firewire 400 external hard drive and Samsung SIR-T165 set top box with VirtualDVHS software. No problem. What I can’t do is edit the files, which EyeTV can. If the EyeTV 500 sends the files the same way as VirtualDVHS, It’s a lock.

  17. Sigivald Says:

    Will: What Chuck said. I don’t think that “Apple’s biggest customers” are all demanding an HDTVR. They might be Apple’s most vocal customers, and very loyal, but they’re not even close to Apple’s core market. (Well, as much as Apple has “a” core market.)

    Want an HDTVR in a box? Cube, EyeTV, Dual-CPU upgrade. Sure, it costs a few times as much, but you can get it now.

  18. the other JD Says:

    Just saw this link:
    Elgato announces UPnP(TM) AV Media Streaming Software for the Macintosh – go to www(dot)mac-htpc(dot)com(slash)article3(dot)html
    It should allow other UPnP boxes to handle the playback.

  19. Holdfast Says:

    RE: ReplayTV

    I heard great things about ReplayTV, so I bought one. It didn’t work, so I had it exchanged for another. That one also didn’t work, so I bought a Tivo (with DVD burner).

    Sure ReplayTV has lots of great features, but their quality control is garbage, and their tech support is next to non-existent.

    It might be fund to have a Replay unit to play around with, but for reliably recorded shows, I’ll stick with my trusty Tivo.

  20. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: Sigivald
    RE: The Customers

    “…I don’t think that “Apple’s biggest customers” are all demanding an HDTVR.: — Sigivald

    I’m quite happy with my DVI driven projector system. Hooked-up to the 1.25GHz tiBook it works juz fine, when I want to go-to-the-movies. The sound is courtesy of B&O.

    As I stated earlier. Not that many people have HDTV yet. Come on. Let’s have a show of hands out there. How many own HD capable display systems?

    I’m not seeing very many hands, guys.

    Regards,

    Chuck(le)

  21. Jeff Harrell Says:

    There are two ways to record and play back HDTV. There’s the easy way and the hard way.

    The hard way is to bring in the video as video, either through an analog or digital input. The computer then encodes the video and stores it to disk. To play it back, the computer reads the encoded video, decodes it, and draws it on the screen.

    Practically nobody does it that way, I don’t think.

    The easy way to do it is to just take the already encoded MPEG-2 transport stream and write it to disk, then play it back. This stream is about 19 Mbps for over-the-air HD, and can range as high as about 25 Mbps for satellite or cable HD. Those are very low data rates compared to what even the slowest hard drive can do. And because the computer isn’t doing any math, but rather just reading and writing encoded data, it doesn’t require hardly any CPU at all.

  22. Jeff Harrell Says:

    Oh, dammit. Before I hit the little button, I meant to say: Chuck, I own an HDTV, and practically all of my social circle owns HDTVs. They’re everywhere.

  23. Sigivald Says:

    Jeff: What’s your social circle like?

    I don’t think I know anyone in my social group (one of my remote coworkers, though) with an HD set. (Heck, I don’t even think my ex-Microsoft boss has an HD set, which actually surprises me…)

    I suspect part of the “problem” is that plenty of people have a social circle composed of fairly geeky people with plenty of extra cash.

    In other words, exactly the sorts of people you’d expect to be early adopters of HD setups. This leads to an overestimation of the actual market penetration of HD in the world at large.

  24. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: Jeff Harrell
    RE: Going Round In ‘Circles’

    “Oh, dammit. Before I hit the little button, I meant to say: Chuck, I own an HDTV, and practically all of my social circle owns HDTVs. They’re everywhere.” — Jeff Harrell

    I’m with Sigivald here. To the best of my knowledge, I know NO ONE who owns an HDTV. Except for you. And maybe Will.

    Regards,

    Chuck(le)

  25. Will Collier Says:

    I don’t have an HDTV, and I don’t anticipate buying one in the next six months, possibly not even this year (though Martini Boy has one, if memory serves). I still plan to buy the key components for an HD PVR before the broadcast flag mandates go into effect this July.

  26. ErikZ Says:

    The Mini is just fine right now as an AV device. It can handle it.

    I’m waiting for blu-ray DVDs to come out before getting an HDTV.

    I’ll wait until Tiger comes out before picking up a mini.

  27. DensityDuck Says:

    >
    >I suspect part of the “problem”
    >is that plenty of people have a
    >social circle composed of fairly
    >geeky people with plenty of extra
    >cash.
    >
    >In other words, exactly the sorts
    >of people you’d expect to be
    >early adopters of HD setups. This
    >leads to an overestimation of the
    >actual market penetration of HD
    >in the world at large.

    As well as an overestimation of Howard Dean’s chance at the Presidential nomination…

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