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I am in the market for a Mac Mini now to replace my Xbox + Pentium II box in closet solution for media storage. Before Christmas, they were somewhat plentiful on craigslist at good prices, now they’ve dried up or people are throwing more memory in them and they’re going for more than retail.

The Xbox + Xbox Media Center + Pentium II FC5 box in the closet works really well in principle for watching movies and storing my > 10MB TIFF scans. I only have a laptop, but it fills up quickly with my music collection, video, and when I’m scanning photographs. Therefore I offload my storage to the lowly PII in the closet. The two major problems are energy usage and speed. I’m not fond of having a server and xbox running 24/7 when they’re only being used a few hours a day. I addtion to the server being a lowly PII, the box also has four ATA/100 hard drives. This is a painful bottleneck for the amount of data I shovel back and forth between my devices.

Turning off the Xbox means I need to find a media center solution for the Mac Mini. Sure, there’s the new Front Row which comes with OS X, so I hooked my laptop up to the TV to play with it today and get a feel. You know what, Front Row sucks. It’s slow isn’t the best interactive experience. I try to do something like load the list of Apple music trailers, decide it’s taking to long and try to do something else, you’re stuck. I furiously hit different buttons to abort, but the application is blocked until loading completes, then all of my button presses catch up.

Front Row is also picky about which types of video it can handle. I’ve got all sorts of Quicktime components for DivX, Xvid, WMV, AC3 installed and it still won’t play some videos. VIDEO_TS support is not available either.

Xbox Media Center works very well, in over 8 months of daily usage I have few complaints. You point it at a remote files hare and go. Its interface has a snappy response, I have good amount of menu and playback control using an Xbox controller, it plays almost anything I have laying around, no problems with VIDEO_TS, and it’ll drive 480p with component cables. I really like the fact I can select and control video playback with a web browser.

XBMC has a few pitfalls I’ve discovered. The extra scripts are a bit wonky, I’ve broken the Apple Trailer script and can’t seem to fix it. Being an xbox, I can’t ssh over to it and readily fix it. Since there’s no official Xbin compiler, getting updates depend on knowing the right people. The xbox’s CPU is too slow to play native 720p or 1080p video.

Following disappointment with Front Row, I downloaded MediaCentral from equinx. First thing I noticed (and really appreciate) is that it supports the Apple remote. The canned music gets monotonous after a while. IP TV is a nice touch, although some channels depend on Real Player, blegh. I’m annoyed that VIDEO_TS files have to go under “DVDs” and other video files go under another menu; this may be hackable, I don’t know yet. Video playback of some files don’t seem nearly as sharp as Quicktime or XBMC; it’s almost like they’re twiddling around with the aspect ratio.

At this point it seems like I can get rid of the crufty PII in the closet and move my storage to a Mini + stack of external hard drives, but I’m still stuck with the Xbox. Anyone know of any other Front Row alternatives that can compete?

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