Mac Mini Mediacenter: Remote control
This article is part of larger collection on various subjects about the installation of my Mac Mini as a mediacenter to replace my PopcornHour C200 and Plex server PC. You can find the index here
Watching movies and browsing through your media library from the living room couch can only be done with proper remote control. I strive for an esthetically clean setup at home, so the Mac Mini is behind doors. That means no line of sight for infrared remote control. There are a couple of ways this can be omitted for relative little money. They all have their advantages and drawbacks. But a little tweaking goes a long way!
These solutions are platform independent. They don’t rely on a Mac Mini or the OS of choice. All or similar soft- and hardware is available for Windows, OS X and Linux.
Wireless mouse + keyboard
Many many options here. From cheap gear to professional equipment, not to forget Apple’s Magic mouse and matching wireless keyboard, so take your pick. They give you full control over the OS, but I don’t like it in my given setting. It’s a media center, not a workstation, and I don’t like the looks of having a keyboard and mouse lying around the living room. I do have a set connected for administrative purposes, but it remains behind closed doors most of the time.
For full remote OS control, anywhere in the world, Teamviewer is still the way to go. It will pass through any firewall, works seamlessly with iOS devices and PCs are even accessible with the use of a web interface. An account keeps track of all your connected systems with online/offline status, so no need to remember or setup IP addresses or DNS resolves. And it’s free!
The free version does come with annoying pop-ups when disconnecting and it’s not the most stable in an OS X environment. It crashes every time when I close the lid on my MacBook Pro while connected to another computer for example. It’s also not the fastest package out there. The refresh rate, even on the same LAN, is pretty slow. Of course it’s dependent on the amount of screen changes and resolution, but watching videos is not done and full screen applications become very sluggish. For basic operations combined with it being platform- and geo location independent, it’s still the editor’s choice.
Again, loads of options. I will be using Plex most of the time so the remote controller integrated in the iOS Plex client is the obvious choice. It automatically detects other clients running on the same LAN and gives you UI navigation and playback controls. Too bad it fails miserably in features and functionality. I really don’t understand why this isn’t properly worked out. Some buttons don’t do anything at all and basic features like enabling subtitles or zooming are nowhere to be found. You have to navigate through layers of menus to do this, while, e.g. direct keyboard shortcuts are working perfectly! Therefore, it’s unusable. I just hope it will get an overhaul in future updates.
A search in the Appstore comes up with a bunch of apps to control mouse- and keyboard input. I won’t list them all here. The workings are basically the same and they are all dependent on a piece of helper software installed on the PC being controlled, ranging from proprietary packages to freeware VNC solutions. But here’s the thing, Plex’s navigation isn’t designed around the use of a mouse. Mouse control can be enabled, but it ‘feels’ wrong, plus you miss out on a lot of direct control.
There are a few iOS apps that present you with dedicated control over a variety of programs like WinAmp, Windows Media Center, XBMC and… Plex. Just like the Plex client, but much much better. Snatch is an example, but I finally settled with HippoRemote. The helper software is available for both OS X and Windows and it has the ability to add custom macros (single or combined keyboard shortcuts). Very clean, big buttons and all the functionality you could want. Plus, it still has the touchpad for mouse control within Windows/OS X.
The major drawback of iPhone related remote control is in fact the touchscreen. Multitouch mouse control is nice, but for couch potato purposes, nothing beats physical playback- and navigational buttons.
PS3 bluetooth remote + EventGhost
My previous media player, the PopcornHour C200 came with a RF remote. The advantage of physical buttons vs. a touchscreen is the ability to control everything blind. After getting used to the button layout, you can use them without ever looking at the little handheld box. As mentioned above, there is no line of sight to my Mac Mini’s IR receiver. So, like the C200, I had to find some kind of RF solution. The higher-end Logitech Harmony universal remotes can do this, but will cost you an arm and a leg. Keyspan produces a range of RF remotes with a separate RF USB dongle, made to look like Apple’s Frontrow and Microsoft’s MediaCenter remotes. Still pretty expensive and not readily available in Holland.
Then I came across Sony’s Playstation Blu-Ray remote. On sale for 19 euros. It connects via bluetooth to a PS3, like the normal controllers do. But it can be connected to a PC (and Mac Mini) with bluetooth as well. It’s discovered and installed as a HID game controller, but doesn’t do much on its own. That’s where EventGhost comes in. EventGhost (RemoteBuddy for OS X users) is one of the best pieces of freeware I’ve come across in a long while. It registers events that take place in Windows. Among them are display-updates, program starts, key presses and incoming bluetooth commands. It even comes with a special plugin for the PS3 remote, so it properly recognizes what button is actually pressed. You can configure EventGhost to trigger other commands and macro’s depending on the incoming events. So for example, when pressing the Subtitle button on the PS3 remote, EventGhost registers a bluetooth command called PS3.Remote.Subtitle, which in turn triggers an emulated keypress of the letter s, used to enable subs in Plex. You can configure the entire remote exactly the way you want! Special commands like putting the Mac to sleep or Wake on LAN are also available. I even got it to start and shutdown the Plex client by pressing the PlayStation button.
EventGhost provides a plug-in for XBMC as well. Way back, Plex was a branch of XBMC and it still has some XBMC in its DNA. As is the ability to control UI navigation over IP (localhost if the controller and client are on the same system). Combining the PS3 remote- and XBMC plug-in in EventGhost, you get a dedicated controller, instead of what is basically an odd looking keyboard. The advantage you get is when not using Plex, the remote doesn’t do anything else, like accidentally deleting all my media whenever my cat decides to mess with it. It takes a bit of effort to couple all the buttons to the different XBMC commands, but I now have a fully functional, physical, dedicated Plex remote.
HDM-CEC interface by RCAware
Although I haven’t tried it, this clever little box popped up during my search and might be usefull to some of you. It’s an HDMI-CEC interface made by RCAware. It connects to your HTPC through USB and captures and/or transmits CEC commands. CEC stands for Consumer Electronics Control and is a standarized communication protocol to interface between different HDMI equipped devices. For example, you can change your AV receiver’s volume with the TV set’s remote control. The TV set sends the volume command through HDMI to the receiver which understands the command and does as requested.
Combined with EventGhost (I can’t express often enough how cool EventGhost is) the ‘Computer Universal Remote’ as they call it, can either controll your TV set with CEC commands comming from your HTPC remote (or other EventGhost commands) or *drumroll* control your HTPC with the remote control from your TV set. You’ll only need one RC for both TV and HTPC. Makes for a very clean setup!