Bob Snow, a contributing editor for O’Grady’s Powerpage, posted a short article on a Digital Entertainment Hub that he thinks Apple should release.

I’ve been interested in setting up something like this for a long time. There are plenty of custom made PC’s that are built into cases that would work well in an entertainment center, but nothing that has struck me as revolutionary, and I haven’t seen much at all for the Mac. This is somewhat surprising to me because the Macintosh is a perfect platform for an AV hub, especially now that Apple has finally started including digital surround audio output with an optical connector on the back of the G5’s.

I’m going to focus on a subset of the list that Bob gave for a digital entertainment hub. Namely:

  • DVD player / recorder
  • CD player / recorder
  • MP3 player / compressor
  • decoder for surround formats
  • TV tuner
  • picture viewer / Internet radio player

The rest of his list are really things that I either think are out of scope for a device like this (such as router functionality, go buy a router at BestBuy for $50), or something that isn’t really all that important to me (such as a gaming device).

Now all of these things are easily available for the Mac platform right now. All current Macs can play DVD’s, CDs, MP3/AAC music, record CDs, and convert audio to MP3/AAC formats. A lot of Macs also include the capability of burning DVD’s as well, knocking another item off the list, and the G5’s include surround sound output, as I mentioned above. Apple has addressed many of these features through the iLife apps and other technologies…making and playing movies (iMovie, iDVD, Quicktime), making and playing music (iTunes, GarageBand), and viewing photos (iPhoto).

So what’s really missing is a TV tuner (preferably with Tivo-like functionality so we can time-shift shows we would like to watch). Luckily, Elgato released an updated EyeTV 200 earlier this year. This model is much better than the original in my opinion. It connects to your computer over a Firewire connection, which makes a lot more sense to me than using USB. Also, the EyeTV 200 records full-resolution video. The previous version was stuck with half resolution because the USB interface couldn’t handle as much bandwidth. All this, for about $350 sounds like a great deal to me.

Now for the hard part, integration. Integration is the single thing that all of the so-called “Digital Entertainment Hubs” are missing. It is also the hardest part of building a system like this. In my eyes, there are two possible scenarios that would solve the integration problem.

The first is using a separate hardware system that will interface with your Mac to provide all of this functionality in a nice interface on your TV. The advantage of this is that you don’t need to have your computer sitting right next to your entertainment system. As long as you have a fast connection between your Mac and the hardware to interface with your entertainment system, you should be set. Elgato has come out with such a product that addresses a lot of the functionality that is listed above. It’s called the EyeHome, and it acts as an interface between a Mac and your entertainment center for TV shows recorded with an EyeTV, Movies (including MPEG 1, MPEG 2, MPEG 4, and DivX), Music from your iTunes library, Internet radio, and Photos from your iPhoto albums. It seems like a nice and easy way to go, for around $250.

The second integration option I can see is coding some software to do all of this integration right on the Mac. This is definitely not an easy task, but it would provide for all of the functionality of the EyeHome, and also include the ability to burn DVDs and CDs right from your living room. It would also allow you to have more Internet functionality like IMing and email (EyeHome only allows you to browse websites that you have bookmarked in Safari). The main drawback here is finding a good interface to use. In the case of the EyeHome, a remote control is included and it uses your TV as a monitor. Using a TV as a monitor on a Mac is also pretty easy with S-Video connectors being common on video cards, but a keyboard and mouse would probably be required for full functionality…and where would you put that in your living room? Of course with Bluetooth, you could have a wireless keyboard and mouse, which would make things a little better. Overall, though, this type of setup leaves room for a lot of improvement.

So what’s the best way to do it? In my opinion, the EyeHome is the way to go. It keeps things easy, and if I ever do want more functionality, I can just bring my Powerbook to the living room. Also, the EyeHome gives me the option to have multiple systems in different rooms of the house and having all of my music and movies accessible in each location.

Some time in the future, I may talk more about storage options and network architecture for a system like this. It would definitely be necessary to have a ton of storage if you wanted to keep all of your DVD’s online. 🙂