No more shiny plastic discs

The latest updates from the Cupertino camp have included the elimination of the plastic encased MacBook from the notebook lineup and the disappearance of any sort of optical drive from the Mac Mini. And perhaps saddest of all no black anodized MacBook Air. All the newer Macs are now reasonably up to date with mobile Core i3, i5 or i7 processors and “Thunderbolt” ports.

But say again, no DVD drive? What about a Blue-ray Disc drive? Surely iTunes or Amazon isn’t about to start streaming 1080p movies anytime soon. In fact when I recently rented a movie on iTunes to my last generation Mac Mini (late 2009) it forced me to download the entire 1.4GB SD video. Craziness. At least Netflix has HD streaming working well. I think perhaps the Apple TV supports streaming films from iTunes, it’s unclear, though it’s likely a licensing issue.

I mean, I understand where they are going here, people are using discs a lot less. The App Store now allows direct downloading & upgrading of the latest OS (10,7). But I thought the Mac Mini was good for servers & HTPCs? Doesn’t that sometimes require a disc? And why has Apple never been excited about Blu-ray (beyond the awkward hyphenation)? The biggest gripe I have about the Netflix pricing hike is that there simply aren’t nearly as many good films on demand as there are currently on DVD.

I cannot imagine studios are going to kill off the DVD anytime soon. And certainly Blu-ray Disc is the last generation of physical media out there. Anyhow I’m glad I’ve got my not very upgrade friendly 2009 Mini.

Mass .flac to Apple Lossless (ALAC .m4a) conversion

I have a couple posts going on the back burner, namely the re-foaming process on the 8″ woofer drivers from the Advent Heritage speakers I found in Greenpoint and the Mac Mini media server setup we have going now.  But first, say you want to convert all the albums you ripped to FLAC to Apple Lossless (.m4a) under OS X.  You want to know what’s easiest and quickest for batch conversion?

The X Lossless Decoder (see: XLD) is one very good option for OS X.  I find generally his application works best decoding full album single file rips from EAC with .cue sheets.  Usually with EAC you’d have three files, the .log, the .cue and the full album .flac file, XLD will nicely split the .flac into .m4a (Apple Lossless) individual files with little effort.

For larger batches, and because I used Stephen Booth’s “Max” for a lot of ripping, I find batch processing of tags and mass conversion a bit easier.  Where XLD is good on an album by album basis I found that Max was very good for converting whole directories of individual artists with multiple albums.  I find that I’m often fixing tags first in Max and then again in iTunes and then the last step is usually confirming the album art for use with Cover Flow.  It takes probably 5-10 minutes per album and it’d be faster if I had uniformity in my ripping standards.

I think ultimately, as an archive, using EAC and backing up to an image (.flac, .cue & .log) makes the most sense (but takes the longest). For playback and ease of use, unless you’re really crazy about bit perfection, I think the sound quality with Apple Lossless (.m4a) and iTunes is perfectly acceptable, especially with a halfway decent external DAC.  I’ve been using the Mac Mini as our A/V front end and the Apple Remote application for the iPod Touch works very well (over wifi)  allowing me to control iTunes on the Mini.

X Lossless Decoder (XLD)

X Lossless Decoder (XLD)

Stephen Booth's "Max"

Stephen Booth's "Max"

It goes – Ethernet > Airtunes > SPDIF > DAC

Got the two Airport Express Base Stations working on the network with Airtunes & iTunes.  I bought an older 802.11b/g one for wired usage and an 802.11n one for wireless audio in the kitchen.  I had to do hard resets on both of them before they’d show up on the Airport Utility.  I turned off wireless on the b/g one and told it to use Airtunes via ethernet.  The newer 802.11n Express joins our existing Time Capsule 802.11n network. Optical SPDIF out from the wired b/g Express goes into the E-MU 0404 DAC, unbalanced RCA analog line into the old Denon amplifier.  Works well.  Pretty light, open and clear DAC on the high end.  These old Bose speakers were never much for bass anyhow, and we don’t like to annoy the building.

Apparently Hulu’s content providers (which I believe includes FOX & NBC) decided to pull their support for Boxee.  Now if you haven’t been following Boxee, they are one of the few companies actually making inroads into “set-top conversion” software, allowing people with computers to get the TV shows they want legally from their computers onto actual television screens.  It’s sad really, that this should be an issue.  Almost every show we watch online (legally, usually via the networks’ streaming sites) usually only has one commercial.  So if you’re watching an hour of television at NBC.com and you’re hoping for a variety of commercials you’ll be disappointed, you’ll simply get the same commercial over and over again.  How is it they can’t figure this out?  I distinctly remember watching a Verizon LG Chocolate phone commercial approximately 30 times (with the Feist song as soundtrack) as multiple episodes of a show simply had the same commercial.

Anyhow, at some point I’m going to try and put together a small low power HTPC that can record and playback at least a 720p stream.  Most of the Intel Atom motherboards simply have abysmal video performance and NVIDIA is supposed going to release something soon (and possibly a new Mac Mini). XMBC or Boxee, or even XP Media Center would work as far as a front end.  My requirements are pretty minimal, I’d like to have a Firefly MT-DAAPD server running for music (transcoding .flac to .wav for iTunes/Airtunes) and possibly a second instance of it running for the rest of the mp3/aac/m4a’s.  I’d probably record shows via the SiliconDust HDHomeRun, which would give two tuners for playback/recording.  Mostly the challenge has been finding something that is close to silent and fanless (especially as the Atom could be fanless) but it really hasn’t been optimized for HTPC applications yet.  OSX86 (search “Hackintosh”) with Boxee and Elgato EyeTV could potentially be an option as well.  MythTV could work too.  Who knows?  Right now I’m pretty happy with the Airtunes and Firefly setup.