Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Disappointing networking

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I tried setting up a little ‘TV computer’ with an old machine. The basic idea being that there is a machine that’s hooked up to the telly and stereo which can play media from the other machines around the flat. So far, the experience with it has been a bit underwhelming unfortunately. If you can offer advice on how to improve on any of the points I mention below, that will be appreciated.

The machine in question is some aluminium Powerbook running Mac OS X.5. While not overwhelmingly fast, that should be more than sufficient to handle a few files, music and videos, I think.

Networking
While network discovery, connecting to a server and remembering passwords works reasonably well, I have been quite disappointed by its speed. On a 54Mbit/s network with about six networks visible in the neighbourhood, at most one of which is on the same channel as ours, I’d expect to get a reasonably good wireless network speed. I never had problems with that before with other machines, but the throughput I am seeing is extremely unreliable. Transferring 1GB in the Finder took almost two hours. With full signal strength with no signal travelling more than five metres. Something seems to be fishy there.
iTunes Sharing
iTunes sharing does work as it always did. But unfortunately it is so much a neglected piece of software that using it may not be much fun. My main gripe here is that the iTunes music library databases can be quite large after many years of filling them. With thousands of songs, the library itself can be a few dozen megabytes. Which have to be fully transferred (over the quirky network connection mentioned above) before you can do anything. That’s less than idea. Far less than ideal eve, as sending any of the machines in the setup to sleep, closes the iTunes sharing connection and requires it to be re-established. Which all adds up to hassle and inconvenience. Once the library connection has been established, things are OK, but generally there’s always some non-trivial wait.
Front Row Music
I pondered using Front Row as well. Particularly for music it can be nice. And allegedly it can also handle shared libraries. My impressions were – again – not good. Yes, Front Row can access shared iTunes libraries. But it becomes quite sluggish when using them (does it load the full library as iTunes does or does it load the library as needed? – I seem to get delays even when just switching into a band’s list of albums), it’s not exactly convenient when trying to use different shared libraries and – ununderstandably for me – it fails to display the cover art for the song it is currently playing. iTunes can do that, so Front Row should as well. Particularly with the flashy cover art animation on screen while playing a song.
Front Row Photos
I had also hoped to use Front Row to browse shared iPhoto libraries. But couldn’t even ‘see’ those on the network from within the application. Shared libraries which iPhoto displayed at the same time. Did I miss anything there or was that feature just omitted?
Front Row Films
A further cunning plan was the following: Put a film file in the shared folder of another machine. Put an alias of that folder inside the user’s Movies folder and then navigate across the network within Front Row. Unfortunately that only works if you mounted the network volume in question before running Front Row, rather than Front Row using the alias and the password from the keychain to automatically do that itself. Which, of course, starts making things much too involved for actually being practical.
Remote Control
Of course the Powerbook has no Remote Control sensor. But my idea was that with many people having Bluetooth capable phones these days, we might be able to do some remote controlling in that way. The impression that sticks is that somehow Bluetooth plainly sucks. Very few phones actually seem to support the mysterious ‘HID’ profile that lets them act as a remote control without further ado. And for the one I could try it with, it remained completely unclear how this could be achieved (the toy was running some form of Windows though, so I’m prepared to let that take the blame). All other variants seem to require costly software which may even require something to be installed on the phone in question. Again, solutions which are very far from ‘just works’.
Bluetooth keyboard
I briefly considered getting a Bluetooth keyboard instead. Assuming Apple’s peripherals to be horribly overpriced as usual, I figured that might be a reasonable solution. From searching amazon and so, I got the impression that there actually are almost no Bluetooth keyboards which you can buy. And that those not made by Apple come in even more complete and expensive sets. You can get much cheaper wireless keyboards with some USB dongle though. Isn’t that silly? It looks like a long USB cable with an old USB keyboard might be the most reasonable solution.

In total I found this experience quite disappointing. In part because I just can’t take the whole ‘home entertainment centre’ thing seriously enough to get dedicated and new hardware for it. The old hardware is just powerful enough for these purposes and it exists. Getting even more gear would be a waste of resources. In addition, the software Apple give us, has all these neat ideas in them, but hardly any of them seem to be worked out enough to make things really simple and enjoyable.

January 13, 2008, 12:56

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