use Apple’s screen sharing to take over (your) world!

Apple introduced simple–and really, really good–Screen Sharing starting back in OS 10.5 (Leopard), but most people don’t seem to know about it. We’ve got multiple computers (Mac laptops, a desktop, one PC, an iPad, iPods, iPhones), and I’ve found Screen Sharing to be a great way to help me manage and use all of these systems.

Everything I’m talking about here on a Mac can be set up on a PC as well, using VNC or other screen sharing, but it’s not as easy as on the Mac.

[Actually, there may be something built into Vista and beyond for this, but I don’t spend much time on Windows lately.]

Be a couch potato!

Sure, you could do everything on any computer on your network from your comfy chair. You know, the red one you inherited from your dad, who was a consummate purchaser of the Ultimate Comfortable Chair, and which is now sitting in the corner of your bedroom, by the windows with the best view, and in front of the stereo. No, wait, are we talking about my chair, or yours? Any way, grab some Cheetos (they turn your keys a lovely orange hue) and let’s talk.

Yeah, but why bother?

Well, I can snoop on what you’re doing, right? No, not actually. When I log into a machine and see its screen, the computer I’m attached to displays an icon in the menu bar to show that someone else is viewing that screen. It’s not completely anonymous.

I use screen sharing for a couple of types of tasks.

Most importantly, I have a Mac Mini that I’ve set up as a whole-house iTunes server, as described in this post. That Mini is attached to a big screen TV (hey, does this make you want to break into my house? I also have a whole-house remotely-monitored alarm system with, uh, punishment spikes and flame throwers and a high-intensity electric field, but that’s a subject for a different post). I use screen sharing so that I can easily access that iTunes server without needing to start up the big TV.

So screen sharing lets me start music, stop music, add movies and music to my library, categorize new music, etc. from any screen in the house.

Note: new iPods and iPhones also let me control my iTunes server, using Apple’s free “Remote” application. Great stuff, and it generally does the trick. But sometimes I just want to access the computer directly, so screen sharing lets me do that.

I can also use Screen Sharing to access the various computers in the house and restart, update or shut them down. Sometimes this is easier than wandering around, since any computer in my network that’s turned on (i.e. not asleep) is broadcasting that fact. So I can be on my laptop and maintain, shut down, etc. any other computer.

Apple’s screen sharing is also fast (on a high-speed WiFi-N network), so I can actually do work on my desktop computer by directing it from my laptop.

Why would I bother? Well, did I mention the comfy red chair? Also, sometimes I want to get work done on that desktop computer (like sorting photos or video) from the bedroom so I can be with M in the evening. As long as what I’m doing doesn’t require sound or a lot of heavy UI interaction (no scrubbing back and forth across video, for instance) I can do it just fine remotely.

And starting with Lion (10.7) I can even put the Screen Sharing window into full screen, which makes it look like I’m fully ‘on’ that remote computer.

Ok, how do I set it up?

On the Mac that you want to share *from*, go to the Apple menu>System Preferences… dialog, and then goto the Sharing group.

Give your computer a memorable and simple name, in the Computer Name edit field.

Select the checkbox next to “Screen sharing”. You should now see a green dot next to “Screen Sharing: On,” indicating that it’s now active.

On the right of the dialog, under “Allow Access For:” you can either choose Administrators, or All Users, or add specific users (if you’ve set up multiple user accounts on that computer). I choose “Administrators” since I’ve got admin access with all of my own user accounts.

Great. Now you’re screen sharing from that Mac. Note that this only (normally) works on your local network, so you’re not going to be able to access your screen from your neighbor’s house, or anywhere else but your place. It shouldn’t be a security concern.

How do I log in?

On any other Mac that’s using Snow Leopard or later, open any folder or Finder window. On the left of that Finder window, you should see several categories of items: Favorites, Shared, Devices and so forth. The computer that you enabled for Screen Sharing should be listed there under the SHARED category. Click it.

Now you should see a “Share Screen…” button. Click that.

You’re presented with a “Log In” dialog. You can use your username and password (rather, the username and password of a user on that remote Macintosh–presumably if you have multiple Macs though, you’ve set them up with the same username and password for “you” on each one). Check “Remember password” so you won’t have to log in next time you want to see the screen of that remote computer.

If the username and password corresponds to one of the users that you specified when you set up Sharing (above), or has Administrator privileges if you chose that setting, then you should now see the screen of the remote Mac. Huzzah! You’re in control. You can copy and paste, move stuff around, etc. Just as if you were sitting in front of that Mac. To stop screen sharing, just close the Screen Sharing window. OR, right-click (or Control-click) the Screen Sharing app in your Mac’s Dock (the Mac you’re actually using) and choose Quit.

 

Creating a Log-In Screen Sharing Shortcut

Now that you’ve logged in once, you can create a simple Shortcut in your dock so you don’t have to hunt around again in order to log into that particular machine. Close Screen Sharing so you’re once again looking at your Mac.

Do this (Lion): go to the Finder by clicking on the Finder icon in your Dock.

Press and hold the Option key on your keyboard, and from the Finder menu, choose Go>Library. [Why the Option key? Because in Lion, Apple hides the Library folder so people like us won’t go in there and screw stuff up.]

The Library folder for your user account (the account you’re currently logged into) now opens. In the Library folder, open the Application Support folder, then open the Screen Sharing folder.

Inside Screen Sharing, you’ll see little VNC settings files corresponding to each computer you’ve logged into. You can drag one or more of these to your Dock (on the right, where documents are stored). Now you’ve got a saved login and can log into that remote Mac with a single click!

Screen Sharing from an iPhone, iPod or iPad

There are many screen sharing apps for iOS devices. I’ve tried several (both free and paid), and my current favorite is Remoter VNC. It’s easy to set up, nicely designed, and full featured. Using this, I can use my iPad to fully control my Macs remotely. Works great.

 

Caveats

If you want to use a Mac Mini as a headless (no monitor) server, and use Screen Sharing to control it, you may run into times when screen sharing fails and you need to be able to see the Mac directly, and plug in a keyboard and mouse. Example: computer crash, or some unknown screen sharing failure. This happens to me occasionally, and when it does I try to get the Mini to display on my television. Normally this works, though sometimes it’ll fail to sync to the TV (which is at a much lower resolution than I normally use) and I have to haul over a monitor. C’est la vie.

Last caveat: if you’re still having trouble screen sharing, look at your Firewall settings. Make sure you haven’t chosen a restrictive setting that’s preventing screen sharing from working.

set up iCloud to share settings across a family

Ok, long post here. Consider yourself warned. Maybe I should make this into a 50 page iBook.

As of Mac OSX Lion, Apple’s iCloud service is still a bit on the raw side, and it can be pretty painful to get it working with any sophistication across multiple iOS devices and Macs. Since it took me way too long to get things working for me, here’s a post on how to set things up so that you can share some info across a family without sharing absolutely everything.

One advantage to what I’m about to describe is that far less data will be stored in each iCloud account, and should let everyone in your family stay under the 5GB free iCloud account size.

the problem

iCal: I want different calendars for each person in our family, plus “Other” and “Family.” Easy enough in iCal; working for years. But I want all of my family’s Apple devices to be able to see/edit our overlapping calendars. Each person will be able to edit their calendar on any of our devices, and they’ll all stay in sync through iCloud.

Address Book: my wife and I have a large address book of family and friends. Most of this is “shared address book,” and I want this data to show up on all of our iOS and Mac accounts. However, it’d be great to be able to have our own additions that aren’t shared (my biz contacts, her old boyfriends, etc.), and of course we want our kids to have a different Address Book with their friends, while still having access to the shared family and friends email and phone numbers. This part is way too complicated in iCloud currently, since in Lion there’s no “Share this Group” or “Share this Address Book” like there is with iCal.

iTunes: we want to share purchases among some or all of us. Books, movies, etc. Easy enough, since you can log into iTunes with a different Apple ID than the ones you use for iCloud in general. There are lots of references to this on the web. Note that it’s all or nothing. I don’t know of a way to share purchased Books with Person A but purchased music with Person B. In my house, I share all iTunes purchases with my wife and younger son (since we buy his apps for him), and share Kindle purchases with my older son (since we read similar stuff). The older son has his own iTunes account for his app purchases, which is a disadvantage in that he ends up re-purchasing some stuff.

Documents, Bookmarks: those, we don’t want to share. We each want our own iCloud syncing for those, just for our devices or login IDs.

Ok, that’s what I want to do. Now let’s get it done. Apple doesn’t make this quite straightforward enough, and in fact there are caveats I had to work around (weird side effects and bugs). I’ll just jump to how I solved the situation, so you don’t have to mess around with the non-workable solutions.

 

beware! there be dragons here!

Be a bit careful if you find yourself deleting existing accounts from your Mac. The alerts in Lion are pretty good about telling you what’s going on, but it’s best if you take your time and read them if you’re inexperienced. You don’t want to lose or duplicate data. The good thing is, when you’ve got iCloud sync’ing turned on, you’re not really losing your data, just removing it from a particular device.

There’s a worse problem that you can run into though, and that is Merging data. For instance, if Fred and Ethyl have copies of an address book rather than a shared address book, you could easily end up Merging two address books into a single master address book and have a ton of duplicate data. I suggest you avoid doing this, or else prepare to comb through the data and get rid of the garbage. It can be messy.

Either way, I hope you’re using Time Machine to do backups to a local Time Capsule or an external drive. If so, even the nastiest problems can be recovered and fixed, though some of these problems may require a call to Apple tech support, since restoring an entire Address Book from a backup can be tricky.

 

multiple iCloud accounts on your Macs

The key to using iCloud to solve the family problem above is to create multiple iCloud accounts. The magic of course is in creating the right ones, and sharing them in the right way. Since every iOS device, or every Mac account has to have a “master” iCloud account, and only the “master iCloud account” on a device can do some types of sync like Documents, Back to My Mac, and Find My Device, it’s important to set up an independent “main” one properly for each device.  [Note: you can have multiple user login accounts on a single Mac of course, though not currently on a single iOS device like a phone or iPad. In that case, each Login account can have a separate master iCloud account associated with it]

Basically, we’re going to create iCloud accounts that match each person, and optionally an iCloud account that has non-person data that’s intended to be shared. Something like this:

  • Fred’s devices (your devices) have accounts that look like this:
    • iCloud.Fred (Fred’s master iCloud account)
    • iCloud.Ethyl (Ethyl’s master iCloud account, which is a secondary account on Fred’s devices)
    • iCloud.Shared (Optional. Shared iCloud data that Fred and Ethyl both edit but neither “owns.” This may be useful if there are lots of you, as in a larger family)
  • Ethyl’s devices would then look like this:
    • iCloud.Ethyl (Ethyl’s iCloud account is the primary one on her devices)
    • iCloud.Fred (Fred’s is now a secondary iCloud account on Ethyl’s devices) *
    • iCloud.Shared (again, optional. Would be present as secondary iCloud accounts on both devices, as well as on the devices of their kids, little Ricky and Lucy, and the twins Ethanol and Methanol)

In the rest of this post, when I talk about You, I’m talking about Fred. And vice versa. Your name is now Fred. You’ll need to do your own paperwork to have it changed legally. Different blog post.

Regarding the icloud.Shared account idea: I don’t currently do this myself, but I might if I want my kids to have access to only a limited subset of our Address Book list.

* At the bottom of this post is an even simpler version, which will make more sense after you read through the rest of the post!

Since you’ll be creating multiple iCloud accounts, you’ll need to keep them straight. I did this by editing them on my Mac and renaming them things like “iCloud.fred” and “iCloud.ethyl” and “iCloud.shared” and so forth. You don’t have to rename them like “iCloud.Fred” or some such, but you’ll be much less confused if you follow a naming standard like that and keep it the same everywhere.

If you have already set up iCloud, you can make changes to your account or add secondary accounts, rename them, etc. If not, you can follow along below.

Do this on a Mac: go to Preferences>Mail, Contacts & Calendars. In the screenshot below you can see I’ve got a bunch of accounts set up, including two iCloud accounts.

The first iCloud entry is my main one on my Macs and iOS devices. If you looked at my wife’s account, iOS devices, etc., you’d see the second one showing up as the main entry for her (and mine as secondary). Just like Fred and Ethyl in the example above.

If you were to click the one I’ve named “iCloud.doug…” you’d see this:

Note I’m sync’ing Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Bookmarks, Photo Stream (which I don’t really use yet but what the heck), and Documents. Essentially, everything.

Here’s the rub, though: my Calendar and Address Book (the ones synced into the iCloud.doug account) list basically contain nothing at all. The Address Book list only has one contact in it: my own. This way I can open my contacts list, choose myself and in the Card menu, choose “Make this my card.” That’s important, so that my devices will know who I am. On a Mac, that info appears to be used all over the place (login screen, IM name, etc.) so it’s important that you have at least that one Address Book entry. You can add more, of course. I could put any me-specific addresses there, like my business contacts that don’t need to clutter up our family contacts list.

Note the “Details…” button. Click it and set the Description to be something more than “iCloud”–as I noted, I use something like “iCloud.doug” so I can keep my various iCloud accounts easily differentiated. This doesn’t change any functionality; it just helps you keep the iCloud accounts visually separate.

So this is now my main iCloud account. I could have set it up in Preferences>iCloud just as easily, but you can’t set up the secondary iCloud accounts in that Preferences pane.

To reiterate: the important thing here is that your Master iCloud account (the one showing up in the iCloud preferences pane, and the first one you set up on your iOS devices) is yours and yours alone.

Now to create a second iCloud account. Back in the Mail, Contacts & Calendars preferences, click the “+” button to add another account, and add another iCloud account. You’ll need an Apple ID, but you can create one here if you don’t already have a second one. This second iCloud account will be secondary for me, and primary for another member of my family. I’ll call it “iCloud.marci” (my wife’s name; you may be married to someone else for all I know. From my website traffic, most access to this blog comes from SpamBots in Russia. No idea about spambot love).

For that second iCloud account, you want to only sync the data you wish to share. Mostly that’s going to be the Contacts list (a.k.a. Address Book), though it could also be the Calendar. In my case, all I’m sharing from my wife’s iCloud account (on my Macs and iOS devices) is the Contacts list. And if I wanted us to have a separate shared Contacts list that neither of us ‘owned’ (family and shared friends, for instance) then that’s the only one I’d be linking to as Secondary.

Make sense?

Caveat: since you can only do Photo Stream sync on your primary iCloud account, you can’t take sync from Fred’s iOS devices (for instance) to Ethyl’s computer. In my case this makes Photo Stream non-useful, since on our main Mac, my wife’s login is where we keep our shared iPhoto repository. So she can use Photo Stream effectively, but I can’t. No big deal right now.

 

multiple iCloud accounts on iOS devices

This works just like on the Mac. Set up your iPad or iPhone with your primary iCloud account first (iCloud.Fred in this example, if you’re Fred), and then go into the Mail, Contacts and Calendars and add the secondary (iCloud.Ethyl) accounts. Set up the “stuff to sync” exactly the same as you did on your Macs, and name the accounts the same way.

All of your devices and logins should look the same from the Accounts standpoint. They should all have your iCloud account as primary, and should all have the same secondary iCloud accounts, and all of the ‘stuff sync’d through iCloud’ should match (unless you want to go off road here and have some reason to keep some data off the iOS devices. That’s fine).

 

setting up shared calendars

I mentioned earlier that I want everyone in my family to have a calendar, but that I want everyone to be able to see how their calendar events overlap. That’s because we’re a family and the folks driving (Fred and Ethyl) need to know the big picture.

There are several ways to solve this with iCloud. The easiest is this: define a person (Ethyl, for instance) who will “own” the master calendar. Then on everyone else’s devices and logins, make sure that Ethyl’s iCloud account is set up as a secondary iCloud account, and that you’re syncing Calendars on that account. Then turn off calendar sync for your primary (Fred) iCloud account. The result should be that when you launch iCal (Mac) or Calendar (iOS) everyone will see (and edit) Ethyl’s calendars. When you look at the Calendars list (there’s a popup at the top left of the app) you’ll only see Ethyl’s iCloud account and her calendars.

But don’t think of this as “Ethyl’s calendar” as you’re really just using her iCloud account to hold the data. There’s no other special ‘ownership’ here. In any iCal account you can set up multiple calendars. Putting the whole family’s into a single account is, for me, much simpler that spreading these out across multiple accounts. Here’s how ours looks:

More about “_not used” later. Don’t Panic!

 

In this case, I’ve also got a Microsoft Exchange account (from work) sync’ing into iCal. This lets me (or my wife) see my work calendar if needed, to avoid overlaps when scheduling family events.

But the important thing is to see that we’ve set up multiple color-coded calendars in a single iCloud account: Family (stuff we’re doing either all at once, or with several of us), a schedule for each individual, and an “Other” category (other events, folks coming to town, etc.).

The nice thing about this is that each of us can check or uncheck (hide and show) these calendars separately on our devices. So my son B can show only his schedule and the family schedule if he wants.

 

Because iCloud doesn’t care who ‘owns’ the calendar, we can all have this calendar as a Secondary iCloud account on our devices, and we’ll all have the same access to it, sync’d through the cloud. In practice, I have the calendar on my wife’s iCloud account, but I could have set up a third iCloud account just for the calendars and Address Book as I’d noted before).

Caveat: we can all edit the entire calendar. It hasn’t been a problem, but if there’s a “view only” method here so that Ethyl can see but not alter Fred’s calendar, I haven’t needed to look for it. There’s probably something in Delegate preferences that would do this, but I haven’t bothered.

 

finishing up shared calendar setup

The issue with the approach above is that iCloud.Fred (your account) can’t have a totally empty Calendar. You need to have at least one calendar, even though you don’t need to put any events in it. Above, you can see I named mine “_not used,” and it’s un-checked. It’s literally not used.

This lets me utilize the iCloud.Fred account (or in my case, iCloud.doug) for the one thing that is unique to my calendar though: Reminders. I don’t share a task list with Ethyl, I want my own. So as far as iCloud is concerned, I’m syncing two calendars (Fred’s and Ethyl’s), but the only data I’m putting in my own calendar is my Reminders (tasks).

I set that up in iCal by hiding the task lists that aren’t mine (top right of iCal):

…and by making sure that any new Reminders go into my Reminders list using iCal>Preferences:

Caveat: iCal is kinda stupid at present with iCloud, and doesn’t show the customized iCloud names. I’ve gotten around that here by naming my Reminders lists “Reminders-DSB” in a similar way that I named my iCloud accounts, so that Fred’s reminder list is a different name than Ethyl’s. Just helps to keep them straight.

 

another way to set up shared calendars

I’m no longer using this, but…

There’s another way to share calendars, and that’s to mark a calendar as Shared within iCal. You then “Subscribe” to that calendar on another Mac. This feature has been around for a while, and lets you share calendars either privately or publicly. I suppose you could use this to share some but not all calendars out of an account (as opposed to the method I shows above, which would share all calendars in an account). Frankly, I think the method above is more straightforward and feels more secure. Not sure if it is or not, but it seems easier to me.

To share a specific calendar in iCal (e.g. “Doug Schedule” in the screenshot above) is easy, as there’s a Share option in iCal and plenty of documentation on the Mac or online about it. This is actually the first method I used to get my calendars shared, but I’m going away from it now so that everything’s done through iCloud accounts as shown here. It’s just more straightforward.

Why would you use this Share Calendar/Subscribe to calendar method? I suppose if I wanted someone else (my mom, for instance) to see one of our calendars, I could Share that calendar and then Subscribe to it on her Mac. I haven’t needed to do this, but there ya go.

 

Contacts/Address Book

Contacts (iOS) and Address Book (Mac) (isn’t that so non-Apple, naming the same things differently? C’mon, Apple!) have one caveat here: if you want to have more than one contact list, so that Fred has some contacts and Ethyl has other contacts, you need to know that the Contacts/Address Book apps will show you the set of both Fred+Ethyl, but when looking at “All Contacts” you can’t visually tell whether a given contact is in Fred’s list or Ethyl’s.

Worse, when adding a new contact, it’s not obvious whether you’re adding it to Fred’s list or Ethyl’s. My suspicion is that you’ll always be adding a contact to the primary iCloud account on your device whenever you’re looking at a sum of both lists, but I haven’t checked to see for sure.

At any rate, think about this when you add new contacts. Luckily, it’s easy (on Mac, anyway) to copy these around if you mess up, by looking at the Groups view of the Contacts list. Then you’ll be able to see the accounts separately and move contacts from one list to another.

I get around this problem because we currently only have a single contacts list, so in my Mac Address Book preferences, I tried disabling my own iCloud account:

BUG ALERT: However, when I did that, I found that the Mac was seeing only one user labeled “Me”–my wife, who had herself correctly labeled as “Me” on her iCloud-sync’d address book–and that was causing my Mac to call me “Marci” in the Messages app, in IM apps, and in the log-in screen, as well as using her picture instead of mine.

So I re-enabled the checkbox above, and made sure that her picture was correctly associated with her name (on her account) in Address Book, while my picture was correctly associated with my name (on my account) in Address Book.

Here’s what this looks like in Address book, when you view all of the accounts:

I shortened the picture, hence the gray band. All of our saved Groups of addressees–invite lists, etc.–normally show there.

 

I’ll need to make sure that any new addresses I add get moved over into the ‘shared’ address book (her iCloud account) if I want her to be able to see them. Since she is usually the one to add new people (she’s far more likable than me) this isn’t a big deal, and making corrections is easy.

In the future, Apple might make this easier to deal with. Let’s hope.

 

finishing up: set up your iOS devices

Remember that I’d said that Fred’s iOS devices should have the same iCloud sync settings as Fred’s Macs (or Fred’s Mac login accounts if you share computers with Ethyl)? Once I set things up the same way (same accounts in the system settings, same stuff sync’d in each account), I’m able to use my Calendars,  Contacts and Reminders on all of my iOS devices (iPhone, iPad) just like on the Mac. I’m not bothering with screen shots, but essentially it’s similar end results:

Fred’s Calendar app shows the calendars from Ethyl’s iCloud account (the dummy “_not used” calendar is unchecked). Settings on the iOS device determine what calendar new events get added to, so that’s under Fred’s control.

Fred’s Contacts list shows the sum of Fred+Ethyl’s calendars (or just Ethyl’s if you set things up to have a single master contact list)

Fred’s Reminders app shows only Fred’s reminders.

 

how does this work with FaceTime and Messages, etc?

Just dandy. Since you/Fred has got your own iCloud account, use that one to register your account with FaceTime, Message, etc. and you’re good to go on each device or Mac login.

 

Hope this helped somebody. It’ll at least help me, next time I need to set this stuff up!

I’d love to see comments and questions. Have at it!

—–

postscript: an even simpler setup

Now that you understand all this gobbledygook, here’s a simpler setup you can use if you are mostly concerned about two people sharing data, and you’re willing to have one of the accounts ‘own’ everything. This is the most similar to my own setup at present.

In this setup, Ethyl’s accounts are the “main” iCloud accounts where the calendars and contacts are stored:

  • Fred’s devices (your devices) have accounts that look like this:
    • iCloud.Fred (Fred’s master iCloud account)
    • iCloud.Ethyl (Ethyl’s master iCloud account, which is a secondary account on Fred’s devices)
  • Ethyl’s devices look like this:
    • iCloud.Ethyl (Ethyl’s iCloud account is the primary one on her devices)
    • no other iCloud accounts are need for Ethyl’s devices, because all of the calendars and contacts are already in her iCloud. That’s what makes this one simpler!

So here, only Fred (and additional users like Ricky and Lucy) would need more than one iCloud account on their iOS devices. Ethyl, the data owner, would only need her own.

 

hook up xbox to HDMI with analog audio output

I recently bought myself an XBox 360, and intended to hook it up to my HDTV for high-def video, and to my stereo for audio.

But my stereo is old, and doesn’t accept HDMI inputs. And my high-def TV doesn’t have audio output. So I needed two separate cables out of the XBox: one for video (the HDMI cable) and one for audio (analog 2-channel would do).

It never occurred to me that the XBox couldn’t do this, as I knew that it had several outputs on the back. I did know that an HDMI cable didn’t come with the XBox, but I had an extra one already. However, when I opened the XBox box, I found a couple of F-You’s from our pals at Microsoft:

First, the XBox came with a nonstandard “weird cable” adapter that goes from the XBox’s Weirdo Port (some elongated thing that I’m sure Microsoft has a name for but I’ve never seen before) to analog audio (left and right RCA cables, which is exactly what I needed for my stereo) plus crappy analog RCA video, which is useless and won’t allow for high def (or even reasonable video quality).

Secondly, although the XBox had both the Weirdo Port and a standard HDMI video port, these were directly one atop the other on the back of the XBox.

Thirdly, the F-You cable that Microsoft gave me was designed with an unreasonably fat piece of gray plastic at the end which completely covered the HDMI port, preventing me from plugging in both HDMI and Weirdo Port cables at the same time!

Naturally, in a final F-You, Microsoft offered to sell me an upgraded Weirdo Port cable that would split into both HDMI and analog audio. For $50. I should point out that eBay has similar adapters for about $10.

[I should point out that if I had surround sound on this particular system, I would have had to buy one of these adapters, since I’d have needed an optical Toslink connector rather than 2-channel RCA analog cables. But I didn’t need that this time.]

But the heck with it: I figured that since I was going to be stuck with a useless Weirdo Port cable anyway, I might as well take the thing apart and see if I could make it fit with the HDMI at the same time.

Guess what? It worked! If you break off the grey plastic cover at the end of the F-You Weirdo Port cable, the actual metal part is nice and thin, and fits just fine with an HDMI cable. Both can be inserted at the same time, and both ports are completely active. Video goes out the HDMI port, and audio goes out the Microsoft-supplied F-You cable.

Tip for breaking off the gray plastic cover from Microsoft’s cable:

The sides of that hard plastic have a groove. I first tried to wrench them apart with a screwdriver, but that’s a losing proposition. Here’s the really simple way: if you have a vise in your workshop (you DO have a garage workshop, don’t you?) just gently use the vise and you can crack the plastic pieces apart like a walnut shell.

If you don’t happen to have a vise, I bet you could do the same thing with a pair of pliers. Or a few gentle taps with a hammer.

Anyway, you’ll be up and running in a few minutes, and save the money and aggravation.

hook a mac mini to your tv, & remote control everything!

Name Withheld asks,

Hey – I’m considering a Mac Mini to do a home entertainment solution as per your config. A few questions:

• What do you use to connect to your TV screen? Are you happy with the quality? I like the idea of the flexibility provided by a Mac Mini vs Apple TV, but notice that the Mini does not have HD out.

Dear NW,

The Mac Mini can certainly do an HD signal. New ones have two video outputs: you convert either the mini-dvi to HDMI or mini-display port to HDMI. Your best best is probably the mini-display port to HDMI rather than mini-dvi, as that gives a higher resolution (and supports HDCP, which is the horrible copy protection that the industry created in order to make life that much more difficult for people trying to hook up their gear). But they’re both digital signals.

For what it’s worth, I have an older Mini and an older HDTV without enough digital inputs, so I just get 780 rather than full 1080 out of the Mac Mini. It looks great, though.

I don’t believe that the Mini as of this writing (or Apple’s software) puts audio out over the mini-display port, so converting that output to HDMI will only give you video unless that changes. There are, however, solutions for this. There’s a “Kanex” cable from Apogee that, on the Mac side, gets power and audio from the USB port and video from mini-display and converts both of those to a single HDMI. There are probably other adapters like this as well: search for “mini-display plus usb to hdmi.”

But here’s the deal: you only need a cable like this if you want both audio and video over HDMI. That would be appropriate if you intend to put the HDMI cable directly into a TV that has speakers (in general, yuck!). Or if you’re sending the HDMI cable into the back of a stereo receiver.

If, however, you’re running the HDMI cable into a recent stereo receiver, then you probably have several options apart from getting both audio and video over the HDMI cable. You could, for instance, hook a mini phono plug (it’s like mini headphones) into the audio output of the Mac Mini and route that into the stereo. Or better yet, the Mac Mini uses that same audio output for an optical digital signal, which can carry audio over a “Toslink” connector to your stereo and give you 5.1 surround sound. You’ll need a mini-optical to Toslink adapter cable. I found one at Radio Shack.

One good reason to go from the Mini to a stereo is so that you can play audio from your Mac through your stereo without having to turn the TV on. I detail some of this in a previous post, and talk more about it below.

* * *

• How do you navigate the UI of the mini on your TV screen? Do you use a keyboard or are you able to navigate with a remote? If a remote, the one that comes with the Mini or something you bought separately?

I can navigate a lot of ways. The Apple Remote (which used to come with the Mac Mini but is now a separate purchase, I believe) is primarily for the Front Row application that comes with Mac OS, but I don’t use Front Row. I have too much audio for that UI, and I don’t like the screensaver.

Rather, I do like Front Row visually, but I’m concerned about burn-in given the type of TV I have. I think they use a different screensaver on Apple TV. The one that Front Row uses has areas of pure white that switch out every 20 seconds or so but nevertheless stay on the same region of the screen. So unless you’ve got a TV that won’t suffer from burn-in (and nearly all of them do), it’s not a solution for hours-at-a-time use in my opinion.

So back to the remote control question:

We have a lot of gear (stereo, Mini, TV, DVR, wii, etc.), so I use Logitech’s Harmony remote. Really excellent way to control everything if you don’t mind spending a while setting it all up. M wouldn’t have been able to do it, but now that I set everything up it’s easy for her and the kids to control it all.

Love the Harmony remote. We have two of them. The new models use Bluetooth and then use a re-broadcaster to convert that to infrared (IR) signals to control your stuff. If you can handle the cable complication this is a good thing, because a universal remote that’s setting up (or turning off) multiple pieces of equipment must otherwise keep pointing at your gear until it finishes sending the slow IR signals. Bluetooth means that you can press the button on the remote and it doesn’t matter where it’s pointing.

Not an issue for me, but my wife and kids sometimes forget and only half of the gear turns off.

So that’s the Harmony universal remote, which I can use to turn on and off everything, control volume, play and pause, etc. There are other ways to control the Mini as well, more directly. What I use depends on what I’m trying to do:

– Wireless mouse to directly access the machine, though often we access it over screensharing from other laptops etc. without ever turning on the TV (for audio, we just need the stereo!). You’ll need a wireless mouse and wireless keyboard, unless you’re going to control the Mac Mini entirely ‘headlessly’ over VNC/screensharing. It can certainly be done, but sometimes something will go wrong with the screensharing (another app will interfere with it, or a system update or something) and you’ll want to access the Mac directly. Hence the keyboard and mouse. I don’t use these very often, though, as a TV isn’t a great computer monitor. Small text that’s perfectly readable two feet from your face becomes really hard to see from a couch.

– Remote (the iPhone app) for playing audio. Again, no need to turn on the TV. I use this constantly. Love it! I can play any audio in my library (thousands of albums), controlled from my iPhone or iPod Touch. Since I have several Airport Express’ in different rooms of my house (all hooked to smaller satellite speakers) I can actually control volume and turn off different sets of speakers, too. All from my iPhone.

– VNC Lite (iPhone App) when I need to screenshare to the Mini. Not usually necessary, since I can get to screenshare from any other computer in the house. But it’s really cool and has come in handy several times.

– Air Mouse (iPhone app) — really cool. Uses the iPhone as a mouse. Since my iPhone is nearly always in my pocket, this is what I often grab when the TV is actually on, rather than using the wireless mouse. In fact, if you carry around an iPhone anyway, and the wireless mouse isn’t an every day thing for you on the Mac Mini, you can avoid the mouse altogether and just use the Air Mouse application. Apple should buy this.

The most minimal setup would be:

– a wireless mouse (or iPhone + “Air Mouse”) and keyboard for when the TV is actually on and you need to access the Mini directly

– “Remote” on the iPhone/iPod Touch to just control what songs or albums are playing

i want the future, now!

Forget the flying car. It was a dumb idea. People can’t drive properly in 2D, and the last thing I want to worry about is some 18-wheeler landing on my head. Pretty sure that’s the last thing I’d have a chance to worry about. Reminds me of a classic joke: What’s the last thing that went through the fly’s head when it hit the windshield of your car?

Its ass.

So, back to the future: where is it? I’m waiting for it. Eagerly.

Where is my water-repellent glass?

Why is that a vertical pane of smooth glass will be strewn with water droplets that’ll stick there until they dry and leave dirty marks? And yet, water will eagerly flow off a nearly horizontal lily pad with no problem. Glass is sticky, but lily pads repel water. Give me Lily Pad glass! I want windshields that don’t need wipers, windows and showers that never need cleaning. While you’re at it, apply the same technology to my drinking glasses. I’m tired of sticking them in the dishwasher. And don’t get me started on toilet bowls.

Where’s my E-Ink wallpaper and changeable paint?

The Amazon Kindle is the first popular e-ink device I’ve seen. And battery life? Pretty darn good. Looks like paper, and you know how efficient paper is about battery usage. But enough already with crummy little e-books. I want e-ink wallpaper. I want to update the design of the walls of my house by clicking a button on my computer and downloading a new appearance to my living room. I want walls that can display photos, screensavers, moving pictures. Black and white, color, you name it. Hurry up, already.

Paint a room? No way, passé. Dial in a new color. A new pattern. Gimme my Mood Room.

Where are Proximity Detecting Door Locks?

The nicer new cars (got one!) are being made with electronic keys. Just keep the key in your pocket, and you can open the door and start the car without using the key, simply because the key is in your pocket (or more accurately, within a certain distance of the door or the steering column). And the cars are smart enough not to let you lock the door if the key is inside the car rather than just outside. So gimme the same thing for the doors to my house. I want to walk up to the front door and have it be unlocked for me–but not for you. But only from the outside of the house. In other words, my door shouldn’t be unlocked if you’re outside and I’m inside. 

I’ll be the one looking through the peep hole and saying, “Go away, cretin, like the restraining order says.”

Why don’t my networks network?

I’ve got a bluetooth phone, a couple of WiFi networks, bluetooth in my car. Why can’t these things all talk to each other? Why can’t my car navigation system use the bluetooth connection to talk to my iPhone and give me real-time traffic updates? Why doesn’t my car play music and tell me what the songs are by the same mechanism? Use bluetooth to run my iPhone as a modem and get info from the web.

Why? Because nobody wants to bother, and they’ve all got walled gardens, that’s why. Irritating.

Speaking of bluetooth, why can’t I buy decent-quality networked devices for the home that use WiFi or bluetooth to create an auto-configuring network and communicate in useful ways? Here’s an example: I want to buy a new window that incorporates smart glass and electronically opaque to cut down light or completely go opaque at night. The electricity for this should come from solar cells embedded in the frame, and a smart network should enable the window to be controlled by other devices on my network. Say, software on my computer for instance, or in an Internet cloud.

Why isn’t my computer display 3D?

I’ve got a camera in my monitor. I’ve got face recognition software in my cheap pocket camera. Why doesn’t my computer camera see my face and know where my eyes are? [Hint: they’re in the upper part of my face!] If my computer knew where my eyes were, it could simulate a 3D user interface or 3D game without glasses. As I moved my head, the 3D effect would change.

Ok, it’s not the same, because the image wouldn’t be stereoscopic (each eye would see the same image at the same angle). But it’d be better than what we’ve got now.

Where’s the blue pill?

What happened to the pill that would completely prevent allergies? How about all of those cures for cancer? Seems to me that once a month I’ll read a news report about some amazing new discovery that’s a few years of trials away from curing death, and then…nothing. What’s happening to all of these discoveries? Are all the trials failing, resulting in the deaths of innumerable nuns and orphans?

Speaking of death, what’s up with that? Where are the longevity pills? C’mon already, our DNA has been sequenced and I’m not getting any younger.

What are you waiting for?

set up an iTunes based whole-house music server

Ok, this is crazy tweaky techy stuff, but I’ve put together a whole-house music and video system that’s working amazingly well. Apple based, but you could do most of this with iTunes for Windows as well, though you’d have a harder time setting up screen sharing (still possible; I’ve got it working) and automatic backups. One thing that makes this nice is that since it’s all off-the-shelf and wireless, it works in my old house. Ain’t no hard-wired networking here.

I have been quite happy with this setup, built up over time:

  • TiVo Series 3 for HD DVR. I added a larger hard drive. A recent update lets me stream Netflix movies to my TiVo. Not bad quality, either. Only problem with TiVo, apart from having to pay quite a bit for it, is that my cable cards don’t let me get OnDemand. I believe that limitation no longer exists for the newest models. But I’d rather pay for TiVo than continue to be stressed out by hating Comcast’s comparatively horrendous DVR.
  • Comcast cable for HD and Internet, though I always want faster internet. I may switch to fiber-optic soon, as I’m not thrilled with the “you never know what you’re going to get” speed of my cable modem. Middle of the night? Blinding fast. Middle of the afternoon? Not much better than DSL.
  • Mac Mini with 1TB external drive as iTunes media server, hooked to my stereo and TV. If I was going to start over, I’d consider using a Drobo for its nicely designed RAID system. I was using a software RAID, but I’ve had some problems with my Mac Mini with that, and dropped the RAID since I’ve got other backup. I’m nervous about it, though.
  • Any Mac on my network can fully operate that Mac Mini without my having to turn on the TV, because of the terrific and simple-to-use screen sharing feature in Leopard (10.5). You can enable this in the System Preferences. Wonderful feature, and works incredibly well.
  • Apple Time Capsule backs up the Macs on the network, including my iTunes server. Also gives me a fast 802.11.n network, which is a heck of a lot better than the 802.11.g that it replaced (and that was better than 802.11.b). Much better coverage. I actually kept my older Airport gear as well, and in order to get the best network reach and speed, I just run two separate networks: an “n” and a “b/g”. I believe this works better than a combined “n/b/g” arrangement, and it makes it easy to get rid of the older “b/g” once I ditch the last machine that requires the older protocol.
  • Airport Express wireless repeaters in other rooms broadcast music (not video) from my Mini/iTunes to stereos in other rooms. Also extends my network. I’ve got two of these plugged into other stereos: one in the bedroom and one in my office (plugged into the same speaker setup I use for my office computer). This lets me play music (in sync) in multiple rooms at once.
  • As another benefit, if you’ve got other computers, I can alternatively use the Sharing feature of iTunes to play my music server’s music through a different iTunes on a different computer. This isn’t the same as using Screen Sharing to control my music server: the former will let me play different songs in different rooms; the latter lets me broadcast (push) the same music to multiple rooms in the house.
  • iPhone or iPod Touch can control iTunes on my Mac Mini as well as turn on/off any speakers connected to Airport Express on my network. This is amazingly cool. I can use my iPhone (with the free Remote app from Apple) to choose music and start it playing. Use it nearly every night when we all sit down to dinner. Dial up some dinner music. In the morning? Essentially it does what Screen Sharing does (full control over the iTunes on my music server Mac Mini), but fits in my pocket.
  • Logitech Harmony remote controls everything, so the entire system (TV, TiVo, Stereo, Mac Mini, etc.) has a single remote and one-button functions. The Harmony remote took a while to set up and program, but it was well worth it. Otherwise I’d have 10 different remotes.

What’s missing:

  • some method to send HD video from one source (iTunes, TiVo) to a remote destination (TV in another room). I could do this with Apple TV or Slingbox, or with some TiVo content, but it hasn’t really been necessary.
  • a really good Mac screensaver that avoids burn-in on my TV but also moves the current song metadata and album art randomly around the TV screen. I found one freebie that was perfect but too buggy with Leopard. But in reality, the fact that I now have easy access to my Mac Mini iTunes server from any Mac in the house (via screen sharing) or from my pocket (via iPhone) means that this isn’t much of an issue. I rarely display my Mac Mini on the attached TV now.

Guess I should put up some sort of diagram to make this all clear, but right now nobody’s asking.

UPDATE: I answer more questions about hooking up a Mac Mini to a TV and remote-controlling the Mini here.

http://www.dsbenson.com/