You’ve gone through the effort of ripping all your CDs and DVDs, you’ve hooked up the Mac to your TV and Receiver, but how do you plan to control the computer now that you’re sitting on your couch?  Below are a few different suggestions for how to control your Mac Mini HTPC (home theater PC).  The “best” option really depends on your needs, but I’ll try to help guide you through the options.

Keyboard and Mouse

Apple Wireless KeyboardThe Apple Wireless Keyboard is a great option if you NEED to have a keyboard in the living room.  The Mac Mini does not come with a keyboard, so if you’re going to pick one up, this is a good way to go.  Because the Apple Wireless Keyboard uses bluetooth, you get a decent range and the Mac doesn’t need to be in “line of sight” (meaning you can put the Mac Mini in a cabinet or another room).  They keyboard is a bit bulky to use primarily for navigating through the Plex interface, and the bluetooth can be finicky, but having the full range of keys available to you is great if you use the Mac Mini to browse the internet from your couch.

Tip:  Get to know your keyboard shortcuts and you can do almost everything without a mouse.  My personal favorite: Command-Spacebar — This brings up the “Spotlight Search” tool and you can use it to launch applications by typing the name (autocomplete will assist).  Easy way to pull up Safari, Plex, etc without having to switch to the mouse.

Apple Remote

Apple Remote ControlThe Apple Remote is simple yet surprisingly effective.  Even though it only has 6 buttons, the functions of the remote’s buttons change based on what application or screen you are on.  It is essentially all you need to navigate the most popular Media Center applications (Boxee, Plex, XBMC, and FrontRow), and all of them have built-in support for the Apple Remote immediately.

This remote can also pull double duty as you can toss it with your Apple laptop to control your presentations in Keynote or PowerPoint.  You cannot program any of the remote’s buttons, so what you see is what you get, but for those who don’t like messing around with keyboard and learning-type remotes, this definitely gets the job done.

Universal Remote

Universal Remote with IR BlasterThis one is kinda of cheating, but any programmable remote should be able to learn the commands from the Apple Remote, in fact, several remotes I’ve seen recently already have pre-set commands for the Apple Remote built in.  The universal remote gives you more flexibility and helps prevent the “remote shuffle” where you have a lineup of remotes on your coffee table.  A good Universal Remote will let you control your TV, Receiver and Mac Mini with a single remote.
I tend to prefer the Harmony Remotes from Logitech.  They have a great web interface for setting up all your components and allow you to customize the buttons using a web gui.  Once you’re done, you sync up your remote by connecting it to your computer with a USB cable.
Some of the more advanced remotes come with separate IR blaster base stations.  What these do is allow you to put your Mac Mini in a cabinet or another room with the IR blaster, and the Mac will be able to receive commands from the remote even through walls.  I use a remote from Universal which allows me to put the Mac Mini in a closet with the rest of my electronics and still control everything from the living room.
iPhone
It didn’t take very long for the iPhone App community to realize the iPhone makes a pretty good remote in and of itself.  The iPhone/iPod touch has several advantages:
  • You almost always have it with you
  • It has a rechargeable battery (which I tend to charge nightly)
  • It can work over the local WiFi network so it does not need line of sight.
  • The screen can change based on the device or type of input you are trying to control.
There also a few drawbacks to the iPhone as a remote control
  • The Wifi tends to drop out when you close apps, and can take some time to reacquire
  • If you always have your iPhone with you, how will other people control your system?
  • Some of the user interfaces have buttons that are too small and it is difficult to control by touch alone (you need to look at what you are doing.)
  • It’s not possible (without a lot of money and or time) to control other devices with the iPhone (no IR blaster).  As such, you could end up doing the remote shuffle.
With the above pros and cons, here are some of the Apps I’ve played with.
iPhone-Snatch

Plex remote for SnatchRight now, Snatch is my GoTo app for controlling the Mac Mini with the iPhone.  Snatch requires you install an app on your Mac Mini which must be running at all times.  From there, you can connect to the Mac Mini and use the iPhone as either a touchpad for the mouse, or as wireless keyboard.  Also, a Plex “plugin” has recently been released for Snatch which gives you a very professional looking and feature complete remote for controlling Plex.

For those who are even more creative, Snatch allows you to create your own custom button layouts and mappings.  An interesting premise, but the built-in features plus the Plex skin work fine for me.

View the gallery for more images.

iPhone-AirMote

AirMote is similar to Snatch, but not as flexible.  AirMote comes preconfigured with a handful of remotes for common apps (such as Front Row, Keynote, iTunes, etc).  It also has a very cool interface for creating your own remote which is much easier than Snatch.  However, for the amount of features, I’d stick with Snatch.  For a full review of Airmote, check out the AirMote Review on Lunch.com

iPhone-Boxee

Finally, Boxee for iPhone.  This app rocks!  It still has the same limitations as the other iPhone apps in regards to the Wifi dropping out and not being able to control other devices, but this app alone makes me want to use Boxee (although, overall, I still prefer Plex).  Pictures speak louder than words, so check out my video of the Boxee app on iPhone.

Boxee iPhone App Demo from Andrew Werhane on Vimeo.

If you still want more words, you can check out my full review of the Boxee iPhone App.

Conclusion

That’s about all I’ve got for now.  What do I use?  Honestly, I use my Universal remote as much as possible when navigating Plex (or other Media Center apps).  However, if I need to launch an app or want to look up some stuff on the web, I’ll pull out the iPhone and launch Snatch for the mouse and keyboard functionality.  Snatch is a lot of fun to use, but I feel like there’s got to be a way to make it more efficient (like change the orientation to switch between keyboard and trackpad).  Anyway, your needs may have different priorities.  If I’ve left anything off the list or if you’ve like to share what work for you, please feel free to post in the comments!

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