I've been using a Mac Mini as a media centre since 2007 and am very happy with it. The hardware set-up has expanded during the past few years, including replacing the crappy 4:3 Samsung LCD with a Full HD 42" Sony Bravia LCD (which I adore!) and once I had finally ripped my entire CD collection into iTunes, the CD's were moved into boxes in the basement, freeing up valuable space in the living room. Besides music, the external hard drive is filled with films and series (mostly in DivX format) which the family watches using VLC. The problem with using a computer for all this is that it's hard to find a suitable interface for use while you're lying on the sofa, especially if you don't want to share the sofa with 6 different remotes.
Read on for my experience with quite a few different remote/interface solutions.
Remote app for iPhone (iTunes control)
Remote is a great (free!) app, but to use it you need an iPhone or iPod Touch and a wireless network. If you have those, then I cannot recommend it enough as it puts your entire collection in the palm of your hand and it responds pretty fast.
One of the most obvious choices for a remote when using a Mac. It's perfect for controlling video and music playback if you use FrontRow but I've never really got into using FrontRow as I want to be able to playback DivX video too. The Apple Remote didn't work in VLC until recently, so I never really used it much. Even though it works now, it's still very restricted when it comes to navigating your media, so you always need another gizmo for that.
Logitech Harmony Remote (Universal remote)
I bought this before I had a media centre, quite simply to cut down on the amount of remotes needed for playback of a DVD (TV, DVD player, amplifier, digital set-top box). Now I'm a relatively technical person, but I never succeeded in programming the Harmony remote 100% correctly for my AV setup. There was always something that didn't quite work. So I gave up. I tried programming it again when we got the Mac Mini setup, but again, not 100% and as with the Apple Remote, it doesn't have a mouse function, so that makes navigating the computer close to impossible. Hence the next gadget, a wireless media keyboard.
It's surprisingly hard to find a simple wireless keyboard with integrated mouse in the Netherlands, let alone one that claims to be Mac compatible. This Speedlink is not officially Mac compatible but it works fine (excluding some function keys). However, the build quality is so crappy that the scroll wheel broke within weeks, then the trackball went haywire and finally the whole thing stopped working. When it did work it was great, albeit on the large side for use whilst lying on the sofa. So when searching for a replacement, I tried to find something a little smaller.
Logitech MX Air Mouse
Before the Speedlink keyboard completely died, I splurged on a Logitech MX Air wireless mouse to use in conjunction with the keyboard. The MX Air is a great piece of hardware and it's surprisingly easy to use even though you are controlling the mouse in mid-air rather than on a flat surface. However, I still had to grab the keyboard for certain functions, which was tedious and then of course the keyboard died.
iPhone remote control apps
Where the above mentioned Remote app only access your iTunes library, there are countless apps with which you can control your entire Mac and I have tried quite a few in the meantime. Reviewing them all would warrant a separate post, but I'll name a couple of the ones I tried (iTap, Remote Tap, Air Mouse). My personal favourite is the actually the simplest one: iTap and that's basically because it's faster and more intuitive than the other two.
Remote Tap actually shows you your desktop on your iPhone screen (veeery slooow) which means you can control the Mac even when you can't see the screen. iTap and Air Mouse are purely pointers/keyboards. Air Mouse also has an 'air mouse' mode (not surprisingly) which utilizes the motion sensor in your iPhone and allows you to wave the phone around to move the pointer. It's OK, but nowhere near as good as the Logitech MX Air (a lot cheaper though!)
My main reason for not choosing to use any of these iPhone apps as the sole remote is: SPEED. If you're watching a film and the phone rings (especially if it's your iPhone), you want to pause that film or shut off the sound immediately at the single click of a button. That's basically impossible with these apps: you have to unlock your phone and wake the app and then find the right virtual button. By that time the person ringing you has probably gone to voicemail already.
Incidentally, most of the iPhone apps are also unable to wake the computer from sleep which is also very annoying and means you have to find another interface (like a wired keyboard - duh) to wake up the computer.
I read about the iPazzPort on Roy Tanck's weblog and it appealed to me as it was reasonably priced (around $29) with a trackpad and miniature keyboard in one compact remote. It has an ultra-lightweight, plasticky build, but worked with the Mac Mini straight away and sufficed as the only remote I needed for a while. I got used to the trackpad pretty quickly but never really got used to the keyboard. It's horrendous (in tactile terms and in terms of layout). The SHIFT / FN keys work in mysterious ways which makes it very hard to type in passwords that include numbers and capitals. I could have lived with it though, had the iPazzPort not decided to go flaky on me: the mouse became erratic and would wander over the screen in a different direction than my finger on the trackpad. Admittedly, I think my 1.5 year-old son threw it on the floor a couple of times, so I can't blame it all on the build of the thing, but it wasn't usable anymore unfortunately.
Logitech DiNovo Mini
Desperate for a working keyboard and mouse again, last week I finally decided to buy the crème de la crème of remote keyboards: Logitech's DiNovo Mini. Fortunately it has dropped in price in recent months so I paid €100 for it, which is admittedly pretty steep, but ooooh, it's so beautiful! Logitech makes very clear that they offer no Mac support whatsoever for this product (so why is the computer screen on their DiNovo website sporting a Mac OSX background?), but I'd read on the web that it works with Macs - and it does. The Mac Mini has Bluetooth built in, so theoretically I didn't need to use the supplied Bluetooth dongle, but I did as I couldn't get the computer and the keyboard to pair. Apparently performance is improved by using the dongle too.
And what performance it is! Really fast response. No wake-up time. When you open the lid, the keyboard is responsive immediately. The tiny mousepad is surprisingly easy to use and although typing on such tiny keys is of course never going to be great, it's a Porsche compared to the iPazzPort keyboard. The keys are beautifully back-lit and to my surprise the dedicated volume buttons work too. So my "instant-silence" requirement has been met! The only function that doesn't seem to work is the switch to make the mousepad into a 4-way cursor pad. I can live with that, especially as Logitech made dragging on the DiNovo very easy and intuitive (whilst that simple action can be surprisingly hard to perform on other trackpads and virtual interfaces as you're already dragging your finger to move the cursor).
I do have one small gripe about the keyboard layout, namely that to press ESC you need to use the FN key + TAB together which is really annoying as I tend to use ESC a lot to exit full screen video etc.
The DiNovo Mini wins - hands down.
Admittedly, I've only had it for a couple of days, but I am already in love with it and will be doing my best to keep it well away from my toddler's destructive hands!
Perfect in combination with the iPhone Remote app to control iTunes without having to switch on the media centre screen.
UPDATE: August 1st 2011
It's so easy, even my cat uses it.