An iMac in Every Kitchen, Revisited

February 15th, 2017 — Wordman

A small discussion about my kitchen iMac on G+ a few months ago revealed that it has been over ten years since I first talked about putting a computer in the kitchen. A decade later, I can’t imagine not having a computer in the kitchen, but there have been some upgrades to the setup we use. For those who want to try something like this, hopefully you can avoid some of the trial and error we went through.

Hardware

Kitchen iMacWe continue to use an iMac, though we’ve gone through a couple iterations since the previous post. The iMac design has refined down to now being a flat panel screen with a computer hidden inside, which works great for a kitchen, when you don’t want stray hardware and cables all over the place. Our current model is several years old (late 2013, 21.5-inch, 3.1GHz i7). With this particular model, however, we wanted to mount it on a wall mounted swinging arm. We have remodeled the kitchen, and the machine is no longer in a corner. Instead, part of the counter extends into something like a table/island. A swinging arm allows the iMac to be reoriented depending on use in various ways, and always keeps the computer floating off the table. The remodel also allowed us to run CAT-6 ethernet cable into the kitchen, freeing the kitchen machine from the vagaries of wifi.

Apple doesn’t make them easy to find, but they sell a variant iMac with a built in VESA Mount instead of a stand. Pretty much any wall mount, desk mount, articulating arm, etc. follows the VESA standard, so you can tailor your mounting choice to your kitchen. Note that iMacs keep getting bigger and bigger screens, so it’s not clear how long Apple will continue to sell models that fit under cabinets.

We went wireless for the keyboard (the only computer in the house to do so). In a kitchen environment, typical mouse solutions get gummed up quickly, so the Magic Trackpad turned out to be a really good fit. One thing that helped way more than we expected was Henge Docks Clique, a simple plastic mount that holds the keyboard and trackpad together as a single unit. It also has the advantage of shielding them both from spills on the counter. It also lets you easily use it on your lap, if you want to. (Note that there is a new version for dealing with Apple’s latest keyboard/trackpad, which we do not have.)

We get brownouts fairly often, so we still use an uninterruptible power supply, but with a machine floating on a swing arm, finding one that doesn’t take up the whole counter presented a challenge. We tried a couple of things, but I eventually found the Powercom E-Book EBK-500S, a battery backup system that can be mounted under a kitchen cabinet. This has worked great but is presently hard to find, listed as out of stock in most places. The batteries in my unit needed replacing once, but fortunately are pretty standard and easily swapped.

Drive behind the iMacWe keep some hard-to-replace stuff on this machine, so it has a dedicated backup drive. We futzed with this a lot, but have recently settled on a Seagate Backup Plus Slim 2TB USB-powered drive. With a case on it, it fits snugly into a gap in the VESA mount behind the iMac, hiding the cabling. We dedicate the whole drive to be a Time Machine disk.

Software & Use

Somewhere along the way, we gave up on the “kiosk” features mentioned in the decade old post, but still care about the other use cases it mentions. The machine’s primary job is to be a central place for family photos and music, and where iPods and such get synced.

Pictures

Over the last few years, nearly all of Apple’s Mac applications have suffered a transition to a more iOS-like user experience. This is nowhere more evident and painful than in the transition from iPhoto to Photos, wherein a number of features we counted were either eliminated or altered to require using iCloud. We very much want the kitchen machine to be the central place to store all the family photos, but refuse to put our pictures in the cloud.

Though we looked around for alternatives, we continue to use Photos, but only because it has matured a little since its original release and we found some additional software that makes it work for us: PhotoSync. Versions of this application are made for macOS, iOS, Android and Windows and they all allow the device that is running them to sync (in various ways) to other devices running the app. The iOS version makes good use of geofencing features, and can be set up to automatically sync pictures from a phone or other device each time the phone enters the house.

PhotoSync can duplicate photos, especially if you do manual re-imports, though it has gotten better about this recently. Still, removing duplicates is something that Photos will not do for you. PhotoSweeper will, though. In the tradeoff between usability and power, it leans more toward power, but definitely gets the job done. Totally worth the money. It can also deal with Aperture and Lightroom.

Music

Music has faded in importance to us over the years. Some of this is because we now can count the minutes in our commutes to work on one hand, and tend not to listen to it once at work. A number of years ago, we paid Ripstyles to digitize our several hundred CDs, and our collection hasn’t grown that much since. The kitchen machine provides a great place to manage our merged musical tastes, rather than managing separate libraries on laptops or something.

Plain old iTunes has been sufficient for handling all this, without the need for anything else (or Apple Music). When we remodeled the kitchen, I wish I’d thought ahead enough to install some speakers into the ceiling. Instead we use a USB speaker bar, mounted under the cabinets. Not the best, but works well enough.

More often, we use AirPlay to pipe music to other rooms, particularly nighttime music into our son’s room. During parties, the kitchen machine streams to multiple Apple TVs in the house, usually controllable by phone with (the somewhat twitchy) Remote app.

Video

You could use a kitchen machine as a video hub, but we don’t. The main limitation is that the iMac drives tend to be small (especially a few years back, when SSDs were just getting going). If you have one more more Apple TVs (we have collected a handful), you can use their “Computers” app to stream video from shared iTunes libraries on the local network. So, the idea would be to load up iTunes with your movies, set up sharing, and then stream to any Apple TV or iTunes instance in the house.

We actually follow this model, we just don’t use the kitchen machine as the hub. (The video hub is in a rack in the attic, connected to a multi-terabyte RAID, but that’s probably a different post.) What we do use the kitchen machine for is to stream video to watch. You can also stream Netflix and so on. I have toyed with installing stuff like Plex, but haven’t really caught the fever for it.

Sync

A large source of frustration, trial and error over the last ten years has been syncing information to and from the kitchen machine. We’ve tried various syncing applications, rsync jobs, Dropbox hacks and so on, but it never really worked all that well. Then BitTorrent Sync came out (now renamed to Resilio). It works exactly the way we want it to, works seamlessly and has given us no real problems. It even syncs Mac file metadata, such as tags. (One caveat: do not share the root of a Mac drive, as this really confuses the software.)

On the kitchen machine, we share both the Photos archive and iTunes library as read-only shares, allowing them to be backed up in multiple places (including the aforementioned machine in the attic). We also share some directories for specific purposes (such as a common wallpaper directory).

Calendars and contact information have also been troublesome over the years, but this is one area where Apple’s family sharing is finally useful. We have a family id (used by the kitchen machine) and individual ids for each family member. This lets each person have both private and shared calendars. Lots of planning discussion now happens around the kitchen machine, as it displays all the shared calendars.

Reference

One thing a machine in the kitchen helps with is going paperless. Any time we get something with a manual (an appliance, device, tool, toy, etc.) we download a copy of the manual to a “Manuals” directory (shared by Resilio) and recycle the paper manual. So, the kitchen becomes the goto place for instructions. And, since there is an iOS client for Resilio, you can do things like easily find the manual for your camera while on vacation.

A cooking database also fits on a kitchen machine naturally. We had the best luck with SousChef, right up until it collapsed, moved to other developers, then vanished off the face of the earth. So, we’ve gone back to MacGourmet Deluxe, which has improved over the last decade (but still isn’t as good as SousChef was).

Naturally, the web browser gets quite a bit of use on the kitchen machine for looking up various stuff, checking the weather, and so on.

It occurs to me writing this that I really should move my Calibre and Delicious Library data to the kitchen machine as well.

Lists

Managing the grocery list comes naturally to a kitchen machine, but it gets complicated with getting the list to people’s phones and so on. Fortunately, there has been a lot of development in this area over the last few years. We experimented with a lot of it, but made the change to OneNote a while back, and haven’t seen any reason to stop yet. (Tangentially, I’ll also mention that Microsoft’s Mac software, after falling far from the glory that was Word 5.1a and Outlook Express, is now quite nice again.)

The Future

Given that we planned a computer into our kitchen remodel, it should come as no surprise that as long as I have a kitchen, I’ll have a computer it in. It remains to be seen how much longer Apple will make iMacs that still fit under kitchen cabinets (screens seem to get larger with every iteration). As my son gets older, it will also be interesting to see if/how the demands on the machine change. What would you use a kitchen machine for that we missed?

Seeking Mac advice

January 7th, 2009 — Wordman

The iMac in my kitchen has flaked out and evidence suggests that parts of the logic board are fried. Though the board could be replaced, basically it’s time upgrade to something else (it is a PowerPC machine, after all). I’m struggling with what to replace it with, however, and am soliciting advice from readers.

This machine acts as the central hub for the house, so is our main media repository. It also hosts the sorts of information you might normally track using paper, magnets and a refrigerator: shopping lists, calendars, sticky notes, and so on. It’s also the recipe database and cooking timer. I should also mention that I will probably be redoing my kitchen soon, so the exact height between the counter and the bottom of my cabinets might change slightly.

Here are my main contenders for a replacement:

A 20-inch iMac: This is the obvious choice, but for for one glaring problem: it’s about a half-inch taller than the space under my cabinets, so it will not fit as is. There is, however, quite a bit a clearance between the bottom of the machine and the bottom of the stand stand, so it would definitely fit if I took the stand off. I could then mount it to the wall on an articulated arm, which would actually be quite helpful. Unfortunately, the 20-inch iMac doesn’t include standard mounting brackets on the back. Apple does make a bracket for the 24-inch model, but this wouldn’t fit even without the stand. So it looks like I need to use a custom solution, making use of this third party bracket and then, because this leaves the stand in place, cut a good bit of my stand off with a metal saw. (Further, as I understand it, getting the stand off of this model iMac is very involved, and certainly voids the warranty, so I might need to saw the thing while it’s still connected to the machine.) I was hoping that MacWorld 2009 might feature an iMac revision with a VESA mount, but no such luck.

  • Pros: powerful, one unit (i.e. not as many cables running amok), sexy.
  • Cons: setup that is complex, annoying and risky

A Mac mini and VESA mounted LCD. In this case, I would mount the mini upside down to the bottom of the cabinet, and use an articulated arm to mount the LCD. With choices of vendors, I could certainly find a VESA mountable monitor, so the labor wouldn’t be a problem. The issue here is that while I was hoping for an iMac rev, I was flat out expecting a revision of the mini during MacWorld. The current version was released in August 2007, and was only a very minor improvement to the version released in February 2006. While they are fairly cheap, buying 18-month-old tech is not a great idea, especially a product line that might be canceled soon (or mutated into something very different, like an AppleTV/Mini hybrid). This counters one of the mini’s largest advantages in such a setup: that you could keep the same monitor and just swap in new minis as the tech curve advances. Since Apple doesn’t seem that interested in the mini, that advantage instead changes to the bummer of basing the whole thing on a concept that isn’t sustained. The biggest problem with the mini, though, is that the hard drive in the current models just isn’t large enough to be a media center. While it’s possible to upgrade the drive, it’s a pain.

  • Pros: cheap, potentially upgradeable, easy setup, monitor choice allows more flexibility (such as also using it for TV, speakers, etc.)
  • Cons: old tech, uncertain future, underpowered, extra cables

A mounted Modbook Pro. These were introduced at MacWorld 2009. Since Apple is never going to make their own tablets, this is the only way to get a tablet right now. (An iPhone with a bigger screen won’t count, and Apple might never make that either.) New to this model is the addition of a touch interface, to go along with the pen input of the previous model (or a bluetooth keyboard). In some ways, the pen input is a natural fit for a kitchen, and the touch is even more so. It would also be nice to pull it from the mount to use as a tablet on occasion. A drawback, in addition to the cost, are that it would be a step down in screen size, though this might not be the end of the world. The other problem is that I can’t tell if it is VESA mountable or not. The old one was not, but Axiotron claimed to be working on a bracket for Q3 2008 that would allow VESA mounting, though they have yet to deliver it. There hasn’t been much coverage of the Modbook Pro so far, so I’m hoping for more mounting information.

  • Pros: touch interface, could be unmounted and used as portable
  • Cons: expensive, smaller screen than current iMac, uncertain mounting, not available until the summer

Other possibilities exist, but aren’t as palatable to me. A small form-factor hackintosh, for example, could be done similarly to the setup mentioned for the mini. It’s not clear how long hackintoshes will remain possible, though, and I’m not sure I want to be bothered setting one up. (Also, I’ve been counting on the purchase of a new Mac to provide an upgrade to iLife, which I would otherwise need to buy.)

What would you do? Are there other choices? And what kind of VESA arm should I get?

An iMac in every kitchen

August 24th, 2005 — Wordman

Corners of kitchen counters have always bugged me. Not many things fit into them in a useful way. About the same time I was getting obsessed with the uselessness of my own kitchen corner, I realized that I had a spare iMac lounging around. Since I have a wife who a) is even more of a gadget freak than I am and b) said the magic word (“whatever”), I put the machine to work in the kitchen. After having done a bit of work on this machine, it’s always-twitchy power supply finally gave up for good and the experiment ended.

Then something strange happened: we really began to miss the little dude. We kept reflexively going over to where it used to be to use it. The kitchen was suddenly sadder. We hadn’t realized it, but we’d actually been using the machine quite a bit. Clearly, we had no choice but to buy a brand new 17″ iMac G5 (now the fastest machine in the house). We considered a 20″, but nixed the idea as being…excessive (and, it turns out the 20″ wouldn’t have fit under the cabinets anyway). The machine came quickly and was easily set up (note that the machine hides the big black UPS that is behind it pretty well):

Kitchen iMac

But what can you possibly use such a thing for anyway? Ours pulls the following duties:

Pictures

We have five other Macs in the house and three digital cameras. We were going a bit nuts trying to keep our photo albums in sync. With the kitchen machine, we now just put everything on it, using it as a master photo archive. Since iPhoto can publish to the local network, we can view our shots from any machine in the house. In doing this, it became necessary to merge several iPhoto libraries together, a daunting task due to iPhoto’s criminally inane handling of dates when importing and exporting. Spending the $20 on the iPhoto Library Manager is money well spent, trust me.

With all our photos on it, the machine also acts as a picture frame, using the screen saver that comes with Tiger to display pictures from iPhoto. We are pretty good about rating our pictures, so have a smart folder in iPhoto that automatically includes any 4- or 5-star shots, and set the screen saver to show those. Believe it or not, when the original iMac died, this was one of the things we missed the most.

Kiosk

Though I would never run a personal machine like this, having the iMac in the kitchen lends itself to showing things like stock tickers, weather updates, news and so on as its primary display mode. Originally, this was done with Konfabulator, but the new machine uses Dashboard. I have to admit that, for personal machine, I don’t get what the big deal with Dashboard is. Most of the widgets seem to just reproduce things you can more easily do with an application. For a kitchen kiosk, though, Dashboard works great. Most of the time, the machine’s screen looks like this:

Screenshot

Key to this is a piece of software that provides functionality that should have been included with Dashboard itself, but wasn’t: the ability to make dashboard appear after a certain amount of idle time. As always, third parties come plug glaring holes in Apple’s products, in this case Dasher. With it installed, the kiosk comes up without having to think about it.

The widgets currently running are:

  • Stocks: Included with Tiger. Tracks stock prices.
  • Calendar: Included with Tiger. Shows the current date and month.
  • iCal Events: Displays upcoming events from iCal
  • TV Tracker: Shows what’s on TV in your area. Not resizable, unfortunately.
  • Marquee: Ugly and a screen real estate hog, but useful, displaying movies playing in your area.
  • Unit Converter: Converts currencies, volumes, you name it.
  • IMDb: A quick movie lookup.
  • News Grab-R: Displays news from various sources.
  • Dictionary: Included with Tiger. A quick word lookup.
  • Phone Book: Included with Tiger. Search the yellow pages.
  • Stickies: Included with Tiger. Jot down things, like shopping lists. This turns out to be a major use of the machine.
  • RPN Calculator: I can never go back to non-RPN calculators now.
  • Weather: Included with Tiger. A five-day forecast for your area, with current condition and temp.
  • iTunes: Included with Tiger. Controls iTunes.
  • VelaClock: A multi-time zone clock. The only widget I’ve paid for.
  • TemorSkimmer: Shows earthquake spots in real time.
  • Radar In Motion: A nearly real-time animation of weather.
  • Sunlit Earth: A realtime map of the sun’s position on the planet.
  • Album Art: Shows the cover art of the album currently playing in iTunes.

Sound

Since not many applications live on this machine, it has a bunch of free space. We’ve been filling this by ripping our CD collection onto it. Like iPhoto, iTunes can publish songs to any machine in the house. It can also play to either of our two AirPort Express stations. We sometimes bring one outside and hook speakers to it.

In setting this collection up, I became momentarily obsessed with attaching cover art to my song files. For some reason, this is much more difficult than it needs to be. Ultimately, I found MPFreaker, a tool that should probably be free, but can charge $20 since this is cheaper than my having to code the equivalent myself. It does a decent job filling in fields missing from your songs, including cover art.

Calendars

While iCal is not the best calendaring system in the world, it is good enough, particularly since it syncs with Palm devices (usually). We run four calendars on the kitchen machine. One contains our work schedules, another contains personal events (parties, appointments, etc.). The other two are frivolous, hosted externally, showing the Denver Broncos schedule and movie release dates.

The best feature of iCal is that you can publish calendars to a WebDAV server, allowing you to subscribe to the calendars from other machines. The trick is finding a WebDAV server. Fortunately, Tiger comes with Apache already installed, and it can be configured to be a WebDAV server. This is a little tricky, and how to do it is best explained elsewhere. It takes a little brain power, but once done, any changes you make on the kitchen machine get published and picked up by the other machines subscribing to the calendar.

Cooking

Given that the main point of a kitchen is to cook, it makes sense to use the iMac there as well. There are a few options here, but we’ve taken to using a recipe and wine manager called MacGourmet. A lot of people swear by Connoisseur as well, but I don’t like its interface as much and it doesn’t handle wine as well.

Sync

The last task for this machine takes advantage of the fact that it runs all the time (and has a large hard drive). It runs various backup and synchronization tasks to various machines in the house. There are a bunch of ways to do this, but Duover seems to be the least painful.

Finally

Naturally, we use the machine’s web browser nearly every day for one thing or another. I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but generally, anything you’ve ever stuck to your refrigerator with a magnet can be done better with a kitchen iMac. Now we just need to manage the clutter of gadgets alongside it.