Mac Mini Mediacenter, Small & Easy HTPC

Using a mac mini mediacenter is one of the smartest move I have made. I have tried many different home theater solutions without being completely satisfied. Loosing a bit of money in the process too, trying out different solutions. Not all of them are free you know …

Many years ago I had the original Xbox, you know the first game console Microsoft released. It was modified so it could run software not originally allowed by Microsoft. For example Xbox Media Center (XBMC). This software allowed me to play almost any kind of media and it worked well with downloaded movies and TV-shows regardless of what type of codec it was encoded with.

This setup worked just fine for a long time. Xbox Media Center was the best media center solution for me. However you needed to have an modified unit but that was quite common in those days.

Fast forward a few years….

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The time came when we got an 50 Inch Plasma TV. TV Shows and movies are becoming available in HD and I want to view the downloaded content in the best quality possible. Most HD content wont play using the original Xbox, the processor just isn’t fast enough. So the search for a new unit to place under the TV begins.

First I tried using the Xbox 360. It worked okay but it was not perfect for me. Then I bought the Apple TV but I wasn’t satisfied with it at all. Even with hacks it could not play the highest resolution HD content. It had a good interface though. If you have all your media in iTunes, the Apple TV might be something for you.

Again, after a while, I found something called Popcorn Hour A-110. The price wasn’t to bad and it worked well with HD content and MKV files straight out of the box. However the interface was slow and it lacks good support for music, at least when I used it. If you are on a budget however the Popcorn Hour might be a good choice for you. Because it plays nearly everything you can throw at it. Popcorn Hour also gets firmware updates from time to time so it might get new features later on.

What Now?

This page could have ended here. I was pretty near keeping the Popcorn hour because it really worked okay … but then I discovered something called Plex Media Center for OS X. I tried it out on my 13 Inch MacBook Pro for a few months and WOW!, it blew me away, and I am pretty hard to impress. This was exactly what I was looking for!

Plex can play an wide range of video, audio and photo formats as well as online streaming audio and video. It also present this content using powerful library features. This is what sold me: Plex automatically retrieve metadata from the Internet, and display it using one of its good looking skins. It downloads covers and artwork without having to manually tag everything yourself. As long as the directories are named somewhat correctly it will find the info about a particular TV-show or movie online.

I was talking about Xbox Media Center above, Plex Media Center is based on that code base. The developers of Plex have decided to dedicate this development for Intel Mac OS X computers. If you have an older G4 or G5 I am afraid Plex wont work for you. You need an Intel based Mac and at least Mac OS X Leopard.

So, Mac mini mediacenter is certainly possible. I have recently done this myself and I will now tell you a little bit of how I did it setting up my Mac Mini mediacenter.

My Mac Mini As Mediacenter Setup

Can you spot the Mac Mini? Probably not because it is inside the cabinet. It is a small computer, thats for sure… Plex Media Center for OS X is currently running. Showing the movies I have available right now. I am controlling everything with my Harmony 900 remote (a buggy one if you ask me), all devices are hidden though!

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Sound Setup

I have an receiver underneath the Mac Mini. I have connected the Mac Minis sound output using an optical cable. More specifically a Toslink to Mini Toslink Cable. My receiver have an Toslink input but the Mac Mini have a Mini Toslink output. You plug in the cable where you would plug in your headset or speakers, it is the same port. The Mac Mini will detect the optical cable and automatically change the output to digital.

toslink-to-mini-toslink

If you already have an optical cable but the wrong connector, you could just save a few dollars and get an adapter instead.

Video Setup

HDMI Cable, easy and simple. In many cases this makes it easy to deal with the overscanning issues that can appear. I used a DVI to HDMI adapter before but when Apple added HDMI ports to their mac mini computers it made it easy connecting it to a TV set.

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Remote Control

aluminum-apple-remoteIf you want to use Mac Mini as Media Center you also need some way to remote control it. For me, the Apple Remote is enough and works fine. However when you buy a new Mac Mini Apple doesn’t ship the remote control anymore, you will have to buy it here: Apple MC377LL/A Remote. This is no fancy remote, it will do what it is supposed to do and nothing more. I like it that way.

I have to mention one problem I had. When I was using the remote my girlfriends Mac started responding to the remote as well. To turn that off you go into System Preferences -> Security and tick the “Disable remote control infrared receiver”. That should help.

I also use the built in Screen Sharing App in Mac OS X if I want to do a bit more heavy administrative work on the Mac Mini

 

 

 

Hardware Requirements?

This was a question I asked myself before I decided to go the Mac Mini Media Center way. Should I go for the cheapest model?, or buy the one with a faster CPU?. I thought a bit on that, and then I looked at what type of files I usually watch. I came to the conclusion that the cheapest Mac mini would work for me. I can play 1080p, x264, DTS releases without any hiccups. If you want to do more with the Mac at the same time you should consider getting more RAM. It is extremely easy to install new RAM in the newest Mac Mini from Apple. You do not have to take apart the entire computer anymore. Just pop off the bottom lid and there you have the RAM slots.

Storage?

With HD material you will undoubtably fill up that internal drive pretty fast. That is why I am using an external USB drive instead. You can also use storage over the network if you have something set up in your home, NAS for example. It usually works over modern wi-fi but I recommend cabled network anyway. I find it more stable, and cheaper. Cables can be hidden you know.

Shopping List, And Software

As I stated above, this is not the cheapest home theater setup you can find. But for me, this is the only thing that works the way I want it to work. That is why I am willing to pay for that. Here I have a shopping list for you if you want to get started yourself. I am assuming you have some kind of receiver already. If not you will have to make the necessary changes.

– Apple Mac Mini MD387LL/A Desktop (NEWEST VERSION)

– Apple MC377LL/A Remote. Remote control for Apple desktop/notebook PCs. Offers play/pause, volume control and forward/back buttons.

– 6ft Toslink to Mini Toslink Cable. Connectors: Toslink to Mini Toslink. Premium Quality with Gold Connectors.

– Plex Media Center for OS X

What about support and help?

I recommend you to browse the plexapp forums. You will find a lot of useful information and helpful people over there. Even the developers are active and answering some of the questions users have. You can also comment below if you have any questions or need help. I will try to help you to the best of my ability…

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