Ditching Windows and going all Apple for HTPC

Discussion in 'Apple TV and Home Theater' started by Bommy, Jun 23, 2011.

  1. Bommy, Jun 23, 2011
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 25, 2011

    Bommy macrumors newbie

    Jun 23, 2011
    So, I have an HTPC with a load of hard drives in it in one room. It runs XBMC (Win 7) and outputs to a 720p projector. It stores and downloads all my content (mostly MKV) and works quite nicely.

    I then have an Acer Aspire Revo (also XBMC and Windows 7, and they share a database for Watched status of files, etc) in the living room (1080p TV), and it half works. It's wired up on Gigabit network but the menus are very slow, and although it's set up to go to sleep after a bit of inactivity, most of the time when I wake it I have to restart XBMC or all video is choppy.

    I also hate the whole scraping/metadata thing and the fact that, for my other half, it is too unreliable to work. I'm happy with a list of file names and don't mind specifying them myself. Artwork is a plus but to be honest, I don't care massively.

    I've got a Macbook Pro, an iPhone and an iPad so I want an Apple TV for the living room (for iOS5 mirroring) and I've started wondering about "going entirely Apple" for my HTPC needs. Why? Because after all the faff of going the fully customised route, and never getting it properly working, I'm ready to try jumping through all the hoops I have to get the "it just works" effect. I'll even wed myself to iTunes for the simplicity of also getting my content onto my phone and iPad.

    So the thinking is this:

    Projector Room
    Mac Mini as server and HTPC for that room, running iTunes. External HDs for content. Mainly for viewing of films by me alone. Prepared to have a bit of fiddling on this machine if I have to, but ideally not. 5.1 sound and video via HDMI through amp. Not bothered about uncompressed audio etc. 720p is fine for now.

    Living Room
    Apple TV 2 in the living room, where we mainly watch TV shows together. Simplicity of interface essential in here. HDMI straight to TV, stereo sound only needed (but 5.1 might be nice down the line). When an ATV3 comes along the ATV2 will go in the bedroom and do the same thing in there.

    What I don't want
    Excessive faff, complications, unpredictability. I don't want workarounds, hacks, jailbreaks, etc. I want to turn on either machine and have them "just work". Only problem is I have no experience of this set up at all, so I'm not sure of the pitfalls, or the 'workflow' of adding content. Here though are, I think, the questions that would cover it.

    The iTunes library. Would be stored on the Mac Mini I assume. But would the content have to be on USB drives, or could I attach it to the Airport Extreme? I don't want the expense or hassle of setting up and maintaining a NAS, but I have plenty of USB hard drives that could connect to either device.

    How would I add to the iTunes library (new content, once all my old stuff is in there)? Is there any easy way (Home Sharing, remote access from on Mac to another, etc) to get my new files (which I'll probably still get using my Macbook Pro) into the Mac Mini's iTunes library?

    As for iTunes, I'd like the easy option, if I have a movie or TV show in my iTunes library, to sync that to my iPhone or iPad, which might require conversion or might not. So if I'm doing this, would I have to make the Mac Mini the main iTunes installation in my house (with all my music on it), or could I keep all my music on my MBP, and remotely access the video content on the Mac Mini through the MBP's iTunes, and sync that video to my iDevices remotely? Obviously iCloud might change things in terms of music storage, as ideally I'd like my music on both Macs. I'd also really like it if, say, my iPhone is set to have the next 3 unwatched episodes of Modern Family on it, and I then watch an episode of that show on either the Mac Mini or the ATV, to have iTunes mark that episode as watched and so when I next sync my iPhone, it removes that episode and syncs the next one over. Would that happen?

    Power management. Is it easy, and reliable, to set the Mac Mini to sleep after 30 mins of inactivity, and wake (presumably from sleep) whenever the ATV tries to access it? Current setup involves Wake On LAN app on my iPhone to wake both PCs, and it's a step too far for the other half.

    I have to convert my content (DVDs ripped as VIDEO_TS folders, BluRay rips as 720p MKVs, and some SD content that's mostly DivX/XVid) into a format that iTunes and the ATV will like, and ideally that (at least) the iPad would run. So that's 720p MP4s with 5.1 for the MKVs, which is my main concern. Is there a best way, especially one that doesn't have to re-encode the video?

    I could actually live with my DVD rips only being accessible on the Mac Mini. Is there a way to play VIDEO_TS on there, especially bearing in mind this will be a Lion setup so, possibly, no Front Row or equivalent. Aware that's anyone's guess at the moment.

    What am I sacrificing? So if I do this, I'm pretty confident I'll have a "just works" setup. But am I massively limiting myself, especially for my projector room where I have a reasonably decent setup? Sure this is all fine for the TV, but my projector supports 720p24 and stuff like that. Do I kiss these things goodbye if I go all iTunes, or can I get pretty much anything I want played by these devices as long as it's in the right file format?

    It strikes me that if I fully embrace iTunes and the Apple way, even if I have to jump through some hoops, everything else would just fall into place (like the iPhone episode syncing). At least I hope so.

    Apologies for the long post - I'm just trying to find my footing in a new HTPC world!

    Thanks all.

    Starting to do some research myself (I'm not THAT lazy!) and this looks like it could be a useful tool.

  2. Panch0 macrumors 6502a

    Feb 23, 2010
    Go to the ATV & Home Theater forum and see the first 2 Sticky posts. They will answer your questions about encoding, along with many others you haven't thought of yet.


    Home Sharing is your friend for syncing between MBP and MacMini. See the Apple support forums for that, or search in this forum and you will see plenty of threads. Home Sharing is fairly simple though, and it does allow you to automatically copy new content between libraries.

    I would think the Mac Mini should be your main 'hub' for syncing devices, but if you can manage to make everything accessible from both MBP and Mini, then it doesn't matter. Just that I have found that keeping media on the Laptop is hopeless - YMMV...

    Power management through WoL is supposedly easy if you use an Apple AirPort Extreme or TimeCapsule. I personally prefer to have my iMac not sleep (unless there's a power outage). I think that may be especially true with multiple external drives connected as they seem to increase boot time.

    I'm pretty sure there is an XMBC version for the Mac, if not there's definitely Plex. You should be able to use one of those on the Mini to play your existing content if you prefer not to convert it.

    The Mini should output all of your current files onto your projector. If you want to convert them for the ATV, I think you will have to dial back some of the frame rates - those 2 sticky threads will probably talk about this.

    Best of Luck!
  3. Bommy thread starter macrumors newbie

    Jun 23, 2011
    Thanks very much - really helpful starting point for me, much appreciated.
  4. stomer macrumors 6502a

    Apr 2, 2007
    Leeds, UK
    Personally, I'd get a pair of AppleTVs and push content to them. Make the laptop the main library, the iTunes content being physically stored on a USB drive connected to the Airport Extreme. Convert all your MKVs to MP4s (Handbrake will do this).

    Then you simply push content to the AppleTVs.

    If you have the cash to spend on a Mini, then yeah I suppose it would do the job, but seems like overkill to me (unless you're going to use the Mini for other purposes). The benefit of the Mini would be that you don't have to leave your MacBook open whilst watching a movie. For me it's no big deal, just sleep the display, the MacBook makes virtually no noise.
  5. Bommy thread starter macrumors newbie

    Jun 23, 2011
    Thanks stomer. I had thought about that but in the past haven't had much success with remotely-stored iTunes media. Perhaps it's worth a try though to start with - just get one ATV and my MBP to do a dummy run, and see how I get on. And maybe I'll wait to do this until after iCloud goes live, because that will likely change, well, everything. Again. ;)
  6. blevins321 macrumors 68030

    Dec 24, 2010
    Winnipeg, MB
    One nice benefit to the Mini is that you can use it as an encoding box. Sure, it'll be more sluggish than your MBP, but it's so energy efficient you can just leave it running overnight on a movie with no worries. If you have Plex running on it, you can remotely stream your media over the web, too. Won't be able to do iTunes DRM media, but anything that you've downloaded, made, or ripped yourself would work great for it.

    Edit: Just reread and noticed your note about hating scraping. Plex is amazing when it comes to this. In 46 Shows (and I mean shows, not episodes) and 346 movies the only incorrectly-matched item was an independent film that downloaded the Spanish metadata instead of English. For both TV and Movies, Plex downloads cool poster art for when you are reading the synopsis/other info. In addition, it'll download TV theme songs for when you are viewing episode lists and/or other details.
  7. stomer macrumors 6502a

    Apr 2, 2007
    Leeds, UK
    Yeah, my iTunes library is too large to store locally, so it lives on the AEBSn. The only issue with that setup would be bandwidth. My ATV has a wired ethernet connection and my wireless network is 802.11n, so I don't have any issues in that respect.
    One other thing to point out about running storage on the AEBSn, is that it can't do much more than one thing at a time. For example, if you're streaming a movie that lives on the AEBSn and doing a Time Machine backup to the AEBSn, then your streaming is going to stutter.
  8. pagansoul macrumors 65816


    Aug 10, 2006
    I have the advantage of having a MacPro with each of its bays a 2TB HD. This gives me 8TB to load my ripped Movies (now over 500), TV shows (many many seasons of my favorite shows), Music (over 20k songs in VBR AAC) and Photos. Everything streams to my :apple:TV (even when internet is down). I also have a Samsung LED that I can attach an external HD to it with additional video and music I don't want on iTunes or I can put some files in the external for when I don't want my computer on.
  9. Phil22 macrumors member

    Apr 29, 2009
    Stream to Apple TV with no internet

    pagansoul, Hi sorry can I ask how you can still stream content to an apple tv when the internet is down?


  10. blevins321 macrumors 68030

    Dec 24, 2010
    Winnipeg, MB
    You can still use your local network to send iTunes media (stored, not rented) to the ATV. Now if your local network is down too, you can't do much of anything.
  11. spacepower7 macrumors 68000

    May 6, 2004
    Noooooooooo, I hate when I read this over and over, no offense to the poster.

    Every single MKV that I have seen except 1, will only need to be remuxed not reconverted. We are talking minutes VS hours for conversions when you remux VS re-encoding in Handbrake.

    Apps that can remux:
    iFlicks version in beta 1.3.x and above, final release coming soon. This app will also add metadata when remuxing.
    Subler - This app will also add metadata when remuxing.

    When using these tools, have them add a 2 channel sound track to ensure iOS compatibility.

    While Apple's tech specs for AppleTv 2 and other devices specify main profile level 3, most devices will play up to high profile 4.1
    The AppleTV was the first to do this but now iTunes will allow you to sync high profile 720p 4.1 to iOS devices, at least all iPads.
  12. Bommy thread starter macrumors newbie

    Jun 23, 2011
    Thanks everyone. And yes, aware of the remux/conversion process. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't consider limiting myself to MP4 only but if iVI works well this should be a nice simple process I can live with.

    Anyway, I bought an Apple TV2 today. So far really impressed and the "just works" rating is off the charts right now, having added a few MP4s and turned on Home Sharing all around my house, then sorted Remote on my iPad and iPhone, and having Airplay-ed some stuff. So now just need to see how the remuxing and streaming 720p HD stuff goes.

    Fingers crossed.
  13. Anastacio macrumors regular

    Apr 18, 2010
    If i install XMBC on the Apple TV, will it be able to locate my MKV videos on the Mac Mini and play them wirelessly?
  14. blevins321 macrumors 68030

    Dec 24, 2010
    Winnipeg, MB
    Yep :). You just have to enable file sharing on the mini. SMB, I think.

    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
  15. Bommy thread starter macrumors newbie

    Jun 23, 2011
    Sorry to be a jerk but there's loads of threads about hacking these things. Would really like to keep this about using it without hacking, as the whole point of me starting this thread is moving away from XBMC.
  16. lowonthe456 macrumors 6502

    Oct 27, 2007
    Stomer, when running this setup: you would have an empty itunes library on the laptop right? and ATV would pull from your itunes which is seeing the shared library from the USB drive?

    Also, I am assuming I can run an ethernet from the AEBS to the ATV2 while everything else runs wireless, yet everything sees each other?

    I think, if the answers are yes to these quoestions, I may go this route.
  17. Bommy thread starter macrumors newbie

    Jun 23, 2011
    As I understand it, the iTunes Library database files would be on the MBP, but the content would be on the USB drive. For an ATV2 you always need a computer running iTunes to pull the content from.

    I've had bad experiences storing iTunes media remotely so I'm going to avoid this solution for now. I think I'll be picking up a current gen Mini 2nd hand when the new models get announced, and use it as a permanent media server for my whole house.
  18. stomer macrumors 6502a

    Apr 2, 2007
    Leeds, UK
    My library isn't empty, it's just the media is located on a drive shared by the AEBSn.

    Yeah, pretty much.
  19. Bommy thread starter macrumors newbie

    Jun 23, 2011
    In that setup, would the ATV get the media over the wired network route direct from the AEBSn, or is it going to stream it to the Macbook wirelessly, and then that in turn passes it to the ATV?
  20. stomer macrumors 6502a

    Apr 2, 2007
    Leeds, UK
    The ATV only sources from iTunes libraries, so sources it from my MacBook.
  21. Bommy thread starter macrumors newbie

    Jun 23, 2011
    Hi all

    So I've got my ATV2 and some of my content converted and I'm very happy with it so far.

    Now it comes to replacing my PC with a Mac Mini and some attached storage - aiming for about 6tb. I think I've got a few options.

    1. A NAS attached to my Airport Extreme, always on. This strikes me as expensive though and I don't really need any of the benefits of a NAS other. It would also always need to be on and would perhaps clutter network traffic as the media would need to be pulled to the Mini then to the ATV. I have Gigabit Ethernet though.

    2. External USB drives attached to the Mini. It has 4 USB ports so 8tb is easily attainable and by the time I need to go beyond that, bigger hard drives will be available. The Mini will sleep when not in use so hopefully I could get these drives to as well. Don't like the idea of four PSUs being needed though unless I went for (expensive) mobile drives that are USB powered.

    3. A multi-bay USB drive enclosure. This is where I'm leaning and as I see it it's a mix of the two above options. Less expensive than a NAS but still scalable (and I can re-use my SATA drives from my current PC/buy cheaper internal drives in future), only one power block to worry about, would hopefully sleep when the Mini powers down. Seems the best solution to me but they seem quite a niche product.

    Anyone got any thoughts on the above and/or recommended devices?
  22. stomer macrumors 6502a

    Apr 2, 2007
    Leeds, UK
    I have a Drobo attached to my Aiport Extreme. The Extreme sends it to sleep when it's not in use. The Drobo is very flexible in terms of upgrading storage.
  23. Panch0 macrumors 6502a

    Feb 23, 2010
    I would suggest using a FireWire 800 enclosure rather than USB, especially if you go with a multi-drive enclosure. Firewire drives can be daisy chained, so you can hang multiple drives off a single port on the mini. They also don't rely on the CPU as USB does. Performance wise, FW is faster, but USB is more than enough for playing your media library (moving files around to reorganize or backup may be a different story). I wind the FW Daisy chain arrangement to be less messy than a bunch of USB cables running to the computer.

    A direct connected Drobo is a pretty good device, especially if you don't care to know all the ins & outs of RAID. I've never tried their network enclosures. I did have my Drobo initially connected to a Time Capsule via USB. This was very very very bad - don't do it.

    OWC has a 4 bay enclosure that should fit the bill. Their stuff has a great reputation, but not exactly the cheapest alternatives.
  24. tbayrgs, Jun 30, 2011
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2011

    tbayrgs macrumors 603


    Jul 5, 2009
    +1 for this setup--exactly how I have mine setup (2 bay Icydock enclosure connected to Mini via FW800 with external blu-ray drive daisy chained). I have the Mini on 24/7 serving media to 3 :apple:TV and my MacBook and use PLEX for viewing any media directly on the connected 50" Plasma. I know the OP said the projector outputs at 720p but in the event you do move up to 1080p, the Mini is more than capable of handling 1080p (mine is only a 2.0 gHz C2D from a couple years back). I agree that the 4 bay enclosure from OWC will suit your needs perfectly--likely what I'll replace my 2 bay enclosure with when the time comes.
  25. johnkountz Guest


    Nov 3, 2007
    +1 on FW-MacMini setup

    +1 on this setup.

    Used a Drobo packed with (4) 2TB WD Low Power drives, connected to Mini via FW-800. Used for over a year, very successful. Only issue was noise of the Drobo fan, very reasonable compared to a PC fan by comparison.

    I'm now experimenting with external USB drives powered by the Mini. I'm on a power-saving kick. I have less than 2TB of content, which I backup and store in a vault.

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