**LONG** Mac mini (Mid-2010) as a HTPC with Plex Setup and Review

Discussion in 'Mac mini' started by Jawnathin, Jun 19, 2010.

  1. Jawnathin macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Sep 10, 2009
    #1
    Introduction -

    I got my Mac mini yesterday afternoon and have setup most of what I wanted it to do so far. I wanted to give an early review and impressions for anyone on the fence about the Mac mini in a HTPC application. Its not just about the Mac mini, but the ecosystem and setup as a whole. It's a little long, I apologize, but I wanted to provide a complete overview into the setup incase anyone else wants to try this.

    I previously posted a separate topic a few days ago asking for any insight on my HTPC plan before purchasing everything. Once I got the 'blessings' from MR members that I should be good to go, I went ahead and placed my order.


    Goal

    I really wanted to have a setup that played local media from a NAS without much hassle. I tried a WDTV Live a few months ago, and was disappointed in the UI and finicky functionality. I was debating between a Mac mini setup or the Boxee Box that was slated to arrive 'any week now'. I went ahead and decided to wait for Boxee to release their product, as it was a much lower cost than a Mac mini ($200~). When the Boxee box was delayed to November 2010, I started to strongly consider the Mac mini, despite the additional cost.

    My main goal is to have the Mac mini pull local video files in various formats (.mkv, .avi, .mp4, etc) and resolutions (480i to 1080p) from the Drobo FS as well as from online sources such as Hulu and Netflix. This content will be displayed on the TV with a easy to use interface.

    I want this to be as 'hands off' as possible. Meaning I don't wanna fiddle with settings to get a show playing. I just want to turn on the TV, use the remote, and get to watching content like a STB.

    Hardware Equipment

    Here is my equipment that I used to help set this up along with a little bit of feedback on its importance in my setup. You may have similar equipment that you can use in place (an iPod Touch instead of iPhone for example). I'll try to explain why each one is useful.

    Mac mini (required)
    MacBook Pro (Highly recommended)
    iPhone 3GS (Nice, but not needed)
    Apple Remote (Highly Recommended)
    Drobo FS (Highly recommended, very important)
    Airport Extreme (A router is very important)

    The Mac mini is great. Its a bit wider, but definitely shorter than I had originally thought. It fits right into the living room just fine. Hookup and setup was a breeze using HDMI connected directly to my TV. There really isn't much to say about the Mac mini itself that hasn't been discussed in other threads. One thing I haven't seen anyone else post, is that when connected to HDMI, you don't have the option to control the volume from the Mac mini. This means you have to lower the sound using the TV or A/V. Fortunately Plex allows you to adjust the volume of the content played back, so you still have some control when using the remote.

    I ended up purchasing the 2.4GHz Mac mini from Amazon.com. - Link Here

    This is a better deal for most people than buying from Apple directly as its nearly $30 off (currently $669) and Amazon doesn't charge sales tax in most states. Depending on where you live and your sales tax, it can save nearly $100 instead of purchasing from Apple.

    I opted for the 2.4GHz model as there was no immediate benefit to opting for the Server version that couldn't be handled with an upgrade. The CPU difference is negligible, and the RAM is easily upgradable (I do recommend upgrading to 4GB). The additional storage capacity is not needed as all of my content is stored on the NAS, which has much more capacity (currently 4.5TB) and drive failure protection than the Mac mini Service. To give you an idea of how much storage I'm using on the Mac mini, since all the media is stored remotely, the Mac mini is only using less than 13GB with everything installed and has over 300GB of free space available. If you plan on storing content locally, then you may want to consider the Server version.

    I found myself using the MacBook Pro in this setup much more often than I thought. I had forgotten about the ability to do 'Screen Sharing', which allows me to remotely control the Mac mini. If I ever need to do any configuration changes or anything that requires much input, I just 'Screen Share' with the Mac mini, and use the keyboard and trackpad on the MacBook Pro to handle everything. This has come in extremely handy when configuring the Mac mini. I never touched the keyboard and mouse I plugged into it upon initial setup. As a matter of fact, there is no input device directly connected to the Mini right now.

    The iPhone isn't needed but its nice to have when bundled with the Rowmote application. I thought I'd end up using this more, but its not important. See more about Rowmote in the Software section.

    I originally bought the Apple Remote just to try it out, but didn't think I'd use it that much. I had originally planned on controlling the Plex interface with the iPhone Rowmote app, but I found the lack of tactile feedback was less than desirable. I liked using the remote, so this is my primary way of controlling the Plex UI. Using Remote Buddy (See software below), you can configure the buttons to perform certain actions, which makes it quite useful.

    The Drobo is an important part of this setup as it the source of all of the media for the Mac mini. This would be serving content over the network remotely to any computer in the house, and any connected device can upload/modify storage. I have approximately 4.5TB of storage available on the NAS, and its also backed up incase a drive fails. This is a lot more storage than you could add locally, and much less risky than putting this on single drive. If that drive fails without any backup, you've lost all of your media, which could be hundreds of movies and TV episodes.

    The Airport Extreme is the hub for this setup. I think any router would work in its place, but the AEBS does the job well here.

    Software

    Plex (Highly recommended)
    Remote Buddy (Highly recommended if you have the Apple Remote)
    Rowmote iPhone App (Nice, but not needed)

    Plex will be the main UI in the HTPC environment. There are other options such as Boxee, but I ended up using Plex as it is generally rated higher. Plex is still a little buggy, but its free and honestly, quite beautiful. Once your media and library are all setup I haven't seen anything quite like it.

    Remote Buddy is a must have if you plan on using the Apple Remote. You can configure the remote to perform different tasks in various applications. You also have some limited control over the computer as well using the remote. You can call up an onscreen keyboard, open and close applications, and have it control the mouse pointer. It is a bit too slow to be a standard input device, but it works well in a pinch. Each button has approximately 2 commands. This is done by using a different command for pressing and holding each button. The older white plastic remote had 6 buttons, the newer aluminum remote has 7. This can allow up to 12-14 different commands, depending on your configuration.

    Rowmote is completely optional in this and while I originally thought I was going to use it a lot to control the Mac mini, I've found its not necessary. This application allows you to use your iPhone/iPad/iTouch as an input device. It offers the same functionality as the Apple Remote, while also offering a track pad and a keyboard. This is great if you need to type something in a pinch, but I've found that I can navigate through the Plex UI without ever needing Rowmote. I prefer the tactile feedback of Apple Remote instead of the touch screen on the Rowmote application.

    Network and Physical Hookup

    I went ahead and created a little network diagram on what I envisioned the setup to be. Again, I've found myself not really using the iPad/iPhone remote setup, and instead using the MacBook Pro 'Screen Sharing' function with the Mac mini when it comes to text/mouse inputs while using the Apple Remote to control the Plex UI and media playback.

    [​IMG]

    Setting up Plex and Remote Buddy

    Plex can be a little tricky to setup. I won't go into detail on how to setup the program as a whole, but I have a few things I'd like to share based on things I've learned.

    The Drobo didn't appear as a source at first. It took me a while to figure out how to get it to show, but once you access the drive in finder, it'll show up under the list of sources. When adding the source, you'll need to select the folder with the specific type of content you need. So for example, I have a general 'Media' folder. I cannot just add the Media as it has shows as well as movies. Instead you need to add each of the sub folders separately, so you can specify what type of content is in there.

    Be sure your media is named properly. Plex prefers movies to be in folders that are setup as "Movie Title (Year)" (ex: "Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)"). If you don't have your movie's setup this way already, then start doing it. It took me quite a long time to get setup. Once the titles are set, it searches IMDB based on that title. It often finds a few alternatives (making of, bonus films, etc), so be sure to select the correct program. Once it finds the data, it'll automatically pull the plot/description as well as a thumbnail for poster art. I found a lot of the poster art from IMDB wasn't great, so you may need to find an alternative picture/poster

    Shows need to be setup as well. This can be time consuming based on how your media is already setup. The show needs setup a certain way in the folders. Plex likes 'Show Name > Season # > Episode #' format. The episode numbers need to be in a 01x01 or S01E01 setup. (Ex: "Jericho > Season 2 > Jericho - S02E03.mp4"). Plex then uses this setup and 'links' the show based on the Season and Episode number to a database which then allows each episode to have content. There are a number of databases, but I found myself using TVDB which contains plot information, thumb nails, and fan art for each show, season, and episode. 'Special' episodes are in 'Season 0', and the episode number can vary. For example, Battlestar Galactica had a mini series and a few movies. All of these shows would be in "Season 0', and the episode number may vary. By using this TVDB link, I would know that the BSG special, 'The Plan' would be S00E22.

    I'll repeat this again since we're in the Plex section, but when connected to HDMI, the Mac mini doesn't allow the option to control the volume. This means I have to lower the sound using the TV or A/V. Fortunately Plex allows you to adjust the volume of the content played back, so you still have some control of volume when using the Apple Remote. You can find this within Preferences > System > Audio > Link System Audio.

    Remote Buddy is also pretty easy to setup. There are just a few things you need to keep in mind. There is a global command, which uses that same command no matter what program you're in, and there are application commands which is specific towards that application. I mentioned this before but each button has approximately 2 commands. This is done by using a different command for pressing and holding each button. The older white plastic remote had 6 buttons, the newer aluminum remote has 7. This can allow up to 12-14 different commands, depending on your configuration. You can then configure each of these commands to do something specific. It will take a little bit of trial and error to get what you want, but in my setup, I can navigate the whole UI, adjust volume and access the playback menu's when playing content, and call up the main Remote Buddy window. I haven't found a situation yet where I can't do anything in Plex using the standard Apple Remote.

    One problem I ran into though, was that pressing up or down on the remote wasn't responding in Plex (despite having a command) and every other button would. Also the up or down would work in Front Row just fine, so there was some issue with Plex or Remote Buddy. To get around this, I changed the setting for the up button from 'Up' to a keyboard command of 'Cursor Up'. This provides the same behavior, but for some reason 'Up' just doesn't work.

    Conclusion and whats next

    Overall, I'm thrilled about the setup. I've been trying to get something like this for the past 2 years or so using a PS3, but never got anything I was really satisfied with. There is a bit of trickiness to get everything up and running, but once you've configured it, it really is a solid and impressive setup. I ended up spending a lot of time having to rename my content to match the TVDB and IMDB databases, but once done, its well worth it. Moving forward I'll need to be sure I use this standard file naming format so it works easier with Plex.

    My next steps is to bump up the Mac mini to 4GB of memory from the standard 2GB. The RAM modules should be arriving this week. I also still need to figure the online services such as Hulu and Netflix, but for now, I'm enjoying the local content and interface alot.

    Hopefully this helps out with your setup and installation.
     
  2. dh2005 macrumors 6502a

    Joined:
    Jan 25, 2010
    #2
    Thanks for making the effort, mate.


    Can I ask... where are your 1080p files taken from? Are they native Blu-ray dumps, or have they been transcoded to make them smaller?
     
  3. Cinab1mt macrumors regular

    Joined:
    Apr 26, 2010
    #3
    Awesome review, i have done the same thing formatting my PLEX on my MBP, I'm glad you wrote this because i was thinking about the exact same setup. You don't use rowmote very much? I figured you would. Also, could you elaborate a little more on the NAS. I'm kinda a techy noob and I'm not sure what exactly that is. If you could clarify that would be great! Again great review!!!
     
  4. bli625 macrumors 6502a

    bli625

    Joined:
    Mar 8, 2009
    #4
    I don't own a Mac Mini, but this review was definitely worth the read! Great job!
     
  5. Jawnathin thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Sep 10, 2009
    #5
    The 1080p videos Blu-ray rips, either downloaded or ripped myself from the disc. However, all of them are compressed to make them smaller.
     
  6. Jawnathin thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Sep 10, 2009
    #6
    Thank you, let me know if you have any other questions.

    I didn't use Rowmote as much as I thought, but its certainly usable if you want to use your iPhone instead of the Apple Remote. I originally envisioned using Rowmote to add text input and use the 'trackpad', but I found myself not needing to do any of that while in Plex. Anything that requires and installation or setup, I honestly rather just use a real keyboard and mouse, and its so easy to 'Screen Share' with my laptop.

    NAS stands for Network Attached Storage. They're basically devices with HDDs inside and it connects to your router. This allows any device on the network to access the drives.

    This is handy for several reasons...

    1.) I can add content on the HDDs on the NAS from any computer and every other computer in the network can access it. There is no need to drag a copy of a file from one computer to the next to use it with a USB HDD.

    2.) If your network is wireless, you can even access the HDDs wirelessly. No need to plug in a USB cable. This is also great for Wireless backups via Time Machine (Some NAS can do this, some can't).

    3.) Depending on your setup, you can even have drive failure protection. This way if a HDD dies, you don't lose your data on the drive, because its backed up on the others. This is becoming more important as HDDs get bigger. Losing 500GB to 1TB of content is ALOT.

    4.) Massive amounts of storage. Right now, I have 7TB of drives plugged in (turns into about 6.4TB usable after formatting), but with the drive protection enabled, I end up with about 4.5TB of usable space, which is a lot of content.

    I'm sure there are other benefits too, but these are some of the important ones I think.
     
  7. VideoFreek macrumors 6502

    VideoFreek

    Joined:
    May 12, 2007
    Location:
    Philly
    #7
    Jawnathin;

    Just a tip--you might consider posting this in the Apple TV/HTPC forum, which covers a wide range of HT topics besides merely the Apple TV. There, you're more likely to get valuable input and advice from people who have a lot of experience with home theater integration, rather than in a hardware-oriented forum focused solely on the Mini.

    Very nice setup, by the way!
     
  8. ncc1701d macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Mar 30, 2008
    #8
    This is excellent, thanks for posting. I'll be returning home from work and hopefully to my new mac mini.

    I was wondering how you would use the drobo dashboard? I was planning to hook up my drobo pro directly to my mac mini and use front row to access files from it, and then use the drobo dashboard on the mini for updating when required. I don't even mind using iTunes as my content is ripped by handbrake into 'appletv' setting Quality anyway - which is good enough for
    me.

    I was thinking I could set up an alias folder to the drobo from my macpro to add content when required.

    That plex sounds good... But i've already got too much to go renaming all my content. I'm up to 8TB on my drobopro :eek:
     
  9. orpheus1120 macrumors 65816

    orpheus1120

    Joined:
    Jan 23, 2008
    Location:
    Malaysia
    #9
    OP, how did you configure the drobo FS to show up as source in Plex? Did you have to use one of the drobo apps?
     
  10. Anastacio macrumors regular

    Joined:
    Apr 18, 2010
    Location:
    Denmark
  11. Cinab1mt macrumors regular

    Joined:
    Apr 26, 2010
    #11
    So basically, in a nutshell, the NAS is bunch of HDD's acting as one, with wireless capabilities? And if one drive fails, you have another in the same cluster backing that up? Am I correct saying this?

    If so I would def be interested in a set up similar to yours. What model NAS do you have? Did you buy it from a particular site? Thanks again for all the info!
     
  12. Jawnathin thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Sep 10, 2009
    #12
    Sweet. Congrats on your purchase. You'll love it!

    On the Mini, you may not even have to install the Dashboard. I'm not sure how the DroboPro works, but on the FS, which is connected into the network, it comes up as a 'Shared' device in finder, and all I needed to do is login with one of the usernames, then I had access to the share where my files are stored. That said, I did did install the Drobo Dashboard on the Mini, and checked off the 'Mount' box. Don't know if that did anything, but the Mini has access all of the content. I never really open the Dashboard on the Mini though.

    Honestly, iTunes and Front Row seem much different from Plex. I think all the apps give a good way to access iTunes and Front Row, but if you're making a HTPC with a mini, I think Plex is really the way to go. The interface is super slick and it pulls metadata, poster art, fan art, from the service, and its very visual. You can use different Skins. It really has that WOW factor.

    It's hard to find a video which captures 'the flow' of the Plex UI, but I found this one, which should give you an idea of how Plex looks. Of course you can make it full screen instead of windowed. It is a pain to get your media renamed (I had to do about 700 files), but it's really impressive once setup, and moving forward, you have a much more organized library.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMyFhMBkunY
     
  13. Jawnathin thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Sep 10, 2009
    #13
    I didn't have to use one of the Apps.

    I originally had trouble when I just got the device to show up in the 'Shared' section, but that wasn't enough. I needed to actually log into the Drobo from Finder and 'click' into the share I wanted to use. Once I did that, it 'Mounts' the drive and becomes an option under the sources.
     
  14. Jawnathin thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Sep 10, 2009
    #14
  15. Sun Baked macrumors G5

    Sun Baked

    Joined:
    May 19, 2002
    #15
    Maybe you can talk to dh2005 and run a 100% RAW test of "The Men Who Stare at Goats" to see if the 2010 Mini can make it without dropping a single frame.

    Rumour-busting: The Mac Mini as an HTPC
     
  16. Jawnathin thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Sep 10, 2009
    #16
    Different NAS models have different capabilities, but your summary is pretty close. The model I have can take up to 5 HDDs and can protect up to two failures if needed. I think having two drives fail at the same time is a little unlikely, so I am comfortable with only protecting against one drive failure. The NAS itself isn't wireless, but since its connected to your network, if thats wireless, then you can access the drives wirelessly.

    The model I have is a bit different from most NAS setups. Its a little more on the expensive side, but it offers a few unique capabilities I found desirable. Its relatively easy to setup without much configuration. It took me about 30 minutes from opening the box to putting files on it.

    Most NAS and RAID setups requires all the drives to be the same type and capacity, which isn't a big deal. But the nice thing about this unit is that since I don't need to match them, it allows a pretty easy way to upgrade the storage. Just pop out smallest the drive, put in a larger one, and it'll automatically reconfigure itself to use the larger drive and you gain the additional capacity. The same goes if a HDD fails. Just pop out the dead/failing drive, put in the replacement, and it'll reconfigure itself with the newer drive.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L-h3g2L7OE

    Theres a promotional video about it.

    My model is called a Drobo FS, and its from a company called Data Robotics. I purchased one directly from their website with a promotion they had going on.

    There are other lower cost solutions available, so they're worth checking out. FreeNAS and QNAP to name a few.
     
  17. Sensamic macrumors 68030

    Joined:
    Mar 26, 2010
    #17
    Is it better to buy the Drobo FS or the Drobo 5 bay with Droboshare?
     
  18. Jawnathin thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Sep 10, 2009
    #18
    Not sure. I've heard some complaints about the Droboshare, but that would give you the option for a direct connection as well as network storage.

    I'd also want to check that the other Drobos can do Time Machine. I know the FS just got an update that allows it, but I'm unsure of the other models.
     
  19. Sensamic macrumors 68030

    Joined:
    Mar 26, 2010
    #19
    I like the idea of the droboshare, since, like you said, allows direct usb or FW800 connection too. But then how does it turn the drives wireless? I mean, you connect the Drobo to the droboshare via usb, and thats it? Or do I need then to connect the drobosahare to the router via ethernet? That would suck. I thought the droboshare turned the drives wireless without needing to connect to the router. Is is like this?
     
  20. Jawnathin thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Sep 10, 2009
    #20

    I don't have a DroboShare, so I may not be the best to answer this, but from what I understand, you need to setup the Droboshare to connect to your router/network wired or wirelessly. Once connected, any other device on that network should be able to connect to it.
     
  21. Sensamic macrumors 68030

    Joined:
    Mar 26, 2010
    #21
    Doing some research I found someone who claims that the mac minis hard drive is SATA 1.5 and not 3. Is this true? Apparently it is and you can check it on system preferences. Another bad news I guess.
     
  22. aussie.damo macrumors regular

    Joined:
    Nov 20, 2006
    Location:
    Melbourne
    #22
    Thanks for a very thorough and well written review. I am wondering what to do with my own home setup and will likely go down a similar path to you. I haven't looked into Plex yet, so will be sure to do so.

    Damo
     
  23. flopticalcube macrumors G4

    flopticalcube

    Joined:
    Sep 7, 2006
    Location:
    In the velcro closure of America's Hat
    #23
    No its not. 10.6.3 gives a true reporting of the negotiated link speed in System Profiler which will be 1.5gbps for HDD and 3gbps for SSDs. http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=885441
     
  24. ncc1701d macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Mar 30, 2008
    #24
    Excellent. Thanks for that. I've been looking around the plex web site and in particular the next version out I think they are calling it 'plex: alexandria'. Looks as though it won't matter what the source file is named - which would be great. Thanks again!
     
  25. a2applegirl macrumors regular

    a2applegirl

    Joined:
    Jun 16, 2010
    #25
    Thanks for this review, it was very helpful to me! :) I bought a mac mini server over the weekend and hooked up my old macbook air super drive to it to rip my dvds. (I have around 350 of them and want to start the long tedious transcoding/compressing process but have been waiting for something better than the apple tv). I also created a home share to share all my itunes content on my macbook pro with the server.

    Screen sharing between the mac mini server and my macbook pro makes managing the server really easy. I have a wireless keyboard and mouse, but found that my att uverse router and my phone were messing with the bluetooth signals and the keyboard and mouse kept diss-connecting. It is much easier to manage the setup from the macbook pro.

    I like plex, but it takes too many clicks of the remote to do anything. I have been using vlc to watch my dvds and the sound quality and video quality are good, although the interface is basic.

    thanks again for the review, it really got me through my setup this weekend.
     

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