Loving the Mac Mini as a media centre!

Discussion in 'Mac mini' started by Donka, Mar 14, 2013.

  1. Donka macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    May 3, 2011
    Location:
    Scotland
    #1
    Okay, apologies as this is long read but I wanted to share some thoughts and my experiences in setting up a Mac Mini as a media centre...


    Background

    I was using a WD MyBookWorld NAS for storing my movie collection. This was accessed using WD TV media streamers around the house as well as apps on my MacBook Pro ad iPad/iPhone and a jailbroken Apple TV 2 with XBMC. The media server on the WD NAS was limited in the sense it was an outdated version that wasn't readily upgradeable without a bit of hacking not to mention not offering up the media in a well structured and presented fashion.
    I also have an Apple TV 3 hooked up to my main TV and plugged into my Pioneer receiver for audio that I could stream my iTunes library from my iPad or iPhone.
    This whole set up did not offer a consistent experience and required more media hardware than was really necessary i.e. in the Livingroom, the Samsung Smart TV could not stream all media content from the NAS so I required an additional media streamer (WD TV) as well as an Apple TV for audio to the receiver.
    I figured a media server could act both as the server and media streamer and offer up much more functionality on top.


    Hardware choice and why

    I've been a Mac user for about 1.5 years now and really enjoy the experience so looked at the Mac Mini as the perfect box to act as my media centre. Looking at the options available the current generation (late 2012) i5 model seemed like the perfect choice. The i5 2.5Ghz model is plenty powerful for my software requirements and given this is going to be running as a server with several applications running, it is an easy and cheap machine to upgrade the RAM on. Integrated graphics is not a concern for me as all software being utilised is pretty much cpu dependant. USB 3 is a real asset on this machine since I will be using this as my NAS and storing all my media on a 2TB USB 3.0 drive. Key data is stored on both this external drive and on the internal drive so I will always have a backup of important files - something that was not as easy to manage on the WD NAS. While USB 3.0 is not a requirement for simple media streaming - USB 2.0 is certainly fast enough - the extra speed is welcome when adding new media and for backing up data. If you are planning on streaming multiple files concurrently from an external drive though, the USB 3.0 will be the better option over USB 2.0.
    Finally the Mac Mini is a gorgeous looking unit - much better than any other set top boxes I have used which is important because this will be in situ in the Livingroom.

    Final hardware choice is a late 2012 Mac Mini 2.5Ghz i5 with 500GB HD and 8GB RAM. WD USB 3.0 2TB external Drive.
    This Mac mini is running connected via HDMI to my Samsung LED, Audio Out (TOSLink) to my Pioneer receiver & Ethernet to my router. No input devices connected.


    Upgrading

    Knowing that the 2.5Ghz i5 cpu is way more than adequate for the needs of this machine, the only two components to consider upgrading are RAM and hard drive. The machine ships with 4GB RAM as standard but I think an upgrade to 8GB is recommended due to the plan to run several pieces of software concurrently on a continual basis. While I could get by with 4GB RAM, I think 8GB is the sweet spot. 16GB RAM is overkill for the intended purpose of this machine unless you are intending to transcode stream multiple movie files concurrently and if so, opting for the more expensive quad core i7 cpu would also be advisable.
    While I have an SSD in my MacBook Pro, I decided against the need to upgrade the mini to a SSD drive. More storage space is more important than speed in this case and given most of the data being accessed will be via an external drive, the SSD benefits will rarely be seen. Also, this machine will be running continually and not starting up and shutting down on a regular basis and all apps will already be running so it's not like I will ever be waiting on the machine as such.


    Software used

    Media Software


    Plex Media Server & Plex Client
    Probably no surprise to everyone out there but I decided to go with Plex for my core media server software. This is an awesome application that is easy to set up and is proving very reliable. It also offers up that consistent experience across all clients that I was after with regards to the media I will be using. A great way to present your media and it handles all the metadata for the media with aplomb.

    iTunes
    All my audio is stored in iTunes and with it always running, I can use the free app on my iPad/iPhone to wake the Mac Mini and play and control music from iTunes directly through the Pioneer receiver without ever turning on the TV.


    User Interfacing

    RowMote app for iPhone & Ipad.
    Because I am running the Mac Mini on it's own without any keyboard, mouse or trackpad attached, I did consider getting a wireless/bluetooth media keyboard to control things. I found this RowMote software and thought I would give it a try and I have never looked back - in a word it is awesome. This gives you a trackpad on screen to control the cursor but what really excels here is you can use pinch to zoom to enlarge OSX on the TV screen to make it easy to see what you are doing from distance. It is simple to use and just works. You can also switch to the remote mode and use 'cursor' keys to navigate menus and bring up the keyboard to input text which also shows up on the iPhone/iPad screen to make it easier to see what is being typed. This app also features an app launcher so it is easy to start up or switch to apps that are currently running.
    Finally, the icing on the cake with this app is a quick airplay feature. An example is if I am upstairs in the bedroom and the mac is downstairs sleeping, I can wake the Mac with this app and select airplay to my bedroom Apple TV. Now I have the mac awake and running on my bedroom TV to do any tasks without having to leave the room or even see the Mac screen to initiate Airplay. I'm a fan and really recommend this software to anyone using a Mac as a media centre.

    Screen Sharing
    Enabling Screen Sharing on the Mac mini lets me connect to it using my Macbook Pro to view the screen and work on it with the keyboard and trackpad. In the house, this gives the most natural computing method of interacting with the Mac Mini for doing tasks. Again, this lets me work on the Mac Mini from anywhere on my home network.

    LogMeIn
    For external remote access to the Mac Mini, I prefer this app than any other. I can use it at home on the iPad or iPhone for convenience but more importantly from outside of my network for example if I needed to do a task such as kick off a download when I was away on holiday or even just to log in from work on my lunch to do some maintenance, grab app updates in iTunes etc. There are many tools you can use but I think LogMeIn works the best and offers the most consistent experience across its web and IOS clients.

    iTunes Wifi Sync
    Instead of pulling out my Macbook Pro to update apps across the family's IOS devices, I can just do a single update on the Mac Mini and then use Wifi Sync on each device at their convenience to update apps, iTunes library etc.


    Utility Software

    Keyboard Maestro
    For running commands or scripts on a specific trigger - see Challenges/Solutions.

    Audio Switcher
    Allows a quick way to change audio settings and for retaining the default sound output - see Challenges/Solutions.

    Handbrake
    For converting movie formats on the machine itself - not required for Plex as it plays just about anything but I like to maintain a consistent library format where possible.

    Unarchiver
    Handy app for extracting files from most archive formats.

    NoIP
    Free solution for maintaining an easy to use dns name instead of your external IP address provided by your ISP.


    Configuration

    The Mac Mini is just running standard OSX 10.8.2, not the server edition. I have iTunes, Plex Media Server, Keyboard maestro & Audio Switcher added to log in items.
    The Mac is set to sleep after 20 mins of inactivity but I have wake on network access enabled. The Mac will wake if any Plex client contacts it or if you use RowMote, Apple Remote or screen sharing on another Mac to access it. Ultimately the Mac will stay in sleep but always wakes up on demand without any issues.
    Mac is set to wake from sleep each morning at the same time for 20 minutes. The purpose for this is to update NoIP with the correct external IP address for my home network to ensure continuity of remote access. LogMeIn requires that your server be awake and I can wake remote using a WOL (Wake On Lan) tool or website. This is not required but handy if you plan on accessing your server remotely on a regular basis. It also means if NoIP was not functioning for some reason that I know at that time each day, I will still be able to access the server with LogMeIn as it will be awake at this time.
    Mac is set to restart once a week in the energy saver preferences - not required but more of a case of weekly maintenance to keep things running fresh on the Mac - probably just a paranoia from my Windows days!
    Finally I have drive and screen sharing enabled in settings so I can access the media drive or view the desktop on the Mac Mini from another computer.


    Challenges/Solutions

    While Sleep on the Mac is very reliable, some apps or the system in general does not always work as expected when the machine wakes and this caused me a few problems where Keyboard Maestro came to the rescue:

    Plex client on the Mac for viewing movies etc. locally has a helper application that takes control of IR remote input from the likes of the aluminium Apple remote and other third party remotes and let's these apps control Plex from your armchair. After waking, this helper application losing exclusivity for the remote commands and now as well as controlling Plex, you will also be opening iTunes tracks, changing system volume etc. with the remote - not what you want. A simple shell script to kill and start up the helper application fixes this issue but I wanted to automate this process and this is where Keyboard Maestro comes in. This app has loads of functionality and one of them is to perform an action on a specific trigger. In this case, I have it set to run my shell script each time the Mac wakes up so the remote will only control Plex client as I intended. While there are other tools than can automate this, Keyboard Maestro is the most feature rich one that works every time without fail!

    NoIP is a tool for maintaining an external DNS name for your home network so you can access your home network (and your Mac Mini) from the Internet - handy if your ISP doesn't provide a static IP address for you as this can change anytime although most likely if you reboot your router. While the likes of LogmeIn will work regardless of whether you know your external IP address, your Mac must be awake for you to be able to connect to it. you will need to know this external IP address to wake the Mac remotely to gain access using a WOL tool. The NoIP tool on your Mac updates the NoIP servers with your current external IP regularly at an interval that you set. The problem is this tool no longer updates when the Mac wakes from sleep. To counter this, I use Keyboard Maestro again to restart the NoIP tool each time the Mac wakes and NoIP can continue to do its job!

    I have my Mac Mini connected to a Pioneer amp using the digital out connection and this is used almost 100% of the time i.e. when watching movies or listening to music. The issue I faced is the Mac can only use a single audio output at a time and sometimes switches this depending on what is trying to use the audio e.g. it may switch to HDMI out via the TV or using the LogMeIn audio output driver for audio over remote sessions - not something I ever need. While this is easily changed back in audio settings, it is still a short coming in OSX and should not happen as well just being plain inconvenient. Audio Switcher is a free app that sits in your menu bar and gives a quick way to switch audio settings. More importantly for me, it lets you select a default audio input & output and as long as it is running, it will ensure they settings are maintained. Because this app runs at login, my audio is now always running through the digital output and never switches unless I manually tell it to.


    Final Thoughts

    The goal was to create a more consistent experience and gain more functionality at the same time. Using the Mac Mini as my NAS / media server I have achieved just that. In my livingroom I have gone from a NAS, Media Streamer & Apple TV to a single Mac Mini that does it all. With its 4 USB 3.0 ports, the Mini also lends itself to being an easily expandable NAS thanks to being easy to fit external drives and it still has two internal 2.5" drive bays if required. While the Mac Mini is already a fairly low power user, setting up the Mac Mini to wake on network access lets you set an aggressive sleep timer knowing that it will still wake on demand without issue and of course when running, it is completely silent. Finally, with Plex having so many clients available as well as being so easy to configure and use it was the obvious choice as the media server. It runs great on the Mac Mini and I can easily stream a couple of 1080p movies through the house without it skipping a beat. I have a Plex client built into my bedroom Samsung TV and got a cheap Roku with added Plex client for the spare room TV. The whole set up is pretty seamless.
     
  2. tmanto02, Mar 14, 2013
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2013

    tmanto02 macrumors 65816

    tmanto02

    Joined:
    Jun 5, 2011
    Location:
    Australia
    #2
    Great review! I have almost the identical setup however I am definitely going to look into keyboard Meistro, the remote settings after waking from sleep is annoying, I just disabled sleep however it looks like you have just prolonged the life of my mini :D .

    Might I suggest getting the Logitech harmony universal remote, it really streamlines everything and although using the ipad or iPhone as a remote is good, nothing beats a real remote in the hand.

    Also I tried Unarchiver however I found Macpar to be more suitable as you can queue multiple rar files and it will unpack them one after another.
     
  3. Donka thread starter macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    May 3, 2011
    Location:
    Scotland
    #3
    Thanks for the info - I'm using the normal Apple remote in the living room for controlling Plex and it works well enough but I may invest in a Harmony to do everything.
    Keyboard maestro is an excellent tool - very powerful but not cheap. There is a trial on their website though to see if you can get enough out of it to make it a worthwhile purchase. Scenario is another tool which will do the job - not as powerful but it will run an Apple Script upon wake and it is a lot cheaper.
    I can help with any detail with either of these or provide the script for Plex.
     
  4. GGJstudios macrumors Westmere

    GGJstudios

    Joined:
    May 16, 2008
    #4
    I didn't read the entire thread (not enough coffee yet), but I do have a couple observations. You mentioned using the RowMote app to control the mini. If your primary intent is to control Plex, you may or may not be aware that Plex has its own iOS app to remotely control Plex from an iPhone/iPad. The great thing about this is that someone could be controlling the mini for other purposes, such as with a mouse and keyboard, running other apps, and you can still control Plex without interfering with any other operations. You can also scan your Plex library on the iOS app and watch content on iOS devices, if you wish.

    You also mentioned LogMeIn. I use TeamViewer, which is free for personal use and works with Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Ubuntu, iPhone, iPad, etc. It's very secure and quite simple to set up and use (no messing around with ports), which comes in handy if providing remote support to those who aren't very computer literate. You can talk them through the setup on their end and be connected to them in less than a minute. I prefer it over LogMeIn because it includes free file transfers between computers, a feature I use frequently.
     
  5. Donka thread starter macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    May 3, 2011
    Location:
    Scotland
    #5
    Yup, I was aware of the Plex app and its remote control function but I use RowMote to control the whole Mac in lieu of a physical keyboard/mouse/trackpad combo. For controlling Plex, I typically just use the aluminium Apple remote although RowMote works just as well. I don't stream to the iPad when I'm in the house otherwise I would get the Plex app but because of this I have no need for it - if the offline viewing wasn't subscription based then I would have purchased the Plex app though.

    As for TeamViewer, I had jumped between this and LogMeIn and in some respects I prefer TeamViewer and the File transfer feature is a nice to have even though I don't really need it. The deal breaker for me though is the IOS client for TeamViewer scales the server screen resolution to fit the iPad which means you can have a really cramped desktop to work with compared to LogmeIn which leaves it @ 1080p but zooms out instead.
    Otherwise though, the set up is virtually the same, you don't need to mess with opening ports for LogMeIn either, I only did that to enable remote WOL so I could use either of these apps while away from home. TeamViewer is a great alternative though.
     
  6. GGJstudios macrumors Westmere

    GGJstudios

    Joined:
    May 16, 2008
    #6
    I'm not sure what you mean by "offline viewing" and "subcription based". You can still use the Plex mobile app to control Plex within your WiFi network, even without an internet connection. There is no subscription at all, and the Plex apps are free.
    You can select different screen resolutions in TeamViewer. It's a simple choice in the Settings.
     
  7. Donka thread starter macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    May 3, 2011
    Location:
    Scotland
    #7
    The Plex app for IOS costs money which I don't mind for a one off fee but they recently added offline support i.e. you can download from your Plex Media Server onto your IOS device instead of streaming so you can watch the movie later. This feature would have made me buy the app but going forward this functionality will only be available via a subscription. I have already purchased other movie player apps that will let me download from the server for viewing later so not going to pay an ongoing fee for the same feature in Plex.

    I didn't see that screen resolution option in TeamViewer even though I did look for it. I'm assuming this setting is on the TeamViewer server on the Mac Mini? Is there a way to stop TeamViewer leaving the pop ups on your desktop after a remote session? LogMeIn is a lot less intrusive in this aspect. I may give TeamViewer another try.
     
  8. GGJstudios macrumors Westmere

    GGJstudios

    Joined:
    May 16, 2008
    #8
    You're absolutely right. I forgot that I paid $5 for that.
    Ahh, I see what you're talking about. I don't see any advantage to that, so I haven't spent much time exploring it. If I'm in my WiFi network, I don't need to download content; I can just stream it from my Plex server. If I'm planning to be away, I can transfer content directly onto an iDevice before I leave, without any need for Plex at all. I don't store video content on my iPhone, as there's no space available after storing a small fraction of my music collection that I sync.
    It's a setting on the iOS device in Settings > Control > Screen resolution > choices are "Small", "Medium" and "Don't change"
    It only does that with the free version. If you use the paid professional version, it doesn't do that. I agree it's not desirable, but it's better than dealing with a lot of intrusive ads during a session.
     
  9. Donka thread starter macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    May 3, 2011
    Location:
    Scotland
    #9
    Thanks for that. I did see that setting on the iPad but didn't think it made a difference - Perhaps I didn't apple the setting. I'll check it out again.

    I forgot to mention I'm Scottish therefore not wanting to spend more than I need to! :D I'm fine with the free version, just wishing it didn't leave those pop ups that I need to dismiss the next time I am on the machine.
    Not had any ads in TeamViewer or LogMeIn though.
     
  10. tmanto02 macrumors 65816

    tmanto02

    Joined:
    Jun 5, 2011
    Location:
    Australia
    #10
    Hi again, I finally bought keyboard maestro. Could you please provide the script to ensure the remote functions properly after wake? Currently I have disabled sleep, which is not so bad as I use SSD drives however not ideal.

    Cheers mate :)
     
  11. Donka thread starter macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    May 3, 2011
    Location:
    Scotland
    #11
    Sure. I'll post the code in the next reply. Let me know if you are unsure what to do with this - not sure if you know unix or not or just looking for the code for the script.

    ----------

    #!/bin/bash

    #
    # Kill off the PlexHelper process.
    #
    killall -9 PlexHelper

    #
    # Restart PlexHelper.
    #
    ((//Applications/Plex.app/Contents/Resources/Plex/tools/osx/PlexHelper -x & ) & )
     
  12. shoebobs macrumors regular

    Joined:
    Jul 5, 2008
    #12
    Do you use Amazon Instant Video? If so, what do you use to view in HD? There is no standalone AIV app and Amazon does not let you watch in HD through the browser.

    I am planning on buying a mini for HTPC use once the Made in USA models start rolling out, but I want to ensure there is a solution for Amazon Instant Video/HD.
     
  13. tmanto02 macrumors 65816

    tmanto02

    Joined:
    Jun 5, 2011
    Location:
    Australia
    #13
    Thanks mate works a charm - Not too good with unix however a bit of googling got me there.

    TA
     
  14. Donka thread starter macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    May 3, 2011
    Location:
    Scotland
    #14
    Your welcome. For others, the basic steps I took were to paste that code into Text Editor and save it to the root of my user folder. Renamed this file to plexwake.sh and set up a new item in Keyboard Maestro with a trigger of when the mac wakes and set the action to run this script.
    Works 100% reliably and makes remote use with Plex a lot easier.

    ----------

    I don't use that service - you may want to contact Amazon to see if they have a solution for you with the Mac.
     
  15. oaltun macrumors newbie

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2013
    #15
    HDMI vs digital out

    Wow, you convinced me to buy an extra mac as a media server with this, and probably saved lots of research time:)

    I have just one question: In my home theater / hifi system, I have an integrated amp connected to the pre-outs of my receiver. So when I watch movie, I "bypass" the integrated amp for 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound processed by the receiver, however when I listen to music, i bypass the receiver and send data directly to the integrated amp to enjoy the sound from the much better quality front speakers.

    How should I connect and setup the mac mini for this setup?
    I will need itunes output through the digital out of the mac mini
    and I will need the plex output through the hdmi for multichannel sound?

    I might be wrong, as I'm not so advanced in these.

    Thanks in advance!
     
  16. Donka thread starter macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    May 3, 2011
    Location:
    Scotland
    #16
    I output via digital out to my Pioneer amp via a cheap digital to toslink adapter. I use this for music and movies. I also use HDMI out to my tv and use this fir audio for more casual listening of TV shows. The free audio switcher tool makes it easy to select which audio out to use. HDMI will output multi channel but I think it is limited to 5.1 on a mac - don't quote me on this though as like I say I only use HDMI for stereo via my tv.
     
  17. oaltun macrumors newbie

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2013
    #17
    hmm.. do you think there is a way to make the audio switcher to
    - switch audio to HDMI for plex software
    - switch audio to digital out for iTunes automatically?

    Or is there any other program who can do that?

    You are right about the 5.1 limitation, which is fine, anyway the digital movies are all 5.1. Will use the PS3 for blu-ray playback.

    btw why don't you connect only HDMI to your receiver (for both sound and vision) and avoid using audio switcher all together? I assume because you don't want to turn on the receiver every time?
     
  18. Donka thread starter macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    May 3, 2011
    Location:
    Scotland
    #18
    I think you could script a way to change the audio output when Plex starts, not something I have looked into though as sometimes I will pass audio through my receiver with Plex, other times I just pass it though the TV I.e. for TV shows.
    I could use just use HDMI and pass it through the receiver but I was just too lazy to set this up so it would pass through the signal when the receiver was turned off. I like the receiver audio for movies and music but otherwise I just use the TV audio for some TV shows or normal mac audio.
     
  19. Count Blah macrumors 68030

    Count Blah

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  20. sonicrobby macrumors 68020

    sonicrobby

    Joined:
    Apr 24, 2013
    Location:
    New Orleans
    #20
    Oh god you make my decisions harder! I was considering a mini for a media server, but talked myself out of it. My thought was $600 is a lot to spend on a media server, so I thought maybe 2011 or 2010 models. Well apparently mac resale values are excellent on the minis as I cannot find any (working ones) for relatively cheap. The lowest one is a 2010 for $400 on ebay, but I feel like for just 100 more I can get a refurb or used 2012 model. Then the contemplation of "maybe a new 2013 one later this year may be worth another 100".

    Your review now has me wondering if I should go back to maybe getting a mini for a media server.
     
  21. Donka thread starter macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    May 3, 2011
    Location:
    Scotland
    #21
    You can get other solutions for cheaper but the mini has been a great solution for me and I have zero regrets over it. I did pick up a late 2012 model a month old with upgraded RAM for 20% off which helped but I would have bought one either way. If you are a Mac user then it makes a lot of sense.
     
  22. wrinkster22 macrumors 68030

    wrinkster22

    Joined:
    Jun 11, 2011
    Location:
    Toronto
    #22
    I am really jealous of this setup! All I have is an apple tv hooked up to a LCD tv and I use the TV speakers. (The horror!) Enjoy.
     
  23. Donka thread starter macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    May 3, 2011
    Location:
    Scotland
    #23
    If you have another machine you can use asa Plex server, the ATV acts very nicely as Plex client for your TV as well as being a client for iTunes and Airplay.
     
  24. jwjsr macrumors 6502

    jwjsr

    Joined:
    Mar 15, 2012
    Location:
    Fairhope, Alabama
    #24
    A home theater professional could offer this fine setup to his clients.
     
  25. niteflyr macrumors 6502a

    Joined:
    Nov 29, 2011
    Location:
    Southern Cal
    #25
    Certain devices allow HD streaming from Amazon. My Samsung TV has an Amazon widget for streaming HD. Here's a list of devices:


    http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=hp_left_sib?ie=UTF8&nodeId=201112550
     

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