Preparing for a Mac Mini-base Media Center

Discussion in 'Apple TV and Home Theater' started by Alan S, Mar 21, 2009.

  1. Alan S macrumors member

    Mar 21, 2009

    I recently switched from the Microsoft world to Mac in October 2008 when we bought our first Apple product, an iMac computer. Our family has bought several iPods since and really love Apple products. We are never going back.

    I now want to build a Mac Mini-based HTPC in mid-April, and would like to ask for advice and opinions from those here who have done it already. We don't have cable and watch mostly PBS over the air. We are not big movie watchers, the selection of stuff on iTunes has most of what we want, and I think building a DVR to record PBS content will get the rest.

    In addition, we have a Nintendo Wii and will hook that up to the HDTV also. Below is the hardware/software spec I'm planning. Being new to OS-X I do have a series of questions though. I might not know some things that are common knowledge to long time Apple users.


    * Computer

    new Mac Mini -
    will use the low-end as the base, but maximize memory
    and use an external HD

    2.0 GH Intel Core 2 Duo
    upgrade to 4 GB memory
    120 GB hard drive
    (undecided on mouse & keyboard)

    * Display
    We are considering either a 46" or a 52" HDTV. Most likely option is:

    Samsung LN52A550 52in 1080p -or- the 46" equivalent.

    Other options are Sharp Aqous, or maybe Sony.

    * Storage
    Want to use an external HD, since the computer will use the smallest harddrive.
    Something with either 500 MB or a 1 TB. Don't know which connector
    firewire vs. USB vs. ethernet cable. It must also be quite.

    Here is what I'm currently considering.
    Newer miniStack v3 - 750 MB with FireWire 800 - 32 MB cache. ~$200.

    * Network
    AirPort Express

    * DRV
    EyeTV hybrid

    * Software

    * Extra
    Nintendo Wii


    A) Does anyone have experience connecting to the Samsung 550 series HDTVs? I saw a PC (VGA?) connection for video on the back. We are going to use the built-in speaker on the TV, so connecting audio is also a question.

    B) Can the Mac Mini play full 1080p content. Most of our stuff will be less than that, but I'm trying to get Planet Earth in full 1080p, since my wife likes that series. Could it play an MKV in 1080p?

    C) Where to run iTunes? I get quite a few podcasts for the iPod, BUT we also want to use iTunes for getting TV and some movies also. These are two different uses. The iPod stuff should be on the iMac in the office, but it seems the TV and Movies should be on the Mac Mini in the living room, and it of course all should be on the external HD. Could you run iTunes on the Mac Mini on an external HD and then share it over the network, so the iPod can synch up with the podcasts?

    D) What are the other options for an external HD?

    E) Is it possible to burn iTunes TVs/movies to a DVD so we have a backup incase the external HD fails?
  2. Cave Man macrumors 604

    Cave Man

    I strongly advise against a MiniStack. They are noisy because their plastic design requires a fan. I suggest you get a fanless aluminum FW400 enclosure, such as MacAlley's, and just use a FW800 to FW400 cable. That has plenty of bandwidth for HTPC use (and what I use).

    You gotta get Plex, man. Gotta get Plex...

    The Mini will give you one audio out port only. It is dual-function analog/digital (by mini Toslink optical). If your TV has optical input, use that as it will allow passthrough of Dolby Digital or DTS if you use Plex.

    Yes, with Plex.

    It's more cost efficient to get another hard drive and just use Time Machine.
  3. Alan S thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 21, 2009
    OK, maybe people can give specific recommendations then. I looked at the MacAlley site, and it only had enclosures not complete external drives.

    I use Front Row now and like it. In our case most of our content will be from the iTunes store and from the other thread in this section, it seems like the recommendation is Front Row == better integration with iTunes.

    The 1080p MKV content will be the exception in our case. I'll check it out, but currently am more inclined to go with what I know and like, which is Front Row.

    Toslink optical, DTS all this is a foreign language. will read up more on it.

    Hmm.... so it sounds like "two external" hard-drives are needed instead of just one. Can you daisy-chain them together, so one FireWire connection goes to drive A then drive A connects to drive B?
  4. michael.lauden macrumors 68020


    Dec 25, 2008
    i run my mini as my media center. i do not have cable and am saving money. i have netflix and now with iTunes HD and readily available torrents. i don't know WHO would pay for cable.

    definitely go with a 1TB for storage. those HD movies take up quite a bit of space. and if you rip the watch instantly movies AND movies you get from netflix.... well you're gunna run out of space on your internal pretty fast.

    i have about 200 movies i've acquired over the last 2 years and my collection is steadily growing.

    and in response to your question about your library. you could share your library (inside preferences) and require a password. or you could only check sync podcasts on the mini.

    there are a million and one ways to work this out - you just gotta work what's best for you.

    i hope this helps!! from one mac mini media center to another
  5. Mr Kram macrumors 68000

    Mr Kram

    Oct 1, 2008
    regarding FW external HD's - you can daisy chain with no issue. i use three in sequence currently.
  6. esaleris macrumors 6502

    Oct 18, 2005
    To answer your question:

    A) For video, use a male DVI-to-male HDMI connector and connect the other end to your TV. This ensures a digital signal, which will exceed the quality of using VGA. As for audio, if there is a optical _input_ on your TV, connect using fiber optic cable. You will need a mini-jack-to-optical adapter on the Mac mini side, and plug the other end into the TV. If there is no optical input on your TV, you need a mini-jack (headphone) to RCA cable, which plugs as an input into the back of your TV.

    DVI Cable -
    DVI-to-HDMI Adapter -
    Optical Cable -
    Optical Cable-to-Mini Jack Adapter -
    Mini-jack to RCA -

    Note: I am not a Monoprice employee, but usually when asked, will recommend them, based on quality and great pricing. If you are wanting to go higher end, I highly recommend Blue Jeans Cable - my entire system is connected with their stuff - very good.

    B) Not sure, but I think the answer is yes.

    C) I do this exact thing. Once you get your Mac mini situated, go to the options and set your iTunes folder to be /Volumes/External_Drive/iTunes. Then click "Reorganize music into folders." This will move all your files to the external drive. Close iTunes, move the iTunes library.xml file to that drive as well (under iTunes in this example). Go to your iMac and network into the Mac mini. Then hold down option and click on iTunes. Browse to the library present on the Mac mini and voila. Tthe only thing is that you should not run iTunes concurrently, as you may lose library versioning.

    D) I highly recommend ICYDOCK external enclosures. They are hot-swappable bays, so you can buy extra rails to install on all your drives. I have 2 enclosures daisy-chained via FW800. I have 4 1TB drives that I use for music, movies (2), and a time capsule unit.

    E) Haven't done so no idea.
  7. robotartfashion macrumors 6502

    Jan 1, 2009
    Phoenix, AZ
    personally i prefer to buy external enclosures and internal 3.5" drives and assemble them myself, then I have control over what's going in the enclosure and if the drive fails I don't have to scrap the whole thing

    I use a rosewell external 2 drive usb 2.0 enclosure which i got from Newegg for $50

    I then picked up 2 Western Digital 1TB Green drives from Newegg when they were on sale for $89.99 a piece, although you can usually get them for around $100

    usb 2.0 is more than fast enough for streaming media

    also, i second any recommendations for PLEX media center software. It has a bit of a learning curve to set up but once its going it works great, is full of eye candy, and will be just as easy for non tech savy people to use when its running

    if you want help with it or have any questions the Plex forum is a great resource

    good luck! i hope you enjoy your new media center!
  8. Cave Man macrumors 604

    Cave Man

    While this is true, I have found that the Eye TV that the OP is looking at has difficulty recording to a USB2 drive. It has no trouble with FW400.
  9. TuckBodi macrumors 6502

    Jan 10, 2007
    First off, a great site for Mac mini info is:

    Secondly, I believe the OP has said he's getting one of the new Mac mini's which no longer have the full DVI port (they now have mini-DVI and mini DisplayPort). Therefore those links links for the DVI is not applicable. I'm another fan of Monoprice though.

    In regards to Plex, I also read the OP saying he was gonna use iTunes movies and TV shows. Unless Plex has done some work lately on this front, I don't believe they can play protected content, can they? Personally I'm an XBMC fan but the Plex camp has done some cool things with their port.

    Lastly, I have a 2 year old Sammy, and while I love it, it cannot pass through Dolby Digital. According to a 3rd level tech support guy, they didn't want to pay the Dolby tax. Maybe they now do so with the newer models, don't know. I also had issues with my AppleTV with HDMI to the Sammy as well. Apparently Sammy's weren't up to spec.

    I'd checkout for some great info. I've used them a lot to get my Mac mini HTPC up and rockin'!
  10. Oneness macrumors regular

    Feb 4, 2007
  11. michael.lauden macrumors 68020


    Dec 25, 2008
    yeah the ministack may sound great - but i have seen it and was actually considering buying one - that is until the fan buzzed up. i like the ad:

    "whisper quiet operation"

    it is a cool idea - i also don't think it compliments the mini very well.. atleast it isn't chrome like iomgea's version.

    i think you should just set up a small network. i am planning on upgrading my externals to 3 - 1TB drives.

    1 will be partitioned into 2 separate parts to act as a Time Machine backups for my mini and UMB to be accessed via airdisk..

    and the other 2 the other will be media storage hard drives.

    when snow leopard comes out i will upgrade to a 7200RPM 500GB HDD for the mac mini and hopefully... after that... i'll be set storage wise :)
  12. azdunerat macrumors regular

    Feb 11, 2009
    Most external HD's I have seen are pretty loud. Thats why I connected my LaCie 2TB max to my AEBS in another room and stream my movies into Plex in my home theater. Doesnt matter how loud the HD is when its upstairs.
  13. michael.lauden macrumors 68020


    Dec 25, 2008
    tru that!

    do you experience lag while streaming movies to you system via wifi? i was planning on creating a small network around the mini where it could access the drives AND the drives could be available via airdisk.

    however it would save some money to do it just with airdisk.

    have you encountered any problems/high heat?
  14. TuckBodi macrumors 6502

    Jan 10, 2007
    Yeah, I'm gonna go the AEBS or similar NAS one of these days and put it in the basement, where it's cooler. Right now I have my HD's hanging off my mini in the bedroom in a cabinet (mini also feeds Eye TV to my TV) and I've had issues with my drives overheating. While I'd like to go fanless I've had to get enclosures with fans.

    I too have heard issues with the AEBS with this true?
  15. Cave Man macrumors 604

    Cave Man

    OP also wants 1080p mkv and that's going to need Plex on a Mini.

    Not video, it won't. That's why I don't buy iTunes Store content anymore.

    Not if they're fanless aluminum.
  16. robotartfashion macrumors 6502

    Jan 1, 2009
    Phoenix, AZ
    that rosewill usb 2.0 external i referenced earlier is extremely quiet, even though it has a small fan
  17. minik macrumors 65816

    Jun 25, 2007
    Bellevue, WA
    Where do you obtain 1080p mkv file from?
  18. Cave Man macrumors 604

    Cave Man

    Most people download them. I don't - I just rip my Blu-ray discs in their native file formats for playback on my Mini.
  19. minik macrumors 65816

    Jun 25, 2007
    Bellevue, WA
    Interesting. I don't download movies and 1080p file would be huge.
  20. azdunerat macrumors regular

    Feb 11, 2009
    So far I have had 0 lag on the network. I didnt bother buying the NAS since I can plug the Max into the AEBS via USB. I have watched entire uncompressed video TS files on my network and they have worked just fine, no skipping or dropping frames. I really havent had an issue with heat but when ripping using handbrake my Mini gets pretty warm, and when I copy large files, IE time capsule back ups like 40gigs the HD did get a bit warm but nothing too bad.
  21. ftaok macrumors 603


    Jan 23, 2002
    East Coast
    What do you use to rip BD's? I'm guessing a PC. I have access to several PC's at home, but I would like to know what specs you have and what BD drive you have as well.

  22. Cave Man macrumors 604

    Cave Man

    They are large, for sure. A typical Blu-ray movie rip is about 18 gb with the nonessentials stripped out. But it sure looks good on a 10 foot screen. ;)

    Here you go.
  23. TuckBodi macrumors 6502

    Jan 10, 2007
    I've found this thread helpful (from one of the HB dev's):
  24. 173080 macrumors 6502

    Aug 15, 2003
    I'm using two Mac minis as a media center, one connected to the TV and one as a data server.

    The first mini is connected to a 52" Sharp TV through a DVI-HDMI adapter to keep the 1080p digital signal and through toslink to a dedicated 24-bit 192-kHz DAC. I only listen to lossless and digital studio masters.

    To keep the hard drive noise out of my listening room I have the other Mac mini in the basement along with the external drives. They're connected via ethernet.
  25. Alan S thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 21, 2009
    Thanks, for all the reply's, especially for the details on setting up iTunes, the wiring and avoiding the "miniStack" external drive.

    I'll revise "the plan" and hopefully have a better system as a result.

    Here is my current thinking on "the revision".

    #1) Ditch the miniStack for something else. What I'm not sure yet, perhaps daisy-chaining several external drives off the Mac Mini using the FireWire port.

    Even though the USB port might be sufficient for streaming, I'd think it is better to save USB bandwidth for something else, like the EyeTV.

    This discussion of attaching the "external drive" to the wireless router and using it as a shared drive is interesting. In our case though since the "Mac Mini + Eye TV = DVR", it seems like having the external drive locally attached to the Mac Mini is the better option.

    #2) Regarding Front Row vs. PLEX... I'll look at Plex, but since most of what we watch will be from the iTunes store it sounds like Front Row is the better choice.

    iTunes has (95%) of what we would want to watch, and with two kids in the house I'd rather have them getting content from iTunes (with parental controls and a rating system) than downloading unfiltered and inappropriate content from the Internet.

    The only exception we might have is to get something not available in the US, which currently is the HD version of Planet Earth. We own the SD Planet Earth DVDs, but I'm sure my wife would like to see that in 1080p. When we need to watch that I'll drop out of FrontRow if necessary.

    #3) Thanks esaleris, for going into detail in setting up iTunes across two machines. This is something I'm going to try!!

    I'll post a more detailed "revision" later, after doing some research. This thread is very helpful.

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