Ultimate Apple HTPC options

Discussion in 'Apple TV and Home Theater' started by BAC5.2, Nov 4, 2013.

  1. BAC5.2 macrumors regular

    May 16, 2011
    Hi all,

    I'm looking to set up an HTPC in the near future and would like some advice.

    My current system is flawed, but works well for our needs at the moment.

    Current Hardware:

    • Mid 2010 15" MBP
    • 27" iMac
    • Time Capsule (3Tb)
    • Fantom Green (3Tb - via USB to Time Capsule)
    • Buffalo Cloudstor (2Tb as remote cloud server)
    • iPad "4"
    • iPad Mini
    • Apple TV 2

    My current workflow is as follows:

    • Rip DVDs onto my MBP and convert them to .mkv's using Handbrake
    • Add metadata and package as .m4v using iFlicks
    • drag to "automatically add to iTunes" folder on Fantom drive

    This process is a bit cumbersome, especially since I typically rip to the Cloudstor drive, then convert from that drive through the MBP to write onto the Fantom. This takes quite a long time, especially when I have TV seasons to convert. More than once, I've had my MBP running for 24+ hours doing non-stop conversion.

    I use Home Sharing on the MBP to stream video to the Apple TV from the Fantom. Both the MBP and the iMac share the same iTunes library on the Fantom drive.

    The limitations of my current setup should be obvious. I can only access the itunes library from one computer at a time, my MBP must be open and on in order to stream video to the ATV2 or other devices, and converting video ties my MBP to both the power plug and the LAN.

    My goal:

    Streamline this as much as possible by using a central HTPC solution with the following features/options.

    • Always-on iTunes server (able to stream content to one or more devices)
    • Ability to access iTunes library remotely from iOS/OSX devices
    • Integrate security cameras into the system (and be able to review them via one of the Apple TV's in the house)
    • Upgradable for future requirements
    • Reliable and "foolproof"

    My original thought was the following:

    Purchase a Mac Mini
    • Connect to one TV as a monitor and "hub"
    • Use it just like my current MBP in terms of adding content to iTunes and Home Sharing

    But considering what I want from the system, I don't know that this is the best solution.

    I like using the Apple TV as the interface device. The quality is there, and it's pretty easy to use except for a few minor hiccups (lack of any customizable organization, so 300+ movies becomes a bit difficult to maneuver, as are multi-season TV series). I also like being able to have a simple remote.

    I saw this post from several years ago, and it seemed to have some good insight: http://www.mactalk.com.au/18/26550-how-ultimate-itunes-media-server.html

    I don't think mimicing that setup is going to be the best for me (though I do like the XServe RAID setup idea, and I'd be curious to hear feedback about that option...)


    • What do you guys think would be the best option?
    • Would a Mac Mini have the horsepower to handle video conversion?
    • Would an XServe setup like the link above be a more reliable replacement for the External HDD piggybacking on the TC?
    • If I kept the Mini in a remote "server cabinet", what would be the easiest way of accessing it to manage video conversion of stored videos?

    I also have some questions about OSX Server:
    I'm also curious about the option of accessing my library off the LAN (while travelling, for example).
    • Would I be able to access my iTunes library while off-LAN from an iOS/OSX device?
    • Should I replace the Time Capsule backup functionality with that feature in OSX Server to some RAID array (like the XServe)?
    • Would that be more reliable/hands-off than the current system?

    If a Mac Mini is a reliable choice, which should I look for?

    • The standard 2.5GHz i5 dual core
    • $200 more for the 2.3GHz Quad i7
    • $300 more for the 2.6GHz Quad i7
    • If the Mini isn't capable, what should I look for instead?

    I'd run 16GB of aftermarket RAM in either option, along with a small SSD to handle the OS and any apps necessary to properly run what I need. I assume all storage will take place on external media.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated!
  2. priitv8 macrumors 68040

    Jan 13, 2011
    • Nope. Not with iTunes Library Sharing, Home Sharing or AirPlay. Even not over VPN. You can only share your library as a network share and access the files over AFP/SMB/WebDAV. Because iOS does not provide any network volume access by itself, you need an app for that.
    • It's a good and sound way to go. OS X server performs much better than a TC as well. Whether you go with Xserve or with some more common RAID-DAS, is up to you.
    • I currently run one TimeMachine server via OS X Server on a regular USB external drive and it has been rock solid so far.
  3. Cinephi1e macrumors regular

    Jul 19, 2012
    Northwest Ohio
    1. There are hundreds of different configurations out there. So it is hard to say something is the best option. Cost is an important variable as well as backup options.
    2. Yes, the Mac Mini definitely has the horsepower as that is what I used exclusively to rip my DVD's and Blu-rays. Buy one with 4GB of RAM if you can afford it.
    3. I don't recommend using external HD's attached to a TC. The external HD should be attached to the computer running iTunes to minimize any lags.
    4. My Mini runs "headless" and I manage it using screen sharing from my MacBook Air.

    1. No, you cannot access the iTunes library off-LAN. Homesharing only works in the LAN
    2. Ideally the backup function should be separate from the media server. I have two Time Capsules in the house that back all our Macs, with Mac Mini reserved for media only.
    3. ????[/QUOTE]

    All of the above are more than enough. A more powerful machine is nice as it will rip discs faster, but you don't need that much power for playback. I am using an older model Mac Mini and it works very well serving up multiple streams of HD video.
  4. BAC5.2 thread starter macrumors regular

    May 16, 2011
    Thanks for the insight, guys.

    I've been looking at Plex, and perhaps I'd run that on the HTPC and the associated apps on my laptop and our iOS devices. It might be a reasonable stop-gap for accessing content off the LAN. The downside, is that I'm not sure PLEX plays well with .MKV's packaged in .M4V wrappers, so video content might be difficult to replicate.

    As for the computer itself, I'd been thinking about buying a new Mac Mini, and upgrading it with 16GB of RAM and an internal SSD. I feel like both of those upgrades would be reasonably inexpensive, and reasonably reliable. I guess, theoretically, I could buy an older Mini and do the same upgrades, but I'm not certain how much I would really save. A new base-model Mini is $599 and surely that has to outperform the $539 model in the refurb store right now.

    I'll need to look into the XServe idea a little more, too. It looks like filling it with 750GB drives gives a total capacity of 10.5GB, with two independent banks of 5.25GB arrays. Unfortunately, it appears that those are RAID-0 arrays, so provide very little in terms of data reliability. I'll need to research some kind of storage array in more depth. Perhaps a simple pair of 3TB drives in a Raid-1 array might be the better choice.

    How easy is it to set up screen sharing, and be able to access it from a remote computer? Not difficult, right?

    I feel like I could set this all up for under $1000USD. Not too bad, really.
  5. iNewbie macrumors regular

    Aug 25, 2006
    I'm running Plex server on a Windows desktop right now and using the PlexConnect hack on my AppleTV to get it to my home theater. for the most part it works very well. Occasionaly I seem to have audio sync problems that rebooting the windows machine seems to solve. Other then that it plays pretty much everything I've thrown at it. I'm not sure what "MKV's packaged in .M4V wrappers" means. I thought MKV was a package that could contain .M4V or a h.264 file. Not the other way around.

    I'm likely going to get a mac mini to take the place of the windows server and plug that directly into my main tv and use Apple TV's for the other rooms. I'm hoping that solved the occasional syncing issues.

    I really do like Plex. Very happy with it overall.
  6. BAC5.2 thread starter macrumors regular

    May 16, 2011
    Sorry, I meant to say that it strips the .mkv wrapper and transfers everything into a .m4v wrapper. More info here: http://www.iflicksapp.com/

    It works flawlessly, and keeps everything orderly. Being able to use an unmodified AppleTV, and have full iTunes integration, has been extremely user-friendly. Just like Apple intended.

    I may get Plex now, anyway, just to try out. It's worth a 5'er to me to be able to access my music alone in a convenient app (rather than my currently weak method of remote access to my music).
  7. mslide, Nov 6, 2013
    Last edited: Nov 6, 2013

    mslide macrumors 6502a

    Sep 17, 2007
    There are tons of options out there and they don't all have to be Macs. What you need is:

    1) Some computer running iTunes 24/7.
    2) A computer that stores/shares your media.
    3) A computer to do the ripping and conversion.

    These don't have to all be the same computer and they don't have to be Macs. 1) and 2) don't have to be new computers at all. I use a 2007 iMac for 1) and a fairly beefy FreeBSD server (running ZFS) for 2) and 3). For conversion, I use the command line version of handbrake on FreeBSD. The iMac is managed via screen sharing and the server is managed via SSH.

    Using a new mini is fine but I just wanted to point out that there are other options and you don't have to necessarily buy brand new hardware. Just about any Mac or Windows PC made within the past 6'ish years will work for 1). There are tons of options for 2) and 3) can be one of your current computers.

    I use Apple TVs as well. I used to use Windows HTPCs but these days an Apple TV does everything I want.

    I solved that by not ripping everything. I understand the desire to have literally everything you have at your finger tips (I used to be like that) but how many of those 300+ movies and TV shows are you really ever going to watch more than once? I went from having hundreds of movies ripped down to only 50 or so these days. I got rid of all the ones I'd never watch again.

    That's fine but you don't need either for what you're doing. I don't see anything here that would require you to have anywhere near 16GB. 4GB is probably enough but I'd get 8. An SSD isn't really that beneficial for a server. Those are nicer to have in laptops and desktops... computers you interact with on a daily basis.

    I mean, my 2007 iMac is slow as hell and only has 2GB RAM and works just fine. The only reason my server has 8GB RAM is because I use ZFS and that requires a lot of RAM.


    If you're interested in setting up a dedicated file server, I recommend checking out unRAID or FreeNAS. The former is Linux based, the latter is FreeBSD based and both are trivial to setup. unRAID is nice in that it allows you to pool your drives together and it offers redundancy but it doesn't use traditional RAID. You can mix and match any sized drive and it will work. It's slower than traditional RAID but more than good enough for a home media server. I've used both in the past but these days I prefer a traditional FreeBSD server running ZFS.

    These options assume you're okay with the idea of building your own PC/server. This also means you'd need something else to run iTunes, like an old Mac or Windows PC.
  8. BAC5.2 thread starter macrumors regular

    May 16, 2011
    Thanks for the tips mslide!

    I don't have any desire to have multiple computers when just one would do everything. Having more than one seems to unnecessarily complicate things. I'd thought of sticking with a Mac, because running a windows computer for a server seems to require much more setup and maintenance than running a mac (i.e. lots of setups I've read about have problems fixed by rebooting or otherwise mucking with the server).

    The reason for the 16GB of RAM is that it's marginally more expensive than upgrading to 8GB, and the reason for the SSD is to keep operating overhead down (in terms of heat, noise, and power consumption).

    How processor dependent is video converting/ripping in Handbrake?

    Also a good tip of slimming down the video collection in iTunes. There are certainly movies in our collection that we've only seen once or twice, but it's relatively easy to keep all of them and the inconvenience of them being non-foldered is simply that it takes a little more time to find a movie than I'd like.
  9. JoeBlow74 macrumors regular

    Aug 2, 2012

    Most Macs are not designed to run 24/7. Most Macs will overheat if used heavily. I tired to use my iMac as an iTunes server and it kept shutting down due to over heating. What you really need is a server that runs 24/7 and has large amounts of storage. I just recently built a hackintosh iTunes server that is built with all compatible PC parts. I use the AppleTV3 as my client and it works excellent. If you go to Tonymacx86 and read the compatible hardware, you can build your own dedicated hackintosh iTunes server.

    My hardware is as follows.
    Intel i7 3770k CPU
    Gigabyte Intel Z77 ATX MOBO
    8gigs of Kingston DDR3 1600
    120gig Kingston HyperX ssd
    2 x WD 4TB Red HDD’s NAS edition.
    1 LG Blu-ray sata reader/burner
    Kingwin SATA mobile rack for backup of media
    I reused my old ATX case and PSU

    My hackintosh is running Mavericks with all updates and personal software purchased from the App store. The machine is ultra quiet and only uses a little over 80 watts from the wall. If you want to build a server, make sure you buy compatible hardware suggested from Tonymac’s site. The directions for installation are simple. There are plenty of easy to understand directions on the site to read and follow. The cool thing about building a hackintosh, is you can always add more HDD’s as needed. I tried to use a bunch of external thunderbolt drives attached to my iMac, but those drives slowed my iMac down to the point of almost being unusable. Each Thunderbolt drive has an external SATA card built into the dock and is connected to the computer directly to the SATA buss of each Mac. If you daisy chain a bunch of drives, it will slow your Mac down.

    As for playing content from the server, I use my AppleTV3. It has Netflix and HULU+ and plays all my music, movies, TV shows, and home videos from the camera. It just works.

    Again, forget about using Macs as a server. If you do not feel comfortable building a hackintosh, build a nice low power Windows PC and use that as a dedicated 24/7 iTunes server. Windows works excellent as an iTunes server.

    Or, you can build a low power PC with the parts I mentioned above with OpenElec XBMC installed. This will allow you to play anything you want with all the uncompressed audio track found on most Blu-ray disks. You can play DTS Master Audio/ Dolby TrueHD.

    As for transcoding movies, you can use software called IVI Pro. It can import content, transcode content, embed album art/metadata, and import content into iTunes. $10 from their site. Truly an amazing piece of software that is overlooked by many.
  10. priitv8, Nov 13, 2013
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2013

    priitv8 macrumors 68040

    Jan 13, 2011
    My Mac Mini works silently 24/7, no problem. Serving iTunes media will never put it to heavy use. Transcoding is a different story but that I leave to my more capable MBP. And I do it only once (before import into iTunes), not on every watch of a movie. Less carbon footprint, I guess.
    You can always go a self-built hackintosh way. But to build equally small & silent hack and keep it 100% compatible with current and future OS X releases calls for constant hacking. I prefer to invest once into proper HW and forget it. (I tried the hack way couple of years ago by attempting to make a MBP out of a ThinkPad. The net result really wasn't worth the time & effort for me).
    After doing your math you may also find that your hack project will be no cheaper than a 2nd hand mini. You won't need screaming hi-perf machine to serve up iTunes. I run it on a 2009 C2D model. And it does my Apache, DNS, OpenDirectory, VPN, TimeMachine, Xcode serving as well.
  11. dazed macrumors 6502a

    Jun 23, 2007
    I've been running my 2007 mini for years as a itunes media server as well as a crashplan local backup.

    Have had no issues streaming HD to any of my ATVs over wifi. iTunes is starting to become a little sluggish when I have to manually edit any info though.

    I mostly store HD movies I've bought in itunes but am starting to rip my old dvd collection and adding it to it. I do this on my iMac, then use iDentify to add the movie info fields and finally copy the file over to the auto add to itunes folder on my mini.
  12. blanka, Nov 13, 2013
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2013

    blanka macrumors 68000

    Jul 30, 2012
    1)The Mini direct on your TV, definitely. Conversion sucks. XBMC or Plex handle everything and operate easily with a normal Apple Remote or with your surround remote programmed to act as Apple Remote.
    2)For an occasional DVD-deinterlace job any Core2Duo mini is great. Beside that, I never recode video streams. Even Blu-Ray rips are often just 10-15GB, so I don't care about the size and just store them with stripped unused audio-tracks on 3TB Barracuda drives.
    3)Just go with external drives. Nothing wrong with that. With USB3 it is faster than most server solutions. With an older mini a good gigabit UTP attached box can be nice.
    4)Don't, you want to use the remote sensor. I still have all Macs on remote access though, built in OSX, so I can run any mac from any mac.

    Any mini from the 2009 one is a PERFECT HTPC as they do hardware decoded FullHD playback silently. I like the 2010 one best, especially if you swap the DVD drive with a BR one. But any other model with a USB powered BR drive for 20 bucks is on par. Getting a quad 2012 as HTPC is like buying a Ferrari to drive to the mall in your 20mph suburb.

    And please stop the mess with DVD's. DVD is the greatest pain in the butt ever invented. Who came up with the totally stupid idea to interlace 24p content and speed it up 4% for PAL CRT's or do horrible 2/3 telecine for NTSC CRT's? Just download the BR rips, or if you are a brave boy download the DVD rip instead of making it yourself. In many countries that falls under home-copy if you have the actual DVD.

    Considering your security wishes (I would say don't have so much valuable stuff, much easier), but if you insist, get a simple Atom linux server. Stuff that with 4 3TB barracuda's and let it run a DLNA/Plesk server and a security cam logger. They are like 150$ without HD's and RAM.
  13. lannister80, Nov 20, 2013
    Last edited: Nov 20, 2013

    lannister80 macrumors 6502


    Apr 7, 2009
    Another vote for unRAID. The box I built has 3x3TB data drives, 1x3TB parity drive, and 1x400GB cache drive. Works GREAT!

    Low-power too: my server with those 5 drives averages about a 92W draw over the course of a month (Core2Duo, 4GB RAM, on-board VGA video).
  14. dbanderson1 macrumors member

    Oct 15, 2013
    On the cheap

    I love my mac mini but I use it for much more than just an always on, in the background server. If that's all your doing there are many affordable options out there.


    has almost the same specs as my 2011 mini ... HD 4000 is more than capable enough for transcoding video. 16 gb of RAM is extreme overkill in my opinion for this application. You can also run PLEX on linux if you are trying to save some $$.

    But I think you are on the right track, PLEX is the best way to share in and outside of the home ... what you run it on is up to you. Mac mini it probably most expensive, followed by a small windows box, followed by linux. Only downside of linux is if you want to have itunes running on your server you will need windows/OSX.
  15. Benjamin99 macrumors member

    Jan 31, 2012
    The Woodlands, TX
    Why not use your iMac as your "server"? I am using mine w/ an external hard drive and iTunes and Plex always running - which serves up to my ATV, Roku and mobil devices nicely. At one point I considered purchasing and setting up a Mac Mini Server, but just haven't had the need for it yet as this has been working well so far.
  16. mac8867 macrumors 6502

    Apr 5, 2010
    Saint Augustine, FL
    At $384, with no ram and no hard drive and no OS license, this doesn't look like much of a price break to me. A refurbished mini can be had for the same price with a complete config.

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