Search



Contact Us

Remote Assistance


Powered by TeamViewer

Rate Us!


How did we do? Rate us on WOMO!




Mac Mini Home Theatre PC

I have been installing some basic Home Theatre PC (HTPC) systems for clients so decided that I needed to do my own properly. My original Home Theatre “PC” was a “play anything” Phillips DVD player. It had a USB port that served us well but it was not the easiest to use. I had to provide extra power to the hard drive plugged into the USB port which meant the drive never turned off. It ran extremely hot in a closed cupboard and failed a few times before I decided to start again.

I spent a great deal of time looking at Home Theatre PC options for home. I initially decided that a Windows 7 Media Centre PC would suit my needs. I looked into making an ultra small form factor Media Centre PC to manage my significant (and growing) media library. The system initially had to handle any video media format (as well as audio although we didnt plan to use it for music), be easy to navigate and manage High Definition TV at full HD (1920×1080) via HDMI. It also had to be either cheap or re-use as many components that I already had as possible (such as an HD TV Tuner card). However, I ran into issues with SWMBO (She who must be obeyed) who had some specific design requirements (it has to be out of sight or look good). Out of site was going to be extremely difficult.

Late 2009 Mac MiniAfter failing to find anything that I considered suitable for a Home Theatre PC in parts (primarily a case and motherboard), I began to experiment with the late 2009/early 2010 Intel Mac Mini. I already had one my desk and thought it would make a suitable Home Theatre PC. A lack of TV tuner options (USB only) meant I had to drop TV as an integrated option. I had a Topfield PVR with USB out so I can copy and re-encode saved digital TV to the Mac Mini anyway. The Mac Mini is a great form factor for a Home Theatre PC, it is tiny, unobtrusive, has optical digital out, is very efficient. It also has an internal Infra Red receiver and (now) has native HDMI out. Its biggest downfall is a lack of Blu-Ray (the internal drive is DVD only).

I have my Mac Mini connected to the TV now and it is operating as a Home Theatre PC. It does not have an internal TV tuner (nor the ability to add one) and I do not have a USB or network tuner so it is not doing TV. It just plays downloaded and saved content from a 6TB QNAP NAS. I tried installing Windows 7 with Bootcamp to compare the two. Windows 7 is using Media Center, the Mac is using Plex. I tried using the built-in Mac app “Front Row” but it only really works with iTunes media and was not suitable for our needs. Plex was a little slow sometimes and had a habit of freezing up about once per week but is much nicer to use than Media Center. Windows 7 on the Mac Mini is a little sluggish (probably due to the 5400rpm HDD). The latest versions of Plex are completely stable and after a full rebuild (with faster hard drive, upgrade to 4GB RAM and no extra apps), it is now my permanent choice. The wireless connection was not reliable for HD streaming (even when connecting with 802.11n at 144mbps) so I had to install gigabit ethernet to speed it up. The full HD resolution did not display correctly on my TV until OSX 10.6.4 (a widely reported “overscan” issue). I bought a 1.8m mini-displayport male to HDMI male cable from Hong Kong to elegantly clean up the mini DVI to DVI then DVI to HDMI then HDMI cable mess. Six weeks after buying my Mac Mini, they released a new model with an HDMI port (Not happy). I have not connected the digital optical out from the Mac Mini so any downloaded content only plays in Stereo which is fine for most downloaded content.

The Mac Remote resembles an aluminium tongue depresser, it is too small and thin but is sturdy and it works, albeit in a fairly limited way. Plex has been designed for use with the Mac Remote and most functionality is fine. Plex remote for the iPad is a nice addition. It can act as a remote control for the Plex system on the TV or can stream media directly to the iPad (the latest Plex has a server and client component). Plex works best with strict file names and filing conventions as it tries to match media to an online database and download meta-data for it (images, information etc). This feature still needs some work but it is getting there. Any downloaded files usually need to be renamed (eg show\season X\show S0xE0x.avi) to give them the best chance of being properly indexed. My preferred renaming app is a Windows apps called “The Renamer” and since my downloads and NAS sorting happen on a Windows PC, I have not bothered trying to find a Mac equivalent.

There is no way I could build a similar spec PC in a case anywhere near as neat and compact for close to the price of the Mac Mini. That said, a custom PC would have an internal TV tuner card, plenty of hard drive space and native HDMI output. There are some nice and funky HTPC cases for PC’s if you want to make it a feature but if space and design are restricted, the Mac Mini is ideal and with Plex being both high quality software and free, it is my HTPC system of choice. My 5 year old daughter has no problems using it either.

Posted in: Free Software, Hardware

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *