How to set up a Mac mini-based media server part I: Physical connections

How to set up a Mac mini-based media server part I: Physical connections

If the Apple TV isn't enough for you, maybe a Mac media center is the way to go. Here's how to use a Mac mini to get the job done

The Apple TV isn't the best solution for everyone. The number of apps it works with are limited, and you can access most of that content from the web. What's more, it locks you into using iTunes as your media delivery system, whether it's sharing a library on a local computer or syncing via iTunes in the Cloud.

For those use cases and others, it may be better to make a Mac the center of your media center instead, so let's take a look at using a Mac as a media center instead. For this experiment, we're going to rely on a Mac mini, but in reality lots of Macs will do the same job.

Picking the right Mac mini

The Mac mini comes in two distinct flavors: a dual-core system clocked at 2.5 GHz and equipped with 4 GB RAM and a 500 GB hard disk drive, priced at $599; and a quad-core system priced at $799, equipped with 4 GB RAM and a 1 terabyte hard drive instead.

Your budget may guide you initially - perhaps you don't have the extra $200 or don't want to spend it, and that's fine. The basic Mac mini is a perfectly good system to act as the basis for your Mac media center. But the quad-core system may provide a bit more oomph when it comes to ripping video from various sources, like DVDs. Transcoding video is a pretty processor-intensive activity, and it's something that definitely benefits from having additional cores.

The basic 4 GB memory configuration should be adequate to serve up whatever media content you're going to be delivering through the Mac mini, and it's easily upgradable after the fact (the base of the Mac mini), so I wouldn't recommending paying Apple's penalty to upgrade RAM. You can do the job yourself and buy good quality third-party memory from a variety of vendors.

Storage is a different issue, though ...

Storage for your media

Media content - movies, TV shows, music, and more - will take up space. Movies and TV collections will take up lots of space, and you'll probably find that the 500 GB and even the 1 terabyte of internal storage is insufficient.

If you hit a storage ceiling for your Mac media center, moving it externally is the best solution. You can buy an external USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt-based hard drive and follow these instructions to move your iTunes library.

A Network Attached Storage (NAS) volume is another way to offload iTunes files, but there are a lot of caveats. It's broader than the scope of this article, though - I'm going to save that for another time.

Ripping content

Another thing to consider - the Mac mini doesn't have any sort of built-in optical drive. If you have a library of DVD or Blu-ray content, it's possible to ingest it to your Mac, but you're going to need an optical drive to do it.

Apple's $80 SuperDrive is a great option. It's slim, slot-loading and designed to complement the Mac mini and other Mac models. It's also pretty pricy for an external optical drive, and it's only capable of working with CDs and DVDs.

If you want to be able to ingest Blu-ray Disc content or if you're looking to save yourself money, there are plenty of external options available - and most, if not all, will work with the Mac.

One note on Blu-ray Disc content: Apple doesn't include decoding software to enable your Mac to play back video content mastered on Blu-ray. You can certainly add software to do so - again, beyond the scope of this article, but something to consider.

Connecting your Mac to your TV

If you're working with any Mac mini made since 2010, you just need to get an HDMI cable to connect it your HDTV. That's one of the beauties of using a Mac mini as a media center - it's really designed to work easily with a television. Other Macs include HDMI connectors too - the Retina MacBook Pro, for example, as well as the new Mac Pro.

If your Mac doesn't have HDMI but includes Thunderbolt, a Thunderbolt to HDMI connector will work just fine. Before Thunderbolt, Macs included Mini DisplayPort, which looks the same but isn't. And only some of those carry both an audio and video signal, making them easy to connect with an HDMI adapter. If your Mac is equipped with Mini DisplayPort, check out this Apple tech note to figure out if it's audio/video capable.

Other issues

The Mac mini comes equipped with 802.11n Wi-Fi wireless networking, which is perfectly suitable for streaming video content over the Internet. But if you're looking for more networking oomph because you're going to be transferring large files to your new media center, it may be a good idea to go hardline instead, and use the Gigabit Ethernet connector on the back of the Mac mini.

If you just use your Mac mini as a repository for media files, you're wasting a large aspect of what it can do - actually work as a computer. So to that end, I'd definitely recommend considering a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse or trackpad.

Apple's Wireless Keyboard and Magic Trackpad are both fine choices, especially if you have a coffee table or some other flat surface you can use. Twelve South's MagicWand enables you to attach the Wireless Keyboard and Magic Trackpad together into one integrated input device.

Another advantage of using the Mac mini as your media center - it's the only modern Mac still equipped with an infrared receiver, making it able to work with the Apple Remote and other infrared remote controls, like Logitech's Harmony products.

HDMI carries both video and audio, so if you're connecting your Mac media server to an HDTV or HDMI-equipped receiver, you'll get multichannel digital audio too. Don't forget about the Mac mini's audio line out minijack, however - it's digital/analog, so you can connect the Mac mini to a stereo receiver; if your receiver is equipped with digital optical (Toslink) input, you can use a Toslink to mini cable; if your receiver only has RCA analog inputs, you can use a 3.5 mm to RCA adapter instead.

More to come

That covers the basics of physically connecting your Mac mini to your home entertainment system and having a workable system that you can access from the couch. Next we're going to get into how to configure the software on your Mac mini for optimal media center use.

Have questions already? Have you set up a Mac mini media server yourself? Share your thoughts, questions or comments below. I can't wait to hear from you!

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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There are 31 comments. Add yours.

greenstreetpa says:

great article / how to. mac mini has been the work horse of my media center since 2008.
top app for me is rowmote pro. it's the best $5 to be spent. check it out on app store. turns iphone/ipad/ipod touch into a keyboard / trackpad / mouse / remote via wifi.

David Hroncheck says:

I 2nd your rec for Rowmote Pro. Been using it for over two years and it gets used daily. I've purchased similar apps only to give their full features fair comparison, but Rowmote is the best for me.

krsgdlw says:

Great article. Can't wait for part II.

Garino Grande says:

Can a Mac Mini be used as a DVR to record TV shows?

Peter Cohen says:

Yep. There are products that will let you do this, but there are some caveats. We'll get to that. :)

sbaba says:

It would be great if you could cover using HDHomerun + Myth

David Hroncheck says:

I have the most recent $599 model and switched out RAM to 8GB. Transcoded everything that wasn't .m4v with Handbrake. On my setup that kicked the fans to full speed and around 3 hours per HD movie. Other than that task, not much else gets the fans audible. Not even 3 AppleTVs simultaneously accessing the Mini's Shared Library. Whole house is Ethernet wired, so I only use Wifi for my AirPlay speakers and mobile devices.

sbatwater says:

Will you guys possibly cover accessing a Mac mini remotely for folks who happen to run theirs in a headless configuration?

(I use TeamViewer, which is free - curious if there is a better option)

David Hroncheck says:

I use Screens, it's not cheap but it's the best VNC experience on an iPad. I have a static IP and use public key authentication when remotely accessing/controlling my Mini.

CrucialTK says:

I set my mac mini so it can only share info within it's current network. Using the built in Mac software for remote desktop control has worked fine for me.

Becjr says:

Really good read, Peter. I am looking forward to the next installment of the series, particularly with regards to software.
Will you also be covering the topic of how to burn DVDs and Blu-ray into media that I can play on my Mac and iOS devices?

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asuperstarr says:

Good information I would have not thought this device could be used this way.

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Cyrano says:

Great article Peter and very timeous. I am just investigating how to share our digital library throughout the house and really like the idea of a media hub.

booboolala2000 says:

Have been considering this option. Compact. Easy to navigate on a big screen. Scalable

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TrevorCJohnson says:

I use Plex on my Mac mini which works pretty well, though I still prefer the Apple TV for listening to music. The Logitech Easy Switch K811 for Mac works great with this setup as it's backlit, which helps in dark rooms.

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Gerald Shields says:

Honestly, I wouldn't suggest purchasing a NAS and here's why: While all NASs have the capability to be iTunes Servers, none of them support Apple's Home Sharing which Apple TV needs in order to see your media content. Thus I would suggest to get any Mac that can run OS X (10.7 or above), update iTunes to the latest available version and get and install a hard drive that's about 1TB or above.

Art Tabb says:

I really enjoy Peter Cohen's articles, and can't wait for the next chapter of this one.

I especially like his assertion that the Mac mini needs to be used as a computer, not just a media playback device, so I can't wait for that part as well.

Apple needs to be careful updating the mini. If you look at Geekbench scores on Jan 23rd, an i7 Mac mini got 12,029 compared to a stock (lowest end) new Mac Pro's 12,039. This thing is indeed a computer, and I'm sure Apple doesn't want it cannibalizing the Mac Pro sales.

Barry McCaul says:

I use my Mac mini connected to my home network and stream to 3 different Apple TV's via iTunes. All the files are mp4 or m4v. I use "Identify" to get all the show and movie details and it adds the details to iTunes.

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David Hroncheck says:

Great share of "IDentify"! I've been doing it manually until now. The app has a very utilitarian UI, but its results make it hard to distinguish between a movie purchased through iTunes and one tagged by the app.

erikbock says:

I did something very similar with my old 17" MacBook Pro that I recently upgraded from. t is serving a dual purpose right now. That MBP got an upgraded HD front he 160 GB 5400 RPM that came in it to a 500GB 7200 RPM drive when OS/X 10.8 came out. I was running low on disk space and and 10.8 was dragging it down with the slower drive.

This machine is now running 10.7 on the internal drive and has a 1TB Firewire drive connected. It first is is a media server. I have all my music and movies on the internal drive. The 1 TB drive acts as a Time Machine backup drive for my now production workstation the new Retina MacBook Pro that replaced it. There is a tertiary function that it allows me to remote access my home network through Back to My Mac. All of this is connected to a 1 Gb port on my Airport extreme and the media is served up through my Apple TV.

Alexandru Trelea says:

You forgot to mention that you can not have DTS-HD MA sound using a mac.

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Fourrpaws says:

I did something similar a few years ago, and it worked great for a while. Unfortunately I had chosen software that became obsolete (Boxee, Hulu Desktop) and have had problems recently. I am really looking forward to your next article for the software suggestions. I often just use Safari for streaming video, but that's seems more of a workaround than a solution. And for local media I still use either Boxee or Plex, but am dissatisfied with both. Please hurry with that next instalment.

blackhawk01 says:

I has been almost a month since this was started is it going to continue or just fall off the radar?

jasnw says:

I just purchased a Mac mini just for this purpose and ran across this article while googling for help. When can we expect the next installment?

jplatto says:

Looking forward to part 2. Also, would love to see a deeper dive into the things that were "outside the scope" of this article, such as Blu-Ray and NAS options.

alancole says:

Like many others, I am eagerly awaiting the next part.
Any idea when?

jim0038 says:

Can I install XBMC on the Mac Mini? And Do you think its a waste of money to buy the Mac mini Just to MAINLY use XBMC ? I currently use Minix boxes throughout my house.

iambrucethemoose says:

I want part 2! I'm dying for a killer media center and there's too much outdated info out there.

smellcoffee says:

So I've got my Mac Mini, I've got my HDMI port, I've got a Tivo, I've got Ripped backups of movies on my other Mac Mini. My wife and I have 2 different iTunes media libraries each on our own computers... each with our own time machine back ups.....

......So basically to cut to the chase I'm ready for Part 2 !!

;-)

Andre_P says:

When is part 2 landing? It's way over due.

dLucks says:

Agree with those who are looking for part 2. What say you, Mr Cohen?