Out here in LA I tend to watch less television than I did before, view more feature-length films (especially because I'm working on projects related to the industry) and drive a whole lot more. Last week I had my high speed modem installed, but I decided not to subscribe to cable television, which saves me about $100 a month in service fees. Instead, I'm going to try using a Mac Mini, along with a number of parts and accessories, as a home media center that depends on the Internet, and eventually Over-the-Air (OTA) digital broadcast television, to satisfy my video entertainment needs. I want the system to take care of the following tasks: - Play from streaming media sites such as Hulu and Netflix - Play DVDs and downloaded video from services like iTunes - Play edited HD home movies to the television, in HD - Provide an easy-to-use interface to my MP3 collection and streaming audio online I also require that it:
- Be stable as a rock. Never crash. I want continuous uptime measured in months, broken only by the need to restart to install a system update.
- Have minimum maintenance and upkeep - this in particular is why I am using a Mac over Windows, it reduces update hassles and hardware compatibility headaches. I want an appliance, in essence, not another system to babysit.
- Be quiet. No loud fans - I'm looking at you, Xbox 360.
- Conserve energy. At 13 watts, the Mini burns far less power than my Tivo HD and Cable Box used to. As I work my way through the process, I'll continue to extend this post with relevant information and links to the parts and software I'm using.
I'm assuming that you have the following existing hardware:
- A high-definition television with available HDMI port. A VGA port is also an option, but less optimal. Mine is a 46" Dynex (Best Buy house brand) that I bought used for about $200.
- A stereo that can accept an optical, digital input and amplify that for speakers. If you don't, you can also just use a mini-stereo to RCA cable and connect the Mini to your television's inputs, but it's going to be less satisfying. This doesn't need to be an expensive unit - I bought the one I'm using, with all of the speakers (including a powered subwoofer) for about $225 off of Craigslist. It sounds a thousand times better than the TV alone.
- A home network with broadband Internet connection (Prices are approximate and will almost certainly decline over time following this post's publication. They're also there so you don't get ripped off by Best Buy if you go there and try to buy a cable.)
- Mac Mini 2 Ghz ($599) (Updated: Apple has since released the Apple Mac Mini MC270LL/A Desktop, which is even better - especially with its built-in HDMI!)
- Cables Unlimited PCM-2296-06 HDMI to DVI D Single Link Cable (6.56 Feet, Black) ($11) - the cleanest, all-digital way to connect your Mac Mini to your HDTV. Works in conjunction with the mini-Displayport to DVI connector that is included with your Mac Mini. (Update: Not needed with the new Mini.)
- An alternative display option is Sendstation's Mini DisplayPort Adapter, which connects directly to a standard HDMI cable without the intermediate DVI connection. At $23 it's a little more expensive than the option above, but if you've somehow lost your Apple mini DisplayPort to DVI adapter, this device along with a cheap HDMI cable is an option. This may also be useful if you need a display cable that's longer than 6 ft., as those are going to be easier to find in a regular HDMI cable than one with a DVI plug on one end.
- Cables To Go 2m Velocity Toslink-to-Optical Mini Plug Digital Cable (27016) ($15)
- Elgato Systems EyeTV Hybrid TV Tuner Stick ($130) - allows you to watch and record free Over-the-Air (OTA) HD digital broadcast television on your Mac Mini. - To receive OTA, you'll also need an external antenna. Which one you need will depend on where you live.
- Keyboard and mouse - any cheap USB units will do, these are just for initial setup and convenience when making changes. I happen to already own the Apple wireless keyboard and mighty mouse, which I bought for my home office, but they're not necessary. * Apple Remote Control ($20) - this is the tiny, stick-of-gum style remote that comes free with any MacBook. You may already have one lying around or may know someone who does. Definitely not a must-have. It's worth noting that if you have a programmable remote, it might have support for emulating the Apple Remote - I'm pretty sure all of the Logitech remotes do, for example.
- Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard
- Plex - A remote-friendly media center interface based on Xbox Media Center project. It works great - the only caveat is that at present, there's a few bugs if you use it with Snow Leopard that should be fixed soon.
- AirMouse - this is an excellent piece of software that lets you control any Mac from an iPhone or iPod Touch via wifi, providing both trackpad and keyboard functionality. Here's a New York Times article on AirMouse with a more extended explanation.
- Apple Remote app for iPhone or iPod Touch - this is a free app from Apple you can download to your mobile device. It's best feature, in my view, is the "iTunes DJ" music feature that will let you (and anyone else with an iPhone that's allowed on your wifi network) to vote wirelessly for the next songs to be played by your Mac Mini if it's using iTunes. It will also control any remote speakers you have setup using Airport Express units. Very cool.
- Iomega MiniMax Hard Drive, FireWire 400/USB 2.0, 1TB - 33957 ($130) - tons of extra storage space in a drive that fits right under your Mac Mini. Necessary if you're going to be ripping your DVDs onto your media center for use in Front Row, or using the DVR functions of the Elgato heavily.
- If you're upgrading an older mini with an 80 GB (or smaller) HD, it's almost certainly worth the time and money to upgrade to a new 5400 RPM 2.5" drive with more capacity and speed. For less than $100 you can upgrade to a 500 GB of storage. If I wasn't planning to set up some kind of large network data store down the road, I'd be doing it too. As many of the products as possible are compiled into a single Amazon store page, for your convenience if you're replicating this setup.
- Set up Mac Mini with its power brick
- Connect the video cable from the mini-Displayport to the HDMI input on the TV
- Connect the optical audio cable from the Mini to your receiver / amp.
- Turn on your television and your stereo and set them to the appropriate inputs
- Connect your keyboard and mouse. (If you're using wireless, it's a little more complex - but the OS X installer will walk you through it.) Here's my own setup, just for giggles. I know this is one case where an image really isn't that helpful if you're actually working on something similar. It's showing Vimeo via Plex.
Operating System Setup
I strongly recommend updating to the latest version of OS X before starting any software installs. (As I write this, that's Snow Leopard.) Additionally, I recommend doing a "fresh" install -- entirely wiping out any data or configuration that's on the Mini and installing a clean image of the operating system on the hard drive. Even though Snow Leopard is theoretically an "upgrade" release it will let you do this without using an old OS DVD. * Back up any data and applications on the drive on the drive -- the easiest way to do this is to simply use Time Capsule to fully back up the drive to an external USB hard drive * Insert the Snow Leopard DVD, but rather than running the install, reboot the computer and press down the "c" key to force it to boot from the DVD. * Choose the "erase and install" option for a fresh install Yes, you could just upgrade the existing OS X install and/or leave the applications and user data on the drive. But the objective here is to create a super-stable "appliance" in your media center that runs as smoothly as a turn-key solution. By resetting the OS to a pristine install, and using the latest available release, you're investing 30-40 minutes in one of the most fundamental ways to insure better performance and a cleaner system. Oh, and if you're upgrading to Snow Leopard, you're also freeing up more than a few GB of space on the drive that you can use for media or applications.
- Mack the Ripper -- for copying DVDs to your hard drive * Boxee
- Visit the Airmouse site and install Airmouse on the Mini and on your iPhone or iPod Touch.
- Perian - this plugin allows Front Row to play extra file formats such as AVI and FLV. It shows up as an extra icon in your system preferences. You'll make watching DVDs more convenient if you make sure that the player is setup to automatically play in full-screen mode when a new disc is inserted. That means you won't need the keyboard or mouse to watch - just the remote. (Good luck ejecting the DVD without them, however.)
Image quality, and audio in particular, is great. I didn't expect it to make a difference but I can definitely hear the improvement in audio quality using the optical cable in comparison to the analog mini-stereo to RCA cable. I'm usually a skeptic about these things -- I just believe quality is driven more by the file compression, and output speaker than the connection to the computer -- but in this case the improvement is material and immediately noticeable. The quality of online streaming video has reached a point where having a box like this is even more compelling. Watching "House" on Hulu in full-screen on a 46" LCD, I'd argue the quality is as good as a DVD. Results on Netflix Instant Play were more mixed -- some movies were great (Hang 'Em High) and some were pretty bad (Point Break.) I blame the quality of the compression on Netflix for that - in particular, scenes in Point Break with a ton of motion, like a surfer inside a wave, were a total disaster. (Of course, those are the exact scenes you want to come through clearly.) Obviously though, it's likely that the future will bring more experiences like Hulu and fewer bad ones. Watching HD home movies, edited in iMovie, on this setup is fantastic, as is viewing digital photos. And Front Row provides a terrific interface to your iTunes music collection as well.
- There's presently no way to run Back Row (the AppleTV interface) on Leopard, because it was written for the older "Tiger" version of OS X and hasn't been updated to Leopard yet. That means you have to use Front Row, which is nice but definitely far less powerful than Back Row - you can't buy movies or music from the iTunes store via Front Row, for example. I understand why supporting Back Row on Leopard is not a top priority for Apple, but it does seem to me that there must be a sizeable number of folks who use Macs as a media station (even if just via a normal monitor rather than a home theater) and they would probably be very happy to have a remote-control-friendly route to buying media. And they're probably the most likely buyers of feature-length video content like movies and TV shows. (All of this begs the question of how long Apple is even going to keep selling the AppleTV.)
- In light of the absence of Back Row, Front Row (the media interface Apple bundles with Macs) is somewhat disappointing. At the very least, it could include some stronger support for DVD playback. Here's an example: why doesn't it have an option to remember which DVDs you've played and own, and display them in your media library so you can see them when trying to figure out what you want to watch? The objective should be to provide a single, unified menu for all of your viewing options.
I'm considering setting this up as a video conferencing setup. It would require a decent webcam and a good microphone. (Polycom makes some options.) In the past I've attached my MacBook to a large TV. It's a much more rewarding experience than videoconferencing via a laptop screen, because you can see more of the other caller and their entire body language rather than just a talking head. As noted previously, I've compiled as many of the products as possible into a single Amazon store page, for your convenience if you're replicating this setup. I'll continue to extend and update this post as I keep working on the setup. ## Updated Oct. 15 2009: This evening I switched over from using a VGA connector to the HDMI connector with my Dynex LCD TV. Usually, it's harder to get VGA configured right than HDMI, but in this case it took a good bit of messing around to come up with a sharp image that filled the screen. The problem, I discovered, is that the Dynex has a "overscan" setting in its own menus for the HDMI input, which strikes me as odd -- I've never seen a reason why an all-digital HDMI signal would require overscan, which intentionally zooms the image beyond the edges of the screen (this made sense back in the analog days due to limitations of cathode ray tubes.) So to get things right, I had to set up the Mac Mini with its display at 1080p and overscan on, and make sure the overscan on the Dynex was off so that the image looks right. I've never had any issues before hooking a Mac up to an HDTV via HDMI. I've been watching a good bit of streaming TV using Hulu's downloadable app. And I've also been using Mac the Ripper and Media Fork to make soft copies of my DVDs so I can just pick what I want to watch from a list without getting off the couch and loading the DVD into the Mini. Yeah, I can be that lazy.
Updated: November 11, 2009
For those of you looking for a way to "subscribe" to downloadable television shows, or who don't have the bandwidth for streaming televsion, TVShows is a great program. It constantly scans for new episodes that are available and will hand of to your choice of BitTorrent client. (Transmission seems to be the favorite choice on OSX.) You'll want to figure out for yourself what the legal rules are in your region for that kind of thing.
Updated: November 13, 2009
If you want to use Linux or Windows instead of OSX, Dell now sells a computer called the Zino HD that is very similar in form factor to the Mac Mini and has many of the same hardware ports - HDMI, etc. It even has an SD card reader in front, which is a nice touch, although the front panel isn't as "clean" as the Mini due to all the ports. I've never been a big fan of front USB / audio ports on home theater gear - I'm really not all that likely to have a setup where there are cables running out the front face of my equipment cabinet. I've written up a few comments on it -- I think it's interesting given that it can be ordered with a Blu-Ray drive for less than $500, and also offers Ubuntu Linux 9.04 as an option. (I have my doubts that those two things will play nicely together, however.)
Updated: December 11, 2009
I've started using the Candelair driver to allow better infrared remote control of my Mac - now using the Apple remote but eventually I'll switch to using my universal with it. Seems to work pretty well - the driver is now bundled with the latest version of Plex.
Updated: March 20, 2011
I'm still using this setup, with essentially zero maintenance, upgrading or tinkering. It's still mostly done via the wireless mouse - I just find that using the remote and a remote-friendly interface is too limiting and too much trouble to keep updated (I should probably try Plex again given some of its recent updates.) In particular, I use a lot of Amazon Video on Demand and iTunes, and those seem to work better when used directly. One nice side effect of having the Mini as my primary media center is that it works quite well with the AppleTV (second generation) that I now have installed in my bedroom. I can start watching a show on iTunes in the living room and jump over to the bedroom and keep watching with very little hassle.