Mac Mini as HTPC Guide

chris

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First thing you'll need is a Mac mini. I've seen plenty of various configurations, but it appears you'll want a minimum of 2GB of RAM. You can start with 1GB and self-install should you need additional memory. Macsales has information on how you can upgrade your Mac mini. In terms of processors, any of the current generation Mac mini's will be plenty of horsepower. If you have your eye on a specific earlier model, I'd suggest Googling to be sure it's sufficient. My guess would be Yes, since plenty of people have been using the Mac mini as an HTPC for years.

Can I find a Mac mini cheaper than $599 (base price at Apple.com)?
Sure. Keep an eagle eye on the refurbished section at Apple.com. I've seen prices as low as $429. They go quick, so set up 1-click purchases if you are looking to score a good deal on a refurb.

Should I be concerned about buying a refurbished computer from Apple?
Not a all. In my experience, I've found them to be exactly like a new computer, outside of the white packaging. I've purchase 3 refurbished Mac's over the years and never had an issue. If you are worried, look into Apple Care. I'm almost certain you can add Apple Care to a refurbished product.

How do I hook it up to my TV?
You'll need two cables to run the Mac mini to your TV and/or AV system. The first is a cable that converts the video signal to HDMI. I used a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter ($11) along with a standard HDMI cable I had.

How do I get audio to my TV or AV System?
You need to get a mini Toslink (2.5mm) to Toslink ($3.00) The mini part connects to your mini. Toslink is another name for optical audio and this is connected to the back of your AV System. In a pinch, you can use mini to RCA. I originally ordered a standard Toslink cable, but this was the wrong cable. The mini to RCA will only output 2 channel stereo, while your movies are likely in 5.1 surround.

What applications should I install?
There are two applications that are typically used. Boxee and Plex. Both are free. You can use both and choose the one that works best for you. Within each app, you can install other apps. Like the iPhone, Plex offers an App Store. All the apps are free. Popular apps are Netflix (if you have a subscription), HULU, MTV, Apple Trailers and others. HULU also offers a desktop app which I prefer to the Plex Hulu app.

Anything else I should install?
Perian (Free) is a QuickTime plugin that allows playback of assorted files. If you plan on using the Netflix app in Plex, you'll need to install Silverlight (free).

Why a Mac mini vs Apple TV?
Apple TV is a great product, but there are limitations. Using an actual computer, you have access to an abundance of apps within Plex and Boxee. It is possible to install Boxee on AppleTV. I find Plex to be the main reason for selecting the Mac mini. Plex allows you to catalog your movies, TV shows by scraping the meta data from the Internet. The result is just awesome. For example, when I view > TV Shows > The O.C., I'm greeted with theme music from the show, cover art of the DVD and the various episodes. My AppleTV was limited to 40GB of storage. Although I could stream from my desktop, this setup allows for almost unlimited storage and expandability via USB, Firewire 800 or an NAS (Networked Attached Storage).

How do I convert my DVD's?
First thing you'll need is time. There are plenty of tools, but I use Handbrake. It's free and works great. Insert your DVD, select Source. It will scan the movie. Often you'll see there are a number of tracks. If it's a movie, it's typically the first or second track and you'll see the time of the track. Go to IMDB and name the movie like this > Name of Movie (XXXX).m4v For example, Twilight (2008).m4v

Speed of conversion depends on the speed of your computer. Faster computer = faster encodes.

What about storage?
You can use the Mac mini's hard drive, but chances are you'll end up filling it up rather quickly if you have a large DVD collection. Even quicker if you decide to encode your Blu Ray movies. Don't worry, you have plenty of options. You can choose from external storage or a more expandable (more costly) home media server. Either way, be sure to have a plan to back up your drives. You're going to spend countless hours encoding your movies. The last thing you need is to have a hard drive failure and lose your movies -- forcing you to break out your DVD collection for another month of encoding.

What's the file structure for Plex?
For movies, I set up a volume called "Movies". As noted above, name of movie (YEAR).m4v for the file name. For TV, I set up a folder called "TV Shows". I name the series name and create season folders. The structure looks like this:

TV Shows > Deadwood > Season 1

When naming episodes, I name them TV Shows Deadwood S01E01.m4v. S01 is season number 1. E01 is episode 1. I'm not so sure I need the full naming, since my folder structure is set up this way, but it works...and that's all I care about.

What do I set up in Plex?
In Plex, you'll want to go to Watch Your Videos. This actually where you Set Up Your Videos. I'll use Movies as an example.

Go to Add Source. Click Browse and select the Movies folder you created that contains all of your movies. Select OK. Then select "Set Content". It will be empty, press Return and you can scroll through the various "forms of content". When you get to movies, use the up down arrows and go to Settings. I changed IMDB Movie Poster and Art to 1024 (higher resolution).
When done, press OK and Select. Then you'll select OK. Plex will then go to the Internet and pull movie art, information for your movies from IMDB.

Use the same process for TV Shows. Note: You don't have the option to change artwork in TV Shows, so it's one less step.

How do I watch in full screen mode?
Using your Mouse, select View > View Fullscreen

How do get back to regular view?
Press the \ key
 

chris

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#2
I knew that eventually I'd circle back and update this thread. I've created the Ultimate Mac mini HTPC Guide. Any questions, please feel free to comment on the post or in this thread.
 
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danipoak

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#3
Just something to add to it. Handbrake is a great program but it is my personal preference to keep my DVDs on my computer in their DVD format, I know there are others out there like me. For those like that the program Ripit has been great for me. It costs money but they give you 10 free rips to try it out. Just another option to handbrake.
 

chris

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#4
Just something to add to it. Handbrake is a great program but it is my personal preference to keep my DVDs on my computer in their DVD format, I know there are others out there like me. For those like that the program Ripit has been great for me. It costs money but they give you 10 free rips to try it out. Just another option to handbrake.

Good point and recommendation. I used it a few times. Good software. I'm concerned about the size of the output file and I like the way Plex handles my m4v and mkv files --- displaying all the movie/tv info.
 

danipoak

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Good point and recommendation. I used it a few times. Good software. I'm concerned about the size of the output file and I like the way Plex handles my m4v and mkv files --- displaying all the movie/tv info.
Output file size I think is the reason most people will go with handbrake. I have a couple of friends that have TB's and TB's and TB's of storage so output file size just does not matter.
 

Europa

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#7
Just something to add to it. Handbrake is a great program but it is my personal preference to keep my DVDs on my computer in their DVD format, I know there are others out there like me. For those like that the program Ripit has been great for me. It costs money but they give you 10 free rips to try it out. Just another option to handbrake.
Is it better than Mac The Ripper, which is free?
 

danipoak

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#9
Is it better than Mac The Ripper, which is free?
Yes and the reason being Mac The Ripper is just out dated, it is no longer updated. A number of newer DVD's I could not rip with it and that is when I found Ripit. So far I have only had one DVD I could not rip.
 

styfle

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Mar 31, 2008
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#10
I have been wanting to set up a system like this but there are a few reasons why I haven't.
1) I don't have an HDTV.
2) I want use the mac mini over the network and get like a petabyte drive that I can split into 3 partitions: one for media streaming to the TV, one for backups of all my computers, and one for a web server. I'm not sure if this is worth it for the price yet so I'm still holding out. I was thinking about getting one of these for streaming to the TV http://www.wdc.com/en/products/Products.asp?DriveID=735
The totally price of this system would be way too much for my budget though.
 

acosmichippo

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#11
Petabyte, huh? Trying to save every DVD ever released?
 

Caliaskan

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#12
I think it's worth mentioning that at least for plex, you MUST have an intel based mini, PPC is no good. I have a 1.66ghz which is one of the first intel based Mac minis and it works perfectly. I wanted to have a hardwired Ethernet connection so instead of running a cat5 from the other side of my house I just went to the time Warner office and picked up a second modem at no cost.

As far as what I use to backup my DVDs, I went with Mac the ripper for quite a while but the realized it could not handle Sonys arccos protection. Unfortunately nothing Mac based can at the moment so I have conceded and no run parallels and windows xp along with dvdfab. I have had ZERO problems ripping full disks with this setup, however I know I will need a bigger external hard drive soon:). I love macs and think everyone needs a Mac mini htpc! Glad to help if I can.