New Project: Mac Mini HTPC


For the past year or so I’ve relied on my iMac to wirelessly stream video files to my PS3, which would then output them to my TV, and this was fine… until I saw Plex in action. I recently went out to California for a week and during our stop in San Diego we stayed with a friend of mine. After coming home from the Padres game a little later at night he asked if we wanted to watch the latest Entourage. Seeing as how both of us missed it due to being on the trip we said sure. With that said, G turned on the TV and I was instantly impressed with the Plex interface. These guys had a million TV shows and movies setup on this thing and I was in awe of the navigation alone, I had to have one.

I didn’t know much about the whole setup, but I knew it was a Mac Mini running Plex, I also knew that a buddy back home had a Mac Mini hooked up to his TV that he uses to watch TV and listen to music and stuff (I think now it’s mainly just used for a file server). So I had an idea of what I needed to pick up, mainly a Mac Mini. I found out the minimum specs needed to run Plex and be able to watch HD content was a 1.6ghz Mac Mini with at least 1 gb of ram, so that’s what I set out for.

After scouring eBay for a day or so I decided I was going to try to win a 1.8x ghz Mac Mini instead of the base required 1.6. I found a bunch of auctions that were ending fairly soon and setup some auction snipes to try and win one. The first one came and went for more than I wanted to spend (~$450), the 2nd one was pretty low until about 5 minutes left in the auction when it shot up to around the same price as the last one. I was actually surprised as to how much people were still getting for these machines even though there have been a couple revisions since, with the latest being a few months ago.

So after losing a few auctions my mind started to wander and I almost considered just buying the new one for $700… but then I realized that was a stupid idea and kept looking around. After no luck with the eBay auctions I decided to turn to craigslist and see what I could find. The first listing I clicked on was for a 2.0 ghz, 1 gb ram, 120 gb HDD for $400 and located only about 20 minutes from my work (although it was the opposite direction of my house). I decided to shoot the guy an email to see if he’d take $350 cash for it. About 2 minutes later I got an email saying that he could do $350 and we setup a meeting spot for after work, so the computer part of the HTPC was taken care of for even less than I was initially going to spend on ebay.

Next up it was time to buy cables. The craigslist listing didn’t really have any pictures or the actual model number, but it did have the purchase date so I had to do some research to figure out what sort of display ports were on the back of this particular model. I found out that it has mini dvi and mini displayport, both of which I could buy an adapter for to connect to my TV, but which one do I use? After reading some forums I decided to go with the mini DVI to HDMI convertor over using the displayport and/or VGA (instead of HDMI). So video was taken care of, next was audio. Normally HDMI will carry the audio signal as well, but since I was tapping into the DVI port on the Mac Mini there wasn’t going to be audio (DVI only outputs video), so we needed an audio solution. Again, after reading forums, I went with a mini Toslink adapter that plugs into the 3.5mm jack on the Mini. Toslink is just a fancy word for optical audio cords in case you were wondering, I always referred to them as optical audio so I was a little confused.

So I knew which cables to buy, but where should I buy them… Actually that was never really a question, monoprice.com is my #1 source for all cables. Occasionally I’ll buy from firefold.com depending on the prices, but monoprice had the best prices this time. So I ordered a 6 ft. HDMI cable, a 6 ft. Toslink cable, a mini toslink adapter and a dvi to hdmi converter… add on like $6 for shipping and the total came to $23. If I were to buy the same cables in a store it probably would have cost me at least $15-20 for the dvi to hdmi converter alone.

So cables were purchased, Mini was in hand, now what to do about storage… The Mini came with a 120gb hard drive, but I knew that wasn’t going to be enough, especially if I started doing HD rips. For the moment though I don’t want to spend more money on a hard drive when I have 2 external drives just laying around the house doing nothing. I have a 650 gb Maxtor drive and a 500 gb western digital drive, just sitting totally empty doing nothing. I bought them when newegg was having ridiculous sales thinking that I may need them in the future, for backup purposes or whatever. And actually come to think of it, one of them may have a couple Time Machine backups on it, but the other one is completely empty and I know that for a fact. So initial extra storage space is set, I can always upgrade later.

So since my cables haven’t arrived yet I can’t really describe the setup process, but here’s my idea. Since I don’t have much HD content yet, I’m going to leave the 500 gb external drive hooked up to my iMac which sits only a few feet away from where the Mini will be and all the regular SD content, mainly TV shows, will stay on that drive hooked up to the iMac and I will stream them wirelessly to Plex on the Mac Mini. Essentially it’s the same as I’m doing with my PS3, but Plex is so much nicer and I don’t have to deal with the PS3 when I want to watch stuff. Then any HD content I have I’ll just transfer over to the Mac Mini’s internal drive and run it off of there. In my mind all of this should work, but we’ll see when I get the cables in the next couple days and actually set it up.

My next big idea was to be able to use my old iPhone (original) as the controller for Plex. I don’t want to spend more money and buy a wireless keyboard that sits on the table and there were a couple options I read about that would allow my PS3 remote to control it, but I have the iPhone, it’s just sitting around doing nothing, why not put it to use. So I checked out Rowmote Pro in the appstore and gave it a whirl (testing with Plex on my iMac) and it worked pretty well. It’s very very simple, almost looks like the Apple remote, which you can also use, but I wanted something a little more Plex-like. So after some digging I found Controllr and this is much better than Rowmote. It essentially shows your Plex interface (to a degree) on the iPhone and you can select movies and TV shows to watch right from the remote. It’s so nice in fact that it almost defeats the purpose of having Plex showing on the actual TV screen. If I can just browse my media on the iPhone, click a button and have it start playing, why do I even need the fancy Plex interface on the TV? Either way, it still looks incredible on the TV. So now I just have to figure out which one is easiest to teach to the girlfriend. And with an old dock hooked up to the Mini, the iPhone/remote will always have a charging station when it’s low on batteries.

So overall I think it’s going to be a good setup. I don’t foresee any huge issues with the setup, but if there is I will check back in and report. I feel like posting screenshots of my actual setup would be dumb because you can see screenshots of Plex all over, so I won’t post those. If you have any questions about the Mac Mini as an HTPC let me know in the comments and I’ll try to answer them even though I’m pretty new to all of this.

Resources:

Plex
123 Mac Mini
Rowmote
Controllr