Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

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Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby SimonJ » Thu Mar 18, 2010 7:24 pm

[size=medium]Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub[/size]

The Mac Mini is seen by many as the perfect solution as a digital media hub suitable for the living room.

What is a "Digital Media Hub"? - It is a term I use to define either a PC or a Mac that is situated in your living room connected up to your TV and HiFi. This then allows all your stored digital media to be either viewed or listened too. The typical media would be movies\DVDs (including High Definition Material), music and you picture collection.

There are many devices called "streamers" that can deliver this too and with so many options on the market it can be difficult to decide on what to buy. One of the main factors for me is this is going to be on show in the living room so needs to be pleasing on the eye and silent in operation. So while there are different PC options with shuttles etc to be the winner was the Mac Mini and here is why I chose it...

1. Very small form factor as only 6x6x2 inches approx
2. Totally silent in operation (well mine is)
3. Esthetically pleasing on the eye especially in a modern home
4. Ticks all the boxes technically to deliver what is required.

There are a number of revisions on the market but the best models to consider are the more recent 2009\2010 offerings which provide the most suitable base lines required.

[size=medium]Here is a summary of the technical features that stand out in those models…[/size]

1. In built graphics card capable of displaying “FULL HD” 1080P delivered through a DVI output to allow the user to connect via a suitable cable to your TVs HDMI socket
2. Optical digital output to feed your DAC, there is of course analogue as well but the digital connection will give you the best sound of course.
3. Capable enough CPU and RAM to meet the most demanding tasks
4. 5 USB connections to allow many peripheral connections
5. Networking capabilities include Wireless of course plus the better option of wired Ethernet right up to the fast speeds available 1000\100\10.
6. Bluetooth as another wireless option usually used to connect Apples own Bluetooth enable keyboard and mouse.
7. Internal HDD start from 160GB which is often the only limiting factor here if you chose to store your data locally but it will all depend on what you wish to store of course.

[size=medium]So with all the models which one do I go for that will do the job without going over the top?[/size]

If we just consider the 2009\10 models to make life easier all you need really is the base model with the 160GB drive and 2GB RAM and this is more than powerful I have found and works well in all the tests I have conducted. The 2009 base model comes with 1GB RAM but Apple will upgrade this for you to 2GB which I would recommend as 1GB is not really enough. If money is not a problem then you can fit up to 4GB RAM but I really feel this is an over kill and not found it necessary at all for the roll the mini is to be used for.

[size=medium]Storage Options[/size]

This is the real area you need to make a decision on and it will all depend on again what you already have now at home and what money you want to spend as there are endless options here. So lets keep it simple and discuss the two main options.

1. Store the media locally either on the internal HDD or by attaching external USB drive HDD. This is of course the easiest method and there are many types of external USB drives available to store your material. In the majority of cases the internal HDD won’t be large enough to host most people’s music, photos and movies hence why external HDDs would be required with this storage option.
2. Streaming the media remotely stored wither on a NAS, Home Server, PC or other digital storage device. This is a superb option but at a higher cost and the most complicated of the two. This will depend on your knowledge and skill set of course. If we take the simples option of using a NAS device in your home that stores all your digital media you would connect you Mac Mini to this to “stream” the media to the Mini. The best way to do this is via the wired Ethernet connection as this removes the annoying wireless drop out issues that can occur. Of course wireless is a viable option but there are more complicated in most people’s homes than actually spending the time to run the Ethernet cable!

[size=medium]What else do you need to consider?[/size]

1. Backing up you data!! This is often over looked but I can’t stress enough that if you don’t do this task and one of you drives holding your data fails your data is lost forever and it is a real pain when it happens so be warned! Backing up your data in simple terms means having another copy of the data stored on say another external USB drive and stored elsewhere. This is the simplest backup methods and is the minimum you should do to protect your data.
2. How will I control the Mac Mini? Simplest (but not the cheapest) is purchasing Apples own Bluetooth enabled keyboard and mouse. This way there are no wires across your living room and very convenient indeed. If money is an issue you can use of course USB versions. There are more complicated options available but lets keep this simple for now.

[size=medium]Connecting it all up...[/size]

Ok lets look at the system connections that I use

Monitor - As the Mini is fitted with a superb HD graphics card it makes sense to connect this to you HD enabled TV especially if you want to watch movies through your Mini like I do. Of course you can use it to view surfing the web displaying itunes etc. The Mini has a DVI output and I purchased a cable that connects from that to one of my HDMI TV inputs. Of course there are other ways you can connect to the TV and you can purchase adaptors etc from Apple and other sources. The DVI output is only video though so for audio see the next section.

Audio - The best connection to use here is the digital optical output on the Mini and connect it to your HiFi DAC input or your AV amp. In my case it is connected to my Bel Canto DAC3 so I can play the music and movies through my HiFi. I have tried it through my AV amp for full surround sound duties for movies and works great. This digital output alos allows you to play 24/96 which is better than CD of course and music in this format can be downloaded from many online music stores. For those with out a DAC the Mini has also a standard analogue output as well that you can connect to you pre-amp or AV amp of course for 2 ch sound support only of course.

Control - I use the Apple Bluetooth enabled keyboard and mouse and perfect for a lounge use as wireless of course and simple. You can use many other devices so it is up to you. As the Mini has 5 USB inputs of course you can used wired keyboards etc but this means wires across the lounge floor, no thanks. Another control option I use is my iPod touch but I will have another section just for that as many great apps and options. In summary though I use the free remote app that apple distribute on the Apple store in itunes. This allows me to control itues and I dont need to have the TV to do that at all as the touch displays all you need of course. Great hey! More on that later...

Getting to your data - In my case the media is stored on my Windows Home Server located in my office downstairs with the lounge on the first floor of this home. Whilst the Mini also has built in wireless networking I much prefer the reliability and benifits of a wired system for this important part so I have used the wired option on the Mini. Therefore in my case it is connected to my wired network which spans throughout my home. Of course my Home Server is connected to this as well so the Mini is linked up to the data on the server and the router for internet access. The Windows Home Server has a number of shares for Music, Movies and Pictures where you need to set the Mini up in the "Finder" application to connect to these shared folders so the Mini can access the data on the server each time you turn the Mini on. You can use the Mini help files to explain how to do that task. In later parts I might delve into these types of setups in detail.

[size=medium]What do I now need to do to get my music playing?[/size]

As I am trying to keep this simple I will continue on that theme and say the simplest method is to use iTunes to manage your music collection and for many good reasons too. It totally integrates into the Apple platform and produces a simple collection management with a superb interface. Once all setup and if you own an iPhone or iPod touch there is now need to even have you TV on to control the Mac or iTunes as these devices can do all this remotely themselves but that is for another day….

[size=medium]What do I now need to do to get my movie\DVD collection playing?[/size]

With the "lets keep this simple" in mind for now at least there are again many ways you can do this with positives and negatives like everything in life. First this you need to do is get your DVDs "ripped" to your storage area and again there are so many ways to do this and a popular program for the Mac world is called "handbrake". Many use this is they only have a Mac but as I tend to be in my office in the weekday evenings on my Windows 7 PC so I use "DVDFab" for my DVD and Bluray ripping duties and works extremely well. With all these programs there are many options and ways to "rip" the DVD to your PC\Mac where some chose to "rip" the complete DVD with all the extras etcs or take what is called an "iso" which is one large file copying the complete DVD as is. I tend to just "rip" the main movie as this is all I need and it will take up for less space on your storage than the complete DVD. Space is soon taken up as your collection grows so these decisions all need to be considered. I "rip" on my PC and then copy the "ripped" data to my "movies" folder on my Windows Home Server which then my Mac Mini can access.

Now this is done the Mini can search and play these "ripped" DVDs but again and you know what is coming, there are so many ways and options you can do this too with so many different programs that can play all the different formats you can have in the video world. After some research I chose a free program called "PLEX" and it just does what it says on the tin superbly! In summary once the PLEX is installed and running your TV screen displays the PLEX interface which can be controlled either by the Keyboard, iPod touch, iPhone or a Logitech Harmony remote. I have tried all of them and all work great indeed. What PLEX does is scans your "movie" folder on your storage and connects to the internet to download the fan artwork and all the movie data you could wish for and displays it in a lovely list format. As you scroll down the list with your preferred controlling device the artwork and meta data of the movie is displayed, once you find what you want to play just hit the play button and off it goes. Of course you have all the features like a DVD player for controlling the movie. PLEX gives you so many other features like local weather forecast, slideshows of all you stored pictures and of course will play all you music too if you wanted. One of the other great features is you can downlaod free "plug-ins" to allow you access to BBC iplayer and a load of on line content.

[size=medium]What is to come[/size]

1. iPod touch iPhone remote control apps
2. Digital Picture viewing
3. Open to other suggestions? :)
Last edited by SimonJ on Sun Mar 21, 2010 8:07 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby julianh » Thu Mar 18, 2010 7:50 pm

Simon

You may want to add that Firewire drives can also be connected as well as USB. Tests have suggested that FW is actually transfer data faster that USB2. The other benefit of an external FW drive is that if you use SuperDuper or something similar to clone the internal drive you can then specify the external FW drive as the boot disk. You can, for example, end up with a 1.5tb boot drive which can accommodate many media files. Given the media files are on the same drive as the OS, there's no data transfer to take place when playing media files.

It has also been suggested by Macworld magazine that a Mac Mini will boot quicker from FW than it does from the internal drive although my experience has shown this to be negligible.

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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby SimonJ » Thu Mar 18, 2010 8:18 pm

Julian,

Thanks for that and of course all valid. In my actual case I stream from a server in another room which to me is much better but more complicated and costly though. I have no issues at all streaming movies including HD ones over my 1GB wired network but of course I shouldnt with that netwrok speed. My server is where I back all the data up to USB drives and what I am trying to do here is keep it simple for people that do not have a lot of experience or knowledge. It will be linked to MisterMats guide as well so all a complete guide yo use. :)
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby tommyb » Thu Mar 18, 2010 8:43 pm

simon
great read and mistermats as well,this is an avenue iam thinking of going down so all excellent reading for the novice like me,i also like the apple gear
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby b4sound » Thu Mar 18, 2010 8:58 pm

Thanks for putting in the time. Another one that should be stickied.
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby julianh » Thu Mar 18, 2010 9:02 pm

Simon

Unfortunately I didn't have the option of storing the data on a server/NAS elsewhere in the house and was left with a choice of either upgrading the internal Mac Mini disk drive which as you appreciate is a) not for the faint hearted and b) currently limited to 640gb and 5400rpm which is too slow and not really large enough for my music files let alone ripped DVDs. For me the solution was to add a pair of 1.5tb Seagate Freeagent for Mac FW drives, using the first for the OS and media files and the second for Time Machine. The drives autosense and are therefore only powered on when in use. They power down when the Mac Mini is in sleep mode and are also silent which means that there's no noise to intrude into my listening experience.

My next step is to look at streaming the 24 bit FLAC files of the new Peter Gabriel album and comparing it to the CD to see if my old ears can hear the difference.

In the end, I agree that the simplest solution is best for beginners and hope that our discussions convince more forum members to try the streaming route. It is very rewarding.

Julian
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby timbo » Thu Mar 18, 2010 9:08 pm

Thanks Simon. These guides are a great idea so well done.

For me, as a novice on the Mac Mini, I still don't really understand what this is about - what is a digital media hub and how is it different from a NAS or a PC? You mention both music and TV, what do you connect to what? If the device is 6x6x2 and I don't have an iphone or touch how do I know what's going on, or see iTunes? etc. Maybe the intro needs expanding a bit for for us numpties who can't see the wood for the trees, before you get to the technical spec section. Hope this helps.
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby djmac » Fri Mar 19, 2010 3:54 am

[quote="'julianh' pid='153830' dateline='1268946146'"]
For me the solution was to add a pair of 1.5tb Seagate Freeagent for Mac FW drives, using the first for the OS and media files and the second for Time Machine. The drives autosense and are therefore only powered on when in use. They power down when the Mac Mini is in sleep mode and are also silent which means that there's no noise to intrude into my listening experience.
Julian
[/quote]

I also have two Seagate Freeagent for Mac FW drives (a 1Tb and 1.5Tb), but stuffed if I can get the blighters to autosense and power down when not in use. I seem to remember some reports saying they are meant to autosense, but the pathetic user instructions do not mention this. I checked one day and they seem to keep spinning 24/7 - even with the computer clearly in sleep mode. Am I doing something wrong? Otherwise they are pretty good - but I actually prefer the LaCie d2 Quadra (Neil Poulton design) - they seem more robust and they definitely autosense. Plus the LaCie has a power-switch so I can turn it off when needed. The Seagates have NO power switch (cheapskates) - so you have to pull out the power cord each time to power down (minor inconvenience).
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby julianh » Fri Mar 19, 2010 8:35 am

DJMac

My Mac Mini is on at the moment and the Seagate external that acts as the boot drive is clearly on as the bright white light on the front is on (a drawback I'll agree), but the time machine drive which is linked to it came on when the Mac booted but is now off again. I've placed my hand on each drive and it's clear the TM drive is powered off as there's no vibration at all.

I'm not sure I did anything more than take mine out of the boxes and plug them in but I will have a good look and let you know if anything else needs to be done. I'll also put the Mac to sleep and check what happens. Maybe it's a firmware issue. I'll do some research and see what I can find.

A couple of quick questions, are your using the USB or FW connections ? I'm using FW. And do you have 'Put drives to sleep when possible' set in the Energy preferences ? Mine is ticked.

FWIW my Mac Mini was bought last summer as were the Seagate drives. I have these drives --> http://www.seagate.com/www/en-us/produc ... t_desk_mac

It's unfortunate that you're having problems as, in my experience at least, they're great drives.

Julian
Last edited by julianh on Fri Mar 19, 2010 8:44 am, edited 1 time in total.
Sources: Cyrus CDXT Signature, Cyrus Stream X Signature, Linn Sondek LP12 (Basik Plus, AT440MLa, Khan, Lingo 2, Trichord Dino Mk3 & Dino+)
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby SimonJ » Fri Mar 19, 2010 8:56 am

[quote="'MisterMat' pid='153856' dateline='1268954558'"]
Awesome, thanks for getting this down Simon! Much appreciated (as it saves me having to read up about it) and will be of great use to people who are considering this route. With your permission I'll take a brief synopsis of this and put it into my guide, with a link pointing here for people who want more information.

Cheers

Matthew.
[/quote]

Of course mate that was the plan :)

[quote="'timbo' pid='153833' dateline='1268946507'"]
Thanks Simon. These guides are a great idea so well done.

For me, as a novice on the Mac Mini, I still don't really understand what this is about - what is a digital media hub and how is it different from a NAS or a PC? You mention both music and TV, what do you connect to what? If the device is 6x6x2 and I don't have an iphone or touch how do I know what's going on, or see iTunes? etc. Maybe the intro needs expanding a bit for for us numpties who can't see the wood for the trees, before you get to the technical spec section. Hope this helps.
[/quote]

Hi,

OK I will add more items like you say but I have covered alot what you ask if you read again?? See..... umm what have I missed? :huh:

1. In built graphics card capable of displaying “FULL HD” 1080P delivered through a DVI output to allow the user to connect via a suitable cable to your TVs HDMI socket


2. How will I control the Mac Mini? Simplest (but not the cheapest) is purchasing Apples own Bluetooth enabled keyboard and mouse. This way there are no wires across your living room and very convenient indeed. If money is an issue you can use of course USB versions. There are more complicated options available but lets keep this simple for now.


Digital media hub is just a term I used as it is a device at the "hub" of the living room to diplay\play your digital media (musice, pics, movies) end of the day mate it is a Mac ;)

When one writes something like this you are tryign to keep it simple for the novice but of course that is not easy but I will tweak it if people feel it is needed and I plan to add more stuff too. I could write out step by step on how to do it all but I dont want to over complicate it.

If people want very specifics answered PM me and I will see what I can do. My plan by ther time this is finished it will be a simple guide to get anyone started and using a very flexiable streaming\hub solution using the Mac Mini.
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby Jbtco » Fri Mar 19, 2010 10:37 am

Not perhaps strictly relevant but I am using a Mac Powerbook in the same way and I am very pleased with it. I am using the Max software for ripping and converting to Apple lossless, AAC or MP3 and it works very well.

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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby SimonJ » Fri Mar 19, 2010 10:51 am

[quote="'MisterMat' pid='153900' dateline='1268994501'"]
Simon,

May I make a suggestion - probably better if specifics (too specific for the main guide) get asked either here or in another public thread since if you're always answering queries via PM then you'll end up answering the same specifics again and again :)

Matthew.
[/quote]

Yeap makes sense to me :)
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby SimonJ » Fri Mar 19, 2010 2:02 pm

Yeah I need to do more work for sure and will take time guys so i will get to it. If you want to keep it "simple" (which is the idea) it is apple all the way for sure. of course there are other options but most want it simple and other options are not so....

I will update and add when I have the time soon :)
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby SimonJ » Fri Mar 19, 2010 8:39 pm

I have updated the main post with more details on connections, more to follow
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RE: Mac Mini as a Digital Media Hub Guide

Postby Jbtco » Fri Mar 19, 2010 9:00 pm

Note that rumour has it that Apple is testing an upgraded Mac Mini with HDMI and possibly other improvements for later in the year.