HOW-TO: Turn your Mac mini into a media center

Yep, everyone's talking about using the Mac minias a home media center, and there's a reason why: its diminutive form factor makes it a good candidate to fit unobtrusively into an existing audio/video or home theater setup. It looks more like a consumer electronics device than a computer, so it won't look out of place in your living room. We think of it as the central brain of our system; the glue that holds all the devices together. It can serve the role of scheduler, controller, audio/video recorder, audio/video playback, audio/video download, and it even makes a decent audio/video production unit, as well. You might not win the next Sundance with your iMovie, but you sure can impress everyone at the next family reunion.

So for this week's How-To we'll cover the various aspects you'll need to think about when planning your Mac mini media center system, plus show you how to control your Mac mini headlessly from any computer in your house-there's no need to BYODKM; just BYOB, pop in a DVD and enjoy your HDTV, OK?

Mac Mini media server

There's more than one way to skin a mini, so we're going to walk you through our setup and give some overview of what tools are required. Audio and video connections are going to vary greatly depending on your particular setup, so we'll do our best to show what we're doing with ours and give you a head start on what you'll need to get your own setup up and running. Most of the connections are fairly simple, so this how-to is geared towards covering the basic issues you'll have to resolve, plus show you how to divert the cash from the D, K, and M into better investments for your media center. Without further ado...


First problem to solve is the storage issue. Whether you get the 40GB or 80GB drive, you're still going to run out of space right quick. Start thinking about external storage right now. This is going to depend much on your available space, your personal preferences, and what equipment you already have lying around. If you have an old PC of any OS flavor lying around, now is the time to repurpose it into a file server. You don't need a speed demon to serve in this capacity, because you can schedule large file transfers to happen overnight or at other times your home network isn't in heavy usage. We turned an old PowerMac G4 400Mhz machine into our file server. It lives at the 'front end' of our back end/front end media center solution, which we'll talk more about later. We run it headless, as well - another DKM chunk of change you can sink right back into extra storage.

G4 file server

If you go this route, you'll want to soup up the chassis with as many hard drives as you can. Cannibalize old drives, look for sales online, keep an eye out for friends with neglected machines lying around. Leave no hard drive behind, my friends.

Setting up your server on your home network should be fairly straightforward. You'll want the connection to be wired for faster file transfer. If the server machine is running OS X, getting it to talk with your Mac mini is easier than selling a marked up iPod shuffle on eBay - your success is assured. If you're planning to set up your server as a Linux box, you probably don't need any further instruction from us. Go nuts. If your server is a Windows box and you're unfamiliar with the vicissitudes of cross-platform networking, you'll have to do a little bit of research on best practices for smooth communications between the two. Sadly, this is beyond the scope of this how-to, but if many people request more information we may cover it in a future how-to.

If you don't have a spare machine lying around to serve duty as a file server, you can either get a cheapo bare bones PC to fill the role, or invest in an external storage solution. Depending on your needs, this can be as simple as a single external Firewire drive; 250GB drives are going for less than $200. If you plan to ultimately burn most of your recorded TV and video to DVDs, you will most likely be fine with this solution. You can also daisy chain several Firewire drives together (or use a Firewire hub), and add more as your needs require.

An alternative to using external Firewire drives is to set up a Firewire enclosure, which converts one or more IDE drives into a Firewire-accessible storage solution. This can be a more robust and compact solution to housing multiple drives, and it can also be less expensive than buying multiple Firewire externals. It's an excellent way to get some usage out of any old IDE drives you have laying about; there are also enclosures made that will convert notebook drives into Firewire storage.


Now we get to the fun part. We've set up our media center in a back end/front end arrangement. We're going to do our video recording on one end and playback on the other. Our Mac mini is the brain of the back end. We've set her up in the upstairs office, which sports a relatively ancient Panasonic TV/VCR combo. Awwwww, yeah. We're using a 4-device audio/video switch and RF modulator to route all of our audio and video components. For about $45 this unit will take inputs from multiple devices and route them to a single output device: in our case, the stereo.

This device allows us to quickly switch between multiple sound sources without having to plug and unplug cables all the time. One input is the output from the Mac mini, another is the output from the TV itself so we can bypass the crappy internal speakers, a third is output from our trusty old Windows laptop we use as a dedicated jukebox (serving up Audiogalaxy Rhapsody,, and internet radio), and the last input is reserved for portable audio devices: iPod, MPIO, another laptop, etc. All of these are regular analog 1/8" minijack to RCA, or RCA to RCA, cables.

Audio/video switch and RF modulator

If you have a stereo or home theater system with digital inputs, you're going to want to take advantage of that high fidelity by keeping your audio signal in the digital realm along the entire pathway. An all-in-one solution for piping digital audio out, as well as playing back TV, video, and image content on your Mac is the EyeHome from Elgato Systems. The box connects to your Mac via ethernet, or wirelessly via Airport Express. It gives you your S/PDIF optical audio out as well as composite, component and S-video out, which we will talk about again later on in the video section. The unit comes with software that lets you easily view the media on your Mac: music, images and video files in MPEG and DivX formats. New units go for $199, and Elgato is also offering refurbished units for $149.

An alternative to the EyeHome is a USB to digital audio solution: the M-Audio Transit. It provides TOSlink optical digital output and allows AC-3 and DTS pass-through. If the digital inputs are on your stereo are coax S/PDIF, you can use a converter like this one to hook the Transit up to your stereo, keeping the audio in the digital realm all the way from your Mac mini.


For piping the video out to your TV, you face the familiar analog/digital choice once again - choice being predicated largely on what you already have. In the best of all possible worlds, you have a nice spankin' new TV with a DVI connector, which you simply hook up via the Mac mini's DVI out to achieve the holy nirvana 1920 x 1200 resolution signal. If you're considering purchasing a new TV for your media center, make sure it has either a DVI or an HDMI connector. The industry is moving in the direction of keeping all of these signals digital from end to end, which is good for us because it means higher quality video and audio, and that we don't have to keep buying a gazillion adapters from the Apple store. Huzzah!

If, like most of us, you have to convert your Mac mini's sweet digital output back to old analog, there are two fairly straightforward options: cheap, and not so cheap. Cheap is a $19 DVI to S-video adapter from Apple. Note that that product page must say at least a dozen times the adapter is only for use with a G5, which is truly annoying since they link right to it from the Mac mini product page. They must not have gotten around to updating the page yet, but it reportedly works just fine with the Mac mini.

If your TV uses composite/RCA in instead of S-video, you can use an S-video to RCA adapter. My G4 Powerbook came with one:

S-video to componenet adapter

If you don't already have one lying around, you can order one online for about $13-$17 depending on the length you need. You'll have to get both the DVI to S-video and the S-video to composite adapter, connect them, and hook that contraption into your composite RCA cable:

S-video to componenet RCA cable

For those of us who are really old skool, there's always beloved coax. We've got coax coming out of the RF inverter switch to our TV.

Coax cable

If you've got a TV that's old enough to only have coax in, you'll need an RF modulator also. You don't have to shell out for the $45 4-port version, though; you can get a regular 1 in/out unit for as little as $10.

RF modulator - front

RF modulator - back

Coming back to the not so cheap solution is our old friend the EyeHome. Again, it offers an integrated hardware and software solution for playing the media on your Mac for $199, or $149 refurbished. If you have a TV that has component video connectors, this is the highest quality analog solution you are going to get.

Component cables

HDTV will travel over component connections, although it's still less optimal than a DVI connection because the signal has to undergo a D/A conversion and back again with component cable, whereas DVI stays in the digital realm entirely. Still, it's a noticeable improvement over S-video, and probably worth the investment if you have a TV that supports it.

Video in

Finally we arrive at the heart of your home studio: how the heck are we going to record all of this acronym soup?

This past fall we tested out the Formac DVR solution for TV recording and video conversion. Let's just make a long story short and say that it technically works, but you don't want it. The hottest kids on the block right now are from Elgato Systems - sound familiar? In the States, we basically have two choices, because the USB solution is just not going to cut it when we can have Firewire. Choice one is the EyeTV 200 for $329. This box has gotten consistently positive reviews on its own as well as combined with the EyeHome as an integrated PVR solution on the Mac.

The EyeTV 200 was our choice for a PVR unit. At press time, our unit was still on back order because we're not the only ones who had the same idea, and the thronging Mac hordes beat us to it. So we can't show you our EyeTV in action, but its place in our existing setup couldn't be simpler: it fits snug with the Mac mini via Firewire, with one composite video cable going from the TV to the back of the unit, and the audio output that is now routed to the stereo will route in to the EyeTV. We're old skool and don't have cable, but if you do your cable box is basically a step in the chain between the TV and the EyeTV.

We chose the EyeTV 200 over the EyeTV 500 because of its versatility: you can use it to record any analog or digital source you can find a connector for. It functions as a nice analog to digital converter, so you can capture all of those old VHS tapes to luscious MPEG-2 format. You can even record gameplay on your Playstation, when you get really bored.

Your video will get transcoded into MPEG-2 format and stored on your Mac. It will suck up about 2GB worth of space every hour, so make sure you have enough free space either in your staging area, if you offload files to a central server, or that you capture the footage to an internal or external drive with enough space. EyeTV offers scheduled recording options, and the excellent TitanTV channel guide, but one of its major limitations is its inability to switch channels on your cable or satellite box. If you have unscrambled analog cable you're fine, as the coax feed can go right into EyeTV's built-in tuner for changing channels. But if you've got digital or satellite cable, this is the most serious issue to consider before purchasing EyeTV. You won't be able to use it like TiVo. Apparently Elgato is working on a solution to this problem, but as of right now it's still vaporware.

Recording and playback of HDTV
For the HD enthusiasts, I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is you can record in HD perfectly fine on your Mac mini at either 1.25 or 1.42Ghz, using the $349 EyeTV 500 from our favorite, and basically only, company providing PVR solutions for the Mac: Elgato. In fact, you only need a 500Mhz processor for recording, because it's the breakout box itself that does the heavy lifting, and not your Mac. The bad news is, you'll need either a digital TV with a DVI connector, or a serious horsepower Mac to play back your recorded MPEG-2 content over component HD cabling, because in the reverse process, the Mac's CPU has to bear the burden. On the other hand, you could use the 'bad news' as an excuse to finally give in and get that sweet HDTV plasma screen you've been drooling over. As the old adage says: when life gives you lemons, buy a plasma TV.

To those of you early adopters who have an HDTV with component instead of DVI connectors (like us!), we hear the pristine Dolby 5.1 sound of you tearing your hair out. Yep, it sucks. Especially since the reason for this whole shenanigan is that Apple is holding out on third-party developers like Elgato. If they had made the interfaces of their graphics cards easily accessible to developers, Elgato could have taken advantage of the hardware acceleration on the graphics cards themselves, instead of forcing the Mac's CPU to shoulder the entire load.

Why is Apple holding out on third-party developers of PVR solutions for the Mac? Our best guess is that Steve jobs has some sort of HD PVR solution up his black turtle-necked sleeve, and we'll see it roll out sometime this year. It is, after all, the Year of HD, remember?

If you are stuck in this boat with us, and you happen to be lucky enough to have a dual processor G5 just lying around collecting dust that you can dedicate to the front end of your media center, then you probably have the cash to pony up for a new DTV anyway, so please send Engadget the G5 for *our* media center, eh?

It's not as bleak as all that, really - Apple's not the only game in town. There's nothing stopping you from using a cheaper Windows or Linux solution for the front end of your media center. What's more, some sub-$300 solutions for networked media playback of MPEG-2 content are starting to come to market, like the Roku PhotoBridge HD Digital Media Player. MPEG-2 is the current digital video standard, so look for other solutions to be emerging in the near future, as well. If you do choose the EyeTV 500 as your PVR du jour, you'll be happy you spent some time up front thinking about storage, because HD recording will suck a whopping 8GB of hard drive space per hour. That's some seriously phat video, yo!

Remote Controlling your Mac mini: Do Not BYODKM
(subtitle: the Tao of VNC)

One last item on the problem-solving agenda: remote control. You can pipe the video output of you Mac mini to use your TV as a monitor and shell out for the keyboard and mouse. You'd have to spring for the Bluetooth module in the Mac mini, plus a Bluetooh keyboard and mouse, if you wanted to control it from your couch. Considering that most of you probably already have other computers in the house, there is a much easier, and more elegant, way to control your Mac Mini media server: enter VNC.

Virtual Network Computer (VNC) is a remote desktop protocol used to remotely control one computer from another. It transmits all input data from screen, keyboard and mouse between the two machines across a network. It's complete platform independent, and there are client and server applications written for almost every operating system, including the Pocket PC, Palm, Java-enabled cellphones, and even the Apple Newton. 300 bonus points to anybody who sends us a shot of their Newton controlling their Mac mini.

VNC is also open source code at its core, and most of the clients/servers are open source as well. There may be no free lunch, but there is free desktop remote control, which means you can turn almost anything into a remote control for your media center and impress all your friends for the low, low price of $0. Who said the Mac was more expensive? ;> Let's get cracking.

VNC consists of two parts: the machine you wish to control runs a VNC server, and the machine you control from runs a client. Both work over TCP/IP, which means you can control your headless Mac Mini from any machine on any OS in your wired or wireless home network. It also means you can control your mini from anywhere you can get internet access. There are issues to be resolved concerning dynamic IP addressing and security if you want to access your NYC Mac from your next trip to the Swiss alps, but neither is it rocket science. If you'd like to see this covered in a future how-to, just let us know.

Installing a VNC server on your Mac mini

You can install the standard UNIX version of the VNC server on OS X via Fink, but it only supports X11 programs. There is an Aqua-friendly version that we'll use called OSXvnc. Click on the "Download OSXvnc" link and the application itself will be downloaded to your default download location. When you first launch the server, you have to do a little configuration.


Most of the information under the General tab should be filled in for you automagically. Display number 0 and port 5900 are both defaults. The Display name will be based on your computer's name. You should enter a password for VNC access to the Mac mini and, ultimately, set up an even more secure connection via SSH. Next, click the Sharing tab:


If you're running other OS X Macs in the house, make sure to check "Advertise Server via Rendezvous" - when you launch a VNC client on a Mac on your network, it will automagically show you the Mini as an available VNC server. Next, click the Startup tab:


Click on "Configure startup item." You will get a dialogue box asking for your password to authenticate enabling OSXvnc at startup. Enter it and click OK, and you will see that the vnc server startup item has been enabled, and the next time you boot up your Mini, the vnc server will automagically run.

vnc 4

At this point you may want to enable any other applications you want to run on startup. When I have had troubles with VNC, it has often been when attempting to launch programs. Since it's easy to enable what you know your media server is going to use at boot time and leave those applications running, you can avoid potential program launch errors. We've set iTunes and iPhoto to launch on startup. You can enable startup items in the System Preferences: go to Accounts and click on the Startup items tab.

Connecting to your Mac mini with a VNC client

You can find a good VNC client for whatever operating system you want to connect to your Mini from here. Follow the documentation to see how to establish a connection. It's usually pretty straightforward: enter the display name/hostname of your Mac, the port number (default is 5900), and the connection password. Then, hit connect and witness the wonder of your new multiple personality machine.

Dell itunes

Other remote control options

As noted above, you can download a VNC client to your Pocket PC, Palm, or Java-enabled cellphone. Better yet, load up all three and make sure you always have a remote handy wherever you are.

One other option is to use an excellent piece of software called Salling Clicker. Controlling your Mac mini from your cellphone is an elegant solution for your living room media center, and inexpensive if you've already got a device supported by the software. It is not a true and total remote control as with VNC, but it does have support for many of the applications you would be interested in controlling remotely, plus support for AppleScript so you can hack up other solutions to meet your needs.

EyeTV/EyeHome come with remotes, also, but they're only useful for controlling their own software domain, and not your whole Mac. If you want power over the whole kit and kaboodle, give VNC a try. After all, when else do you get to dig on your old Dell laptop running Aqua?

Dell running Aqua