Ultimate Mac mini HTPC Guide -- Hardware

Looking to supercharge your home entertainment setup with the power of the Mac? When shopping or building a media-center Mac or PC, everyone is going to have a different set of requirements.

Now that the new Mac mini sports the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M as its integrated graphics chip, it is finally a true contender for the home media center space.

Deciphering Model Choices

The current Mac mini has two basic configuration choices (you can do additional build-to-order options too) that are $200US apart in price.

The $599US offering (as of this writing), includes an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.0GHz processor, 1GB of DDR 3 RAM and a 120GB hard drive.

The $799US model offers the same processor, but 2GB of DDR3 RAM and a 320GB hard drive.

Both models can be customized to use a faster Core 2 Duo 2.26GHz processor for an additional $150US.

Let's just look at the basic models: is it worth the $200US to get more RAM and a bigger hard drive?

I say no. 2GB of RAM is a great start and might even be completely sufficient for your needs, but you can get 4GB of third-party RAM for around $60US (at the time of this writing). RAM prices fluctuate depending on supply conditions, so that number can go up or down, but for under $100, you can get double or quadruple the RAM.

A note about the integrated graphics RAM -- the Mac mini will automatically allocate 256MB of RAM to the GeForce 9400M as long as it has at least 2GB of RAM installed.

DIY Upgrades

Installing RAM on your Mac mini does not void your warranty -- provided you don't break anything while performing the upgrade. While the mini isn't the easiest machine to perform an upgrade on, it isn't the most difficult either.

OWC has some great videos that show you how to install more RAM (or a bigger hard drive) in your 2009 Mac mini. Check out the RAM video here.

If you aren't comfortable doing the installation yourself, you can find an authorized Apple dealer to do it for you. Some places, like B&H will even do a larger hard drive or RAM install for an extra $60.

If you want to do an install yourself (and it really isn't difficult, just go slow and take your time), while you have the mini open, you can look at replacing the hard drive too. The stock 120GB hard drive might be enough if you have an existing media server or some external drives (remember, the current mini has 5 USB ports and a FireWire 800 port), but you can get a 500GB 2.5" hard drive for under $100US.

For $160US, you can get 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive from third parties, which will end up besting the $200 premium you pay for the $799.99 Mac mini.

Other Cables and Accessories

Once you have your model picked out and your upgrades chosen, it's time to make sure you have all the cables you will need to connect the Mac mini to your TV. Now, the mini comes with a mini-DVI to DVI adapter. If your HDTV has a DVI input, you're set as far as video is concerned, but if you have a newer TV that is HDMI only, you'll need to get an adapter.

You can get a regular DVI to HDMI adapter, but Monoprice -- which is a fantastic place to get quality cables for very low prices (and they ship internationally) -- has a mini-DVI to HDMI cable for only $6US. If you want to use the DVI port for your computer monitor (or you just want to play with mini-DisplayPort), Monoprice also has a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter for under $10US.

That takes care of video; what about audio?

The Mac mini comes with an optical output. It's a standard 3.5mm audio jack (so it can be connected directly to a regular auxiliary connection), but if your home audio receiver has an optical input, you can connect the two directly for full 5.1 digital audio output.

All you need is a 2.5mm to TOSlink (that's the industry name for optical cabling) cable. Again, Monoprice has these for just a few dollars, though these are often available at local computer or electronics shops as well.

One thing to keep in mind, by default, the audio output will be digital, but it will be stereo -- that is two-channel only. In order to get multi-channel audio output, you'll need to change the audio settings in whatever program you are using.

For instance, in Apple's DVD Player app, click on DVD Player --> Preferences and make sure that "Digital Audio Output - built-in device" is selected and that the box that says "Disable Dolby dynamic range compression" is checked. See the image below for the exact setup. Doing this, you can play your DVD discs back in surround-sound.

When it comes time to configure some of the media programs, we'll adjust them for proper output settings too.

There's one other note on the connection scheme, although it's only going to apply to a particular subset of configurations: those who want to use an HDMI input to the TV, but who don't have a separate surround sound receiver or stereo to accept audio input. Chances are, your TV will expect to get the audio signal on the HDMI connector (as normal A/V gear with HDMI would do), but since you are sending the DVI video-only signal through a DVI-HDMI converter cable, there won't be any audio on that port. Make sure, in that case, that your TV supports setting the audio input discretely to an auxiliary set of RCA jacks or a 3.5mm stereo plug while displaying video from the HDMI connector - or use a DVI port on your TV instead.

Keyboards, Mice and Remote Controls

Home media center or not, the Mac mini is still a full computer, and as such, many tasks (especially in the configuration phase) will need to be accomplished using a keyboard and mouse.

You can use any standard keyboard and mouse with your Mac mini, but if you are going to be using it in a living room or media room, you might want to consider either an integrated keyboard/mouse device or a remote that is designed specifically for home media centers.

Finding a control setup that works for you often comes down to personal preference, but here are a few options.

Logitech MediaBoard Pro PS3 -- This media keyboard was designed for the PlayStation 3, but it works great with a Mac mini. It's Bluetooth, so you don't need to use any sort of wireless receiver, and it has an integrated trackpad built into the keyboard. At $60US, it's also pretty inexpensive.

A few things to keep in mind: Although this keyboard works just fine with the Mac mini -- even the media keys -- it was not designed for a Mac. It wasn't even designed for a Windows PC; it was designed for the PS3. Thus, it is missing the "Windows" key on traditional keyboards (or the Command key on a Mac keyboard).

You can get around this by mapping other keys to take the place of the missing ones. What I did was map the keys in System Preferences so that what appears to be the "Alt" key is instead "Command" -- "Ctrl" is "Control" and I mapped the "Caps Lock" key as "Option."

These are the settings I use for the MediaBoard Pro, visually.

Logitech DiNovo Edge Mac Edition -- This is a top-of-the-line keyboard. It's Bluetooth, it has a built in tracking disk (for touchpad controls) and a rechargeable base station. Logitech initially made this beauty for Windows only (although it worked fine with OS X) but now a special Mac edition is available as well.

Brett Terpstra swears by his DiNovo Edge boards and they consistently win high marks. The only downside, of course, is that at $130US, this isn't cheap. For a keyboard you are going to use in your living room it may or may not be worth the price.

Adesso WKB-4000MAC -- You can find this keyboard (or its Windows-keyed counterpart) online for under $100. It uses RF via a USB connection, and some users have reported problems with interference with other 2.4GHz devices. Still, it has native Mac keys and is basically built like the bottom half of a small laptop. The trackpad is on the bottom with separate mouse buttons and it has full OS X controls.

Apple Wireless Keyboard -- You still need to have a mouse if using the Apple Wireless Keyboard, but it is a great addition to any Mac. I'm typing this post on my Apple Wireless and I love it. The battery life is great (far better than other Bluetooth keyboards I have used in the past) and you really can't get any more Mac-like.

The fact that you need to use a mouse with this setup is really the only downside. If most of your computing needs are going to be while you're controlling media playback or using a remote control, having two separate pieces might be more hassle than it is worth.

Logitech Harmony Remotes -- I've been using Logitech's Harmony universal remotes since before Logitech purchased Harmony. Over the last five years, the software and device support has only gotten better. If you want a remote that you can integrate with one of your media center applications and that can control the rest of your A/V equipment, you want to check these out. Yes, they are on the expensive side -- but having a device that will instantly turn everything on and to the right channel, settings and audio input when pressing one button is just magical.

TV Tuners

Although we have the HD-DVR connected to the same TV as our Mac mini, my fiance and I also wanted the ability to record programming from a TV tuner -- especially HD programming.

There are lots of different TV tuners that work with the Mac, but the best known product is undoubtedly Elgato's EyeTV product line. TUAW has covered these devices in-depth and they are work easily and reliably. Equinux's TubeStick is a popular option too.

If you have more than one computer that you would like to use to capture television content, I also suggest looking to the HDHomeRun (newegg link). What I like about the HDHomeRun is that it is dual-tuner, supports both ATSC and QAM and is controlled completely over the network. You just plug this into your cable or antenna and plug it into your router. It will be assigned an IP address and you can then use it from your software on Mac, Windows or Linux.

Our house has not only multiple Macs, but a number of Windows and Linux machines too (including a just-built Home Theater PC running Windows 7), so for us, this was the best option. On the software side, Elgato's EyeTV software works like a dream. Having said that, if you don't have multiple computers that want to share a tuner, you're better off just getting the EyeTV Hybrid (which comes with the software) or a TubeStick.

That Nagging Blu-ray Question

We won't know until later this month (or perhaps next month) if iTunes 9 will indeed include Blu-ray support, but as it stands right now, playing Blu-ray on the Mac is a tad problematic. Although you can get drives that you can use on your Mac, you have to interface with them in Windows to handle playback. Now, a Mac mini can play back Blu-ray rips beautifully, but you'll still need to use Windows to work with the discs.

Although I feel pretty confident Apple will be expanding its Blu-ray support in the future (I'm not privy to any secrets, this is just a hunch), at the present time the situation really isn't tenable for doing everything in one box. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Although every computer I have owned since December of 1998 has had a DVD drive, I have always preferred a hardware component to a DVD drive and a software player. Performance is just better and I usually have superior audio output options.

Blu-ray is no exception. The prices for good hardware Blu-ray players (and by "good" I mean that they meet or exceed the consumer standard, which is the PlayStation 3) have come down tremendously over the last year and they are only going to keep falling. Both Samsung and LG offer players that also work with Netflix Watch Instantly, which is a great option for Netflix members (because you can see "Watch Instantly" titles in higher quality streams than what Netflix offers via its computer player) and more manufacturers are reportedly following suit. Some of these players even come with Wi-Fi adapters, negating the need to be near an Ethernet jack.

Although the ability to pop-in a Blu-ray disc on your Mac and enjoy high-def goodness would be lovely, the reality is that it just isn't ready yet. If you want Blu-ray now, you're going to get better performance from a separate player. Keep in mind too that although the 5.1 digital sound on the mini is pretty great for most media, it isn't necessarily that great for Blu-ray and its seven channel audio awesomeness. If you have a relatively new receiver and speaker system, your aural experience will be better with a hardware player too.

As the Blu-ray situation continues to evolve, TUAW will keep you posted.

Now that we've got the hardware decisions out of the way and we have everything hooked up, let's move onto the software that will make your Mac mini HTPC sing!

Part II: the software side
Back to the introduction