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The Mac Mini Media Center

The Mac Mini Media Center

Having been a massive fan of the AppleTV a number of friends have been pushing me towards the idea of a Mac Mini media server. To date I have fought the idea mostly down to the cost and complexity of such a system in a family living room.

I decided I needed to at very least test the Mac Mini out as a viable media solution before I could really make a decision as to the best system for an age range of users.

plex

Getting Started:
Unfortunately the Mac Mini doesn’t come with an HDMI output as default and I was determined not to need a separate audio amp for sound so I need to work away for both audio and video to connect to the TV.

Thankfully most HD TVs come with a single HDMI input that also accepts an additional input source (generally phono). This means all you need to connect your Mac Mini to a HDTV is an HDMI adaptor, DVI cable and a 3 1/4 inch jack to phono audio cable. I purchased my cables from a large chain only to find I could have saved around ?20 online (see here and here (audio)).

Having all the appropriate hardware and cabling I was ready to set up the home media centre.

Problem 1
Happy I was wiring all the necessary cables I smuggled connected the sound and moved to connecting the HDMI adaptor to my nice new DVI cable. I then tried to connect the Apple adaptor and to my horror it didn’t actually fit. There are two kinds of DVI DVI-I and DVI-D and I had managed to purchase the wrong one. Back to into the car and the correct cable was purchased.

Problem 2
Having arrived home with the appropriate DVI cable I then discovered the Mac Mini despite being new was as dead as a dead thing. Back into the car and a quick swap over to a working unit.

Finally, I was up and running and finding my way through the initial Mac Mini setup. As my TV supports 1080i and not 1080p I had to adjust the screen viewing dimensions in Settings. Once set the picture was really quite stunning.

Software
This test system is going to use a mix of mostly EyeTV (for live and recorded TV) as well as the brilliant Plex for the remainder of my media.

Plex-EyeTVEyeTV is perfect for the home media TV solution. The full screen menus are easy to navigate and the EMG supplied my TVTV makes recording and watching TV effortless.

The second application is Plex. Plex was born from the old Xbox Media Center application that many users ran on their first generation Xbox consoles. Plex is a visually stunning media front end with a host of powerful plugins that make it a serious consideration for any Mac Mini media system.

plextv

Plex does everything you would expect from a media center, music, photo, film and tv management and better still it uses the likes of IMDB to pull DVD covers and backgrounds.

Simply point Plex at your Movies Folder and it will “scrape” the various details in the background. It can take a while for Plex to index your entire library but once it does the visual results are spectacular.

I did have a few issues with mismatches, when this happens Plex does give the opportunity to refresh the content presenting a list of possible films.

TV works the same way although I have found that my TV recordings are not saved in a format that Plex particularly likes. When I say format I don’t mean video filetype but naming convention.

If you are going to allow Plex to identify your TV and use the internet to find the programme synopsis it is essential you name each file properly by series and episode. Eg Name of Programme/Season 1/S01E01.AVI etc

I will need to spend some time working through these issues and will no doubt post an update when I get my head around it all.plexiplayer

If you live in the UK one of the best (of the many) Plex plugins has to be the BBC iPlayer application. Click on a programme and within seconds you are watching it full screen on your TV.

The quality is perfectly watchable and if it wasn’t for the bandwidth issues I would consider not recording BBC programmes that are going to appear here. One issue I did notice was I couldn’t pause an iPlayer programme once it had started.

It is very easy to get Plex to auto load when the Mac Mini is turned on (see this tutorial). Plex will load full screen and I have set EyeTV as an application that can be called from the Plex interface.plex-appsI haven’t quite decided if it is best to export recorded TV from EyeTV to a folder that Plex then indexes or access recorded TV via the EyeTV application itself. The system works pretty well together but I still have a bit of tweaking and refining to do.

Centralising Remotes

Plex works perfectly with the standard Apple remote but one of the biggest negators of living room technology (and the biggest issue likely to cause a block from ‘wife approval’) is the issue of remotes. TV remote, Sky remote, Apple remote, EyeTV remote, PS3 Remote, DVD remote, they all add up and although we don’t have all the remotes listed I know at least four readers who actually do !

Welcome the  Range. I managed to get my hands on a well priced Harmony 785. It is hard not to get excited about the harmony range of remotes, simply tell it what home devices you want it to support and it does the rest.

All you need is your TV model number, know what type of Mac you have, and it even supports the Elgato devices.plexremote

Although I couldn’t find my exact Elgato device listed (as it is new) I was able to enter a different device (250) as they are both shipped with the same remote.

The very latest version of Plex also supports the Harmony remotes so finally a single controller will handle everything. The initial setup takes around ten minutes but Logitech appear to have support for literally 1000s of devices. The full range of Logitech Harmony remote controls can be found here.

The remote takes a bit of learning but it is programmable to work with just about anything. I am slightly nervous as to how it will be received by other members of the family but a little white Apple remote is on standby.

I am pretty new to the whole Mac Mini Media Center system and am excited about the whole new area of learning it offers. I need to work out the best way of handling photos, music and getting Plex to scrape my TV recordings more accurately. If I can achieve this then I will be seriously considering the Mac Mini as a serious contender for the Living Room Media Heaven (LRMH).

I will obviously keep the site updated as I get to know Plex and work out ways of integrating it with EyeTV, there are a few challenges ahead but isn’t that the fun bit ?

Links:
Plex

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