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MAC MINI MEDIA CENTER PROJECT

 

Mac Mini Core Duo, Newer Technology miniStack v2, and Elgato EyeTV HD

an informational article by Chris Hamady

Updated 12-1-12

Originally published on 4-2-06

 

SPECIFICATIONS*


Mac Mini

Mac OS X 10.6.8

Apple Macintosh Mac Mini Core Duo

Dual Core 1.66 GHz Intel Core Duo processor

1 Gb RAM

80 GB Fujitsu 5400 RPM HD

Slot-loading SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)

Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics with DVI port

DVI to HDMI cable

4x USB 2.0 ports

1x Firewire 400 port

Digital/Analog audio out

Built in WiFi

Built in Bluetooth

Gigabit Ethernet

Front Row Remote

Cost- $614.00

 

Newer Technology miniStack External HD x 2

500 Gigabyte 7200 RPM drive X 2 in RAID 0 (striped)

Firewire/USB 2.0

1x USB 2.0 uplink port

3x USB 2.0 ports

3x Firewire 400 ports

Cost- $215.98

 

Elgato EyeTV HD

EyeTV HD USB tuner

EyeTV 3 software

Component video input ports

USB 2.0 port and cable

S-video, composite video input

Composite audio input

Remote control

Cost- $199.95

 

Microsoft Wireless Multimedia Keyboard and Mouse

Cost- $49.00

Total Cost- $1013.98

Having a Media Center That is Small, Quiet, and Aesthetically Pleasing- Priceless

 

*Prices have been updated to reflect current costs

 

The Components

 

Ever since the moment that Steve Jobs demonstrated the Apple media center software, Front Row, I had been looking forward to replacing my television's DVD and VCR player with an all in one media center device from Apple. On the very day that Apple announced their Front Row media center enabled Mac Mini, I ordered one from the online Apple store. It arrived a couple of weeks later. Having installed numerous Mac Minis for schools and families, the only difference that I could find in the packaging was the inclusion of the Front Row remote control.

 

 

Mac Mini Packaging and Contents

Speaking of Front Row, now that Apple has introduced Mac OS X 10.7- Lion, they have disabled the Front Row media center software. If you, like me, love and use that interface on a daily basis, you can find instructions on how to re-enable it here. I personally won't be installing Lion on my media center until I have no choice but to do so.

 

Storage

 

My plan was to put all of my music, photos, DVDs and home movies onto this thing. If I was going to do that, I would need a large amount of storage space. I checked around the web and decided to go with the Newer Technology miniStack with 500 gigabytes of storage.

 

 

miniStack Packaging

 

The miniStack was designed to perfection. It was created to be the identical form factor of a Mac Mini. You place the miniStack in your entertainment system, and then place the Mac Mini on top of it. This photo will give you an idea of the true size of the miniStack.

 

 

miniStack v2

UPDATE 3/20/10- After 4 years of adding music, photos, and movies to my miniStack, the 500 GB capacity was nearly completely filled up. I bought an external USB drive, backed up the miniStack to it, erased the miniStack and my second miniStack 500 GB drive, and created a RAID 0 (striped RAID) 1 TB set out of both of them using Apple's Disk Utility. I then bought a SATA PCI card for my Quicksilver G4 and a 2 TB internal drive. I'm now using the miniStack 1 TB RAID under my Mac Mini as my media center drive, and backing it up to the internal 2 TB drive on the G4. Lastly, one of the fans went bad in my second miniStack. MacSales.com sold me a couple of replacements (I wanted a spare) and the miniStack is as good as new.

 

PVR- EyeTV HD

 

Next, I had to decide on a TV tuner/PVR (personal video recorder) to replace my VCR. Using a PVR, one can program the Macintosh to record television shows, automatically encode them, and send them to iTunes for playback on all of your Apple devices. Back in 2006, I originally purchased the Elgato EyeTV EZ, but have since upgraded to the newer EyeTV HD. One of the limitations of the EyeTV EZ was that premium channels could not be decoded and recorded by the tuner. EyeTV HD works around this by grabbing the component output of your cable box, and sending those video signals to a USB video capture device.

The EyeTV HD consists of a USB video capture box and an IR blaster cable. The IR blaster is used to remote control your pre-existing cable box using your computer. You simply mount the IR blaster underneath the cable box so that the infrared transmitter tip of the blaster cable is aimed at your cable box's IR receiver. You then connect  component cables from your cable box's component output ports to the EyeTV HD capture device's component input ports. Next, you connect the EyeTV HD to your Macintosh using one of its available USB ports. This sort of setup results in all cable channels, including premium channels, being first decoded by the cable box, and then sent to EyeTV to be recorded via the cable box's component output.


The EyeTV setup wizard takes you through a step by step process of telling the EyeTV software which cable company you use, as well as the physical cable box model that the cable company has provided to you. Once setup is complete, you can now program EyeTV to change channels on your cable box automatically, or remotely depending upon the type of activity that you are using it for.

Tip: In some instances you may find that your exact cable box model is not listed in the EyeTV software. You will have to use trial and error to find an equivelant model that accurately controls the cable box. In my situation, I couldn't find the model listed for the box that Buckeye Cable provided to me (Pace DC700x HD), but using a setting for a Motorola cable box worked just fine.

 

Setup

 

Setting up the Mac mini was truly an easy experience. I connected the Mac Mini to my Sony television using the DVI to S-video adapter and pressed the power button (Now connected via HDMI. See update below). I would have liked to have connected the Mac Mini to my television via component video cables, but as of this date, I can't seem to locate a confirmed DVI to component video adapter that will work with my setup.

A few moments after turning on the computer, I was happy to see the familiar Apple logo on my television's screen as Mac OS X began to boot for the first time. After going through the typical OS X setup process, I copied my iTunes and iPhoto libraries from my dual processor G4 to the miniStack over my home network and changed the iTunes preferences to look there for the iTunes library. One important item to note: the Mac Mini is CRAZY FAST. In almost every task it is much faster than my dual processor G4 1.33 GHz, and even seems faster than the 20 inch iMac G5 2.1 GHz that I use at work.

UPDATE 3/20/10- I finally broke down and joined the HD revolution. I recently purchased a Sharp Aquos LCD television. I chose LCD as it is generally recognized as being much better at displaying computer output than Plasma TVs. I tried using a VGA cable but was not able to get the computer to display at 1080p. I ordered a DVI to HDMI cable from monoprice.com. Once I connected it up I was pleasantly surprised to see an incredibly vivid and crisp image that easily displayed at numerous video resolutions.

One drawback is that I'm seeing some video anomalies trying to play HD video content purchased from iTunes at 1080p, but those same movies look incredible at 1024x768 on the Sharp. I'm guessing that the limitation is due to the weak graphics and processing capabilities of the 6 year old Mac Mini in trying to decode and play 1080p HD content. That being said, the difference between the quality of video when comparing my old Sony CRT television to the new Sharp LCD is staggering and cannot be exaggerated.

 

Setup- audio

 

I connected the Mac Mini audio output to the audio inputs of my Sony TV using a cable with an 1/8 inch mini plug at one end (connected to the Mini), the other end (connected to the television) via red and white RCA composite connectors. I used a second composite audio cable to connect the television's audio output to my Denon surround sound receiver. I used this configuration for two reasons:

First, I've had my receiver since 1997. While the audio quality is very good, the receiver lacks modern connections like optical inputs that support Dolby 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound (optical audio supports multi-channel surround sound and has much less noise in the signal when compared to analog). Secondly, by connecting the audio receiver to the television's audio output rather than the Mac Mini's, users can also take advantage of the audio system while watching regular television broadcasts (using cable TV directly and foregoing the Mac Mini and ElGato EyeTV EZ).

If you are interested in connecting your Mac Mini to a surround sound receiver with an optical input, you will need a toslink audio cable and adapter. You can buy one here:

 

Hosa Digital Optical Audio Cable with Mini-Toslink Adapter (B&H Photo Video)

 

More information on this topic can be found on EveryMac.com.

 

UPDATE: My Receiver Died

On Easter Sunday 2006, I was demonstrating the media center for a friend. One moment we were both laughing and grinning at how well it worked, and the next moment...SILENCE. Long story short...after 9 years of use, my Denon receiver finally gave up the ghost. I went out and bought one of these:

 

Harman Kardon AVR 340

 

I also bought a Belkin optical cable and used it to connect the Mac Mini to the new receiver. Let me just say that optical audio connections are MUCH better than analog connections. There is no longer any discernible hiss even at loud volumes, and there is much more clarity and detail in the sound.

UPDATE 3/20/10- Now that I purchased an HD TV, I had to buy a center channel speaker. I opted for a Polk Audio TSi CS10. It works well with the other audio components I have that are making up the surround sound system.

A couple of people have asked me to mention something concerning surround sound audio and ripping DVDs. I cover this in a section below labeled, “Handbrake.”

 

PVR- Details

 

Using EyeTV, you can schedule programs to record whenever they are playing on television. A large grid shows you the schedule of available programs that your cable provider offers. This is accomplished with a required $20 subscription to TV Guide (the first year is free). When I am at home, I have the ability to navigate through the grid of available programs, and the ability to schedule a recording with one click of the mouse.  In the picture below, the program with the bright red dot is scheduled to be recorded.

 

 

Program Scheduling

 

Once your show is recorded, you can remove any commercials using the editing tools built into the software. They aren't exactly Mac-intuitive, however. Rather than selecting a region and pressing the delete key, you select a number of regions to delete and then choose some unusual command called, "Compact." In this example I am editing out a commercial for "Everybody Loves Raymond" from a recording of a "Seinfeld" episode.

 

 

 

Compacting out Commercials

 

It works as advertised. After you have your shows edited commercial-free, you can export to video iPod/iPhone/Apple TV with a click of a single button. You can also pause live television. While the program is playing, simply press the record button, and then the pause button. Pressing the pause button a second time will begin to play the program from the point where you left off.

 

UPDATE: WiFi Access

 

The new EyeTV 3.0 software greatly enhances a feature that was added toward the end of the EyeTV 2.0 product cycle. WiFi Access gives you the ability to share your EyeTV recorded programs across your home LAN (or across the internet as seen below) to computers connected to your home network, or if you have a wireless access point, it will send the videos to your wireless capable computers, iPhone, or iPod Touch. You turn this feature on by going to the EyeTV menu and choosing, “Sharing.” I have my settings configured thusly:

 

 

As you can see above, once you enable this feature, you can have the EyeTV software either automatically encode all new recordings, as well as encode any existing recordings as seen in the image below:

 

 

Enabling this WiFi Access feature turns on a custom webserver. You can then see any properly encoded content/shared content by visiting the URL of your media center like:

 

http://192.168.0.9:2170/eyetv/

 

This results in:

 

 

WiFi Access Interface

 

and then:

 

 

Show Selection Interface

 

 

Home Router Setup

This gives us the ability to remotely connect to our EyeTV libraries from outside the home LAN and stream the low res version from anywhere else in the world while connected to the internet! In order to do this, we need to set up some port mapping. Here is what this looks when setting up an Airport Extreme N:

 

 

Add a Port Map

 

Click the + sign to add a new port mapping and direct the public port traffic to the private IP address and ports of your media center:

 

 

Port Map Settings

 

Once this setup is complete, you can now access your EyeTV recordings by connecting to the public IP address of your cable modem, or DSL modem like this:

http://208.11.48.3:2170/eyetv/

If you aren’t sure what your real-world public IP address is, you can go here to get it:

http://www.whatismyip.com

 

UPDATE 3/20/10- Over the past two years, ElGato has made some killer enhancements to their software. The most notable of which is the new application for iPhone that enables live television streaming features very similar to Slingbox. Using this application, iPhone users can now stream live television from their EyeTV enabled computers across the internet to their iPhone, view recordings, or schedule television shows to be recorded. See photos below.

 

EyeTV iPhone app showing "outside" connection for remote viewing of content as well as home LAN connection.

 

EyeTV for iPhone request for passcode.

 

EyeTV for iPhone menu.

 

EyeTV for iPhone live TV listing.

 

EyeTV for iPhone live TV example.

UPDATE 12/1/12- I recently purchased an iPhone 5. The results of the new 4G and LTE speed increases have made streaming from my media center and EyeTV to my iPhone over cellular connections a pleasant, consistent, and wonderful experience. 

 

Remote Control iPhone Apps

Soon after the iPhone app store was introduced, a number of remote control applications became available. These applications provide alternative ways to interact with, and control your media center using only your iPhone.

The first one that I tried, and the one that I find to be the most useful, is Remote by Apple Inc. This iPhone application allows you to remote control iTunes on your media center using your iPhone from anywhere on your home wireless network. You pair this app with iTunes by getting a passcode from the application and entering it into iTunes after selecting your iPhone found under the Devices section of the iTunes navigation frame. My only complaint about this application is that it doesn't allow you to enable full screen viewing of movies. You'll need to use another iPhone app, mouse, or keyboard if you want to enable watching movies in full screen.

If you want to use your iPhone as a wireless trackpad and keyboard, you might want to check out Air Mouse Free or Air Mouse Pro. This application requires that you install an application onto your media server. I found it a bit clunky and cumbersome.

The last remote application that I find that I rely on the most is Mocha VNC Lite. Using VNC I can remote control my Mac Mini just like when I use the built-in screen sharing functionality available in Mac OS X. Multi-touch zooming into the desktop is supported as is a basic keyboard for text entry. I still haven't figured out how to send an "Esc" key command using Mocha VNC. If anyone can help with this, I would appreciate an email.

 

Home Sharing

One of the only truly frustrating things about this media center project over the years arrived with Apple's introduction of iOS-based devices. While those of us with media centers could easily stream our content collections to other computers in the home using the sharing capabilities of iTunes, we couldn't access this same content on our iOS devices wirelessly.

For years, the best that we could do was to use a wire to sync our content from computers to iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Recently, with the release of iOS 4.3, we can now wirelessly stream/access any of our iTunes/Photo/Music/Video content on ANY Apple device running Mac OS X or iOS! The steps to make this happen have been detailed in another section of my blog and the link is below:

See: Home Sharing: It's Finally Here!

Lastly, now that iCloud is here, nearly all of our content can be accessible no matter where in the world we might be, so long as we have an internet connection available to us.

 


DVDs

 

In order to rip all of my DVDs into iTunes for use in Front Row, I used HandBrake. HandBrake will take your DVDs and convert them to video files using either mpeg4 or H.264 codecs. Using the default settings in HandBrake (which I recommend) a typical DVD will take up between 500 to 1000 MB of hard drive space. You can find HandBrake here:

http://handbrake.m0k.org

In order for HandBrake to rip commercially encoded DVDs, you'll also need to download and install Video Lan Client. After downloading VLC, drag and drop the VLC.app file into your /Applications folder. HandBrake will look for VLC in this location when it attempts to decode a commercial DVD.

 

 

HandBrake

Ripping your DVDs using the default settings will result in a file that can be played back in full screen on your television, as well as on a video iPod. The quality is very good on the TV, but not perfect. If you want better quality, you might try experimenting with ripping using the H.264 codec.

After you rip your DVD, simply drag the resulting video file to iTunes. Once iTunes adds your video file to the iTunes library, that video will appear in Front Row under the "Movies" heading, as well as be available for transfer to a video iPod.

Surround sound is now supported in HandBrake, although it isn’t clear if it will be transmitted via optical audio to a home AV receiver. Read more here:

http://trac.handbrake.fr/wiki/SurroundSoundGuide

 

UPDATE 3/20/10- I stopped messing around with all of the custom settings in HandBrake. I now rip all my DVDs using the standard Apple TV setting. They look very good on the LCD TV at 1024x768. If I need a version for iPod/iPhone, I use iTunes to convert the Apple TV version to the required format.

UPDATE 11/20/11- Some DVD manufacturers are using more and more complex encoding processes that sometimes don't work with HandBrake. I purchased RipIt and it seems to do a good job of handling those DVDs that HandBrake can't convert correctly.

 

Alternative Media Center Software

 

I'm very hesitant to make any comments on alternative media center software packages such as XBMC and Boxee. Each time I try one of these media center environments I'm left underwhelmed and frustrated. I'm sure that some people enjoy them and I don't want to take away from anyone's enjoyment, nor do I want to overly criticize the work of many dedicated programmers who are pushing the envelope of what can be achieved with a Mac media center.

I just personally do not believe that these environments offer the level of usability and simplicity that Mac users are accustomed to. I prefer to access online content via Firefox using a keyboard and mouse, or screen sharing from a laptop.

 

Netflix


In 2009 I became disillusioned with the limited choice of rentable content in iTunes and the inconvenience of traveling back and forth to BlockBuster to rent DVDs. I set up a 30 day free Netflix account and initially was very satisfied with the Netflix "Watch Instantly" streaming service. The video quality on a fast internet connection is surprisingly pretty good and the ease with which someone can instantly watch a movie is very convenient.

I'm disappointed, however, that in 2011 I still cannot stream every movie over the internet that is in the Netflix DVD catalog. I'm aware that this issue is NOT the fault of Netflix. The media companies involved need to provide consumers with what WE want with respect to media consumption, NOT force us to consume media the way that THEY want us to.

In conclusion, Netflix streaming content works very well with my Mac media center and I can't begin to describe the amount of enjoyment that my wife and I have had streaming the "IT Crowd" from Netflix. :)

 

Final

 

Here is a picture of the final setup.

 

 

Media Center

 

CONCLUSION

 

Having used this setup now for over 5 years, I have to say that I am completely and utterly blown away by every aspect of this experience.

In closing, I would have to say that the best part of this project was being able enjoy this entire experience in the world of Macintosh true plug and play. At no point during the project did any of the components not function as expected. This is why I use my Macintosh computers to their fullest, and I rarely turn on my Windows PCs anymore. Time is precious. Apple is concerned with improving my quality of life. I appreciate that, and I applaud it.

If I had to rate this experience, it would be as follows:

 

Apple Mac Mini Core Duo                10

Newer Technology miniStack          10

ElGato EyeTV EZ                           10

Other World Computing                 10

Performance                                 10

Overall satisfaction                        10

 

See also: Home Sharing-It's Finally Here!!!

 

UPDATE: Windows XP

I wasn't sure if I should put this into my review or not, but I had the feeling that there might be a few people who wondered if I had tried to install Windows XP on my Intel Mac Mini. Today my OEM copy of Windows XP Professional arrived from http://www.newegg.com. It cost $139.00. I downloaded Boot Camp and the required firmware update. I updated the firmware, and created the Windows driver disk using Boot Camp. When I tried to create my Windows partition, Boot Camp told me that I needed to boot my computer off of my original OS X system CD and repair some directory errors. I did as instructed, but when I tried to reboot the computer off of the Windows XP install CD, no video showed up on the television via the S-video adapter. I ran upstairs, grabbed an old PC monitor, and connected it to the Mini. I forced it to restart again and was greeted with the Windows setup screen. After Windows finished its installation process, I inserted Apple's Windows driver CD into the Mini, installed the Windows drivers, and set a static IP address. I rebooted the computer connected once again to the television via the S-video adapter. It detected the TV and booted up properly in Windows XP.

Long story short, my daughter sat next to me for nearly an hour playing Thomas the Tank Engine on the Mac Mini in Windows XP. Before I let her play, however, I patched my Windows install, turned on auto-updates, and downloaded and installed:

Firefox

AVG anti-virus

Spybot Search and Destroy

I also turned on terminal services in the system control panel so that I could connect to the Mini remotely from my laptop if I needed to. Microsoft provides the free Remote Desktop client application via their Mactopia website. The startup disk control panels in each OS provide you with an easy way of choosing the OS you would like to boot into. Long story longer, Windows runs on this Macintosh with less trouble than I have seen from traditional Wintel vendors.

 

 


©2006-2012 C. Hamady

 

The information in this article is for educational use only. Anything that YOU do to any computer(s) will be done at YOUR OWN RISK, and the author will not be held responsible.

 

 

 

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.