The MG Mac Mini HTPC Guide

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Thread: The MG Mac Mini HTPC Guide

  1. #1

    Join Date: Sep 2008
    Location: Boston, MA
    ME: JP6 / Carvin CS4
    MA: Martin DC-1E
    Rig: Axe-Fx II XL
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    The MG Mac Mini HTPC Guide

    Update/Note: This post is really, really outdated, as it's almost three years old as of July 2013..

    Since I'm re-setting this all up from scratch on the new HDMI Mini, I figured it might be helpful for folks to see what you need to do to use it as a headless HTPC.

    Part 1: Setup

    Things you need:

    • A Mac Mini
    • A TV with an HDMI input
    • An HDMI cable
    • A wired keyboard
    • A wireless KB Mouse
    • Home wireless of some kind

    I'll get into software and codecs later, this here is just the basics. I have all of my movies on a home NAS that's cabled to my router, and my home wireless is Wireless-N. Streaming movies is 50/50 directly over wireless - bigger movies will take longer to buffer, small stuff (under a gig or so) tend to buffer quickly enough not to be noticeable. I'll get to that later.

    So, get yourself a Mini, and uh, take it out of the box and plug it in. Then dig up a dusty old Dell wired USB keyboard, because the Mini won't detect and pair with Apple's wireless keyboard during setup. This is stupid, I know:

    Wire it up, and get your software updates out of the way. The nice thing about the HDMI interface on the Mini is that it will detect native TV resolutions like 720p and 1080i. If for some reason it doesn't, adjust your resolution accordingly. If you want to get crazy and use different resolutions for your movie player and your screen when you're using the OS, SwitchResX will let you customize to your heart's content, and can be driven with Applescript.

    Now that you're all patched, you have a fresh install of Snow Leopard, complete with all the crap on the taskbar that you will probably want to just get rid of.

    This part is optional, depending on how you're setting it up. I use the small Apple keyboard only when I _really_ want to surf the web on it, and don't have a laptop handy. I have a 27" iMac, and that's how I want to configure it. This part goes for Windows as well.

    First, go into System Preferences -> Security on the Mini, and set your sharing up how you want it. This is how I have mine:

    If you're running Windows on your primary machine, get yourself a copy of your favorite VNC client. I use Chicken of the VNC. If you're running OSX, the native Screen Sharing app is all you need.

    Assuming you got the sharing setup correctly, COTV or SS should detect the Mini, and you should now be able to manage it remotely.

    Apple's driver support is pretty good, so hopefully OSX detected the HDMI audio on your TV. You want to go into your Sound preferences, and set your TV to be the primary sound output device.

    For things like the startup sound (and everything else) you can set your normal sound effects to be the built in speakers, or the normal output. If you do, keep in mind that your web browser will use this for sound as well. This comes into play if you're watching something on YouTube, for example. I use HDMI for that as well, but this is up to you.

    For now, get yourself a copy of VLC. It works out of the box with a good amount of types and codecs, and the OSD is unobtrusive and responds to the remote control. Then load yourself up a movie, or some Metalocalypse. At first run, you may need to set the output preference to HDMI - it will default to the internal sound device unless you have it disabled.

    Command-F, and voila, Fullscreen of your favorite, totally-legally acquired media. This is the quick and dirty way. You'll eventually want to use Plex for this setup, which I'll get to later.

    The Apple remote is decent for what it is and what it costs, which is a very basic remote for about 20 bucks. If it had a trackball on it that could double as a mouse it would be outstanding, but it's IR and not Bluetooth. And it's $20. Note that if you have two macs it will hit both of them, so you'll want to disable the IR port on anything you don't want it controlling.

    Pair it up and verify that it works on your favorite also-totally-legally acquired media that may occasionally have Dutch subtitles, but if it does it's only because you're all about picking up hot Dutch chicks and not at all because it came from The Internet™.

    Every Mac user knows this, but if you're a Windows user and unfamiliar with it, you want to install SMCFanControl before you do anything else. The Mini can run hot, especially the newest model because it doesn't have a power brick. Keep an eye on your temps, and adjust your fan speed settings accordingly.

    And that's it for a basic Mac Mini HTPC! Stick it somewhere out of the way, set your power settings accordingly and you're good to go. If you'll be running it hard for long periods of time (and you will), you may want to consider getting a laptop cooling pad.

  2. #2

    Join Date: Sep 2008
    Location: Boston, MA
    ME: JP6 / Carvin CS4
    MA: Martin DC-1E
    Rig: Axe-Fx II XL
    PSN: CQ7String777

    iTrader: 34 (100%)

    Ripping, Re-Encoding, DVD Creation and Whatnot

    I'm still working on this, but here's what I've found works best so far. I'll update this as I find more useful info to put here.

    Ripping DVDs to your library

    If you were in on the last Nanobundle, you already have RipIt. If you don't, get it. It's great. Toss in your disc, bring up RipIt, and click the (duh) Rip button. It'll start the process and give you a handy timer.

    This will create a .RipIt file, which is essentially an ISO. The good news here is that Handbrake can read this format, along with ISO, MKV, raw VIDEO_TS and AUDIO_TS, mp4, and a shitload of other formats. Handbrake is your friend.

    Once RipIt is done, open up the file in Handbrake, and you'll be greeted with a screen that looks like so:

    What settings you use will depend on how you want to store your movies. I'll offer two bits of advice here - Toast (which I use to write DVDs) doesn't work well with mkv files. At all. It straight up sucks, in fact. Because of this, I encode all of my movies as MPEG-4, so that I can store them and if I need to write them to a DVD later on, half of the work (re-encoding) is already done.

    See that dock on the right side? That's the preset settings window, and you can see my "CQ" preset at the bottom. Once you get your audio sorted out the way you want to encode it, you can save a default setting there and just click it every time you want to rip down your video. Get familiar with each tab and what the settings do, because things like subtitles, additional language tracks and shit like that ends up taking up space.

    Once you're happy with your Handbrake setup, let 'er rip. On my Mac Mini (4GB RAM) the conversion takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. My iMac has two more processors and 16GB of RAM, so it's a lot faster. Basically it'll take anywhere from half an hour to an hour, depending on your system.

    At this point you should have Your_Movie.m4v.

  3. #3

    Join Date: Sep 2008
    Location: Boston, MA
    ME: JP6 / Carvin CS4
    MA: Martin DC-1E
    Rig: Axe-Fx II XL
    PSN: CQ7String777

    iTrader: 34 (100%)

    Using Plex

    Here's a couple of screenshots of the movie and TV show interface.

    To get it to launch fullscreen on boot takes a little bit of work, because if you just add it as a startup item your dock and Finder windows will be on top of it.

    First, create yourself a shell script to launch it, with a small sleep timer so that everything loads in the background before it launches. 10-20 seconds should do it. You'll need to adjust the path on the last line - I have mine in a folder called HTPC under Applications. Then CHMOD this file 755.

    sleep 20
    open /Applications/HTPC/
    Then, you'll need to make a file called plex.plist, and put it in your /Library/Launchagents directory. Here are the contents of mine:

    <?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
    <!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple Computer//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
    <plist version="1.0">
    Once that's in there, you'll need to change the permissions on it so that you don't get a "dubious permissions" error. It needs to be 655, and in the wheel group.

    sudo chgrp wheel plex.plist
    sudo chmod 655 plex.plist
    Then run this from the /Library/LaunchAgents directory.

    launchctl load plex.plist
    After the time you allocated in your sleep function in the shell script, Plex should load up. Reboot and confirm that it works. Voila!

  4. #4

    Join Date: Sep 2008
    Location: Boston, MA
    ME: JP6 / Carvin CS4
    MA: Martin DC-1E
    Rig: Axe-Fx II XL
    PSN: CQ7String777

    iTrader: 34 (100%)

    This is Controllr, an iPhone/iPod Touch remote app for controlling Plex. You need to make sure that the media server portion of Plex is enabled under Preferences > System -> Media Server.

    Another badass application for the iPhone/Touch is the Logitech Touchmouse Server, along with the App, available in the App Store. (Thanks S7eve) It gives you a fully working mouse/keyboard on your device. The keyboard tray is dockable, so the entire screen can function as a trackpad.

  5. #5

    Join Date: Sep 2008
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    Front Row is useless, just like the Apple TV that was designed around it.

    Plex, however is the best media center app I've ever tried. It gives me a raging clue.
    [Leon] 10:03 pm: She can poop on my chest anyday

  6. #6

    Join Date: Oct 2008
    Location: Faribault, MN
    ME: Charvel MetalCaster
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    Plex is pretty much all you need for a great HTPC. Plus a Harmony 550 remote and you are done. I also use a Plex remote control app for my iPhone/iPod Touch called Snatch. Works awesome as well.

    And I also agree, use the built in screen sharing of OS X. No seperate VNC client required.

    I have been running a Mac Mini/Plex setup for about a year and it has worked flawlessly.

    I also setup a Feedburner process to download TV torrents every night of the shows I want and they are automatically imported into Plex every day as well. I am pretty close to turning off TV all together.

  7. #7

    Join Date: Oct 2008
    Location: Faribault, MN
    ME: Charvel MetalCaster
    Rig: Line6/Carvin

    iTrader: 0

    I also wanted to add that with Plex, your codec worries go away. I have yet to throw a weird codec at it that it didnt handle out of the box. MKVs all the way down to obscure DIVX codecs from days long gone.

  8. #8

    Join Date: Sep 2008
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    This thread has zazz.
    Division: American Metal without the suck.

    So live for today,
    Tomorrow never comes.
    Die young, die young,
    Can't you see the writing in the air?
    Die young, gonna die young,
    Someone stopped the fair.

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