According to analysts – Gene Munster, of Piper Jaffray, in particular – Apple is soon to launch a revolutionary Apple TV device. Don’t mistake this for another Apple “hobby”; it’s not going to be a set-top box. This is going to be the real-deal, Siri-enabled, iCloud-attached, iOS-controlled, large flat-panel to dominate your living room! Apparently.
But since Gene has been banging on about this for three years or more (Apple has it’s “hobby”, and Gene has his), the Mac mini makes for a pretty good media centre in the meantime. In this tutorial, I’ll examine some of the possibilities and options for making a Mac mini into a media centre.
Pretty good, but by no means perfect, the Mac mini is an excellent candidate – for a media server – either connected direct to your television or used remotely.
It runs silent, draws little power and can be upgraded relatively easily if you are confident and competent with paint stripper (yes, seriously!) and a screwdriver. Even if you don’t fancy getting handy with tools, plugging in a large external drive to house your media is sufficient, even over USB 2.0.
What About the Existing Apple TV?
Whilst Apple has it’s Apple TV set-top boxes, they are primarily designed to stream media from iTunes libraries on Macs or PCs on your network, from iTunes Match or from selected third parties such as MLB, WSJ, Netflix and the like.
In it’s current form, neither the Apple TV 2 and Apple TV 3 are able to store media locally nor can they install third party client apps.
For that reason, we need to find other ways of getting audio and video to the television. Some of this can be done with Apple’s AirPlay, the rest with third-party software solutions.
Pros: A relatively inexpensive device that plugs into any HDMI-equipped television to enable the streaming of audio and video content from an iOS device, from a local Mac (or PC) or from iTunes for film and television show rentals.
Cons: Yet to reach it’s full potential, but the addition of apps such as Netflix and Hulu enhances the attractiveness of the Apple TV. No integrated storage means that it requires a computer running iTunes in order to stream content locally.
Home Sharing in iTunes, in conjunction with Apple TV and other OS X and iOS devices on same network, allows you to share your media library with other devices on your local network. This includes other Macs and PCs running iTunes connected with the same Apple ID. This includes iOS and Apple TV devices.
TIP: You must use the same Apple ID on all devices, in respect of Home Sharing, in order to share libraries between devices
Pros: An easy way to set up your Mac and your Apple TV to stream audio and video across your local wired or wireless network.
Cons: Can only be used with one Apple ID, at a time, on each device. Media content needs to be in certain formats in order to work with iTunes and in order to be streamed to Apple TV.
Plex (plugged into TV over HDMI)
Plex bills itself as The solution for your local and online media – is capable of running on a large number of devices, including your Mac.
Plex comprises two elements. A client app and a server app.
The server app runs in the menu bar and scans your Mac for audio and video content.
The client app is the “ten-foot interface” – the full screen visual interface that is designed to be viewed, at distance, when you are sat watching television in the normal way.
If you have a fairly recent Mac mini, it is possible to plug it directly into an HDMI socket on your television. By running the Plex app, on your Mac Mini, you can switch to the appropriate AV input and use an Apple remote, with your Mac, to control your media content on the television.
Tip: You can connect a 2009 Mac mini using a DisplayPort to HDMI adapter and an HDMI lead to the television, but only the video signal will be transmitted. In order to transmit the audio, you will need to connect a 3.5mm to 3.5mm (or L-R phono plugs) to transmit audio from the Mac mini to the television – or an amp powering external speakers. Later Macs transmit both audio and video via the HDMI cable.
Pros: Probably the closest you’ll get to an integrated Mac mini media centre solution that can be controlled with a remote control. Plex allows you to watch films, television programmes, listen to music and access other apps all through your television without needing a separate Apple TV.
Cons: If you have an Apple TV set up with your television, as well, you’ll need to be mindful that one remote will operate both Mac mini and Apple TV unless you lock separate remotes to each device.
Plex as a Media Server
Regardless of whether you have your Mac mini plugged into HDMI on your television, or not, you can still use the Plex client and server apps to view films and television shows, or listen to your music, either on your local network or over the Internet from a remote location to your media server.
Furthermore, if you do not have a Mac or PC on which to access content from your media server, you can use the Plex iOS app on your iPhone or iPad. This means that you can view your films when you are away from home. For instance, I was able to watch a film, streaming over the Internet from my Mac mini media server to my iPad, whilst I was staying at a hotel many miles away.
You can even share your video and audio library with friends and, if they share theirs with you, stream films from remote Plex libraries.
Pros: An excellent solution that encompasses video and audio in a variety of file formats – even those normally incompatible with iOS devices.
Cons: Impact on bandwidth charges if you are heavy user on a limited data plan with your ISP.
Air Video Server (Stream Films to iOS Devices)
Air Video Server, from inmethod, is an client app for your Mac that allows you to stream videos – in almost any format – to a client app on your iOS device.
It supports live conversion which means that if the videos on your Mac are not compatible with your iOS devices, then Air Video Server will convert them on the fly.
Pros: You’re not locked to the file formats that Apple uses with QuickTime on the Mac and with iOS devices.
Cons: Fairly limited in what it does and, perhaps, redundant if you go down the Plex route which achieves the same and more besides.
Spotify is an alternate take on music “ownership”. OK, when you buy music you are really only buying a licence to listen to it in certain ways.
The traditional way of building up a “record collection” has been to buy vinyl records, cassette tapes, compact discs, mini discs and now digital downloads.
Spotify’s approach is that you don’t purchase particular singles, albums or tracks. Instead, you pay a monthly fee for unlimited listening to as many artists as you like, subject to their music being available in Spotify.
Tip: There is a free version of Spotify that is supported by adverts and is limited to ten hours listening each month.
Simply install the Spotify software on your Mac to open up a world of music that enables you to stream music from many artists.
Pros: For a monthly fee of half the cost of a CD, you get access to the music of thousands of artists.
Cons: Not all artists are featured. Some tracks from artists that are featured may not be available. Does not support AirPlay to send audio wirelessly to external speakers.
This app is a useful addition to Spotify. The purpose of Airfoil is to capture the audio, from specific apps, on your Mac and to AirPlay that audio to other devices – probably an amp or some powered speakers.
Pros: Enables the airplay of Audio from Spotify, amongst other apps.
Cons: Is not controllable via a remote control, instead requiring use of keyboard and mouse.
BBC iPlayer Desktop
If you are in the UK, you’ll undoubtedly have heard of BBC iPlayer. There’s a number of ways to access iPlayer across different devices and it is even being included in some Freeview boxes and some internet-connected televisions.
In terms of your Mac, you can view BBC iPlayer content via a web browser or by downloading the BBC iPlayer app. Both give you a further 30-days access to catch up on many recently broadcast programmes.
The iPlayer app allows you to download content for offline viewing and to set up series-record to ensure that you don’t miss an episode.
Pros: Wealth of (mostly) high-quality broadcast content and a great way to catch up on programmes that you may have missed, or earlier episodes of a series that you have just caught.
Cons: Not all broadcast content is available to view again and most programmes are limited to just seven or 30 days after the date of broadcast, after which you can no longer view it. BBC iPlayer is not available to non-UK viewers (unless you use a UK proxy).
Where BBC iPlayer limits you to downloads that expire after 30 days, the Get iPlayer Automator software enables you to download content without such a time restriction. Furthermore, it converts the format and places the downloaded programme directly into iTunes for you meaning that programmes are ready to stream to your Apple TV, be indexed by Plex or synced with your iOS devices.
Add a PVR function that allows you to series-link programmes, so that you don’t miss them, and you suddenly have a powerful addition to any Mac media centre.
Pros: Download recently broadcast content from BBC and keep indefinitely. Downloads, encodes and places media directly into iTunes.
Cons: The software is not as refined as many apps you may be used to, it comes with no instructions and can be a little difficult to configure and understand meaning some trial and error.
Elgato produces a number of products, to facilitate the viewing of broadcast digital content, on Mac, PC and iOS devices.
A tiny USB device, that connects your Mac to an external television aerial, contains the tuners required for your Mac to receive live broadcast content. Combined with some powerful software, and an electronic programme guide, you can program your Mac to download programmes (with series-link if required) directly to your Mac.
Pros: Not restricted by the limitations of BBC iPlayer where certain programmes and entire channels are unavailable.
Cons: Requires your Mac to be turned on when content is broadcast and requires further processing if you want to transfer programmes to iTunes.
10ft Browser - Kylo
If you want the ability to surf the web, on your television, then the Kylo web-browser is for you. Based on Mozilla, Kylo uses big fonts and big buttons for easy navigation when sitting watching the television.
Pros: An internet browsing experience, on your television, from the comfort of your chair.
Cons: Perhaps not the best way to view the web, especially now that the iPad is much more comfortable and productive to use.
There are many ways in which a Mac, particularly a Mac mini, can be employed as a media centre – but it does not necessarily make for a coherent media solution.
To an extent, it depends upon what you want from your media centre? If it is to stream films from the computer to your iPhones and iPads, around the house, then Air Video Server is a good solution. Plex, too, especially if you want to stream the same films over the internet when you’re away from home.
Depending upon what you’re trying to achieve, some of the uses in this article could help you. There is an awful lot that I haven’t been able to cover, though. Perhaps you have a Mac set up as a media server and use different techniques? If so, please let everyone know, in the comments below, what works for you?