Apple has been pushing the use of the Macintosh as the heart of one’s media center for a long time now, but more specifically since the release of the Mac Mini. With its compact size, low price and FrontRow, it’s the perfect computer to plug into your TV and watch some of those “archived” Lost episodes.
Granted, Apple has now released to market the AppleTV, and a lot of people are ogling over it. But there are certain things that can be done with a full-fledged computer which can’t be done on an AppleTV. For one thing, the AppleTV limits you to either playing movies locally, or streaming them from iTunes. This poses a bit of a problem to those of us who have massive, 300 GB collections of AVIs on our server. So all in all, power-users will probably be happier with a Mac Mini. And on top of that, you may already have a Mini lying around that you want to convert.
The first step is to setup the Mini near your television and (preferably) some variety of Ethernet. While the Mac Mini does have wifi built-in, FrontRow’s network streaming over wireless leaves a lot to be desired. I have my Mini (as well as my server) plugged into a gigabit Ethernet switch. Gigabit is a bit more expensive, but the speed benefits are manifest when you’re streaming a high bit-rate file.
The next important thing is to get your Mini actually connected to the television. For this you’ll need two cables and (at least one adapter). The adaptor can be purchased from Apple here ($20 USD). Basically what it does is convert DVI (Digital Video Interface) to either S-Video or RCA video out (I recommend using S-Video). (note, you may be lucky enough to have a DVI-in on your television. Check for this first) At this point, you should be able to turn the mini on and use the television as a monitor.
You will also need to pass the audio from the Mini into your system. Usually, this means connecting the audio to the television, but you may have a different setup. To do this you will need a 1/8th inch stereo to duel-RCA converter cable (you can get these at any electronics store). Connect the 1/8th inch end to the head-phones jack on the mini and the other two ends of the cable to the appropriate audio ins on your system. You can try playing a few songs out of iTunes to see if the audio is working.
We will want to control the Mini using the Apple Remote exclusively. After all, sitting on your couch watching The X-Files is not a good time to have to dig out a laptop to change the episode. However, a remote is a pretty limited interface and can only do so much. So, in order to control the mini without leaving a mouse plugged into it, we’re going to have to remotely connect to it somehow. To do this, we’ll use VNC.
All Macs come with a VNC server called Remote Desktop, which can be activated and configured easily from System Preferences. However, this has its issues and really isn’t the best server to use. Instead, I recommend you install and configure OSXvnc. Installation is pretty easy (like with most Mac applications). Just download the DMG, let it mount, and then drag the OSXvnc.app file to /Applications.
Fire up the OSXvnc application and choose a password. Now you’re going to want to jump to the “Startup” section and click on “Configure Startup Item”. After you authenticate, OSXvnc should be installed (and running) on your Mini. The one final step is to allow VNC traffic through your firewall. Open System Preferences and select “Sharing”. Choose “Firewall” and click on “Add…” For port name, select “Other”. For the description, fill in “VNC Server”, and for the TCP Port you will want to enter 5900. Just leave the UDP Port blank. Click OK and ensure that the service is checked.
Now you should be able to connect to your Mini from any computer (even Windows or Linux) using a VNC client (as long as you know what the Mini’s IP address is). If you’re able to connect successfully, you should be able to unplug the mouse and keyboard and just connect remotely.
The one wrinkle in this magic kingdom of remote elegance is that Macs require input devices to completely boot. By default, if they don’t find any input devices connected, they will scan until they are bluetooth in the face or until they find an input device to pair with, thus interupting the boot process if you have no Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Luckily, this can be overridden in System Preferences.
Go to the “Bluetooth” section and uncheck “Open Bluetooth Setup Assistant at startup when no input device is present”. Now, you should be able to restart without that annoying setup wizard spinning its wheels for hours and hours.
Every modern Mac comes packaged with this magical little app called “FrontRow”. FrontRow lets you control iTunes, iPhoto, DVD Player and QuickTime all using your Apple Remote (which should have come with the Mini). Accessing FrontRow is extremely complicated, but I’ll try to explain it simply:
- Step 1: Press the “menu” button on your remote. Make sure the remote is pointed at the Mini
- Step 2: Wait approximately 0.5 seconds while FrontRow starts
- Step 3: Applaud your brilliance
FrontRow is pretty intuitive, so you should be able to figure out what’s going on fairly easily. You navigate using the + – and << >> controls on your remote. Play/Pause is used to select a menu item, and menu should bring you up one level in the menus.
Any iTunes movies you have in your library should be available from the “Videos” section. Also, any movie files you have stored in your “Movies” folder (in your home directory) will be available under Videos -> Movies in FrontRow. We’ll exploit this fact in part 3 to store our movies on a separate server.