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Use Your Mac Mini as a Media Server Part 2

In the first part, I ran through the basics on how to connect and configure your Mac Mini as the heart of your entertainment center. In this next article in the series, I had been planning on going into detail on how to store your media files on a remote NFS share. However, one of the comments on the first article got my attention and it occurred to me that I didn’t really cover alternate video codecs at all. So, rather than launch into some fascinating list of iptables rules and Apple alias quirks, let’s look at third-party codecs.

Out of the box, QuickTime (the backend for FrontRow’s movie playing capabilities) only supports a few video formats. I’m not going to try to list them here, but the really big and common ones are H.264 and MPEG-4. However, a lot of video files are still encoded using DivX or Xvid. Also, if you’re extremely unlucky you may have a few old WMV-encoded files which you would like to play. You could just re-encode all of these files H.264 using a tool like FFmpegX. But it would be so much more convenient if you could simply play arbitrary video files in FrontRow. The solution is to run through and install the third-party codecs required to make all of this work.

Perian

Now the easiest solution (by far) is to just install the Perian codec. Perian is (self-described as) the Swiss Army knife of codecs. With Perian installed, you should be able to play everything from DivX/AC3 to FLV to VBR/MP3. It even handles playback of WMV files. Perian is open-source and can be downloaded here. A full list of the encodings supported by Perian is available at this page.

To install Perian, first download and mount the DMG. Then drag the LEGO brick file named “Perian.component” to the alias labeled “QuickTime”. Log out, then log back in and Perian should be installed. (if you get confused somewhere in those instructions, you can peruse the extensive, one and a half page README included in the DMG).

Perian is quite nice because everything “just works” right out of the box (or brick, in this case). The problem is that Perian provides somewhat sub-par quality compared to getting the codecs direct from the source. I experienced problems in frames with high motion. The motion appeared as if it was encoded progressive (with the actual “objects” on screen broken into horizontal lines), when the files had actually been deinterlaced in the encoding process. I didn’t have these problems with the same file and the actual third-party codecs. So, as nice as just using Perian would be, quality lovers will have to forego the convenience. (note, if you installed Perian at this point and now have decided not to use it, you must navigate to the /Library/QuickTime and remove the Perian.component file, otherwise replacement codecs will be screwed up)

Third-Party Codecs

More and more high-dev encoders are moving to H.264, because of its superior quality and compression ratio, but a lot of things are still on the proprietary codec, DivX. To gain QuickTime support (and hence, FrontRow) for DivX, we must download the DivX free codec from here. This is one of those unusual Mac applications which requires a stern bout with an installer, a license agreement, and a System Preferences add-on. When it’s finished, you will have to restart and it should have completed the installation for you (no drag-and-drop necessary). As you may have guessed from the site, you only received a trial version of the pro codec. This means that you won’t be able to encode DivX content after six months. However, the decoder should still work and this will allow you to play DivX files from within QuickTime more or less indefinitely.

Xvid in QuickTime is a little less ostentatiously supported than the DivX codec, however, it’s probably a little easier to deal with. First, download the Xdiv DMG from this link. Just like with Perian, you will have to mount the DMG and then do a little leg-work to make things happen. Open up “Macintosh HD” (or whatever you call your hard drive icon thingy on the desktop) and then open /Library/QuickTime. In there, you should see a few other .component “brick icons” which represent the other codecs you have installed. Drag the Xvid_Codec_….component file (again LEGO brick icon) into the QuickTime folder along with the other codec components. Log out, and then log back in and you should be able to play Xvid files in FrontRow.

WMV support is a bit painful, but not as painful as trying to get DivX working for the first time. The WMV codec is completely proprietary, but thankfully there is an implementation of the codec for QuickTime called “Flip4Mac”. It’s available at this page. Just like DivX, you’ll have to run an installer and will need to restart once it is completed. Also like DivX, Flip4Mac will install a (somewhat useless) System Preference page. However, once the installation is complete, you’ll be able to play those dreaded WMV files in QuickTime and FrontRow.

AC3

Some video files (usually Xvid) are encoded with AC3 audio streams. While it’s always fun to try and perform dialog and sound effects by yourself (or even better, with a group), it’s usually more satisfying to actually hear the sound-track recorded for the movie.

The codec for AC3 in QuickTime is available for download here and must be installed similarly to Xvid (by dragging the .component file to /Library/QuickTime and then logging out and logging back in). However, there are some unfortunate side-effects you should be aware of before you perform this step. Most importantly, it seems to break H.264 support in QuickTime. This is a killer for me, since I love watching H.264 encoded videos because of the higher quality. I would recommend that if you don’t absolutely need AC3 audio support, you leave this codec out and enjoy the perks of your H.264 files.

Conclusion

Hopefully, you should be able to use the information in this article to beef up the video playback support of your Mac Mini and improve your overall FrontRow experience. Stay tuned for part three, when we’ll finally get to all the boring NFS configuration and iptables hacks!

When not writing articles for How-To Geek, Mr Linux is coding in Java, Ruby, Bash, SQL and anything else which comes to mind. Mr Linux unfortunately cannot link to his blog. However, when the time is right he will use it as the means to control all thought and opinion.

  • Published 04/19/07

Comments (30)

  1. Yuvi

    Could you please attempt to quantify the problems you’re having with Perian and A52Codec and actually tell the devs about them? Preferably with sample files? I personally have never once experienced either problem you describe, nor heard of anyone else having those problems.

  2. Andrew

    You mention in this article that in Part 3 you’ll configure NFS. I’m assuming this is for the movie store you’ve got elsewhere. I simply used the GUI driven Go to Server… tool to connect to a remote SMB drive share (windows box/SMB file server device) and then created a symlink to the Movies repository.

    To create the symlink, open the Terminal, cd to ‘Movies’ in your home dir, and simply link the mounted file system repository e.g. ln -s /Volumes/VideoShare/MovieFiles .

    And then you’re done :-) Of course NFS works, but hey so does this if you don’t have an NFS server ;-)

    -A

  3. Ittai

    Thank you very much on this very helpfull how-to! I am walking my first steps in this fascinating world of Macintosh and this is really helping me out. So much to catch up after all these years of Windows…

  4. Peter

    Thanks for some good articles!

    Im currently considering a MacMini as a media/surf computer connected to my flatscreen tv. It has DVI in so I guess you can just hokk the Mini up to the tv directly ?

  5. Mr Linux

    @Peter

    Right, and by plugging in using the DVI you’ll probably get significantly better quality than I’m able to… :-)

  6. Jason

    Peter,

    A Mini hooked up to a flat panel is exactly what I have a Sharp 37D90 to be exact into the DVI. Works great and since it is essentially a laptop it doesn’t choke with the heat like a desktop does sitting in an entertainment unit. Grab a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard and you are good to go. FYI if you Bootcamp XP onto it you can run 1080P WMV videos smoothly! Can’t do it in Parallels :( too slow.

  7. Herman

    Im planning to use a mac mini as a media central beacuse I found the software Remote Buddy, which makes it possible to control os x with the apple remote (or a wii-remote or a cellphone). Together with VLC this is actually all you need. Of course you need to set up the system using a mouse and a keyboard, but thats really all you need. I tried the software on my macbook, and so far I cant find anything to complain about. Just a tip! I havent read the whole article, but I think what I have written is pretty much what the author of the article is aiming for, right?

    /Herman

  8. Dell

    Thanks for this. Will be looking forward to part 3 and other great articles like this in the future.

  9. Jenny

    I heard that mac mini will be discontinued. is that true ?

    Jenny

  10. Graham

    The A52codec breaking H.264?!?! I use H.264 all the time with AC3 audio and never once had an issue. Can you provide a sample of a file that exhibits this problem. The only problem I have ever heard close to what you describe is where a file with AC3 audio had blinking white lines in DivX video. This turned out to be a bug in DivX’s decoder, not the A52Codec.

  11. andreas

    tnx for sharing

  12. SearchCz

    I bought my Mini about a year ago and have been using it as my media center. My p.o.s. JVC LCD TV has DVI-in but won’t recognize anything I plug in, so my video is less than optimal. One “enhancement” I would appreciate would be the ability to jump directly to the media I want to play, preferably in repsonse to an IR command. I use a Harnony 880 universal remote, which allows me to set up “activities” like; watch a movie, listen to iTunes, view photos. Problem is, I still have to navigate through the mac’s Front Row menus to get to the media I want.

    Would love to hear any tips about how to pull that off.

  13. Mr Linux

    @Graham

    Yeah, I know it’s kind of hard to believe, but I’ve tested that one extensively. I have a file encoded H264/MP3 and it works perfectly without the A52Codec. If I install the codec, it either never plays (QuickTime ponders it forever), or it gets stuck on a green, distorted splash and plays the sound behind it (not changing the image at all). Just another case of strange but true…

  14. shawn

    has anyone tried equinux media central? i have heard good things and i think it handles vobs, xvid, divx, the works.

    -shawn

  15. Graham

    @Mr Linux

    Yes, hard to believe. Even more difficult to believe considering the fact that the code for the A52Codec will not even be loaded in your case (MP3 audio).

    I (and Yuvi too) had asked for samples, otherwise no one can help you. I also mentioned that I have previously caught bugs in DivX’s decoder, did you try it without that?

  16. Maarten

    iNuron just a launched a server app. that makes it easy to organise, search and share all your media files on a Mac over LAN or internet

    works for me,

    Maarten

  17. The Geek

    McNucle? That’s just the strangest name for a product….

  18. CuisinartBlade

    ummm… just to clarify, is there a reason we’re bothering with QuickTime codecs instead of just using VLC out of the box? i think it may be possible to configure front row to use VLC instead of quicktime (possibly)

  19. Mr Linux

    @CuisinartBlade

    Yes, it is possible to use VLC instead of QuickTime, but it requires a third-party application which (unfortunately) costs money. I decided not to go this route for two reasons:

    1. I’m cheap :-)
    2. HowTo Geek usually tries not to promote commercial software unless it’s either the absolute best (like vmware) or only way to get things done

    In other words, you could do this yourself using the software, but it’s not something I would/could write about.

  20. BoiseGuy

    Been using an intel mac mini for 8 months and absolutely love it! This article on codecs was excellent! With Joost (iptv) on my mac, Handbrake and MacTheRipper (dvd to movie file on hard drive), Transmission (torrent client) and TVShows (torrent locator for tv shows) – I’m almost ready to cut the cable company off. It is a beautiful way to be.

    People come over to see my SIMPLE setup and are awestruck. It (mac mini) is soo small and quiet. When I show people my mac mini with the 500gig hard drive under it for media storage they just marvel at it’s ease of use. I’m a very happy “switcher”

  21. smoldersonline

    Thank you very much for sharing.

    As I’m still struggling to share content over the airport network, I look forward to part three. For the moment I’m grateful for Andrew’s comment (of April 26). Following his pointer I am finally able to stream avi’s to my AppleTV enabled Mac Mini.

  22. Push Eject

    Part 3! Part 3! Part 3!

    Thanks for the great content.

  23. tmag

    When will we get Part 3??

  24. Gary

    “…In this next article in the series, I had been planning on going into detail on how to store your media files on a remote NFS share….”

    When will Part 3 be available? This is the missing link for me – getting access to video content on an external ethernet NAS drive.

  25. josh

    Looking for part 3…

  26. Sjoerd

    Longing for part 3….. as a all-time-windows-user I’m thrilled finally using the great MacMini, but struggling to get it working correctly with my 500gb NAS-drive that is part of my home-network and sharing lots of videos (also with Bonjour) for, well… nobody at the moment…

  27. SearchCz

    Seems like Apple TV is geting capabilities that are not available on the mini … specifically menu access to youtube videos and HD movie rentals. Any word on when / whether this stuff is coming to Front Row ?

  28. G_MAN

    Great write up. What is also helpful is “Remote Buddy”. You can control just about everything with your apple remote.

  29. Delenne

    Yes, could somebody please politely point me to where part 3 is? I got the codecs and so forth working for this far, but sadly all my media is stored on another computer which is running XP. I am on the correct workgroup so I can navigate to the files, but how do I get Front Row to see and be able to play them? I am not keen on having to shunt everything through iTunes, is there another way?

  30. Mike

    Delenne,
    With Leopard, Front Row can see DVD rips stored on a network drive. Just put an alias in the “movies” folder

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