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Use Your Mac Mini as a Media Server Part 1

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.

Initial Setup

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.

VNC Server

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.


FrontRow

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.

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 04/10/07

Comments (25)

  1. coolness

    Awesome article!

  2. Doug

    Great article. Hurry up with Part 2!!!

  3. Derrick

    Good article except that too many assumptions are made. I got my Mac-Mini when they first came out. I didn’t spring the for the Wi-Fi or built in Bluetooth. Since I have one the first gen Mac-Mini’s, I also didn’t get Frontrow (It didn’t exist yet), I got ILife instead. Also, for anyone that has an HD tv, you can get a DVI to HDMI cable. (Which I currently use, and it is great!) DVI to HDMI will give you a very crisp picture. Just make sure to turn off the overscan or your toolbars will be cut off.

  4. Thanatos

    Why would you install OSXvnc, just use the built-in remote desktop that allows vnc connections.

    System prefs >> sharing >> Apple remote desktop.

    Saves at least one step.

  5. Thanatos

    Why is there no section on plugins for quicktime so you might be able to play other types of media? Maybe that will be in part 2.

    I have a mac mini and I’ve never experienced problem restarting without any keyboard or mouse present. Mine starts up amazingly quickly.

  6. Adrock

    I’m pretty sick of AppleTV monopolizing all the press right now, I just bought a new dual core intel mini. I mean a full blown computer just blows the appletv away in terms of functionality, but I guess Apple is trying to target 2 different markets.

    I’m not even bothering with VNC just get a bluetooth or rf keyboard with a built in scroll wheel plus the mini remote and your done. Well you’ll want to bump up your ram and get a bigger external hard drive too. Hmm firewire or usb 2?

  7. Guillaume Boudreau

    Note that FrontRow doesn’t control iDVD; it controls “DVD Player”. iDVD is the app used to create DVD, as opposed to “DVD Player” which is used to, well, play DVDs.

    Another note: OSXvnc has been renamed “Vine Server” some time ago.

  8. Mr Linux

    Apple Remote Desktop works fine, but it’s slow and has rendering faults (I think I mentioned in the article that it isn’t the greatest). OSXvnc is really the best VNC server I’ve ever used, Mac, Windows or Linux. Worth checking out!

  9. SilverBlade

    Hurry up with part 2!!

  10. The Geek

    Part 2 is already completed… it’s in the related how-to links at the bottom of the article.

  11. Yuzle!

    AOpen makes a Mini “knock off” that has similar specs and Media Center Edition.

  12. PENIX

    Apple really made a home run with this piece of hardware. It is excellent in form and function, and reasonably priced.

  13. flo

    If you want to use your mac mini with a touchscreen (as a music-jukebox), check out rMediaTouch for OSX:
    http://www.versiontracker.com/dyn/moreinfo/macosx/29188

    greets

  14. skivinator

    I think that switching over to a mini as a media server has been one of the best moves I’ve ever made. Check out my set-up HERE

  15. Richard Sheppard

    Excellent stuff! Personally, I struggle to find enough time to do this sort of thing, and I don’t have a Mac Mini. But I really like great ways to use a Mac.

    Last year, one of our members at the Midlands Mac User Group (MMUG) did a presentation on how he set his up, and we videoed the meeting. You can see it here:

    http://www.mmug.org.uk/event/mac-mini-media-centre

    I’ll add a link back on our site to this article.

    Cheers,

    Richard

  16. John Owens

    This is a great setup and with the iPhone you can also use it (jail-broken) as a remote control either to control your iTunes library (very cook apps available like Signal or SimplifyMedia) or to control your desktop with TouchPad Pro via VNC.

    That and you could link it to a Timemachine with 1TB of storage. Cool :-)

    But I have one question. How is video playback performance at full HD (1028p) and how is the sound quality (any hiss at high levels).

  17. David

    Surely this is how to use your Mac mini as a media centre, rather than as a media server?? There’s a big difference!!

  18. Zaphod

    I have been using an imac with 2.8GHz Intel Duo with Radeon HD2600 as my media server. I see no real need for VNC. I have found itunes and FrontRow entirely adequate to manage 8+ TB of movies and music beautifully. I use separate outputs to a home theatre with Pioneer receiver and satellite speakers and to a 2 channel high-end stereo – PS Audio D/A converter, T+A component tube pre-amp and power amp, and Vandersteen Vs.
    I would like your advice as to the best Mac to use for the best video display. A number of my MPEG4 files are 1080p, but lots are simply converted DVDs from software like Handbrake. What does the best job of scaling up to my Pioneer 65″ 1080p display. Is there a better video card I can get or is it better to rely on the Mini’s use of the primary processor for video [I’m told it does that, but don’t really know]. Any other suggestions appreciated.

  19. Matt

    “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.”

    Maybe I read this wrong or maybe things have changed since this article was written, but I have a couple hundred GB of media on a PC that I stream to my HDTV via an Apple TV.
    I don’t have a single file stored on my Apple TV’s hard drive. All my media is on my PC and streams to my Apple TV. Very easy to manage, and backup as well.

  20. Whitston

    Question for MATT. I have an Apple TV, but can only play what is put on Itunes and synced to the Apple TV. Could you tell me in detail how you access files on your computer hard drive and play them? Also, what format are the files?

    Jim

  21. Zaphod

    What Mac (or PC) software does the best job of converting DVDs to MPEG4?
    I have tried several – Handbrake, etc. – and all seem to convert the Dolby 5.1 to
    2 channe.l Bummer!
    Any suggestions for the best method to upscale DVD to 1080p?
    Nvidia board? External scaler? Scaler built in display?

  22. lisa

    so how do you set upthe password when you turn on they want your ues name and passworld please

  23. Farhan

    Hurry up with part 3!!!!

  24. Bernie Stote

    I am using a MAC Mini as a media server in my house for my itunes, when I connect my ipod or iphone via a wireless network it lets me play, but there are no playlists, and all I can do is toggle to the next song. It also doesn’t show me what is currently playing.

  25. PJ Hunt

    I was all excited to read about a media server for the Mac only to find out that this is a media “Client”, not a server.

    You need to change the title of your article.

    Thanks,

    PJ

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