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Mac Mini as centerpiece of home theater?
April 6, 2009 6:46 PM   Subscribe

Mac Mini as centerpiece of home theater, driving a HDTV?

Wanted to buy a new Mac Mini to serve as the centerpiece of the home theater. Need it to play DVDs, downloads, and stream stuff from Hulu/MLB.tv/etc. Would the machine work well? How could I get 5.1 sound from DVDs? Would the Mini drive 1080p on an HDTV well?
posted by xmutex to Technology (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
The mac mini works well, but won't play 1080i blu ray rips without stuttering. You should look into using the application plex with your mac mini as well.
posted by mattsweaters at 7:24 PM on April 6, 2009


Short answers: probably yes; through the audio-out port, which doubles up as an SPDIF port - you'll need to feed this to a receiver of some kind, unless your TV can accept optical digital audio input; yes, although you may need to use a Mini Displayport to HDMI adapter.

Long answers: It would work, but there are cheaper ways. Why are you leaning towards a Mac specifically?

There's a wide range of potential software solutions that will run on an equally wide range of hardware, Wintel, Mactel and other.

The much-maligned Vista incorporates Vista Media Center, voted by lifehacker as the best DVR software available. Disclaimer: I run a Vista-based HTPC in the form of an Acer X1200, which are available for about $430+, while my old G4 Mac Mini gathers dust as it's not powerful - most of the media center software packages available these days run on Intel Macs only.

Lifehacker also has good things to say about XBox Media Center, which is available in builds for the original XBox (chipped/softmodded), Windows, Linux and OSX. Being open-sourced, XBMC has also spawned branches such as Boxee (OSX and Linux) and Plex (OSX).

On the Linux front there's MythTV and SageTV (also available for windows).

The above all assume that your requirements drive you to a full-blown HTPC under your TV in the first place - there's a range of boxes that you can put under your TV that will happily stream media from networked computers elsewhere in your house to your TV - with a bit of hacking, AppleTV will run XBMC and Plex. Original XBoxes running XBMC are superb but can't really handle HD.

XBox360 and PS3 can stream media from various software programs such as TVersity and various built-in bits of Windows XP or Vista; Connect360 fulfills a similar role for OSX.

So, sorry for throwing questions back at you, but I'd ask: what are your requirements; what do want to use your notional HTPC for?
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 7:38 PM on April 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I currently use a 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo Mini. I use it to view rips of DVDs, downconverted Blu-Ray rips (downconverted to 720p), and the occasional 1080p rip.

I'm not seeing stuttering on this older machine, even at 1080p. I have no doubt that the new Mini would do just fine playing 1080p BluRay rips. I don't know about 1080i BluRay rips, because I haven't tried one.

Hulu works great. I don't use MLB.tv.

Boxee is a great way to get a bunch of these things in one place.

5.1 is a breeze if you use the TOSlink optical to your receiver.

Get Perian, a good codec pack for Quicktime. Get VLC for playback of stubborn files.

Get Handbrake for DVD ripping and general converting.

If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, there are several remote apps to control the apps.
posted by tomierna at 8:52 PM on April 6, 2009


Depends on what 1080p encodes. MKV->No. Blu-ray rips->No. Quicktime->Yes.

I like the Mac mini, but if you want an easily controllable versatile Media interface, you really can't beat Windows Media Center. (XP/Vista/W7beta). I've tried EyeTV, Frontrow, Boxee on the Mac and always went back to MCE.
posted by wongcorgi at 9:14 PM on April 6, 2009


I hate to be persistent about this, but my older Mini will play Quicktime or MKV files in 1080p without stuttering in both Quicktime Player and VLC, and it does it over Gigabit Ethernet to boot. Why would an '09 Mini have any problems, especially if it were using a (more) local hard drive?

Also, a bit of clarification: MKV, Quicktime and AVI are all container file formats. The codecs within these containers can cause problems, but I've found that with Perian, most of the guessing goes away. Straight Blu-Ray rips are going to contain either MPEG4 or VC-1. Either of those codecs work fine with either VLC or a Perian-equipped Quicktime.

Downconverted rips will usually be some flavor of XViD or DiVX. Neither Quicktime with Perian or VLC have any problems playing this content, whether the container is MKV or AVI.
posted by tomierna at 10:08 PM on April 6, 2009


Tomierna is correct, the container doesn't matter. A 1080p Quicktime or MKV file would play fine if it were encoded with DIVX/XVID. However, most (if not all) MKV files I've come across are H.264, and will not play on a Mini. H.264 can be very processor-intensive. The video card is rarely the bottleneck.

My experience so far:

1080p Blu-Ray MKV rip encoded with H.264
Mac Mini Dual Core 1.83 - No way
Hackintosh Dual Core 2.4 - usually pretty well, unless there's a lot of panning
Hackintosh Dual Core O/C to 2.7 - works very well, but approaches close to 95% processor power

720p Blu-Ray MKV rip encoded with H.264
Mac Mini Dual Core 1.83 - usually reasonably well — some rips are choppier than others
Hackintosh Dual Core - No problem

1080p Blu-Ray rip reencoded as H.264 in Quicktime using Handbrake with AppleTV settings
No problems on any of the above systems

I haven't tested DIVX/XVID too well, but I've never had a problem playing back any files I've found on any of my setups.
posted by geodee at 1:43 PM on April 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I currently use a Mac Mini Core 2 Duo 1.83 with 10.5 as a HTPC; I use Plex on it, and its hooked up directly via a DVI-HDMI cable to my 42" LCD HDTV. It works beautifully for all the TV shows I download, and is by far the best decision I've made for my TV/Home Entertainment Center. I use the Plex flavor of the Mac-specific XBMC fork, although many swear by Boxee. I tried Boxee in an early alpha, and had problems out the wazoo - but it looks like it has come a long way, so YMMV.

Regarding Blu-Ray rips; never tried them, but I have thought about installing a slim-line Blu-Ray drive into the Mini. FastMac offers a very pricey option, but I've seen smaller slimline players (which is all the Mac Mini needs; it uses standard slimline disc drives) for much much cheaper, and it isn't hard at all to get into the thing.

I also have no personal experience with 5.1, but have seen friends with a similar setup use the optical out with no issues whatsoever. If you have an optical in on your component stereo, I imagine you won't have any problems with that.

In sum, I imagine that you're asking about a Mac Mini specifically because you're using Macs in other places in your life; while PC advocates aren't wrong about how powerful the Windows Media Center options are, I think that you're asking about a Mac Mini for other reasons besides pure functionality. I'm quite happy with how it plays along with my other Macs, and my home network as a whole. While I can't advocate buying a brand new one (especially since the newest ones don't include the remote), trolling craigslist or eBay for one that's about a year old (or less) will probably net you a better deal, with perfectly adequate hardware to boot.

Good luck! Oh, and every application that's been recommended so far is a requirement; don't try doing this without Perian (at a minimum) installed.
posted by plaidrabbit at 3:59 AM on April 8, 2009


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