Best option for additional storage for a Mac Mini HTPC
June 30, 2010 8:06 AM   Subscribe

I’m planning on buying a Mac Mini as an HTPC, but I have some questions about the best option for additional storage.

I need at least 2TB of storage for all of my media files, and would like the possibility of easy expansion. I would also like to have a backup of all of the files.

I would like to be able to download files from the Internet onto my MacBook and wirelessly drag-and-drop them to wherever the media is stored. I'd also like to wirelessly stream the video files to an iPad and an iPhone via AirVideo.

From what I gather, my two options are external hard drives hooked up directly to the Mini, or a NAS setup--except I've researched a whole bunch, and I still have no idea if one is a better option than the other for what my goals are. (I don't really understand the concept of a NAS in general, actually, or if I need to set up a server and if so what that would entail.) I've heard about the Drobo, which is attractive in that it offers easy expansion and redundant data in case one of the drives fails, but it seems to get a lot of bad reviews and I keep hearing "RAID is not backup." (It's also a lot more money than I want to spend.)

Some information that may or may not be relevant:
- All the computers in my household are Macs running OS X 10.6
- The Mac Mini is several floors away from my DSL modem and so has to connect to my network via WiFi
- I have a bunch of external hard drives at my disposal, so if I can avoid buying anything new that would be great
- I'm okay with doing manual backups once a week or so of my media drive--constant synchronization is not a necessity.
posted by cosmic osmo to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I just bought an HTPC Mac Mini. I love it, and recommend Plex highly, even though that wasn't in your question.

I haven't, however, invested in additional storage yet. But my current plan is this, and I feel like it's pretty solid. Modify as needed.

-- Buy a Firewire 800 drive that has a second port for daisy-chaining (like this one) and attach directly to the Mini. Set up a Media folder that is read into the Plex database.

-- Download all files locally to the Mini, in a shared Media folder with the same structure as the one on the Firewire drive. (Plex Episode Linker should, in theory, help organize the folder automatically.)

-- Set up a cron job to take the files on the Mini and move them to the Firewire drive, preserving the folder structure. Rsync or Unison should do this.

-- Set up another cron job to, after some amount of time, delete the files from the Mini, where HD space is at a premium. Of course, you need to make sure the Rsync or Unison cron job won't copy them back.

If you want a backup, you can plug a second Firewire 800 drive into the first (daisy-chaining; doesn't take up an extra port on the Mini) and do a Unison backup job between the two external drives.

If you want to download stuff to your MacBook initially (I just download to my Mini), you can set up yet another cron job to synchronize the MB's download folder with your Mini, then delete the local copies of files. I know it seems complex, but once cron jobs are set up, they run with zero oversight.

Hope this helps. Feel free to MeMail.
posted by supercres at 8:35 AM on June 30, 2010

I accomplish this with an HP laptop and external USB drive(s). The laptop uses WiFi to talk to the house network, but that isn't really a big deal. It runs various torrent clients, a SqueezeServer and iTunes. I run the AirVideo server on a quad core machine elsewhere because the laptop doesn't have the guts to transcode on the fly. (So, AirVideo streams fly over the WiFi twice, but I don't find this problematic as the bit rate is really quite low.) The laptop is also hooked to my stereo and my HD projector, and with XMBC does playback of 'net sourced video for projection. With a USB hub, I can pretty much put as much storage on it as needed. Really, any kind of small, low power machine will do -- like an older MacMini.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:39 AM on June 30, 2010

Oh, and I run Air Video server on my Mini and it works beautifully with iPad and iPhone. If you have other computers in your house on which you'd like to watch media stored on the Mini, just install Plex on them and add the Mini's media folder (or its attached hard drives) as a video source.

If you are doing synchronization across the wireless network (like between your MB and your Mini), you'll really want to optimize your wireless network. Anything other than 802.11n will crawl with big files. The ideal solution is a direct connection between computers (direct Ethernet, or even better, FW800) whenever you want to synchronize them.

Unless you have another method of backing up data, any disk attached to your Mini can act as a Time Machine (or manual backup), even while also serving media; the other computers will be able to see it across the network. Be warned that constantly playing media will shorten a hard drive's life expectancy. You can also, of course, set up a separate non-media backup, and perhaps plug that into your wireless router or another computer.
posted by supercres at 8:42 AM on June 30, 2010

Response by poster: supercres, your setup sounds very similar to what I'm thinking of setting up.

-- Download all files locally to the Mini, in a shared Media folder with the same structure as the one on the Firewire drive.

By "shared," I'm assuming you mean a folder I can get to from other computers on my network. I can set this up through the "Sharing" system preferences pane, yes? Or do I need to do something more complicated?

(Thanks for all the links! I'd already been planning on using Plex, but the Episode Linker looks great.)
posted by cosmic osmo at 8:58 AM on June 30, 2010

Best answer: A NAS box basically acts as a hard drive that's connected to your network without an intermediating computer. In reality, it will have a tiny Linux server running on it, but for the most part, you don't need to interact with that. If you have an Airport Extreme base station, you can hook a hard drive up to it directly, and it essentially acts as a NAS box.

Especially given the fact that your Mini will be connected wirelessly, I agree with Supercres' advice to hook a FW800 drive directly to the Mini—otherwise you'll be using up a lot of wireless bandwidth every time you play a movie. His advice to put the media files on the Mini's internal drive and then use cron jobs to sweep them to an external seems like a needless complication—why not just store things on the external in the first place?
posted by adamrice at 9:01 AM on June 30, 2010

I meant shared in the sense of not tied to a particular user. Mine resides in Macintosh HD/Users/Shared. It probably isn't necessary, but I have my Media Server user log in automatically (without needing a password) so I don't want that to be an admin account. Therefore I have other admin accounts, yada yada.

I prefer to do as much on the local hard drive as possible (a) to prevent unneccessary overuse of the Firewire drive, shortening its lifespan and (b) because it's just quicker to access. The Firewire connection itself -- despite being the fastest on the market, prior to USB 3 -- will be the bottleneck, and will slow down both downloads/uploads and watching media on the hard drive. If you have X active torrents that you're both uploading and downloading PLUS watching another file, all of which are living on your external hard drive, you're going to have problems. I figure that most stuff I download I'll watch within 30 days of doing so, hence the cron job to delete internal HD-stored files older than X.

The advantage of Plex is that you can add all the separate folders you have media in, and it will treat them the same-- everything will show up under "TV Shows" and "Movies", no matter where it resides. (I do wonder how it treats multiple copies of a single show, though. Hopefully it defers to the copy from the source closest to the top of the list or something like that.)
posted by supercres at 9:23 AM on June 30, 2010

I have a similar setup. I think the external FW hard drive makes more sense in your case, but I went for a D-Link DNS-323 as a cheap NAS, as I wanted a NAS for my non-HTPC laptop as well. The 323 has performed beautifully and the linked wiki will give enough info to make it do all sort of tricks, turning it into a mini-server of sorts. Recommended, if you decide to go the NAS route.
posted by costas at 9:32 AM on June 30, 2010

I use a Pogoplug with OpenPogo on it for this. The 'Plug runs Samba, so it can get to the files locally; it doesn't have to go out to the internet and back. That lets me add storage in another physical location, where heat and noise aren't such a bother. My Mac mini is a bit older, streams over Wifi, and we don't have any issues with throughput. From the Pogoplug.

And Nthing Plex for the interface; it's just amazing, and only getting better.
posted by eafarris at 10:11 AM on June 30, 2010

Apple makes an external hard drive (I think with both FW and USB) in the same form factor as the Mini. I bought a terabyte one and set up pretty much exactly what supercres above detailed. You pay a premium for the form factor, but it looks oh-so-pretty stacked with my Mini on my media console.
posted by olinerd at 10:24 AM on June 30, 2010

HTPC = home theater PC/media center.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:52 AM on June 30, 2010

Does the version of the Mac Mini you have include the e-SATA port (iirc, the new ones do), if so, you could go with something like the Icy Dock that allows you to put multiple drives into one container. OS X does do software RAID, so you could set up mirroring or RAID-5. No, it's not backups, but gives you some protection from drive failure. There are similar devices that have FW-800 interfaces, too.

"NAS" stands for "network attached storage" and basically refers to a computer system that is used solely for storage (though the term is often conflated in home use to refer to the main storage server on a home network that might also do other stuff).

Pogoplug and other small embedded computers are options as a platforms for a full-blown NAS, but unless you see yourself growing past say, 4TB in the near future, getting disk expansions for the Mini should be fine.

In any case, I would avoid the Drobo. There are far, far too many negative reviews out there on it (I know expert sys admins that have had serious problems with the Drobo and regret buying theirs). If I was going to go with a pre-built NAS, I'd probably go with the ReadyNAS, though it's pretty spendy.
posted by unixgeek at 12:11 PM on June 30, 2010

I just got my mini a few weeks ago, and bought this Icy Dock FW800 enclosure for two 1TB hard drives: one as my main media source and one as a mirrored backup using SuperDuper! Been working great so far.

And Plex rocks.
posted by DakotaPaul at 4:53 PM on June 30, 2010

Response by poster: So I got the Mini yesterday and have been busy setting everything up. I decided to go with hooking up an external hard drive to the Mini via FW800 over the Drobo or another NAS solution. Transfer from my MacBook to the Mini over WiFi is pretty slow, but for now I don't mind temporarily hooking up the external hard drive to the MacBook to transfer files that way (although I really wish the MacBook had FW800).

Plex is awesome. FileBot has been an absolute godsend to clean up my collection of downloaded XviD-encoded .avis (speaking of, I was worried they'd look crappy on my TV, but I'm pretty satisfied by the quality. Obviously h.264-encoded .mkv/.m4vs look better, but not enough for me to want to re-download or re-rip anything.)

Thanks for your help, all!
posted by cosmic osmo at 12:34 PM on July 8, 2010

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