HTPC or plethora of appliances is the question
April 6, 2011 3:11 PM   Subscribe

I am debating between getting a Mac Mini Vs getting having a few different appliances in the house. Am sharing a description of what I think I need and what my options are and what my initial evaluation is. Thoughts from others will be appreciated!

Here is what I need:

Need to have
1. Be able to stream iTunes content to two rooms (bedroom and family room)
2. Be able to view videos on a hard disk in both rooms - any format MKV, DVD etc
3. Be able to play DVDs - the few times that I decide to rent or to view my own DVDs
4. Be able to stream video from the Internet - many services available now

Good to have
- NAS - one that allows me access to my files from a remote location. More importantly one that I can back-up to within the house.
- NAS - one that creates some redundancy for my main files as well as my personal videos (those that I have shot using a camcorder)

My options:
- Mac Mini
+ Can take care of all the Need to have above and the Good to have. Fewer cables, fewer boxes!
- It is tad expensive - although I could argue that it will hold some value after three years - as opposed to a mix of Boxee, Apple TV etc that I buy
- It will require some maintenance just as all computers typically requires

- Boxee, Apple TV and a DVD player
- Apple TV to play iTunes content - that too the older variety because the new ones want a computer running in the house to stream iTunes content
- Boxee for videos - offline and online
- DVD player - for when I need it
Negative is - too many boxes. Too many cables.
Positive is - I save some money upfront. And all of these are appliances - so low to no maintenance.

Have others here faced similar decisions? What path did you adopt?
posted by shalam to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Highly recommend using the mac mini as a home server connected to your living room television. The maintenance is trivial, and it will certainly hold value well enough for you to sell it for 75% of its retail price in a couple years. Keep this in mind when deciding whether the cost is worth it.

One word of advice, the ability to stream MKVs to other rooms from the Mini will be tricky. Even with the speed of 802.11n, my HD MKV files will stutter frequently enough to be unwatchable when streaming over the network. It's still best to fully copy the HD files to the machine you'll be watching them on. Standard def (eg any DVDs you've ripped to your hard drive) should be fine though.
posted by mullingitover at 3:28 PM on April 6, 2011

@mulingtover - thanks for the advice. Can I ask also how you make it remote friendly? My wife will be unhappy if I asked her to mess with a keyboard every time....
Re using Mac Mini in general - I tend to agree with your views.

I hope others chime in with their views and experiences.
posted by shalam at 5:26 PM on April 6, 2011

I've had a Mini connected to my living room TV for a few years now, and my wife's current MacBook Pro in the bedroom. I use Boxee as the front end, just because when it works it's fantastic. When it doesn't, it completely inscrutable and I end up just using XBMC or a standalone video player. It does best with "local" media - although it has plugins that support network content from vimeo/netflix/etc, they all seem kind of not quite fully functional.

Let's see:

Boxee as netflix client: Not that great. I watched all of Heroes through Netflix in a combination of xbox 360 and OSX, and in OSX I just gave up and watched it through the web interface. Not as convenient, but not impractical.

Remote control: I use the standard Apple Remote - $20 at the apple store. It works just fine in Leopard, although I gather they broke it in Snow Leopard and I stopped looking to see how to get it working again. For the couple of times a month I need to launch a video on PBS or Netflix or something browser based, I use my iPhone and an app called Mobile Mouse. Every now and then I dig out the bluetooth keyboard and mouse that came with the computer, but that's pretty rare.

Streamability: I'm streaming from a hopped-up Linux NAS over 100bT wired networking. I stream non-HD video up to the laptop in our bedroom (connected to the TV) over wireless, and I think I've done HD MKV streams, but I'm a cheapskate, and I don't get anything that's _particularly_ high bitrate.

DVDs: Have you considered ripping them? Modern i5/i7 processors make short work of ripping them to a convenient little file. Frankly it saves you all that time staring at the forced advertising and anti-piracy warnings that it's almost a wash. The 10' DVD playing interface for OSX (even through Frontrow) isn't quite as good as a dedicated DVD player, so cutting the movie down to the main feature helps a bit.

Maintenance: Every now and then I let it run through software update and patch it. Otherwise, it's nearly an appliance.

Portability: The mini's power supply is a not insignificant brick. I dunno if they whittled it down any in the unibody minis, but mine is pretty portability limiting. I don't know if you planned on getting two minis or just shuttling it around rooms, but shuttling it around might be tricky. We just use a laptop as our secondary content viewer, but it's not entirely optimal.

Price: Refurb, refurb, refurb. $699 for the new one or $599 for an identical refurb from the Apple store.

I like to think that the HTPC is marginally more future proof than the stack of appliances, although I've heard people raving about how much they love their Western Digital TV streamers.
posted by Kyol at 5:47 PM on April 6, 2011

There are remote apps for iphone and android, and you can use Boxee/XBMC if you like. However, I just use the bluetooth apple mouse and keyboard, and they're very handy and much simpler to use.

The unibody mac mini no longer has a power brick, the power supply is built into the case.

One very useful tip for using a mac connected to the television: control+mouse scroll. This zooms in smoothly, and makes it easy to read small fonts on the big screen from across the room.
posted by mullingitover at 5:52 PM on April 6, 2011

If the mini is too pricey, you can get away with a Dell Zino. I have three of these at work and love them to death. With the dual core processor its $324.00. Does HDMI out, has eSata if you want to add fast external storage, comes with a 7200rpm 500gb drive, wifi, Win7, etc. Obviously, you'll be running the windows version of iTunes. I'm also fond of this Lenovo HTPC remote.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:02 PM on April 6, 2011

I used an older Mac mini for home theatre and house-wide streaming jukebox.

Ended up replacing it with an older MacBook Pro that I upgraded from, so that I could use its FireWire 800 port with an external RAID disk on which I store our video and audio. I could have gone with eSATA via the PC Card bus, and the newer Mac mini has FW 800, but I'm waiting for Thunderbolt connectivity and drives in a Mac mini down the road.

I use a Magic Trackpad as a primary control for watching movies (and general mousing). I can control everything through two or three finger gestures, no more clicking. I use an Apple Wireless Keyboard for typing, when visiting Netflix, etc.

I use Apple Remote (the iOS app) to stream music and radio stations through Airport Express boxes to stereos around the house.

It all just works. No need to kludge together disparate bits that don't want to work together. No more hammering a square peg through a round hole.

It all works together really well. I once used a homebrew PC for home theatre, but I didn't really save much money on the individual parts and (expensive) Windows license, compared with the Mac mini. They aren't really that expensive, for all the benefits I got:

• All-in-one design
• No noisy f*^(%ing fan blaring in my ear while I'm watching something
• No more Windows spyware and adware to deal with
• No more Windows licenses to pay for
• No more searching for odd drivers after reinstalling Windows again
• No more dealing with Windows iTunes, which was the best audio and video player for Windows that I ended up with for what I was doing (yet ended up being a poor comparison with the OS X version in performance)

I hacked together our setup over four years of expensive trial and error. I have been happiest with the mini, by far.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:05 PM on April 6, 2011

Oh, and I'm waiting for the iPad 2 to arrive, so that I can test remote control via VNC. Should be fun! I don't believe appliances allow that kind of remote access, so that's one more tick in the mini corner, for me.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:07 PM on April 6, 2011

I use a Mac Mini hooked up to a 32" 1080p 120Hz screen and some m-audio monitors. There's a linux file server in the closet that stores all my media (4 TB worth and counting) and also keeps time machine backups (3.5 TB and counting) for all 3 computers (the aforementioned Mini and two MacBooks, mine and the GF's). I run Plex. It has a super slick interface and automatically knows when I've added new shows/seasons/episodes/movies and handles metadata automagically. It also lets me stream hulu, netflix, comedy central, pbs and a billion other things. Plus it can also access my iTunes and the GF's iTunes libraries (since we keep our music on our laptops) and will let me play anything on either when I'm in the music section. It keeps tracks of what is watched and what isn't and the progress of partially watched items. If I open Plex on my laptop, it uses bonjour (avahi) to automagically find any other Plex installs on the network and I can play anything that's already in those and the watched/unwatched statuses all sync. If I'm away from home, I just VPN back in (my router has a VPN server built in, I'd be surprised if yours didn't) and my entire media library is available.

Maintenance? I guess once a month or so I install an update. Time Machine backups are made (though I wouldn't lose much if I didn't since no media is stored locally) so even if it were to blow up, I'd be about 15 minutes away from having a new one up and running.

Network throughput? Gigabit. Why would you want anything else for a device that isn't portable?
posted by Brian Puccio at 8:57 PM on April 6, 2011

Spring for the Mini. I've had the original G4/1.25GHz model in my living room for nearly 6 years hooked up to a 42" LCD TV; it's a tad dated and can't handle high-def or most h.264 files (now played back with my PS3), but is still fine for .avi files, iTunes, and BitTorrent. Great little box.
posted by porn in the woods at 9:24 PM on April 6, 2011

Another Mini lover here. We use Mobile Mouse Pro on an iPod Touch to control it. Very few issues.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:33 PM on April 6, 2011

I recently bought a WDTV box, which I'm loving. I opted for the WDTVLive Plus, and added a 2TB hard drive and Wifi attatchment to it. The box itself (without hard drive, but with wired ethernet) runs about $99. For that you get:
1. Full 1080p output via HDMI
2. Optical Audio output
3. Two USB ports (I use one for a hard drive and one to power the WiFi adapter)
4. Built-in Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, and other streaming services
5. A customizable (via homebrew firmware upgrades) interface.
6. Infrared remote

The whole setup acts as both a media / streaming server as well as a NAS box. Western Digital also offers a version with a built-in hard drive for an extra hundred bucks or so.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:33 AM on April 7, 2011

Wow, this is great stuff to go off of.

Clearly many Mac Mini lovers here! Since it can banish multiple devices from my setup, I will likely go for it.
At this stage it seems waiting for the next greatest version to be launched makes sense - perhaps Thunderbolt, which in the future will have USB 3.0 like capabilities. Perhaps also the more recent i3 and i5 chips. That way I will not need to upgrade for 3-5 years, I presume.
I will create a Gigabit network.

Q. A question for all those who have a Mac Mini and a Linux file server. Why have both? Can the Mac Mini also not work as the file server?

@shutterbun - Thanks for the post on WDTV. I have been staying away from it for two reasons - I doubt it will handle the HFS+ format I use around the house. More importantly, I am not nearly as impressed by its interface. The Plex, XBMC and Boxee interface where the metadata and cover art is downloaded is way more attractive.
posted by shalam at 6:03 AM on April 7, 2011

I got a Mini, against the advice of a lot of people, and LOVE it. I tried making linux work, but it just isn't there for HTPC's IMO. I didn't want to deal with having lots of different media devices cluttering up my living room, so that kinda made the Mini the easiest choice.

It's running both StreamToMe and Airvideo servers that let transcode video on the fly to my iOS devices, over the internet if I like. It's running a VNC server (and SSH) for remote management and AFP/Samba for file sharing. Calibre's server makes all my eBooks accessible via Stanza on the iOS stuff and laptops. The Transmission bittorrent client is running its built in web interface so I can add torrents to the queue when I'm at work. It's also running the minecraft server my kid and I play on, Plex and a bunch of other stuff. TED (torrent episode downloader) downloads TV shows for me automatically via bittorrent. It really is an awesome little digital media hub/server.

I use Hippo Remote on the iPhone is as a remote control for Quicktime/Netflix/iTunes/VLC. For storage it's got a couple USB drive next to it (one for Time Machine) and there's another 3tb of storage connected to my Airport base station in the basement, mostly for redundancy.

I don't use Plex/Boxee/XBMC much I find it just as easy to browse file directories and over 802.11n. I've had no problem playing stuff directly off of network shares, but lots of people love them.

The single complaint I've got is that I can't stream audio from my iPhone/iPad to the Mini. Otherwise it does everything I want. All in all, the thing is a super value, especially when you figure it uses less power than just about any other PC, looks pretty, and will probably lose less than half its resale value over the next 3-4 years.
posted by pjaust at 10:01 AM on April 7, 2011

The single complaint I've got is that I can't stream audio from my iPhone/iPad to the Mini

Complain no more. You can use Airfoil to make your mac show up as airtunes speakers and stream music from your iphone/pod/pad to it.
posted by mullingitover at 10:40 AM on April 7, 2011

@pjaust thanks for the post and sharing the details of your setup. sounds like you have one heck of a system going. i had not even thought of calibre. can clearly see why it makes sense to have a number of these things be on the central server.

So I will buy one too. I think it makes sense to wait a quarter or so for the updated version. Till then I will make do using my wife's laptop for the purpose.

Thank you all!
posted by shalam at 11:31 AM on April 7, 2011

Q. A question for all those who have a Mac Mini and a Linux file server. Why have both? Can the Mac Mini also not work as the file server?

Limited internal capacity in the Mini and a screaming distrust of external drives is my excuse. OSX is also kind of quirky about which devices it figures it should have synchronous access to. It expects local disks should answer immediately, but it will let a network disk have a moment to respond. All of which means that I experienced far more SPODs when I had a USB/FireWire drive connected to my Mac than I do with a netatalk-aware share providing native AFP mounts for my Macs.

Also, mass storage is usually pretty noisy. Hiding the disks off in the basement in a server next to the kitty litter box means I don't have to worry about how loud the drives are.

Since some people mentioned using their network storage as a time machine destination - Apple went and made Time Machine query the size of the underlying share in 10.6.3 or so, so my carefully sized Time Machine sparsebundles were getting large and stupid, so now my file server is running a 3 disk soft raid 5 (mdadm, natch) with LVM on top of it providing me with a degree of abstraction between the hardware and the partitions. Now my laptop gets a 40 gig logical volume to play with, and Time Machine respects that absolute size. Do you need to go this far? Nah - I just did it because it was very nearly job training.
posted by Kyol at 9:47 PM on April 7, 2011

A question for all those who have a Mac Mini and a Linux file server. Why have both? Can the Mac Mini also not work as the file server?
You can only fit one hard drive in a Mac Mini. Daisy chaining 5 firewire drives off of it got annoying. Plus, I'd like some redundancy and the ability to expand the system over time so that meant RAID 6, so Linux server, mdadm, just like Kyol. Plus it can sit out of sight. Plus I can limit the size of each Mac's Time Machine space (and adjust it on the fly in case I need to shuffle things around).

Plus the Linux server also runs rtorrent with wtorrent for a front end, along with a handful of other things.

I use the apple remote. My Mini was a refurb I got almost two years ago and it has no problems handling 1080p playback, so there's no need to get the most powerful, most current Mini.
posted by Brian Puccio at 5:02 AM on April 9, 2011

@Kyol and @Brian, thanks for the insights.

I am afraid I am not much of a Linux geek. Although I do agree that the external drives can become noisy next to the Mini.

Do you think something like a Tonido Plug can do the job as well as the Linux servers you are talking about.?


As regards buying the latest and greatest Mac Mini - based on what @Brian just said, I am now inclined to get a refurbished version of the current crop. Just to reflect on what might be included in the new version - a new processor I suppose, and the Thunderbolt connectivity - USB 3 through that in the future I suppose. But if I create a separate Plug based NAS, then I should not care about USB 3.0.


Btw, I am late in replying because there appears to be no email based alert on metafilter to beocme updated when threads are updated... I use RSS - which I access lot less often.

Thank you!
posted by shalam at 6:58 AM on April 9, 2011

The Tonido Plug is certainly an option, as well as something like a Drobo FS or even a Netgear ReadyNAS. It's easy to start accumulating media, and it's nice to get it off of the local disk. Mirroring your disks is a plus if you plan on using it to store your DVDs, since re-ripping them from scratch would be a royal pain.
posted by Kyol at 7:35 PM on April 12, 2011

I will look into Netgear ReadyNAS also. For the speed more than anything else - I presume that a Gigabit port that is connected to the Hard Drive using the SATA interface should be a lot faster than the USB port interface that Tonido Plug will offer.

Thank you!
posted by shalam at 7:25 AM on April 13, 2011

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