HOW TO BUILD A MAC HTPC
Pros & Cons
For most people when they think of a Home Theater PC they automatically think of Windows and XMBC or MythTV. Well thankfully it’s progressed since then, with offerings from Boxee, ReplayTV, Plex and more. But what if you’re a Mac user, are the options available to you? Absolutely, and that’s what I’m going to go through today, how to build a Mac HTPC. As an added bonus I’ll even discuss how to make your Mac into a gaming machine that will let you play thousands of games on your tv, from old point and click adventure games to favorites from the PlayStation 2 to the Wii. The best part is, everything you read here can also be used on a PC, but for this how-to I’m going to focus on the Mac HTPC and gaming experience. In this how-to, I will demonstrate the hardware and software that was used to bring my HTPC and gaming unit to life, then take a close look at its strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t have to have the same hardware that I’m using in this how-to. In most cases, an Intel Mac machine will work just fine, but keep in mind that in all cases, the newer the better.
A couple years ago I upgraded my trustworthy 2007 Mac mini to a brand new 27″ iMac. To say it was a massive change would be an understatement, but I had a nostalgic feeling towards my old Mac mini. It kept pushing through the years and never let me down. So what better way to honor it then to keep it pushing, and making it into a dedicated HTPC was the best use for it.
The Mac mini used is an Inter Core 2 Duo with 2GB of 667 MHz of DDR2 SDRAM. It uses an Intel GMA 950, which to be honest is perfectly acceptable for what I expect the HTPC to do. Airport and Bluetooth are also built in, which is nice to have for the various input devices that can be paired to it. I have an internal 120GB hard drive, which is upgradeable if you’d like but since I’m using an external storage device the 120GB suits me just fine.
The mini is equipped with a SuperDrive, meaning it reads and writes CD’s as well as DVD’s. Unfortunately Apple doesn’t offer any first party Blu-ray drives or support, but that’s ok. I’m running OS X 10.8 on the mini, otherwise known as Lion, which is perfectly suitable for any HTPC. On the back of the mini you’ll find your standard power input, audio in, and audio out. It also features a gigabit Ethernet, Firewire 400, DVI, and 4 USB 2.0 ports. These are what’s going to bring the HTPC to life.
For controlling the Mac mini I’m using an Apple wireless keyboard and an Apple Mighty Mouse. It’s great having both input devices being wireless, it allows anyone the freedom to sit anywhere they want in the room. I can lounge in my recliner and navigate the HTPC with the keyboard on my lap.
Now you might be wondering just how does one hook the mini up to a tv. Well, newer versions of the Mac mini have HDMI built into them, but the mini I’ve set up has a DVI port. DVI, which stands for Digital Visual Interface, was first developed to connect a computer to monitors, but many television manufacturers produce T.V.’s with DVI imports. Luckily enough my T.V. includes such a port.
HDMI is a newer digital audio/video interface developed and promoted by the consumer electronics industry. DVI and HDMI have the same electrical specifications for their TMDS and VESA/DDC links. However, HDMI and DVI differ in a few ways.
- HDMI lacks VGA compatibility. The necessary analog signals are absent from the HDMI connector.
- DVI is limited to the RGB color space. HDMI supports RGB, but also supports YCbCr 4:4:4 and YCbCr 4:2:2. These spaces are widely used outside of computer graphics.
- HDMI supports the transport of packets, needed for digital audio, in addition to digital video. An HDMI source differentiates between a legacy DVI display and an HDMI-capable display by reading the display’s EDID block.
The last bullet is an important one. What this means is that while I can connect my DVI cable, which came with my Mac mini, from my mini to my TV, I need to find a way to get audio to the tv. Unlike the HDMI cable, it can’t do both.
Thankfully getting audio to my tv is an easy fix. The back of the mini includes an audio out port. I simply used an audio out to a mini jack audio cable. I was able to find one at a local Radio Shack for under $10. Now I’m able to get a video and audio input from the Mac mini to the tv for under $10. Not a bad deal.
One thing to note, if you want to use a DVI to HDMI converter you can, there are plenty of them out there. This may be required for televisions that don’t have a DVI input built into them. But it’s very important that you remember that DVI does not output audio so you’ll still need to get the audio out adapter.
Let’s be honest, not all televisions are made the same. Sure, you can get a 42″ LCD tv for $400 these days, but it’s not going to be the same as one that costs $1000. Why? Well it’s the quality of the tv and the features it offers. When I was T.V. shopping, before I made my HTPC, I had a few minimum requirements that had to be met before I’d settle on something so expensive. First, it had to have an excellent picture quality, it had to have the ability to connect to the internet, and it needed multiple input ports. I already owned a 42″ Samsung LCD T.V. which offered the features I was looking for and I loved, moving from a DLP rear projection to the LCD was a massive step up, so in my mind going from LCD to LED was another step up. Despite what some people might say, it was.
I purchased a 55″ Samsung LED Smart T.V. The picture quality is amazing, vibrant and the blacks are dark. While I may have paid a little extra, I purchased the Smart T.V. with a built in ethernet port and wi-fi, which made all the difference. This allowed for me to have various apps built right into the tv, such as Netflix, Plex, Muzu, YouTube, Hulu, ESPN, BBC News, Pandora, Facebook, Twitter and much much more. More than that, it allowed me to directly watch videos from my computer via Samsung’s AllShare feature, which is built into all Samsung Smart T.V.’s.
AllShare will allow me to pull video, audio and picture files off the computer, or any external storage device using TVMobili. In essence this makes my tv into its own HTPC, but it does need a computer to pull the files from. But this is about a Mac HTPC so we’ll focus on that for now. The Samsung included the needed ports in order to hook up the Mac mini, allowing for a seamless transition from a monitor to something much bigger.
The most difficult decision I made when putting together my HTPC was what external storage device I’d use. I have a large number of DVD’s, HD-DVD’s and Blu-rays that I intended on ripping and storing onto a device, as well as television shows and music. It was clear that I needed something that could hold a large amount of space, but also give me the flexibility to upgrade.
After reviewing a large number of external hard drives I settled on the Drobo 4-bay. The Drobo is unique for a number of reasons. The biggest deciding factors for me though were as follows…
- Every Drobo has the BeyondRAID storage technology that protects data against a hard disk crash
- As long as you have more than a single disk in the Drobo, all data is safe no matter which hard disk fails.
- I can upgrade hard drives on the fly
The Drobo will accommodate from one to four 3.5″ SATA I / II / III drives from any manufacturer, spindle speed, or cache. And the best thing is, no carriers or tools are required. It’s as simple as literally sliding the hard drive into the slot until it snaps into place. One thing to note though, the particular Drobo I purchased limits capacity to a total of 16 TB. So the largest hard drive you should purchase for each slot would be 4TB. To be fair, at this point I’m only at 10TB of data so I think it will be a little while until I reach maximum capacity.
As long as Drobo has two hard drives, it will protect you from a drive failure. Its unique design will ensure that you don’t lose access to data. All you need to do is swap out the failed hard drive and replace it with a new drive.
Now it’s safe to say that something like this isn’t cheap, and it’s not, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it affordable. I lucked out and was able to purchase my Drobo on eBay, and the best part was that it was brand new and never opened. I bought it for roughly half of what it costs at some retailers, but take note. If you look at sites like retailmenot.com and other only coupon sites you’ll almost always find a coupon code if you’re ordering directly from Drobo. I’ve found codes giving $100 off, so just take about 10-15 minutes to search them out, they’re well worth it.
As for the hard drives to populate the Drobo with, those are dropping in price every day. I was able to purchase a couple 2TB Seagate Barracuda Green for $89.99 each on newegg.com. There are always deals available for hard drives so filling yours up shouldn’t be difficult.
There is one thing I’d like to note. I had my Drobo for only 6 months before I started having fan issues. Quite often the fan on the Drobo would get loud and extremely noticeable. I contacted Drobo support and they had me a new Drobo within a week, no questions asked. I simply returned the faulty Drobo in the box they sent and nothing was charged to my account. I couldn’t have been more pleased with their level of support.
Now you may be asking what a game controller has to do with this, but recall that I mentioned that we’d be making the HTPC into a gaming unit as well. It’s safe to say that I’m an active gamer, owning many old and current consoles. What if there was a way that I could condense most of the older gaming consoles into one box and have it connected to my tv? I could use one controller to play all the games and it would take up little space. Well thankfully there is, and it didn’t cost much to do it.
Since I already own an Xbox 360 and have multiple controllers I decided to use one of them as my HTPC gaming controller. Unfortunately it will not automatically sync to the Mac mini, but Microsoft does offer a solution for PC gamers. The Xbox 360 Wireless Controller Adapter. Pictured on the left of the image above, this little adapter plugs into the USB port in the back of the Mac mini and sync’s with any certified Xbox 360 controller.
Now it’s designed specifically for use with Windows PC’s but thanks to the fine people at Tattiebogle you can download a drive made especially for Mac’s. Click here for the link to download the driver’s most recent disk-image. Open the .dmg file when it’s finished, and run the installer package. The simply sync your controller and you’re good to go. The driver also allows for users to map the controller to what ever configurations you like. Now you can play old school NES, PlayStation 2, arcade games, Wii, and much more… all with a modern controller.
Ripping DVDs & Other Physical Media
What’s a HTPC without the software, in this part of the how-to I’m going to go over the various software that’s used to build my Mac HTPC. There’s a screenshot just above that illustrates how my HTPC looks, with the various icons at the bottom and the Drobo on the desktop. Now, let’s take a look at what I use to create my HTPC.
The most important piece of software on the Mac mini next to the OS. Plex is what brings it all together. A free download, Plex works on Macs, PC’s, and Linux computers. They also maintain apps that can be downloaded for iOS, Android and Windows phone devices, as well as various televisions and set top boxes like Roku, Amazon Fire and more. Plex is also available on the Xbox One, Xbox 360 and the PS4, but in order to stream to those devices you will need to be a Plex Pass member, which is $5 a month.
The questions is what makes it so great, well a lot really. For desktops Plex is made up of two pieces of software, the front end media player, Plex Media Center, allows users to manage and play video, photos, music, and podcasts from a local or remote computer running the Plex Media Server. Basically the Plex Media Server does the back end work while the Media Center gives it the look and polish. You will need the Plex Media Server installed in order to stream your videos, audio, etc on your desktop, as well as any mobile devices you may have Plex installed on.
The Plex Media Center supports a wide range of multimedia formats and includes features such as playlists, audio visualizations, slideshows, weather forecasts, and an expanding array of third-party plugins. As a media center, Plex can play most audio and video file formats, as well as display images from many sources, including CD/DVD-ROM drive, USB flash drives, the Internet, and local area network shares. Plex is able to decode high-definition video up to 1080p and with the appropriate hardware, it supports hardware decoding of H.264 video.
What sealed the deal for me when deciding on which software to use was the customizability of the video library. It will automatically organization video content by information associated with the video files, in my case the hundreds of movies and T.V. shows. I can create separate libraries based on the various folders I created on the Drobo. I’ve created libraries for Movies, Kids Movies, Anime and TV Shows. Each library can list movies by categories such as Genre, Title, Year, Actors and Directors. There are also different viewing options for each library, from a tree menu to the option you see in the screenshots below.
Yes, those are actual screenshots of the various libraries from my set up. As you can see it’s a very visual and informative set up. It shows movie posters, which through the Plex Media Server you can change, information about the movie, actors in it, the writer, the director, resolution, aspect ration, audio and even the logo of the studio that produced the movie. It even created a background wallpaper for every movie. The great thing is that ALL of this is done automatically, you don’t have to do a thing. If you don’t like the poster or background and want to change it you have the option of going in and choosing from a variety of different images.
The screen also lists which library you’re in and the number of files you have in each library. As you can see my Movies Library has 308 movies, Kids Movies has 44 and so on. For the TV Shows library it’s a little different, it says 47 but that’s in reference to the 47 different television series I have. For example, when you click on the Archer poster it will then go to another screen that will break it down by season. As you can see with the example below, I have the series Game of Thrones on my HTPC with seasons 1 through 3. On this new screen it shows each season, with how many are in each season and how many are unwatched as well as a breakdown of what each season is about. It also gives a customized poster representing each season as well.
One thing that I love about the TV Shows library is that when you switch from show to show you will get to each the shows opening theme, this is a neat little feature that again is done automatically. The developers of Plex have done an outstanding job with the little things.
The Music Library, one of the Plex metadata databases, is another key feature of Plex. It allows for the automatic organization of a music collection by information stored in the ID meta tags, like title, artist, album, genre and popularity. Like the video files, Plex will pull up a background for each artist/group as well as biographical information. When you click on the artist you’ll be shown a list of all the music you have associated with them. When you click on an album or song to play the screen will go full screen with an image of the album’s cover art as well as the song title and information on it’s length, etc.
The Cons & The Pros
If you’ve never used a HTPC before it’s not exactly intuitive. This means you’ll need to teach family members how to use it, and if you have people visiting, well it could get tricky. Searching for a movie or television show on the Drobo, or searching through Netflix, Hulu or Amazon might not be easy for some, but spending a few minutes showing them the basics should help.
Sometimes you’ll be required to use a keyboard and mouse. While Apple’s wireless keyboard and mouse work great for me, some people have a hard time using one if it’s not on a flat surface. Some might think of a keyboard and mouse as the paragon of complicated universal remotes, but it’s not that bad. It’s actually a whole lot easier to slap the spacebar or click the mouse to pause a movie than find the remote and press pause.
For the gaming experience, if you want to run some of the newer emulators and games you’ll have to have a faster computer, but for the older stuff an older computer should work just fine. Remember, downloading illegal ROMS can get you in trouble and in no way do I condone that action.
It’s literally every movie, television show, and cd/mp3 that I own all in once place. The layout looks great, and the features that Plex offers is near superb. I can stream Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, ESPN 3 and much, much, much more directly to my television all from one place. I don’t need to open an app for this or an app for that, everything is where I need it to be.
Did I say that it’s everything in one place? I don’t think I can stress that enough. My entertainment needs are met and at the end of the day it’s still a computer. If I want I can browse the web, chat online, conduct video chats and much more.
If you have a large library of digital audio, video and music files then creating a HTPC is really a no brainer. With a little bit of money you can create something that will organize your digital entertainment into something that will look great on your tv, and make your entertainment watching much easier to cope with.
If you have an extra Mac mini lying around, creating a Mac HTPC is a great way to put it to use. It can even save you money on cable bills. The video output is gorgeous, and takes full advantage of your HDTV’s full resolution potential. Trust me, you’ll be happy you made the effort.