Building My Mac Media Centre
Inspired by a brief chat with Ryan on twitter this afternoon I thought I would take some time out to talk about my little Mac Mini Media Center. In this article I will take a look at the set up I have, give some hints & tips on things I have learned and talk a little about how this simple shiny device has changed the way I consume media.
My Set Up
The parts of my set up were mostly chosen for value, or because I could source them at a reasonable cost. All in I think I spent around the £600 mark to build this system over the course of about a year, with some of the deals around you could probably do it for less if you wanted to.
The two core elements of my set up are the Mac Mini itself and the screen it is attached too. This set up is aimed at a living room / lounge so I choose a 3�? Samsung LCD TV (a LE32A436T to be specific) as this TV was well priced and had all the ports I thought I needed. It is hooked up over VGA to the Mac Mini.
The Mac Mini is a late 2006 1.66ghz model, which originally had 512mb of RAM, I upgraded this to 1gb not long after purchasing the machine on eBay. The machine is on the GMA graphics platform, but I have found it to perform well for media tasks. Taking into account my screen is only 720p I am yet to meet anything the mini cannot play. It can multitask very well, often showing live TV, while ripping DVDs or transcoding TV shows for my iPhone. The mini will rip DVDs to the iPhone format at a comfortable 23-28 frames per second which is fast enough for my needs.
Much of the use the Mac Mini gets is for Live TV viewing, I use the fantastic Eye TV 3 software combined with their DTT stick picking up on Freeview Digital TV. The eye tv software also acts as a Full PVR allowing me to time shift, record, play and export shows for my iPhone and iTunes library. The software also provides me with a ton of other functionality but I will detail that further in a future post.
To round off my set up I have some additional storage and some better quality speakers. The storage needs of the system are handled by a Lacia Disk Mini I brought from a good friend Alun Rowe. It provides 250gb of storage attached via firewire. Although the Disk Mini is designed to sit under the mac mini, I found this raised the mini to high in the space I had available. To solve this issue I have placed the disk behind the unit the mini is on and used a longer Firewire cable to connect the two. This drive contains my 230gb iTunes library and is set to spin down when not used for 3 minutes or more. I find the drive generally quite though sometimes you can hear it vibrating away, a simple slip of old inner tube under the feet stopped the vibrations.
The system is rounded of with a set of JBL Creature Mushroom speakers, again brought from Alun. These speakers provide great sound and connect up to the mac mini through a 3.5mm Audio Jack.
The cables for each element are tucked away behind the unit where possible and I have tried to keep the front of the machine as clean as possible. This helps to avoid things getting in the way of the IR port for the mac mini remote.
Hints & Tips
Building this set up bit by bit has meant that at time the set up has been less than ideal, however it also means that I have had to connect things together in rather creative ways, sometimes with little success.
The Eye TV stick I already owned and was being used on my MacBook before I started this media system. The media system came about for a couple of reasons; first my old CRT TV died on me and I was needing to review the equipment I had and later, after I had picked a mac mini, to separate work life from home life and to enable recordings when my MacBook was unavailable.
The first item I brought was the TV, it was on offer on Amazon and it had the ports I thought I would need. The first tip is if you can, pick a TV with a VGA connection. Although I am aware that DVI and HDMI offer better quality picture, after a few attempts I have never managed to get any DVI to HDMI cables to work. They always seem to have the screen out of alignment or issues with the colours or in some cases banding and fuzziness.
Shortly after getting the TV I decided to get a mini to pair with it and my second tip comes regarding the choices of Mac mini, it is two fold; Don’t worry to much about spec even the slowest duo Mac Mini (eg mine) is more than fast enough to run this set up and fit at least 1gb of RAM or purchase a mac with it already when the machine has only 512mb of RAM, it would have problems running Eye TV to show and record at the same time. Upgrading the RAM solved this issue completely.
As I had purchased the mini and the TV without thinking that much about how they connected I was left using the Mac Mini’s inbuilt speaker. The speaker within the mini is not very good at all for watching TV and was a real issue. I tried a number of solutions to try and resolve the problem.
Attempt 1: Optical to TV.
My first attempt to get the sound on the mac mini to the TV, was to try and connect the Optical Audio on the mac to the Optical Audio on the TV. I purchased the required Tos Link cable and mini adaptors and plugged everything in, after much fiddling, growling and the occasional rawr from the lion I discovered that it was not possible to use the TOS Link port on the TV for input even though that is what the port is labelled as. The Tos Link on my TV is for taking sound from the screen out to audio equipment and not for getting sound out through the inbuilt speakers. So my Tip is Figure out how you are going to manage sound when you are setting up you machine, and make sure the labels on the TV mean what you think they do only by searching on the product number did I find out the connection was misnamed.
Attempt 2: 3.5mm jack to Stereo RCA.
The second attempt at persuading the sound to leave via the TV speakers was through the use of an 3.5mm audo jack to RCA left and right stereo cable. As my TV has the required ports I tried out this cable and found that like with the Tos Link the TV was not able to have sound from sound inputs while displaying video through the PC connection.
Attempt 3: HDMI
My final attempt was to use a 3.5mm Jack & DVI -> HDMI cable which cost me almost £30! This cable did not work very well at all. Possibly because HDMI is expecting Digital sound but is being supplied an analogue input, either way this cable failed with both picture quality and sound quality. I ended up returning the cable in the end and getting a refund. During this time I experimented with a number of DVI to HDMI cables and found one of them worked very well, I tried about 6 cables in total costing between £5 – £29.99. This is why I ended up sticking with VGA.
Success (well sort of): Speakers!
In the end I purchased a set of JBL mushroom shaped speakers to run the sound through. These speakers sound great and look great so I was happy with the solution, while it stings that I was not able to set the sound up with the TV speakers I am very happy with the end result. The JBLs sound much better than the inbuilt speakers.
How did this change my life!
To say the mac mini completely changed my life would be an overstatement, thought to say it has changed my TV viewing habits entirely would be and understatement. It’s somewhere in the middle. The mac mini has mostly automated my TV viewing, I have set up playlists for eyeTV to record programs as their air and I have the system export a fresh batch of this content to the iPhone each and every day. I now consume TV in particular on my terms and have been freed from the schedulers.
With the change in TV viewing there is also a change in viewing other shows I have in my library. I have ripped almost all my most loved DVDs and TV shows to the mini, which means I have them on demand. This can be very useful when I just wish to be “entertained�?. I have a series of iTunes smarty playlists set up to show me a variety of shows I like in a pleasing order. This enables me to sit back and not need to worry about whats coming up next. I quite enjoy the variety and unpredictability this adds to the viewing experience occasionally viewing shows I have forgotten I had. Overall the media centre has fulfilled its goals and has greatly enhanced my relationship with media and its consumption.
So, that’s basically everything up till now, if you have any suggestions for where I have gone wrong or wish to add to some hints then feel free to leave a comment.