The Mac Media Centre Guide: Part 1 – Hardware

This week, we have a series of articles that offer step-by-step guides for setting up your own Mac media centre. The ability to access all your video and media from the comfort of a sofa is something of “holy grail”, and a system fairly difficult to implement well. Our guide will be split into three parts:

Whilst AppStorm is (as the name suggests) primarily an application-focused blog, today we’ll be venturing a little deeper into the hardware involved in a Mac media centre. We shall compare the relative benefits of an Apple TV, Mac Mini or MacBook, and offer some advice on how to connect everything together.

The Device Dilemma

Apple TV

The Apple TV represents Apple’s foray into the media centre market. It is a hub for your home entertainment, capable of storing content internally or connecting to your network for streaming music and video from iTunes libraries. With an internet connection, it’s also possible to purchase and rent movies and TV shows directly from the device itself.

Apple TV

Apple TV

The Apple TV comes in two varieties: a 40GB model for $229, or a $160GB model for $329. Both include an Apple Remote, are capable of connecting to 802.11n wireless networks, and can display content in HD.

The Apple TV Interface

The Apple TV Interface

One of the main selling points of Apple TV is the simple interface and ease of setup. Providing you have a HD television set, it’s simply a case of plugging in the device. Straight away you’ll be able to connect to a network, stream media (photos, video, podcasts and music) from iTunes, or access YouTube directly. Software updates are also freely provided over the internet, so you’ll always be able to benefit from the latest features.

The main downside to an Apple TV also rests in the internal software. By default, you are limited to using only iTunes for media and suffer from a fairly restricted experience. Fortunately it’s fairly simple to install additional software on the Apple TV, and this guide over at LifeHacker is a good place to start. Be careful, however, as you do risk voiding your warranty by installing third party software.

Mac Mini

Since it’s release in early 2005, people have been looking for ways to turn the Mac Mini into a media centre machine. Fortunately, it’s an incredibly versatile computer and the latest upgrades mean that it runs OS X at a very impressive speed.

Mac Mini

Mac Mini

Because the Mac Mini runs OS X, you are free to use any software you please. We’ll be covering a full range of options later this week.

The Mac Mini comes in two base models, but can be customized to your requirements. It costs $599 for a 2.0GHz model with a 120GB hard drive and 1GB RAM. The higher specification costs $799, and comes with the same 2.0GHz processor, a 320GB drive and 2GB RAM.

Both models include the latest NVIDIA graphics chip, a SuperDrive, and fast wireless networking, but neither come bundled with an Apple Remote. You’ll need to add that as an extra, or opt for a different alternative.

To connect the Mac Mini to a television, you can either use a DVI cable (if your TV set supports it), or purchase one of several adaptors, costing between $19 and $29.

MacBook / MacBook Pro

The third hardware option is to use one of Apple’s notebook machines – either a MacBook or MacBook Pro. This will obviously work out as being far more expensive than either of the other solutions, but offers the greatest flexibility. Most importantly, you’re able to easily move your media centre computer around and use it away from the TV.

MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro

The advantages are varied: you don’t need to purchase a separate keyboard and mouse, you benefit from an extra display, and can still watch movies or TV shows without a power source. On the downside you’ll need to spend considerably more, and will require more space to keep your notebook under the television.

As with the Mac Mini, you’ll probably need to purchase one of several adaptors to connect the notebook to a television, costing between $19 and $29.

Network Connectivity

Wired or Wireless?

Wired or Wireless?

Choosing how you’ll connect your device to the television and network is also important. Much depends upon whether media will be stored on the internal hard drive, or streamed across a network. If the former is likely, the speed of your network connection will not be a major concern.

If, however, you plan on regularly streaming music and video, a fast network connection is very important. Providing wireless reception is strong, you should be fine with a 802.11n router. If the television is located a long way from your router, it’s worth looking into running an ethernet cable to ensure a reliable, fast connection. This needn’t be expensive, and you can pick up very long cables for only a few dollars.

Live TV

Depending upon your setup, you may also like to watch live television through your Mac (there’s no harm keeping everything in one place, right?). This isn’t possible with an Apple TV, but various hardware receivers make it a simple process with a Mac Mini or MacBook.

This roundup showcases a range of different options, with my personal preference being any of the Elgato EyeTV receivers. Their software is top notch, and offers all the advanced features you’d expect – pausing live TV, recording shows, scheduling etc. It can also easily export shows into iTunes, or format them for viewing on an iPod or iPhone.

Coming Up Next…

On Wednesday we’ll be delving deeper into software, taking a look at the different applications available for the best media centre experience. Be sure not to miss out by subscribing to our RSS feed or following on Twitter.

I’m very interested to hear what hardware you use in your media centre setup – do you own an Apple TV, or has the flexibility of a fully-fledged Mac won you over?