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?


  • EGY

    Reading some feedbacks at other sites, there are a lot of people complaining about Apple TV, saying there are better options like Windows Home Server, without all the restrictions that Apple Tv has. I want to have a good media center, but I’m lost now. :-o

    • http://www.372.com.au Matt

      I think xbox360 (if you have one) and media centre is the best solution.

    • ixxx69

      Apple TV and WHS are not comparable. WHS is a full-blown home server solution. Apple TV is very restricted and over-emphasizes the iTunes store. But it’s extremely simple and easy to use in a very small, quiet, slick package. My technophobe folks love it. I used to run a MCE box, but traded “down” to an Apple TV because I was sick of all the hassle of maintaining a computer. However, the new Mini is tempting me… mostly because I’d like to easily watch content on web stations such as Hulu.

      Apple TV is often misunderstood, mostly because Apple does a very poor job of marketing and developing it. They’ve concentrated their marketing and the UI on selling stuff through the iTunes store. What Apple TV really is, is an iPod for the living room. It’s great for this.

      Apple TV could really take off if they marketed better, gave it more storage capacity/expandability, and gave it access to the App store – imagine all the functionality of an iPod touch.

  • dixhuit

    I run Boxee on Apple TV. It counters many of the restrictions that are so frustrating about Apple TV. A basic setup is a breeze using the USB loader but more advanced tweaks (would believe that that includes enabling the USB port?) can turn into a bit of a head scratcher.

    Having been round the block now using Mac Mini, MacBook pro, and now Apple TV I have to say that none of them are particularly well geared up for the seamless experience that I was after. They’ll have their pros and cons.

    If Apple just went ahead and put a damn HDMI port on the Mac Mini for better TV compatibility (no, a DVI converter still doesn’t quite cut it – you’ll see what I mean in terms of picture scaling), then none of us would even be having this conversation.

  • Vic

    I have a new Mac Mini with the Nvidia Graphics card set up ad my media center. I have it connected via ethernet to my AirPort Extreme router. I also have a 500 GB firewire drive that I store my media content on. I play the media right off the firewire drive via the firewire 800 port (very fast). I have used Plex and Boxee in the past but had trouble with boxee messing up the names of movies in my catalog. I still have not settled on a media center software as of yet.

    • Daniel

      This sounded exactly like me – the only addition I’d add is the elgato eyeTV (one of the earlier models from 4 years ago which still does ok) and the harman kardon speakers ;) I too haven’t settle on any media centre software so just use the wireless mouse/keyboard to interact with the computer for now.

  • Danielo

    Im using a iMac with a LG 32″ with dvi-hdmi cable and Plex software.. really works for me.

  • http://www.duinzand.nl willem duinzand

    I just plug my macbook into my TV when I want to watch a movie from my HD.
    Apple TV is one of the weirdest products Apple have ever come up with if you ask me.

  • harmlessgoat22

    Hey, help with this would be appreciated. I have a late ’08 Macbook Pro 15″, which has a mini display port. I currently have it so I can stream the stuff on my computer on my Xbox 360 using Connect360, but I want to hook this up to my HDTV so I can use Plex with it. Currently, I have a mini display to VGA adapter ( http://store.apple.com/us/product/MB572Z/A?fnode=MTY1NDA3Ng&mco=MjE0ODQ2NQ ). Does anyone recommend anything so I can use my TV with Plex, preferably keeping the quality (I have a lot of high definition video) and all that.

    Forgive me if I sound stupid (which I am not), but I surely am ignorant in this area…I’m mostly a software person, and not good with all the cables and other hardware stuff.

    Thanks!

    • harmlessgoat22

      (to clarify, I was pointing out that I had the mini display to VGA in case there was an easier solution if I already had that…)

    • http://www.idistillery.com Jason

      Not sure what outputs the newest MacBooks have, but I’ve had a lot of success using a mini-dvi to HDMI adapter (assuming your HDTV has and HDMI input… which it should) with everything from an iMac to a MacBook to a Mac mini. The largest high-def screen I’ve used this with is only 24″, but the picture remains very crisp. Interested to hear if anyone else gone this route with a larger (36″+) screen…

      • harmlessgoat22

        Our TV is 40″, and yes has several HDMI inputs. I got advice from a friend, and ordered a mini display (which is what is on the newest Macbooks) to HDMI adapter and a 6 foot HDMI cable. I was disappointed to hear that although mini display CAN carry audio, Mac doesn’t use it for it, so I’ll have to switch around cords every time I want to use my Mac with my TV instead of watching TV (as in, the service)…

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  • Erik

    I’ve been running Plex on my MacBook Pro (late ’07) hooked up to a 40″ LCD television (DVI -> HDMI) for over a year now and it plays everything beautifully. Full HD (1080p) is no problem what-so-ever. If your television supports 24p, you could even set your refresh rate to 24Hz so the output is really ‘film-like’.

  • Daniel

    I think external hard drives need a mention. You don’t need to buy the slightly more expensive computer just for some Gigs. The benefits are with backing up. Buy 2x 500G drives (or whatever fits your needs), sync one to mirror the other, and then take one drive with you when on holidays. Your itunes folder can also be set to work off the Hard Drive.

  • Matt

    I run a Mac Mini with a 1TB external hard drive for storing all my movies, music, and photos. I use EyeTV for live TV, Slingbox for TV from back home (currently live in Crete), and iTunes to handle everything else. To be quite honest, I prefer Windows Media Center as it has everything integrated into one interface, all controllable with a MCE compatible remote. But, the system I was using was too big and noisy and I had a Mac mini sitting around so I jumped to the Mac side for my media center. I really, REALLY, wish Apple would come out with a way to handle everything (including live TV) through one easily controllable interface. Been waiting on that for years. Windows MCE was the one thing that Microsoft did very well.

  • http://www.davidchinphoto.com/ David Chin

    I connect my MacBook Pro to a CRT TV, and use Quicktime to play the movies. I set up Quicktime and the Display Preferences in a way that allows me to have the movie automatically display on the TV when I do a “Fullscreen”, while leaving the MacBook’s display free for other functions such as web browsing, etc.

    Having a MacBook is convenient as I can take the movies with me while on the move.

  • Perry Fjellman

    I have an Apple TV with Boxee running connected to my 40″ Samsung HDTV. Had it for years now, works great. Before Boxee I used NitoTV.

    I have a 1TB hard drive connected to my iMac (and several other external drives as well) and I just run a file share of the Media Center folder on this drive wirelessly to Boxee on the Apple TV.

    Works like a charm. Best of all, it works with my standard TV universal remote, so I don’t have to mess with silly iPhone remote apps or worry about losing the little white Apple Remote (I have about seven of those things floating around… half of them need new batteries, ha)

  • http://www.finalclap.com/ Finalclap

    Very good tutorial !

    But the mac mini only have an optical digital audio output, I can’t use 5.1 audio because my amplifier is old.

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  • http://www.vitabits.fr/symptomes/ hypertension arterielle

    Hi…
    Thanks for sharing the information. But I think Windows Home Server is a better option since it is a complete home server solution, while AppleTv is quite restricted. Also, using a mac mini with a HDMI DVI cable with plex software really works well.

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