Do you own a stack of DVDs or worse yet, a big media shelf hidden in your basement filled with movies you purchased throughout the years. With the advent of Netflix, content is at our fingertips, in just a few clicks. Netflix is a terrific service, but let’s be honest, the library is far from complete and won’t rival your personal library. And while your library of DVDs and Blu-Rays make up your favorite movies and TV shows, sitting down to watch a program can be time consuming and frustrating. DVDs are filled with advertising and trailers. There’s also the hassle of getting up, locating your disc and waiting for your DVD to power-on. As a PS3 owner, that’s usually followed by some sort of required software update. You own your movies and there’s a better way to catalog and have instant access to your collection. Read on for how to create the ultimate Mac mini HTPC (home theater PC).
Having recently watched the first season of Homeland on Blu-Ray, I was reminded of why DVDs are among the worst mediums to watch. It’s why people gravitate to services like Netflix and movie/TV rental services. If you want to watch a program, it should take no longer than a minute or two from turning on your TV. When I compare my Homeland experience to renting Sons Of Anarchy Season 5, there’s absolutely no comparison. As I result, I watched SOA 5 in a matter of weeks, while I took the slow road with Homeland, due to the painful process I had to endure with DVDs. It’s for that reason that it made sense to me to create a system by which I could easily access my movies and TV series. If I wanted to watch Good Fellas or Point Break, it should be no different than if I streaming something on Netflix.
Why Consider Building a HTPC
I’m sure that many of you have ripped your DVDs for use on your iPad. These are also available on your Apple TV, so why the need to go further.
- Your Apple TV requires you have your computer on in order to access media. When you sit down to watch a film, you don’t want to think about whether you left your Mac on or not. By having a dedicated PC, in the form of the Mac mini, it’s always left on. These are incredibly energy efficient machines, so they won’t drastically alter your energy bill. If you have a family computer, you don’t want to ask your wife, sister, brother or husband to get off the computer to save much needed resources; resources you’ll need to stream.
- When you purchase a movie from iTunes, Apple TV shows the cover art, which looks great. Have you seen what a ripped movie looks like in Apple TV? It’s merely a screenshot from the movie. Multiply this by the number of movies in your collection and you’ve got a sloppy looking library. Next time you have friends over and suggest watching a movie, do you want to scroll through this mess?
- No support for MKV files, a popular format for ripping movies at the highest of quality. Yes, quality on par with Blu-Ray.
- Easily expandable and supports third party streamers, notably the affordable Roku players.
- You’ll have instant access. Fast, no waiting and definitely no having to drudge through trailers. These are made worse if watching an older film. I’ll admit, I enjoy the occasional trailer, but only if it’s relevant. Trailers from a movie I purchased in 2004, not so much.
- Support for Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS and more.
- Mac mini
- Mini Displayport Male and USB Male Audio to HDMI® Female Converting Adapter (if Mac does not have HDMI output)
- HDMI cable
- Fast Router, ideally positioned next to server
- Portable Keyboard, Mouse
- Windows Home Server
- Roku 3 (not required)
- Plex Media Server
- Plex Home Theater
- Home Server
- StableBit Drive Pool
High Level Project Goals
Before I get into the nitty gritty, I’d like to provide a high-level overview of what we hope to accomplish. As you make your way through the setup, remember that building a home theater PC is not a one-size fits all type of deal. You can follow the specifics of my guide or vere off where you see fit.
The Windows Server provides the storage capacity necessary to store all of your movies. These devices aren’t terribly expensive, more nor are they cheap. You also don’t need a top of the line PC. These allow you to easily swap in hard drives, producing large amounts of storage, at a relatively low cost. This method allows to your system to grow and expand as your collection expands.
The Mac mini does the heavy lifting in this equation. It runs Plex Home Theater, which acts as a front end for your media. It transcodes the media files on the fly. Again, you don’t need a top of the line Mac mini. Older models with 2GB or more of RAM should be more than sufficient.
Using the adapter from Kanex, you can use a standard HDMI cable to either output directly to your TV or to your audio visual reciever, which in turn gets output to your HDTV.
This all gets controlled using a Bluetooth keyboard, a compatible universal remote or the Roomie Remote for iOS.
With a media server, you can also access from your iPhone or iPad and even ROKU players.
The Hook-Up (Hardware Part I)
Starting with the basics, the most important aspects of your setup is the Mac mini. Any Mac will work, but the mini is the preferred for this application. It’s small, energy efficient and can fit neatly in any home entertainment center. To connect it your HDTV (or AVR), you’ll need a standard HDMI cable. The newer models include an HDMI output, so you won’t need adapters. You should be able to plug-in your HDMI cable from your Mac directly to your output.
For those using an older Mac, I use the Kanex iAdapt 51. It supports 1080p video and fully uncompressed Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS audio. It connects using the mini DisplayPort, USB and headphone jack on your Mac. You’ll use an HDMI cable to interface between the adapter and your output (TV).
You should have a picture on your TV. Using a Bluetooth keyboard, navigate to System Preferences > Display. There are a few mini keyboards that have trackballs or pads integrated in them. I’ve tried the Logitech Mini Controller, but prefer the cheaper Lenovo mini.
Software (Part I)
As mentioned earlier, the Mac is important because it provides the processing power to handle the transcoding of your media files. You’ll need to install two important software programs. Plex Media Server (download) will continuously check your media for updated files from your main storage. The other important software application will be Plex Home Theater (download). It acts as the front end, think of it as the Apple TV interface for your home theater.
Your Mac must meet the following requirements:
- Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard or higher.
- A Mac with Intel Core 2 Duo processor or better.
- At least 1GB of RAM (2GB recommended).
Configuring Plex Media Server
The first time you launch Plex Media Server, you’ll be prompted to create a new account.
Over the years, the software has progressed to where they provide a useful guided setup through the initial process. You’ll be asked to name your computer and if you’d like to connect your server to Plex enabling streaming from outside your home. When finished, click Next.
The next step in configuring your Plex Media Server is to show Plex where it can find your media libraries. As you’ll see in Software (Part II), we’ll be setting up libraries on a Windows Home Server. For now, let’s setup a test folder for the sake of simplifying things. Create a foldes on your desktop and title it ‘Movies’. Using a movie that you own and have created a digital copy, drag it to the folder. It’s vitally important that you use the file naming convention supported by Plex. This allows your server to find movie poster artwork, summaries of the plot, actors, directors and more. The file should be named ‘movie title (YEAR).(format)’ For example, let’s say you purchased Despicable Me and used Handbrake to make a digital copy. The resulting file should be Despicable Me (2010).mkv.
Select ‘Add Library‘, select ‘Movies‘ and click ‘Next‘. You’ll be prompted to Add Folder. Navigate the newly created folder and select ‘Add‘.
Tip: You can have multiple libraries. So, for example, you might store some movies locally on your Mac mini, some on a Drobo and some on a Windows Server. You choose where you want Plex to find your media.
When finished, select ‘Add Library‘. When you do, you’ll a message in the browser related to updating information and data relative to your files. Select ‘Next‘.
One aspect of Plex that is very much like AppleTV are channels. Vimeo, PBS, The Daily Show and TedTalks are just a few examples of the channels you can add. Select the channels you would like to and and select ‘Next’ to continue. That completes the basic process of setting up your media server.
What happens now is that the media software will continue indexing the library contents. As it finds new content, it will pull all the relevant metadata include backgraound art and more.
Let’s Watch Movies
You’ve connected your Mac to your TV, setup your media server, so now is the time to watch movies. If you haven’t already, finish installing Plex Home Theater and launch the application. You’ll be asked to create a myPlex account or login. Use the same login credentials used when you signed up previously. You’ll be prompted to confirm a few details of your audio setup. If you make a mistake, you can always make changes.
At this point, you should reach the main screen of Plex Home Theater. It can controlled using the arrow keys on your keyboard. It’s slightly awkward, but this can be replaced with Roomie or a universal remote such as the Harmony Ultimate from Logitech.
Scroll up and select your newly created server. Press the ‘enter’ key to select your server.
If you have multiple movies, use the arrow keys to navigate. Press enter once again to select your movie. Here you should see the cover art, movie particulars and a background image.
Using the arrow down button, you can select from options that include audio track, subtitles, your own custom ratings and whether it should be marked as watched, unwatched. The ‘enter’ key triggers the opening of each option. To move navigate backward, use the ESC button. When you are ready to watch your movie, select the ‘Play‘ button.
Using a keyboard, you can access and control your movie playback, but it’s not an optimal solution for wife, kids and whoever watches TV in your home. Assuming more than one person in your family is going to watch movies, you’ll likely want a suitable remote for your HTPC. The Bluetooth keyboard is a must, as you’ll need it from time to time, to access your Mac. In my experience, there are are few remote options. I’ve outlined in detail how to setup a Roomie Remote and it makes for a wonderful Plex controller. We have multiple remotes in our home, the more traditional being a Logitech Harmony 900, soon to be replaced by a Logitech Harmony Ultimate. Ideally, your Mac mini will be running 24/7. Your remote will switch to the correct inputs and will enable basic control and navigation of your media. It acts very much like the Apple TV remote. This allows everyone in your family to select the ‘Watch Plex‘ option, which should immediately bring up Plex Home Theater, easily navigated by the d-pad on your universal remote. People using Plex don’t have to know what went into the setup. All they should experience is easy access, brilliant visuals and playback, direct from the same remote they use to watch TV.
Hardware (Part II) Optional
As I’ve outlined, it’s entirely up to you where you store your media used for your libraries. There is no best practice here, other than what works for you and the scale of your home theater PC. I decided to invest early in an an NAS server and it’s paid off. For my configuration, I have an HP EX495 with three 2 terabyte drives running Windows Home Server. This model is no longer available, but you could look at the HP Proliant servers. There are a vast array of options here that include Synology, Drobo and WHS.
Software (Part II)
My expertise if rooted in Macs, so I’ll forewarn you that the initial setup of WHS can be a daunting task and requires a separate PC or Mac running BootCamp. Once configured, I’d recommend installing StableBit’s DrivePool. It combines your multiple hard drives to create one virtual drive, often referred to as pooling. The program also allows you to setup which folders should be duplicated. Should a hard drive fail, you can swap out it out without fear of losing data. If you are going to copy your home movies, photos and go through the trouble of ripping all of your DVDs, the drive pool software will protect you against data loss.
Having setup my NAS years ago, I can say that I’ve done little, if anything to it. On my NAS, I have folders setup for my libraries, just like I created on my Mac as shown above. Each folder is configured for duplication. The NAS is wired directly to my home network, as is the Mac mini. On the Mac mini, I use the ‘Connect to Server’ option and enter the server address smb://nameofserver. From where you can see the associated libraries that you can mount on your desktop. Using Plex Media Server, these folders are then added as libraries. To recap, we created a massive storage capacity server that pools drive space and will duplicate files to prevent any loss. Ideally, this would be backed up to a cloud service, but based on the sheer size of the files, it’s not feasible. The file size of your media will be highly dependant upon the source, resulting file type and quality.
Software (Part III): The Rip
When I tackled my shelf of DVDs and Blu-Rays, I needed a solution that would work for both formats and would not result in any loss of quality. If I purchased a Blu-Ray, I wanted picture and audio quality that was on par with my disc. I utilize an external Plextor Blu-Ray drive model PX-B31OU, which can be purchased for around $140. The software used to rip files on a Mac (or PC) is MakeMKV and it does just that. It will read your disc and show all of the files, the largest typically being the movie. Select that alone and it will generate a .mkv file. Using the naming convention we outlined, re-name the file and add it to your library.
In the case of TV episodes, Plex does some incredibly cool stuff. For one, when you enter a TV series, it will play the theme music for the show. The naming conventions and folder architecture is a bit different. For one, you setup the name of the show as a folder. For example, ‘Deadwood’. Within that folder, you create subsequent season folders. Season 1, Season 2 and so on. Individual shows get named TV Shows – Name of Show – S0XEXX.m4v. For example, if you were going to title episode 3 of the first season of Friday Night Lights, the file would be named TV Shows – Friday Night Lights – S01E03.mkv.
Watching on iPhone, iPad or ROKU
Your HTPC is being tethered via HDMI to your main TV, but there are many ways to watch your programs. There is a universal Plex app in the App Store that works on both iPhone and iPad. It’s remarkably intelligent, fast and brings the entire experience to mobile. You can start watching a movie on your TV and continue at the same point in the film on your iOS device.
If you have multiple televisions in your home, the most cost efficient way to expand your Plex experience is with the ROKU 3. The app, once free, is now $5. While not as slick as the Mac/PC user interface, it works well on Roku and can be controlled using the default remote. Using last year’s Roku 2 XS, I’ve been able to consistently stream 25GB files with occasional artifacts. I haven’t tried it, but theoretically the faster processor in the ROKU 3 should eradicate most, if not all of these issues. ROKU boxes end up being an incredible way to expand access throughout your home. If possible, a wired ethernet connection is always the best option to mitigate problems with your streaming.
While the world waits for an Apple Television, you can build your own and take command of your library of movies, TV, photos and music. This requires a fairly sizable investment, but one that will pay off in convenience and enjoyment of having complete control over your media. Don’t be afraid to veer off this guide when creating your ultimate HTPC. I’d recommend starting with the basics of understanding how Plex manages your media using your laptop or desktop PC/Mac. From there, take the next step by connecting to your HDTV. Those were the first steps I took years ago. Once you see the power of Plex, you might find yourself inspired to build out your ultimate home theater Mac mini PC, a project that will forever change your home entertainment experience.
Grab the popcorn and enjoy the movie!