How To

How To Create the Ultimate Mac mini HTPC (Home Theater PC)

Watch Plex

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).

Watch Plex

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.

Plex Home Theater

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. No support for MKV files, a popular format for ripping movies at the highest of quality. Yes, quality on par with Blu-Ray.
  4. Easily expandable and supports third party streamers, notably the affordable Roku players.
  5. 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.
  6. Support for Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS and more.

Equipment List

  • 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)

Software (Mac)

  • Plex Media Server
  • Plex Home Theater

Software (Windows)

  • 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.

Mac mini HDTV

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).

Kanex

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.

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.

Create, login to Plex

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.

Getting started

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.

Add Library

Select ‘Add Library‘, select ‘Movies‘ and click ‘Next‘. You’ll be prompted to Add Folder. Navigate the newly created folder and select ‘Add‘.

Add movies

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.

Library scan complete

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‘.

Install channels

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.

Setup complete

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.

Roomie Remote

Scroll up and select your newly created server. Press the ‘enter’ key to select your server.

Navigate library

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.

Plex movie screen

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.

Movie options Plex

Movie Controls

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.

TV Episodes

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.

Naming conventions

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.

Plex on iPhone

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.

Plex on Roku

Conclusion
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!

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Charlie

    January 16, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    Good article. I did pretty much the same as you. I’m currently using an Apple TV running plexconnect and plan to get a Mac mini in the near future. You really don’t need a server. You can get drive pooling software that works well with Win 7. A windows 7 PC can be gotten off Craigslist pretty cheap.

    • Christopher Meinck

      January 16, 2014 at 8:24 pm

      I’d agree that if you can get by without a server, it takes much of the difficulty out of the setup process. I wanted the flexibility of dropping in hard drives with ease and having sufficient capacity. Today was the first day I looked at the internals of my server in years.

      I have to give Plexconnect for Apple TV a try. I have a second generation Apple TV, so I’d be interested to see how it performs compared to the Roku. Initially, I wasn’t able to stream anything on the Roku, but the Plex guys must have done some magic with that release. It’s played anything I’ve asked, which is amazing. Most of my Rokus were purchased for around $60. To be able to play back my Plex library is great.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. TLoF

    January 17, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    It is the most power waste method. You simply need to buy a Hp micro server , with a passive. AMD card with hdmi output. Hook your tv with hdmi, and install an Xbmc on it. You can rip your DVD/ blue ray collection, and the Xbmc do the rest. Found album covers, short description, even trailers.

  3. John Moriarty

    March 31, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Great post – thanks for this. I’m after exactly the same setup, but it’s complicated by the desire to use the mac mini to display Amazon streaming, Netflix, and other on demand services (e.g. iplayer, 4OD, ITV player etc in the UK). I presume I just want to use the mac mini’s browser to drop out of plex and go to the relevant website of the streaming service – but is there a way to make it as automated as possible, so the family members don’t revolt?! Grateful for any advice

    • Christopher Meinck

      April 4, 2014 at 5:34 pm

      I don’t currently use the Mac mini for Amazon, Netflix. To my knowledge, there is no easy way to accomplish this and definitely not automated enough for family members. I use a Harmony Ultimate these days combined with ROKU, Apple TV and Amazon Fire – they cover all of my media streaming needs other than Plex.

    • tommy thumb

      February 11, 2015 at 4:37 pm

      Sure, the Mini running Plex Media Server (this is the most important aspect of the mini-plex connection). Using a client as mentioned- the Roku, you have plex, netflix, HBO etc all available in the Roku interface. Im guessing Amazon isn’t there but you probably wont find any client with Amazon on it other the Fire TV now.

  4. Andrew

    April 15, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    On average how big of a file is the Blue-Ray rip?

    Thanks for the great walkthrough!

  5. Roger Eberhart

    May 22, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    Are you running at 720p or 1080p? I have a Mac Mini attached to a 40″ TV and the text is tiny at 1080p. I end running at 720 and wasting all that resolution.

  6. Kerry Maxwell

    July 24, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    All this so you can avoid sitting through the load times for a blu ray? I think your math is off.

  7. Yannick Vercruysse

    September 18, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    Great article! I have an old mac mini late 2009 mavericks and installed plex home theatre latest build, have the mini dvi to hdmi and optical cable going to my amplifier, as i have read, the mac mini cannot output true dts/surround sound, it needs to be altered with software to work? I have a 5.1 setup and right now i can only make it work as a 2.1 setup the rear end speaker are giving me no sound at all. Any advice is welcome!

    • tommy thumb

      February 11, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      Hey you can get 5.1 from the mini running (I assume PHT). I believe it has something to do with running ARC and creating an aggregate output in audio-midi. The best place to go for specifics is the plex forums.

  8. FrankN

    October 9, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Hi, great post, however, having great problems setting my harmony 900 with plex on my Mac Pro. Am using a Mantra usb ir receiver and cant for the life of me, find any solutions online to set it up! Can anybody help or point me in the right direction for tutorials? Many thanks

  9. Venkat

    April 4, 2015 at 7:27 am

    Great Article – it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to make happen at my home – I have a 2012 Mac mini running Plex media server hooked to my samsung smart tv- I have all my movies stored on a seagate central network attached storage – I keep running into problems with the error on Plex “unable to connect to content server” – unfortunately I have no windows based PCs to set up a windows server and would like to make this setup work – any advice? I still have yet to installs Plex home theater – also how does the harmony ultimate remote control Plex? Do you still need the Lenovo mini?

    • Christopher Meinck

      April 4, 2015 at 9:32 am

      While I’m still using a Windows Server, my recommendation has changed. My plan is to upgrade to a Synology server. They’ve got an impeccable reputation for ease of use and stability. Some are using them as a transcoder and storage device. I tend to like using the Mac mini and keep storage separate. I’d look at the Synology DS415+ and fill it with Western Digital Red drives. There’s a serious investment here, but it should provide you with years of trouble-free service and room to grow.

      You don’t need the Lenovo, but you will need some sort of Bluetooth keyboard. I only use it when I need to perform a system update. I primarily use the Logitech Harmony Ultimate for control. Plus, I’ll often use the Amazon Fire TV to access my Plex movies.

      Hope this helps!

      • Venkat

        April 4, 2015 at 3:00 pm

        Thanks for your response. Unfortunately I don’t have the capital or the technical know how to make the synology system work – would you be able to leave detailed instructions on how to setup the harmony remote with plex home theater on your Mac mini? I have a harmony smart home control and hub.

  10. Jason

    April 6, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    I am using a 2010 mac mini as the PMS and the PHT. Video playback through the PHT is jittery. Did you modify the video setting in PHT? I’m trying to figure out why my video is playback is not smooth. iTunes and VLC playback is fine.

  11. Kevin Revallo

    July 12, 2015 at 8:28 am

    Question… I currently have Plex media server running on my iMac – hard wired 10TB drives via Thunderbolt to access media. I have a 55″ Sony smart TV with the Plex app added accessing it either through DLNA or through the app. Occasionally I get server access issues so I decided to connect a mac-mini to my AVR. Question is will the Plex Media Server be able to find the 10TB storage where the media resides even though it is a direct connection to the iMac?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Most Popular

To Top