Mac mini media center

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Revisiting the Mac mini media center

Nearly three years ago I laid hands on a 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo Mac mini with the idea of turning it into a media center. This demure little Mac was tasked with playing music, recording and playing TV programs, acting as a radio, and playing DVDs. It also had to be capable of being controlled from my couch.

While I was able to accomplish all these tasks, it took some doing and the results weren’t terribly family-friendly. Smart-as-a-whip though my wife is, when I showed her around the various applications and utilities necessary to bring media from the mini to our eyes and ears she pointedly remarked, “Let me know when our old stuff is back,” and left the room.

And it wasn’t long before the old stuff was back. It was simply easier to use the satellite receiver, TiVo, AV receiver, and DVD player (and, later, an Apple TV) rather than jumping through hoops to make the mini take on their functions.

In the past three years things have changed. Video-on-demand is largely a reality. For example, you can purchase or rent movies from the iTunes Store and purchase TV shows and seasons. NetFlix offers an option that lets you stream some of its TV shows and movies. Content from major television networks and terrestrial radio can also be streamed over the Internet. Free media center clients have appeared that make it easier to watch that content. Apple’s Front Row is more robust than it once was. And, with an iPhone or iPod touch in hand, you can easily control a Mac from the couch—no more Bluetooth keyboards and mice or limited Apple Remotes.

Changes inside the Mac mini—a new class of processor and improved graphics—make it a better candidate for a home media center than it was a few years ago.
The Mac mini has also recently been improved. The low-end, $599 mini now bears a 2.0GHz Intel Penryn processor (which carries a faster system bus), 1GB of RAM, a 120GB 5,400 RPM hard drive, and a faster graphics card—the Nvidia GeForce 9400M. It also offers five USB 2.0 ports, a single FireWire 800 port, both a mini-DVI port and Mini DisplayPort, an 8x SuperDrive, 802.11n wireless networking, Bluetooth, and Gigabit Ethernet.

Given these many exciting changes, I set about to try again—replacing the bulk of my AV components with the Mac mini. Over the next several days I’ll document the process of turning this diminutive Mac into a robust media server. In this first installment, I devote my attention to turning the mini into a more capable computer.

Upgrading the mini

The least-expensive-at-$599 Mac mini is a capable computer, but has two obvious weaknesses—too little RAM and a low-capacity, slow hard drive. These weaknesses can hamper the mini as a media server in a couple of ways.

For example, the mini’s graphics card is faster than the one found in previous Mac minis, but it still uses the on-board RAM. With 1GB of RAM installed (as it is by default on the $599 model), the GeForce 9400M gobbles up 128MB of the mini’s memory. Put 2GB in the mini and 256MB is used for video. Figuring that I wanted that 256MB and given just how inexpensive RAM is these days, I went whole hog and purchased 4GB of RAM (the maximum amount of memory the mini can hold) from Crucial for $68.

The mini’s 5,400-rpm drive is both slow and offers too little capacity to be useful for storing music and movies. In the course of his review of the new Mac mini, my colleague Dan Frakes observed that the mini runs faster when booted from a fast external FireWire drive. A trip to Fry’s put me in possession of a Seagate FreeAgent 1TB 7,200-rpm hard drive (with FireWire 800 interface) for $135 (on sale). The drive is reasonably speedy, offers good capacity, and includes a FireWire 800 cable.

I traveled to Other World Computing’s site to watch its Mac mini RAM installation video. (Yes, I was freeloading by not also purchasing RAM and a hard drive there, but I’ve given OWC plenty of my money in the past.) With the contents of the video under my belt I grabbed a couple of putty knives and a Phillips #0 screwdriver and had the old RAM out and the new RAM in within half an hour. (If you prefer pictures to video, iFixit.com offers a thorough upgrade guide as well.)

Upgrading the new mini is the subject of another article. I’ll just offer that I had only one small problem while upgrading the RAM. The new mini has three antennas inside arrayed around the edges of the inside frame. These antennas are clipped to the motherboard with tiny button connectors. While tugging one thing or another, I managed to dislodge one of these connectors. The combination of large fingers and tiny parts made it a little challenging to reconnect the antenna. With the help of a strong magnifying glass, some needle-nose pliers, and a few deep breaths, I managed to put things right.

In addition to a magnifying glass and patience, I’d recommend that your Phillips #0 screwdriver have a magnetized tip. The four screws that hold the internal frame to the bottom housing are tucked away in hollow posts and can be a little tricky to replace. Having them dangle from the end of a magnetized screwdriver is helpful.

With the mini back in one piece, I connected the Seagate hard drive to the computer, booted the mini from the internal drive, formatted it with Apple’s Disk Utility, and cloned the internal drive to the Seagate drive with Mike Bombich’s free Carbon Copy Cloner. Once everything was cloned, it was time to designate the faster Seagate drive as the startup, connect the mini to my media gear, and install the software necessary to turn the mini into a maxi media server. Those stories and others unfold over the next several days.

[Senior editor Christopher Breen blogs regularly about iPods, Apple TVs, and other accoutrements of the digital lifestyle at Macworld’s Playlist blog.]

Updated to correct the speed of the mini's hard drive.

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