Turn a Mac mini into a media server with Plex
If you have a large media collection, you may want to use a Mac as a dedicated device to run Plex. And the Mac mini is a perfect device for Plex.
With the arrival of the fourth-generation Apple TV, I found myself trying out the Plex media server, and I realized that using Plex is one of the best ways to watch media on the Apple TV.
You can install the Plex server software on a variety of devices: your Mac, a PC, a NAS (network attached storage device), and more. (Heck, you could even set it up on a Raspberry Pi.)
It’s advantageous that Plex’s server be always on, so you can start watching your movies and TV shows without having to boot your Mac. If you have a large media collection, you may want to use a Mac as a dedicated device to run Plex. The Mac mini is a perfect candidate for this. Plex doesn’t need a lot of horsepower to manage and stream your media, unless it transcodes video. (If you do have a lot of videos that need transcoding, a NAS might not be a good fit for Plex.)
In this article, I’m going to tell you how you can set up a Mac mini as a dedicated Plex server. You can, of course, use that Mac mini for other things, such as using it as a file server, or for Time Machine backups.
The Mac mini
The Mac mini is the cheapest Mac you can buy. Its small form factor and quiet operation makes it easy to integrate into a home entertainment system or use as a server stashed away in a corner. The current model, starting at $499, includes Thunderbolt and USB 3 connections, and while it doesn’t have the largest (or fastest) hard drive, its 500GB might be enough for your media collection. But the entry-level model with a 1.4GHz processor is a bit pokey. For $699, you get a Mac mini with a 2.6GHz processor and 1TB hard drive, which will handle most people’s media collections.
You might not need to spend that much. I’m running a 2011 Mac mini that I tricked out with the fastest available processor when I bought it. The 2.7GHz Core i7 is fast enough to transcode video and handle several other tasks at the same time. I also bought the Mac mini with a 256GB SSD and a second internal drive of 750GB. It has a Thunderbolt port, but it does not have USB 3. You can probably find a similar model used for a few hundred dollars.
I only use Plex for videos; movies and TV shows that I’ve ripped from DVD or Blu-Ray. (Remember, Plex cannot play any DRM-protected videos purchased from the iTunes Store or elsewhere.) My music library, as well as my iTunes Store movies and TV series, are stored on my iMac, but I’ve shunted the rest of my videos to the Mac mini.
You need to plan ahead as far as storage is concerned. If you buy a current build-to-order Mac mini, you can get a 2TB drive in the most expensive model, but that would cost you $1100. It’s cheaper to get a less expensive Mac mini and use external hard drives. You should have one for your media, and another to back up the first drive (and the operating system; you can use Time Machine so this runs automatically.)
You can buy a 4TB external USB 3 drive for about $120. For about the same price, you can get a 3TB USB 3 WD My Passport portable hard drive (or a 2TB model for less than $100). These drives are compact, and only need to be plugged into a USB port; no power cables are needed. With these portable hard drives, it’s a lot easier to transfer lots of data from another Mac; instead of transferring files over your Wi-Fi network, you can plug one of the drives into another Mac to copy movies you’ve ripped.
No matter what, make sure that you have a second drive to back up your movies, unless you’re keeping copies on another computer.
Managing a headless Mac mini
My Mac mini runs OS X Server ($20, or free with a paid Apple developer account), which allows me to use it for such things as caching software updates, and storing Time Machine backups of other Macs. You may not need this; the standard version of OS X is just fine.
When you initially set up the Mac mini, you need a display, keyboard, and mouse, but you’ll be setting it up so that you won’t needs these items later. Go into the Mac mini’s System Preferences and open the Sharing pane. In the left column. check the box for Remote Management. This will turn on Remote Management so you can manage the Mac mini from any other Mac on the network. In the “Allow access for” window, you can specify which users can have remote access, or you can select “All users.” Click the Options button and check the boxes for Observe and Control.
After you configure the Sharing settings, the Mac mini doesn’t need a display; you can manage it remotely from any Mac. Just find it in the Shared section of the Finder window sidebar, and click Share Screen to start screen sharing. You can point, click, and type in the Screen Sharing window, just as you would on a normal display.
I’d recommend getting a video display emulator, or the $3 Resolutionator, so you can switch resolutions, making it easier to work with the device. Since you’ll need to access the Mac mini in this way from time to time, create a screen sharing alias.
Getting Started with Plex
Once you’ve got your Mac mini set up, you need to download and install Plex, and read their Quick Start guide to get things up and running. On your Apple TV—and any iOS devices you want to use—you also need to install the Plex app to be able to interact with the server. Read this article to learn how to name your files, so Plex can find metadata efficiently, and then copy your movies and TV series to the Mac mini, or to its external hard drive. Then create one or more libraries in Plex’s settings, which you access in your web browser.
Your Mac mini with Plex can not only serve videos to your home entertainment system—or to other devices in your house—but if you buy a Plex Pass ($5 a month, $40 a year, or $150 for a lifetime subscription) you get early access to new Plex features, Mobile Sync, Cloud Sync, Camera Upload and a lot more. (It can also manage music, of course; I don’t discuss that here.)
While it may sound daunting to set up a media server, with a simple Mac mini, Plex, and a couple of hard drives, you can do so quickly and easily. The Mac mini is a low-power, quiet device, which you could put just about anywhere in your home, as long as it has access to your Wi-Fi network. Just get the Plex app for your Apple TV—or iPad, PlayStation, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox, or many smart TVs—and you’ll be able to easily watch all your videos (that don’t have DRM).
Editor's note: Updated at 1:45 p.m. PT on 12/28/2015 to revise the features that come with a Plex Pass.