Mac mini makes an excellent home entertainment hub. It’s so tiny that it’s virtually unnoticeable and, because modern Mac minis are extremely low-power, it can be left running 24/7 without running-up a huge electricity bill. At 12dBA it’s also quieter than an old-fashioned library, so won’t disturb your viewing pleasure either.
In short, it’s the perfect home entertainment tool. Check out the Mac mini on Apple’s web store:
Mac mini reviews:
Choosing a model
Even the slowest processor in the current Mac mini line-up will be able to handle every audio and video playback task you throw at it (including 1080p HD playback), and the minimum spec of 4GB of RAM is also more than enough.
Focus instead on storage, and possibly upgrade to a larger 2 or 3GB hard disk. Alternatively, look into getting additional USB/Thunderbolt hard disk storage – which will also be much cheaper than a factory upgrade. After all, movie files are pretty big – typically in the order of multiple gigabytes for a standard 90 minute film at 1080p HD resolution – so even a modest movie library can easily fill a disk.
An external USB hard disk, such as a G-Drive, is an ideal Mac Mini upgrade and will allow you to store more movies
Attach your Mac mini to your TV via HDMI and you’ll essentially turn the TV into a large monitor, complete with sound output. The Mini will probe and set its resolution automatically but if there’s an error in resolution settings – usually indicated by a blurry image – you can set it manually by opening System Preferences and clicking the Display icon. Then select the Scaled radio button alongside the Resolution heading, and select from the list below. Check the TV’s manual to find out its maximum resolution. Pro tip: here in the UK, TVs described as HD or HD Ready tend to be 720p (1280×720), while those described as Full HD are usually 1080p (1920×1080).
Lowering the resolution on the Mac Mini might make on-screen elements larger, but could blur the image slightly
However, ensure the TV doesn’t have overscan activated, which will zoom into the desktop slightly – also causing blurriness – and crop-off the edges of the image, possibly hiding the menu bar. How overscan is disabled differs from model to model of TV, and you should consult the manual (or consult Google), but selecting a “PC” or “Gaming” profile for the HDMI input might do the trick.
Read about how to set up an Apple TV:
Apple TV setup and navigation tips
Making the screen bigger
If the desktop is simply too small to be seen from a distance, such as your armchair, there are two possible fixes.
The first is to switch to a slightly lower resolution in System Preferences, as described earlier (pro tip: hold down Alt/Option when clicking the Scaled button to see a wider range of resolution options). This will result in a slightly blurry image but it’s possible to live with this.
Alternatively, you might consider enabling high-DPI mode, which doubles all interface elements in size. This is really designed for Retina screens but on a 1080p TV it’s just about workable. To enable high-DPI, open Terminal (you’ll find it in the Utilities folder within Finder), and then paste-in the following as a single line, typing your password when prompted and then rebooting:
sudo defaults write /Library/Preferences/com.apple.windowserver.plist DisplayResolutionEnabled -bool true
When you log back in nothing will have changed but if you again adjust the resolution within System Preferences, holding down Alt/Option before tapping the Scaled radio button, you should find two new options: 960×540 (HiDPI) and 800×450 (HiDPI). Try either to see how they fit, and try applications too in either mode (iTunes will warn you that it requires a higher resolution but will still work).
To return to the default 1080p resolution, simply select it again in the list.
To deactivate high-DPI mode, again open Terminal and type the following before rebooting:
sudo defaults delete /Library/Preferences/com.apple.windowserver.plist DisplayResolutionEnabled
High-DPI mode makes on-screen elements bigger, enabling them to be seen from your armchair!
Sound is also sent to your TV via HDMI but you might want to use an AV receiver to get DTS 5.1 channel sound. Connecting the HDMI output of the Mac Mini to your AV receiver, and then connecting a passthrough cable to the monitor, should output both stereo and 5.1 channel sound.
The Mac Mini also features a headphone output that in addition offers both analogue audio output for a stereo or headphones (via a 3.5mm jack to RCA adapter) and SPDIF optical digital output, although you’ll need a TOSLINK to TOSLINK mini adapter. The optical output also supports 5.1 channel sound for connection directly to your receiver, allowing you to connect the HDMI output directly to the TV.
Alas, problems with sound output from a Mac Mini via HDMI are common. Typically, you might find 5.1 channel sound isn’t working. Various solutions are listed across the web – just Google – but start by ensuring the receiver is configured for 5.1 output. You may have to deactivate auto-detect on the receiver and manually configure its output options.
If this doesn’t fix things, open System Preferences, click the Sound icon, select the Output tab, and ensure the receiver is selected in the list beneath. Despite its name, the Audio MIDI Setup app in the Utilities folder within the Applications list of Finder offers sound in-depth configuration options that it can be useful playing with.
The Mac Mini’s headphone port not only outputs an analogue signal for a stereo, but also a digital optical output too
If you intend to stream a lot of movies or audio then it’s a good idea to attach your Mac Mini to your Internet router via an Ethernet cable. Although Wi-Fi theoretically boasts speeds easily fast enough for glitch-free playback, real-life conditions will almost certainly mean your actual connection speed is slower – and this can cause the dreaded Spinning Circle of Buffering.
Unless you want wires trailing across your living room floor you’ll need a Bluetooth keyboard and trackpad for your Mac Mini. Arguably the best choice is Apple’s own
Wireless Keyboard coupled to a
Magic Trackpad, with are the least bulky of the available options. There are several ways to physically adjoin the keyboard to the trackpad to make a single convenient unit you can store easily. For example, the
Henge Dock Clique costs just £25, while the
Magic Wand comes in at £20.
Third-party accessories like the Henge Dock Clique let you fix the Apple keyboard to the Magic Trackpad, allowing easy storage of both
All Mac Minis come with infrared receivers, and you can use any
Apple Remote to control both video and audio playback in apps like iTunes. You can also use the
iOS Remote app to control your Mac Mini’s playback via your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. Despite what the app says upon starting, you’ll need to tap the Home Sharing link within the Remote app and also set up Home Sharing on iTunes in the Mac Mini (File > Home Sharing) for the Remote app to work.
Third-party iOS apps like
Rowmote Pro (£4.99 and £3.99 respectively) turn your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch into a wireless trackpad and keyboard for a Mac, and are also worth considering.
However, a word of warning with regard to any kind of remote control: if the Mac Mini boots without a keyboard and mouse attached, or paired via Bluetooth, it will forever attempt to detect one. If you intend to use only a remote control to access your Mac Mini, you’ll need to leave a USB keyboard and mouse attached but hidden out of the way.
Which Mac to buy in 2015
To playback movies you’ve bought via
iTunes, simply start them playing and then switch to full-screen by clicking the full-screen button on the transport controls. Don’t click the green maximise button at the top left in an attempt to make the video full-screen – this will lead to the iTunes toolbar being present at all times!
For true full-screen playback, click the full-screen button on the transport controls, and don’t full-screen the iTunes app window!
For the complete home entertainment hub experience you might want to install some media centre software to playback movies and music you download outside of iTunes.
Unfortunately, Apple discontinued the excellent
Front Row software a few years ago and it’s no longer possible to hack old copies to work on OS X. A superb replacement that also happens to be free of charge is Kodi (formerly known as XBMC). This turns your Mac Mini into a fully-fledged set-top box able to play just about any type of music or video file stored on your Mac’s hard disk, or offered from other computers on the network via most network sharing technologies – including DLNA, which is used to share media files from Windows Media Centre.
To install Kodi, download the 64-bit version of the app, then copy it to your Applications folder as usual. Open Applications and then right-click the Kodi icon, selecting Open. Then click Open in the dialog box that appears. To make Kodi start automatically each time the Mac Mini boots, open System Preferences, click Users & Groups, select your user account, click the Login Items tab, then drag the Kodi icon from the Applications list within Finder. You might also want to click Login Options, and enable Automatic Login.
Top iTunes tips
Kodi turns any Mac into a multimedia powerhouse, and turns a Mac Mini into an excellent set-top box
Kodi is designed to be ultra-easy to use and there’s little we can say that won’t be revealed by simply clicking around. However, there are two useful pointers for using Kodi. The first is that, in theory, Kodi is AirPlay compatible, allowing you to play music and videos from your iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. However, support is also a bit patchy since Apple upgraded to iOS 8. To enable AirPlay within Kodi, you’ll need to click System > Settings > Services > AirPlay, then click the radio button alongside Allow Kodi To Receive AirPlay Content. Your Mac Mini will then appear as an option within Control Center on your iOS devices, or within iTunes on another computer when playing back music and videos.
The second pointer is to download one of the Kodi remote control apps from the iOS App Store. There are several available, including numerous free-of-charge examples – just search for “Kodi Remote”.
The modern Mac Mini lacks an optical drive. Therefore, to play back DVDs or even BluRay discs you’ll need to buy a USB external drive. OS X includes the DVD Player app for DVD playback but has never supported BluRay.
You can buy add-on software such as
Macgo’s Mac Bluray Player, but the combined cost of buying an external drive plus software is similar (or perhaps even more) than it would cost to buy a dedicated DVD or BluRay player.
You can rip DVD or BluRay movies using another Mac or PC, and play them back using Kodi or another media player app like
VLC (or offer them over the network via DLNA – see the fourth tip in our
Mac Tricks feature), but it’s a bit of a clumsy setup.
Apple sells a DVD/CD ‘SuperDrive’ for £69. Read:
Is it worth buying an Apple SuperDrive, CD/DVD for Mac
Alas, none of the UK’s TV show and movie streaming outfits – such as
Netflix, or Amazon Prime Instant Video – have produced a dedicated Mac app to let you access their services, as you might expect to find on your iPhone or iPad. There are several third-party Netflix apps in the Mac App Store but none appear to be rated very highly and most appear to simply present the web page within an app window.
The exception is the good-old BBC, who offer a
dedicated Mac app for iPlayer, although it’s only used to access downloaded programmes – to watch streamed programmes you’ll still need to tune-in via the website. Indeed, the best plan for most streaming services is to tune-in via its website, then choose to make the video playback full-screen.
Get US Netflix in the UK
The BBC offers a Mac download for its iPlayer catch-up service, but such largesse is sadly rare
If you’ve purchased movies via the Google Play store for playback on Android, you can tune-into them via the YouTube website — sign into YouTube with the account used to make the purchases, and the movies should be listed under the Purchases headings at the left.
Tuning into TV
While the excellent
TVCatchup website lets you tune into most Freeview channels across the Net, in order to tune into actual Freeview channels via an aerial you’ll need an add-on like
EyeTV Go, which connects via the Mac Mini’s USB port and includes software that even lets you record live TV. At £60 it isn’t cheap but perhaps worth considering.
Watch live and On Demand TV on Apple TV: hacks and tips
While the aforementioned Kodi offers the potential for AirPlay, you might also consider
AirServer. At $14.99 it won’t break the bank and will let you beam movies and audio from your iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch – including from AirPlay-compatible apps, or even from another Mac via iTunes. In each case you simply select AirServer from the list of AirPlay devices, such as those offered within Control Center on iOS. AirServer also supports mirroring so you can share your iOS game playing on the big screen, or give business presentations, if you’re that way inclined. Also worth checking out are
Reflector, at $12.99, and
X-Mirage, at $16.00.
The Mac Mini includes a SDXC card slot so you can simply remove the memory card from your camera and insert it. iPhoto will open instantly and offer to import the pictures, and once imported you can turn them into a slideshow by clicking File > New Slideshow.
Of course, you might instead connect your camera or Android mobile phone directly to the Mac Mini via USB, which again will open iPhoto to let you import and display the images.
Here’s something else you might like to do:
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How to use Automator on the Mac
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