This will be the first in a continuing series of posts about using a brand new Mac Mini with an HDMI port (purchased in June 2010) connected to a high-definition television. To read all of our adventures jumping through hoops, losing remotes and forgetting the password to bypass parental controls, see this page with all my DIY home theater posts.
Searching along with my fellow TV and movie junkies for the home theater holy grail, I’ve wandered in the wilderness for many years. We have a pretty typical 21st century entertainment consuming household with adults and kids watching cable TV, DVD movies and stuff from the Internets including Youtube videos, purchased movies, shows and music videos and, increasingly, rented movies. Hardware-wise, we’ve been hooked on Tivo for a few years now, we obviously have many iPods, the occasional iPad and, though our music collection is entirely digital at this point, a gazillion DVDs. For purchased downloadable content, iTunes is our go-to choice though increasingly we rent from Amazon Unbox which can send flicks straight to our Tivo.
When Apple TV hit the scene in 2007, I took a long, hard look. In many ways, it seemed like just what I wanted: an easy to set-up, easy-to-use digital storage box for all our digital photos, videos and music that could be played back via HDTV or stereo. But the limitations were much too limiting — only compatible with a few video formats, — and the tiny storage capacity was even more ridiculous. So I passed.
I also began avidly followed the niche crowd that was trying to use Mac Minis as souped up Apple TVs. The challenges involved get clean digital signals with sound to the TV screen as well as finding a good software interface to manage a multimedia library. It never quite seemed simple enough to be worth all the trouble.
When Apple recently unveiled a new, souped-up Mac Mini with an HDMI connection — the exact port needed to send both sound and video to an HDTV set — I jumped. It was time to get off the sidelines and join the experimenters.
The first choice was which Mac Mini to buy. I opted for the server version which has two speedy 500 GB 7200 RPM hard drives (totaling 1 TB) and no DVD drive. Since the plan was to rip all our DVDs to the hard drive, the only physical disks I’d be wanting to play would be Blu-Ray and Apple’s drives aren’t compatible with that higher definition format. The server Mac Mini’s double the storage and faster drives made it the more logical choice.
Once the little guy — and I do mean little — arrived, I hit the next challenge. The server operating system had no iLife programs — no iTunes or iPhoto. Luckily, iTunes is a free download and I own a “family pack” of iLife 2009, so it was easy to load up the new server with those two critical programs. The server mini did come with Apple’s limited if serviceable front-end for playing media on big television sets known as Front Row.
After installing the software, I copied all the media files from my laptop where they currently live to one of the server’s drives and imported them into a brand new iTunes library. That went pretty smoothly, though some audiobooks purchased long ago wanted to be authorized by Audible.com and my account had apparently used up its allotment of authorized computers. A quick email customer service sorted that out.
Then I brought the mini into the family room and connected via an HDMI cable to our Samsung HDTV. The display automatically configured itself to the proper 1080P output although the edges of the screen, including the critical top menu bar, were out of view. But there’s now a simple setting to fix that problem in System Preferences > Displays called Overscan. There’s a slider control you adjust until the invisible outside edges become visible. I believe that was one of the issues that drove folks crazy a few years ago trying to get minis and HDTVs connected. I also had at the ready a Logitech diNovo Edge bluetooth keyboard (Mac edition). This guy has a touchpad built-in so you can sit on the couch and wirelessly operate your TV-connected Mac without a mouse. Very handy. It also has dedicated buttons to bring up Front Row, control the iTunes player etc. (You have to install Logitech’s control center program to get the special buttons working properly).
I called up Front Row and it played everything just fine. Sound initially emanated from the mini’s own tiny speaker until I went to System Preferences > Sound > Output and selected the TV.
I had an old Apple infrared remote, the one that looks like a pack of gum, lying around but it seems unable to make a connection to the 2010 Mac Mini. I verified that the Mini does indeed have an infrared receiver, so that’s just a matter of grabbing the newer Apple remote that’s more tubular in shape at some point. UPDATE: No — as commenter Mikeo below points out, the server mini just has communication with the remote turned off by default. To turn it back on, head to System Preferences > Security and unclick the check next to “Disable remote control infrared receiver.”
Alright — well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten in the first couple of days. Future plans include ripping a whole bunch of DVDs, experimenting with other user interfaces like Plex, seeking out some streaming web video and using an iPhone or ipad as a remote control. Check back later…