My Mac Mini HTPC saga: upgrading hardware, optimizations

 

Replace RAM, Hard drive with beefier options I bought myself

I wanted to have the maximum available ‘headroom’ in this box before I committed a lot of time installing and configuring lots of software (e.g. if I wanted to run software-driven encoding, have multiple big apps running at the same time, or even to run a virtualized instance of Windows whenever I felt the ‘itch’). 

So after reading about what some of the braver souls have done under the hood, I decided that I’d purchase the lowest-end Mac Mini (with the exception of getting the fastest processor, which aren’t upgradeable AFAIK) and then purchase 4 GB of RAM & a 320 GB 7200 RPM SATA drive.

4 GB of RAM (or 8?)

While deciding on a brand of RAM is usually a decision with way too many options, on what should be but sometimes isn’t a commodity purchase, I cheated.  When browsing around Amazon.com for what kinds of prices they had available for Mac Mini’s, I noticed their “what other people purchase with this item” was consistently coming up with one package of Corsair 2 x 2GB DDR3 (PC3-8500) RAM – this one, for (at the time I purchased)

Note: I’ve done as much reading as I could about the new 64-bit capabilities unlocked by Mac OX 10.6 (Snow Leopard), and while there’s promising speculation that the Mac Mini could take 2 x 4GB RAM (i.e. 8GB total), the reality is the price of the 4GB PC3-8500 modules is astronomical compared to 2GB modules.  I’ll keep that in mind for the future, but for now the 4GB is plenty of extra capacity for now, and I can keep the extra couple hundred dollars for something else.

Which Hard Drive?

Over the decades, different hard drive manufacturers have produced drives of higher or lower quality, and I can never keep up with “which manufacturer is the king for each drive size and capacity”.  For this I trundled down to my local PC supply shop with two specifications in hand: it has to be a 2.5” drive (the bigger ‘desktop’ drives won’t fit) and it has to be a 7200 RPM drive (my reading suggests the faster drive speeds make a big difference in a Mac Mini HTPC).

The dude behind the counter was very definitive – according to him, the most reliable and best-performing 2.5” 7200 rpm drive on the market today is from Western Digital (aka the “Scorpio Black” line of drives).

If you’re looking at other brands, and you’d like to know if other Mac Mini owners have been successful upgrading with them, I found a really useful resource that could help: “Mac Drive Upgrades/Compatibility Database” at http://forums.xlr8yourmac.com/drivedb/search.drivedb.lasso

Procedure to Open the Mac and Upgrade the Components

Search Google for “Mac Mini RAM upgrade” and/or “Mac Mini hard drive upgrade” – there are many step-by-step guides available (e.g. this one), and a number of great YouTube videos that take you visually through the process. I just followed the first couple that I found and everything seemed to work fine (at least, for this “old hat” at constructing my own PCs for so many years).

For me, the only tools I needed were:

  • a putty knife or scraper blade (anything thin, metal and long enough to wedge in a few inches into the Mac Mini case)
  • a Philips (the “x” kind) screwdriver that is thin enough to get into a very narrow plastic tube (eyeglasses screwdrivers are usually good for this), and has a small/thin enough head that it can unscrew (and not strip) the screws with the very narrow “x” channel.
    • As some pointed out, magnetizing the screwdriver head is very handy for extracting those tiny little, fidgety screws – otherwise they tend to drop into the Mac Mini guts, and then you’re shaking it hard enough to get it loose (but not too hard so that you risk “damaging” some microscopic parts – not that I think there is any real danger of this with what I saw, but even an “old hat” gets worried there’s some new level of miniaturization that makes some part extremely sensitive to impact from even a 1/4-ounce screw.

Remember: Format your new Drive

Oh, and don’t forget to format the drive using Disk Utility (accessible from the top menu bar after the Mac OS X installer has asked which language you want to install).  I went through the install twice, both times wondering why the new 320GB disk wasn’t available as a selection for “where do you want to install Mac OS X”.  I figured that the installer was so smart that it recognized an unformatted disk, and would automatically format it for me.  (Soon, perhaps, but not at present.)  Embarrassing, but easily corrected – once I realized that I *had* checked all connections twice, and there was really very little that *could* prevent the drive from being recognized at the physical level.

Reinstalling Mac OS X and the rest of the bits from the two DVDs

This part was a freakin dream – so few questions, everything possible automated – it’s like Apple realizes that most people don’t care to fiddle, they just want the sucker to work.

The only extra steps I had to take were installing the optional bits (mostly utilities, but also Safari, Mail, iCal and some other useful things) from the OS X install DVD, and then installing whatever comes on that DVD labelled “”.  (Heck, it only consumed 4GB of my new 320GB drive, and until I know more about what I *don’t* need, I’m pretty comfortable taking 4GB “just in case”.)

Misc optimizations:

  • enable SMB sharing in Mac OS X, so that Plex (or Boxee) can find and scour any locally-attached external drive for photos, music and video.  (Apparently the XBMC codebase always expected to find all media on a network-shared device, since the original XBox hardware itself couldn’t retrieve or store that much media locally on the puny 20GB XBox drive.)
  • Add an entry point in the Front Row menu for Boxee – does this work for Plex as well?
  • Added link to 10-foot-UI-friendly version of my Google Reader account (via http://mymediaexperience.com/feeds-as-newspaper-in-your-living-room/)
  • Something about reconfiguring audio for Plex: “As for setting up Plex with a DTS or DD receiver. Go Configure The System -> System -> Audio Hardware from the menu. Then change the audio output from analog to digital. ” (http://www.123macmini.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=20440)

My Mac Mini HTPC saga: filesystem selection for external media drive

 

Quest: best filesystem for my external hard drive

I have a 750 GB Seagate FreeAgent drive, where I’ve kept most of my media (photos, music, video, backups) for the past couple of years.  Until now, I was operating in an all-Windows world of my own design, and NTFS was the best (most reliable, performant, flexible) filesystem for that drive.

Now that I’ve introduced a Mac into my life, and because I’m planning to plug it into the Mac Mini for the vast majority of the time (to host media I record from or wish to display via the Mini) I’m faced with what feels like an imperfect choice:

  • FAT32 doesn’t support > 4 GB filesize, which in this day and age of recorded/downloaded TV (not to mention the potential for virtualization in my future, in case I want to keep experimenting/developing) is damned easy to exceed.
  • NTFS isn’t natively supported in Mac OS X (at least, not for writes, though a read-only NTFS driver is available).
  • Mac-only filesystems (e.g. HFS+) feel like a bit *too* much commitment to a platform that isn’t the dominant in my lifestyle yet – e.g. what if I want to unplug that drive from the Mac mini and hook it to my Windows box to do some USB 2.0-speed backups or other file transfers?  I know that most of my file transfers will probably work fine with an SMB share over the Wifi network (it’s all 802.11 g or better, in a pretty confined space), but sometimes I just want to get something done quickly.  Not to mention I’m not yet familiar with what steps I would have to take if I were to hook up my external drives (the 750GB – cleaned off now – and my backup one – FAT32), format the 750 gigger and try to copy over all my FAT32 data into reasonable facsimiles of the data I replicated off the 750 (before I repartitioned it).

There’s some fairly predictable chatter about lower performance of 3rd-party (R/W) NTFS drivers when used within Mac OS X (http://www.123macmini.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=23243&highlight=ntfs), and I’d expect similar concerns about 3rd-party HFS+ drivers (R/W) running in Windows.  I’m not worried about booting from the external drive, so that limitation of NTFS-3g isn’t a concern for me (http://www.123macmini.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=23057&highlight=ntfs).

However, after thinking about what my *majority* usage will be, it’s clear to me that I’ll end up leaving the drive mounted to the Mac Mini 95% of the time, so I should optimize it for that scenario and not the “just in case” fear-based scenario.  If it turns out that I’m using the drive directly attached to my Windows box *that* often, I can always use a one-time read-only HFS+ driver in Windows to get the data off the drive, then reformat with NTFS.  Getting the data off the drive isn’t a worry of mine (these drivers all seem good enough for at least the “disaster recovery – get my data off the drive *eventually*” scenarios); so I’d be an idiot not to optimize for the day-to-day performance issues I’d otherwise be facing with a non-native filesystem for the host where it’ll be plugged in 95% of the time.

Next time

  • Quest: a tuner I can “set and forget” (i.e. reliable, stable, robust performance)
  • Quest: improve the screen drawing response time in “Screen Sharing” (aka VNC)

My Mac Mini HTPC saga: Plex or Boxee as the front-end?

After opening my mind to the possibility that I could find in the Mac Mini a worthy replacement for the aging (and rotting) promise of Windows Media Center as an HTPC, it didn’t take long to find out just how far the Mac HTPC community has come.  Between the streaming media front ends like Plex & Boxee, and the first-class support from digital-TV-tuner manufacturers like Hauppauge, and the number of people who’ve blazed the trail ahead of me, it seemed like a no-brainer.

However, unlike an Apple TV (a low-powered CPU ‘appliance’ that was intended merely to download movies and TV from the iTunes store), the Mac Mini isn’t specifically designed as a home theater PC (HTPC), and doesn’t present itself to the uninitiated user as a direct complement to their TV.

That said, with not a whole lot of effort and a few add-on bits of hardware, this Mac Mini is easily the equal of the functionality of my old Windows Media Center system, and has the advantage of being a lot smaller and ridiculously quieter than a clunky monster PC.  [Outside of an extra $grand or two for a custom-designed HTPC, if you’ve got more money than brains.]

Which streaming media front end?

There are plenty of “Plex vs. Boxee” articles/forum chatter for anyone who’s looking (these are just the ones I found in my first couple of pages of Google results: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12).  There’s a lot of active development in both projects, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for both, but there seem to be some common themes to the discussions I’ve read:

  1. Plex is more “fiddly” to setup your library of existing, local content – finding the folders and assigning the metadata.  Boxee seems to have mastered the “point it at folders and it’ll organize it into a library” approach.
  2. Boxee is more socially oriented, as in it lets other members of Boxee find out what you’ve watched (at least among the online sources – presumably it doesn’t advertise what you’re watching of your locally-stored media).
  3. One covers the BBC online media; the other covers integration of the Netflix instant watch streaming. (Or at least that’s what I recall reading.)
  4. Since they’re both based on the XBMC codebase, they’ll both benefit tremendously from future enhancements to the
  5. Boxee seems to have already skewed towards/created a culture of “cut the cable” (i.e. “help me get rid of Comcast/Time Warner stat!”), while Plex (perhaps as a Mac-only product) has a little less of the prickly attitude.
  6. They’re both generally considered inferior to Front Row from a UI/usability perspective, but neither one is ever accused of being “unusuable”.
  7. They both integrate with the Apple Remote (or if you’re a Logitech weenie, with most Harmony remotes – personally, after trying and failing for over a year to get a Harmony to operate as a set-it-and-forget-it, “universal one-touch” remote, I’ll avoid those hack-jobs like the plague).

While my girlfriend is quite adept at her Macbook, our discussions so far have led me to believe that the less fiddly/quirky this setup is on a day-to-day basis, the more comfortable she’ll be at using this (and the less I’ll have to coach her down off the ledge and into the world of computer-based home media.

Thus I’m convinced by what I’ve read to veer towards Plex (and not bother her with it until I’ve got the existing content adequately catalogued in the Plex library).

Next Steps: setting up Plex

Apparently, as one poster indicated, “The key seems to be putting Plex in Library mode. Once done, its scraper will dl the video info.”

There’s also some question whether Plex yet provides integrations with Netflix and Flickr.  I’ll have to dig through the PlexApp plug-in announcement archives.

Then I’ll be interested to dig further into the question of whether, by installing VLC media player, the codecs that it uses will be available to all media players, or just to my Mac.

Finally, I’d like to revisit the question of which desktop resolution is best suited to my 1080p HDTV – I’d tried 1920×1080, but wasn’t able to see the Mac menu bar (so e.g. I couldn’t click on the little Apple menu to reboot), so now I’m at something in the 1300-pixel-width range.