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)
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