I’ve always wanted to write this post. I’ve spent years evolving my technology-based home media setup, and for some reason, instead of writing a long blog post about it I ended up posting it on The Verge forums, and you can find it here:
It provides a brief overview of the various components of my setup, and what it can do, from acting as a central iTunes hub, to allowing for remote streaming of movies and TV shows, to hosting a VPN server for secure web browsing anywhere in the world. Since this blog is really the spiritual home of a piece of content like this, you can find the post in its entirety below.
This post was originally going to be a reply to another Mac Mini thread, but when I reviewed it, it was so long I thought it probably warranted its own (elaborated) post!
This is a brief overview of how I currently have my home (and remote) media solution set up, which covers music, movies, tv shows, photos, downloading, remote control, syncing etc. My two philosophies when trying to resolve a particular problem are a) keep it simple – the less I see a filesystem the better and b) make as much use of the cloud as possible, so everything is accessible everywhere with as little manual input as possible.
Anyway, here goes:
First, the hardware
- I’m running a 2010 Mac Mini as my HTPC (2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 320M 256MB)
- Its hooked up directly to a Samsung Series 5 37″ TV via HDMI (this is the only physically attached screen – no LCD monitor or anything)
- Audio goes straight to a NAD amplifier, which is the hub for all audio in the living room.
- Logitech Harmony Remote is the only remote in sight – configured to control all the devices and is pretty automated (more on this below)
- Virgin Media Super Hub for internet connectivity
What it all does
- iTunes hub – central location for all music and iOS syncing. Its always on so can sync over wifi 24×7. I mainly use Spotify for music and iCloud for iOS backups so iTunes is becoming more and more redundant, but it is still needed so it resides here.
- Media Centre – I use Plex which hosts all my movies and TV shows. It runs at fullscreen by default so you only know its a Mac when minimised for admin purposes, all other times its showing the Plex front screen. As well as browsing my movie collection on the TV in front of me, I can use the iOS app to browse the collection on my iPad/iPhone and then start playing on the TV, at which point the iOS app turns into a remote control.
For offline video viewing on my iPhone/iPad, I use an app called AVPlayer, which I manually transfer files to from within iTunes. This is not a method I am happy with and I wish Plex allowed for syncing to iOS devices for offline viewing but it does not. I don’t do a lot of offline video watching on regular basis, usually only when I go away for a few days in which case I’ll transfer a batch of videos and be done with it.UPDATE: Plex have since released offline sync! This is called “PlexSync” and is available to PlexPass subscribers. It allows you to mark the next x number of unwatched tv show episodes to be synced to each of your mobile devices. Plex will keep track of what you’ve watched and start transcoding the next episodes in advance, ready to be synced. There is currently a bug to do with video out but generally I can take my iPad + video out cable anywhere I go and stream my entire collection to any TV with an HDMI port. Happy days!
- Logitech Harmony One universal remote and Rowmote Pro on iOS all can control Plex from the sofa. The Harmony One is amazing as it lets me have profiles which automate what is turned on and what is controlled. I don’t worry about which device I’m controlling, I just select “Watch Movies” and it turns the TV to the Mac Mini input, turns the amp to the Mac Mini input, turns everything else off, and knows that some buttons (e.g. menu, up, down etc) control the Mac (the Plex interface) and others (volume) control the amp. Very cool, I love it.
- Plex Media Server runs on it as well 24×7, so I can stream all my movies and tv shows anywhere in the world so long as I have an internet connection. If I watch something on my iPad/iPhone, next time I go home the progress is synced and it asks me if I want to carry on on my TV from where I left off on my iPhone/iPad.
- The download tools I use all monitor a single DropBox folder which I can add to from anywhere, on my iOS device or other computer, which prompts the Mac to start downloading automatically. These tools also have public web-facing admin controls so I can monitor and manage downloads.
It runs AirServer, so as to mimic an Apple TV. I can then stream music and video to it from any iOS device that is on the home wifi network. As the audio out of the Mac goes straight to the amp, I can leave the TV off and just have Spotify on my phone streaming music to the living room speakers. UPDATE: The latest Plex beta (called “Plex Home Theatre“) available to PlexPass subscribers includes an AirPlay server, meaning AirServer is no longer required.I can leave the Plex client running on the Mac in fullscreen, and stream video from any iOS device and Plex will instantly pick up the stream and play it fullscreen on top of the Plex interface. This removes the need for a separate AirPlay server app. Plex doesn’t yet support AirPlay mirroring but I never use that and am sure it will be included in time for the public release.
- Picasa runs on it, hosting all of my photos. These are then synced to Picasa Web Albums for a permanent online backup of every photo I’ve ever taken. They can easily then be shared, and any photos I add via iOS devices etc get synced back to Picasa on the computer. UPDATE: I’ve also set up a shared iPhoto library on the Mac Mini, which I mount on my MacBook Air for photo importing (I’ve got a new camera you see).
- AirFoil runs on it so I can stream audio from my MacBook Air, to come out of the living room speakers.
- RowMote on iOS also acts as a remote mouse / keyboard for the Mac Mini. I own a Magic Trackpad and wireless keyboard but never use them – my MacBook Air, Harmony remote or iOS devices act as the inputs for it.
- VNC and LogMeIn run on it for remote control from local MacBook Air or public computers. I have Screen Sharing running on my MacBook Air as a fullscreen app so I swipe right to see my Mac Mini desktop and take full control. I have a shortcut on my MBA desktop to open Screen Sharing direct to the Mac Mini.
- EasyVPN runs on it so I can VPN in from my iPhone/iPad/MacBook Air in case I want to browse privately, say if I’m on a public cafe internet connection etc. I’m still trying to get the Bonjour service to broadcast over VPN so I can sync my iTunes library remotely!
- Movies, TV shows, music, photos etc all stored on a few external USB hard disks which are shared across the network
- Both Mac Mini and MacBook Air both backup using Time Machine to the external hard disks, either directly or over wifi (the MBA). I used to have a Buffalo LinkStation NAS running but it broke during an automated firmware upgrade and I haven’t been able to fix it :( Update: I managed to fix it but then the cat jumped on it and properly broke it. Typical. I am now on the hunt for a proper NAS solution to replace the USB drives as I’m running out of storage.
- Google Drive and DropBox installed on both (and work laptop, iOS devices) for document syncing
- Internet is hard-wired to the MM, and is
Virgin MediaSky fibre broadband (UK) 3040bps down / 210Mbps up
The Mac doesn’t have enough oomph to stream AirPlay videos while Plex Player is running at the same time, so I have to quit Plex player to stream AirPlay video (an easy task using RowMote – it has a button to do this – don’t need to faff about with moving a mouse or anything).UPDATE: This is now resolved as the latest beta of the Plex client (called “Plex Home Theatre”) includes an AirPlay server, which streams videos with no jerkiness whatsover. Not only have I now consolidated two apps into one, but the experience is far better.
- While it plays 1080p video absolutely fine, general use is really slow. I’m not sure why its so slow, but I’ve always been confused why Apple continue to ship Mac Minis with slow 5,400 rpm hard drives – why not use the standard 7,200 instead of offering these as paid upgrades? Bad form.
- AirPlay mirroring isn’t smooth enough over Wifi for gaming or video. (This is different to AirPlay video streaming which works fine). I don’t know if this is a limitation of the router/wifi signal (i.e. network problem) or if its a limitation of the AirServer software or Mac Mini itself just not being powerful enough.
- Its not particularly great for gaming, but I use OnLive and PS3 for that anyway. Would be nice if it was more powerful and I could buy Mac App Store games.
Transferring videos for offline viewing on iOS devices still requires an app and manual transfer of files via iTunes. I don’t use iTunes to manage my videos because I don’t want to use 2 tools – Plex is the hub and will stay that way for the time being – iTunes doesn’t have a friendly interface and requires too specific file formats for offline viewing on iOS devices. If only Plex would support offline viewing…UPDATE: Plex now does do offline syncing! See update in previous section
- If I want to do some admin on the Mac Mini, I have to minimise Plex. This also means I can’t use the desktop etc while Plex is running on the TV. OS X Lion onwards includes the ability for a remote user to log in to a virtual desktop (very cool!), so I initially had the main desktop permanently displaying Plex on the TV, and would remote in to a virtual desktop to do admin tasks simultaneously. Unfortunately my Mac Mini just isn’t powerful enough to handle this, so I’ve put this on hold until I upgrade, but the functionality is all there ready to go and will be a great improvement on the overall usability of the solution.
The Mac is the only piece of Apple kit that I want to upgrade because it is so central to my computing setup and is pretty slow now. Thankfully the core functions, like playing HD video etc, work fine, but waiting 30 seconds for Chrome to load is a pain. In fact, I’d actually like to add a gigabit NAS box to the network as I am running out of storage, and a gigabit dual channel wifi router (e.g. AirPort Extreme) to increase my wifi speeds to 300Mbps.
Hope this is an interesting post, I’d love to hear how others have solved their home media solutions using Macs, iOS devices etc!