Getting Started

So you’ve managed to find your way to this site, you’re ready to set up your Mac Mini Home Theater, but you don’t know where to start. This quick start guide is intended to get you up and running as fast as possible. After that, you can go through some of the more specific articles on this site and customize you setup to your liking.

WHAT YOU NEED

  1. Mac Mini – For most applications, just about any Intel based Mac Mini should work. I used the 1.5 ghz Core Solo for a few years and it treated me fine. However, as you get to more High Definition content, you’re going to want to go with a more recent Mac Mini. If it is in your budget, I highly recommend going with the current revision which is the first Mac Mini to include the nVidia graphics chipset. The base model should be fine as I recommend using an external hard disk for really large media collections and adding memory is reasonable do-it-yourself project, but not necessary when you’re just getting started.
  2. A TV. Hopefully this step is a no-brainer, but it’s a critical piece of a home theater. There are plenty of adapters to support different connection types, so any reasonably new TV should work fine, but in order to get the most out of your Mac Mini, you’ll want to go with an HDTV. As long as your TV has one of the following connector types, you’ll be fine (HDMI, DVI, VGA, Component, S-Video, composite)
  3. Internet connection (wired or wireless). You’ll need the internet connection to download sofware, but there’s also a lot of free content available on the internet. If you can get a wired connection to your Mac, you’ll get better performance, but a wireless network should work as well.
  4. Cables (See “Connections” section).
  5. Remote/Keyboard and Mouse. You’ll need a keyboard and mouse to do the inital set up for the Mac Mini, but once everything is dialed in, you’ll want to switch to either the Apple Remote or a univeral remote that has the codes for the apple remote (such as the Harmony remotes). Fortunately, any USB keyboard and mouse will work for configuring your system.

NICE TO HAVES

  1. iPhone/iPod Touch. There are some really cool iPhone applications you can use to control your Mac Media Center. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a clean way to use the iPhone as a single remote for everything (tv, receiver, mac mini, etc), but I’ll have more to say about that later…
  2. AV Receiver and speakers. I personally feel this should be in the “Must Have” section, but I understand that not everyone feels the same about sound as I do. But you’re really missing out unless you connect your Mac and TV to a reasonable sound system.
  3. Projector, popcorn machine, big comfy chairs etc… After all the work is done, make sure you have a comfortable environment to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

HERE WE GO

It’s time to break out your shiney new Mac Mini and get started. Before hooking it up to your TV, I recommend connecting the Mac Mini to a standard monitor, keyboard and mouse. This will make it faster to download and install apps.

You have several choices for Media Center software, but I recommend starting with the excellent Plex application. If you’re new to the Mac, installing software usually consists of extracting a zipped file and then dragging the appplication in to your “Applications” folder. You can download the file from http://wiki.plexapp.com/index.php/Downloads#Current_Version At this point you can launch Plex and test it out before moving the computer over. If you purchased the Apple Remote, you can go to the Preferences panel and configure the Plex to respond to the Apple Remote. The settings are located under “Preferences” then “System” and then “Input Devices”. Select “Standard” for Apple Remote Mode and enable the “Always Running” option.

Chances are good that you’ll be using this application often, so you can add the application to your Dock (the application toolbar on the bottom of the screen) by dragging the application from Applications folder to the dock itself. That should be enough to get you started.

If you can’t wait to get started jump down to the connections settings. If you want install a few more apps while you’re at the keyboard and monitor, I recommend the following:

  • Handbrake – A DVD ripping software
  • VLC – A media playback application

ConnectionsVideo

Now that the Mac Mini is configured, you need to figure out how you want to connect it to your TV and/or AV Receiver. Video Depending on the inputs on your TV, there are a few different ways to get the video from your Mac Mini to your TV. The following are listed in order of most to least desirable. In otherwords, pick the option closest to the top of this list that work with your TV.

  1. HDMI – If your TV has an available HDMI input, you can use a DVI to HDMI cable to connect the Mac Mini to your TV. The previous generation Mac Mini has a built-in DVi output. The latest generation has a mini-DVI output, but it comes with a small dongle to give you a standard DVI out port. If you go to Best Buy or Fry’s, this cable will probably cost you anywhere from $50 to $100. If you buy the cable online, it’s closer to $5~$10 (http://www.amazon.com/Cables-Unlimited-PCM-2296-06-Single-Cable/dp/B0007MWE1E/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=electronics&qid=1248064399&sr=8-3).
  2. DVI – Next on the list is a standard DVI port. Older TV’s might have DVI rather than HDMI, in which case you can use a standard DVI cable. Same rule applies as above regarding cost. There shouldn’t be any video degradation between the HDMI and DVI options.
  3. VGA – If your TV doesn’t have HDMI or DVI, but has an available VGA port, this is your next best option. There is a slight drop in video quality as VGA is an analog signal, but it will still provide a High Definition signal. Apple makes a DVI to VGA adapter. Alternatively, you can use a DVI to VGA cable.
  4. S-Video/Composite – As a last resort, Apple makes a DVI to S-Video/Composite adapater for use with older, standard definition TV’s. The picture quality isn’t great and the resolution is maxed out at 800 x 600, but if it’s your only option, it’s still a great way to get started with your Mac Mini Home Theater.

Audio

Out of the box, the Mac Mini supports both analog and digital audio (although for digital audio, you’ll need a special adapter).  Digital Audio gives you a better overall sound quality, but there are still some advantages to using the analog audio.

RCA_Headphone
For analog audio, you’ll typically want a headphone to Stereo Headphone To RCA Cable cable.  The headphone jack plugs into the Mac Mini, and the stereo RCA end plugs into either your TV or AV Receiver.

For digital audio, you need a Toslink Adapter and optical digital cable.  The Toslink adapter plugs into the Mac Mini’s headphone jack which switches the audio output to a digital signal.  You then connect the optical cable to the Toslink adapter, and the other end to your AV Receiver.

The critical piece for Mac Min audio integration

The digital connection will give a better overall sound quality and allow your Mac Mini to pass through DTS and Dolby Digital surround sound sources directly to your receiver.  However, there may be cases where you want to use the analog connection.  The analog signal can be split easily to multiple sources (if you wanted your Mac to drive audio to a receiver and TV etc..  In my case, I wanted to be able to listen to music outside using the Zone 2 feature of my AV Receiver.  Unfortunately, my receiver only accepts analog signals for the Zone 2 inputs.  Either option will work, so choose the option that best fits your needs.

At this point, you should be up and running.  The Mac Mini has built-in WiFi, so configure it to access your wireless network to access more online content as well as enable you to remotely manage your Mac Mini (a topic for another article).

If I’ve left anything out, or if you can think of ways to improve this article, please leave a message in the comments.  Good Luck!