(Re)Building a Mac Media Centre

Mac mini

This week I decided to bite the bullet and re-install everything on the Mac Mini that I use as a media centre. The little silver box attached via an HDMI cable to my honking big Yamaha A/V receiver and Sony TV.

It’s a great little box. I got the Server version so it has two 500Gb drives powered by a 2Ghz i7 and 16Gb of third party RAM. With all that it’s a fast little box. I can’t imagine how fast it would be with an SSD to boot off.

It had to be shifted to 10.8 from 10.7 anyway so I decided the entire system and all the apps had to go. I’d installed a bit too much cruft and fiddled a bit too much for the health of the system. I had it set up with the System and apps on the first drive, all the server software using the second and all the media on a 4Tb USB external. I’d love to have a Thunderbolt external but a 4Tb Thunderbolt drive is still too expensive for this little black duck and the current drive already has more than 1.5Tb of media on it.

The first step was fire up Carbon Copy Cloner to clone the startup disk onto my portable drive for both backup and to provide an alternate boot volume.

I then booted off the portable and upgraded it to 10.8 — doing this allowed me to upgrade the Server app without having to pay for it. For some strange reason if you do a fresh install of Lion it doesn’t recognise the old Server app and wants to charge you for the new one, or at least that’s what happened to me. I suspect it’s because I got Server free with the Mini Server and the App Store didn’t recognise it as a valid purchase.

Then I erased the old boot drive and installed Lion, copied on the new Server app and ran the App store to grab all the System updates.

Then download the latest version of all the required apps such as Carbon Copy Cloner, VLC and the like. Enter a few licenses and we are ready to turn it into a media centre with Plex.

I downloaded the latest version of Plex. This was Plex Media Server (PMS) 0.9.7.12.407 and Plex 0.9.5.4 (the client). There’s also an excellent inexpensive client for my iPad. It’s good, quality software and much nicer in appearance and use than XBMC on which it is based.

There have been some good changes since the last time I upgraded these two and some serious bug fixes. The biggest change is that PMS configuration and media management is now done through a web interface. Absolutely brilliant, I can now manage it from any machine on my local network rather than connect via screen sharing.

The one change that threw me for a while was that PMS now has a built in iTunes channel rather than a plug in and of course with my iTunes library in a non-standard spot it couldn’t find it so had turned the channel off.

The secret is to open up the media manager, go into “Settings” by clicking the tool icon in the top bar, selecting “Channels” in the left hand list then click on “Show Advanced Settings” to reveal a field where you can enter the path to your iTunes library XML file – in my case “/Volumes/External/iTunes/iTunes Library.xml”. Once you’ve done that have some patience and the iTunes channel will show up. I’m serious about having some patience, after an hour it still wasn’t there so I let it run overnight scanning my approximately 8,500 tracks and in the morning the channel was available in the Plex client.

The bug fixes in the new version were excellent. I’d had trouble with some AVI files not playing properly at all and a fair percentage of files had audio sync problems when playing in Plex on the media Mini — neither problem when playing the files in VLC on the same box or on the Plex client on my iPad. After installing the new version of client and server on a fresh system both problems appear to have gone.

I have to be honest and admit that some of the problems may have been me fiddling with the various settings a little too much with too little understanding of what I was doing in the previous install. I have a tendency to fiddle and it often gets my computers into trouble, poor things.

If I was the sort of person who downloaded torrent files of TV shows from the internet then now would be the time to install and configure the TVShows 2 preference pane to watch out for TV shows and Transmission to download them when they were found. If you turn on the facility quite a lot of Transmission can be controlled over your local net using a web browser pointed to the right port.

There’s a couple more things I’d personally install. I like having the dedicated Spotify client as well as the channel in Plex. I also install Graphic Converter because it has a nicer slideshow interface than Plex.

That finishes the media stuff but there is a bunch of stuff that has to go on any Mac I own but I’ve already covered that stuff in an earlier post.

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