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The computer in the living room: setting up a Mac mini media center

Christopher Breen | May 8, 2013
Trot back to the 16th century and corner famed prognosticating monk Nostradamus, and it's quite likely that when posed the question: "Will those living in the year 2013 be able to call up any media programming they like from a single box?" he'd respond with an enthusiastic "Mais oui!"

Dealing with discs

What the mini doesn't have--and hasn't had for a couple of iterations--is a removable media drive. If you still depend on DVDs and CDs then you may be annoyed that there's no slot in the front of the mini for your discs. However, external USB removable media drives are inexpensive and they operate just like an internal drive--allowing you to play movies and install disc-based software. You can find such drives for around $30 that are every bit as good as Apple's $79 USB SuperDrive.

Those drives do not, however, play Blu-ray discs, a technology that Apple has never supported. Although you can add an external Blu-ray player for under $100, and solid software is available for burning data to these discs, the software necessary to play Blu-ray movies isn't terribly good. In this instance you're better off using a separate Blu-ray player that's plugged directly into your TV or AV receiver. (Or glomming on to a copy of the digital download that's often offered with today's Blu-ray discs and adding that copy to the mini's iTunes library.)

Scarcity of storage

Media--movies and TV shows, in particular--can take up a lot of storage space. Your average HD movie purchased from the iTunes Store consumes 3GB of storage, while hour-long HD TV episodes come in at just under 2GB. Add reasonably robust music and photo libraries, and the mini's 500GB of storage would be used up in next to no time.

One way to work around this is to leave your purchases in the cloud and download or stream just that content that you wish to view or listen to (using iTunes in the Cloud for video and iTunes Match for music). When you're finished with it, delete it. While this provides you with more storage space, you have to wait while the content downloads or streams plus, if you have a data cap on your Internet usage, this can cause you to burn through that cap before the month is out.

Because you'll want to save that bandwidth for things like Netflix, Pandora, HBO Go, Hulu, YouTube, and Amazon Instant Video, you're better off attaching an external hard drive to the mini and storing your personal media on it. Shop around and you can find 2TB USB hard drives for a little over $100. Once you've attached that hard drive to your Mac, it's a simple matter to designate it as iTunes' storage destination.

The control conundrum

While a computer can be a terrific media player, one element has traditionally stood in the way of every media rack bearing something like the Mac mini: Convenient control. We can manipulate AV receivers, disc players, high-definition TVs, and game consoles without shifting our keisters from the couch, but when we think of controlling a computer we all-too-often turn to a keyboard and a mouse or trackpad.


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