How to use a Mac Mini as a Media Server

What is a Media Server?

A Media Server is a computer whose purpose in life is to stream your video, audio and pictures to you, on demand.  Let’s say you’re on the road traveling, and you want to watch a football game you recorded two days ago.   No problem with a Media Server.  Just launch the iPhone app, browse to the  Sports directory on your media center, and click play!  Kind of like cable, except different and better!

Plex Main Screen

Views of Plex

Is the Mac Mini Media Server Material?

The Mac Mini has always been an enticing piece of hardware that demanded unique applications like serving media. The Mini footprint is compact, and it’s operating system is solid, making it a perfect fit for this type  of “set it and forget it” application. While the hardware itself is a perfect fit for the “Media Server” job, software is needed to round out this kit and convert the Mac Mini into Media Server.  Before we get into that, let’s talk processor cycles (horsepower).

What kind of horsepower does this Media Server thing require?

The newer Mac Mini models have more than enough power to transcode several streams concurrently, in addition to serving several additional streams to clients at the same time.   In other words, a new Mac Mini will have media streaming to all 3 TV’s in the house, and your iPhone, with no trouble.  But what if your Mini isn’t brand new?  If you have a older (2-3 yr. ago) Mac Mini, you should be fine as well, just know that the Mini may not handle as many concurrent video streaming sessions, but will still certainly get the job done for 1-3 TV viewing.  The biggest advantage of a newer model Mini aside from horsepower is the HDMI outputs, allowing for streaming of full HD resolution to your TV.

Why Plex?

There are lot’s of media servers out there, but the ease of use and functionality makes Plex an excellent choice for newbies and techies alike.  This should be no surprise as the software builds on the XBMC code that’s been serving media for years.   Aside from the obvious features including streaming video and media players, the notables of Plex are are;

  • Access you content anytime from anywhere with virtually no configuration
  • On the fly transcoding for mobile or lightweight mediaplayer
  • Playback of archived HD content to basically any device on your network capable of receiving video streams like the Roku and XBox media players including soft clients
  • Ease of Operation using a Wireless Keyboard and Mouse
  • Playback of audio and images from media server
  • Centralize Library Management System puts all of your media at your fingertips
  • Automatically retrieves meta data from the internet for your content
  • Automatically updates when you add new content to your media files
  • Dynamic device recognition and transcoding by defined bit-rate
  • HDHomeRun Integration for OTA streaming of your favorite football game.

The Plex interface displays your content in an easy to view graphical interface  allowing you to search by name, author, cover and more.  Browsing your home movies, iTunes content Hulu or the latest videos on YouTube has never been easier, and the visual organization of the Plex interface makes sorting thru your media collection a snap.

Plex Menu

What is Plex?

Plex is really a two products designed to work together to stream your video, audio or pictures to you using a rich graphical interface.   The two products work together to provide an end-to-end solution for media consumption.  The first product, Media Server, creates the streams of media for consumption.  The Server also indexes your media, creates the menu system for your local content (movies, pictures, etc) and integrates with a plethora of online content providers, the likes of Hulu Plus, iTunes, Amazon Prime, PBS, CNN, Fox News, HGTV, Food Network, BBC, Netflix and more.  The second product, Media Center, or desktop Plex client “catch’s” the video streams and displays them on the screen.  Mobile Plex clients catch streams from the Plex Servers for mobile devices.

Plex also ties your online viewing experience to your home “media room” viewing experience by offering a synchronized bookmarking service of sorts.  Setting up a My Plex Account will allow browser queue management and sharing of your content. In other words, you’ll be able to save videos for viewing later on another device like your television at home while you’re sitting on the couch.  Sounds great right! It is.  And it’s easy!  Keep reading.

Installing Plex – Media Server Software

The installation and download for Plex, the Media Server Software couldn’t be easier.    Once the download is complete, fire off the install and let it do it’s thing.  When you are asked to locate your media, simply click to the directories where your video, audio and pictures are stored and the setup wizard will ingest the media and prepare vivid and informative menus indexing all of your content on the fly.   Adding your myPlex credentials in the Preferences menu allows you to publish your Plex server on the internet for remote viewing using a Plex client.  This publishing uses UPnP to connect thru your home router, so be sure UPnP is turned on in your router’s configuration.   Once the setup is complete, the next step is to load a Plex client.

Installing Plex – Media Clients

mobile plex client

iPhone Plex Client

Having completed the Media Server install,  jump back to the Plex site and download a Plex mobile client or a Plex desktop client.  These clients are the virtual set top boxes used to catch and play the streams being sent from the Media Server.  With the heavy lifting done, this part of the setup is simple business.  After installing the client of your choice, simply add your myPlex credentials in the application preferences and you should be able to connect to your Plex Server straight away.  Streaming video from a mobile device could take some tweaking to get it just right, but the default bandwidth settings worked for us, even with less than 5 bars signal.  Catching up on Dexter episodes just got a lot easier! And, the On Deck and On Shelf features allow you to start watching a program on your phone, and finish watching it on your computer or home television. Reminds me of that DirecTV commercial where the guy pauses the robot war to resume watching it in the other room.  The On Deck and On Shelf features really are cool!

Have you Plex’d your Mini?

We’d love to hear about your Mac Mini used as a Media Server or Media Player.  Comments or suggestions are welcome in the area below.

About Victor

Victor cut the cord and canceled cable in 2008. He got tired of consistently poor customer service and even poorer programming options. Working experience in IPTV and antenna installation made the transition to off-air TV and streaming internet services a natural progression for his broadcast reception at home. Here at KickOutCable.com, Victor is right at home, continuing the effort to share the secrets of cord cutting that the cable companies don't want you to know.

236 Responses to “How to use a Mac Mini as a Media Server”

  1. agc33 August 15, 2012 at 11:55 AM #

    This is exactly how I have my home media system setup.  I originally bought the Mini in 2010 because it was quiet and had an HDMI out port to the TV.  It’s slowly evolved to where I have the Mini as the server running Plex media server and several Roku boxes with the Plex app.  One thing I did notice, .mkv files have a tendency to skip and you get some blocky pixels on the screen from time to time with this setup, so I’ve have to convert my entire library to .mp4 files and take the resolution down to 720p, now it seems to work just fine.  Otherwise, its fantastic.

    • Victor August 27, 2012 at 2:46 PM #

      Sweet!  I wonder if the network had something to do with the .mkv files not decoding properly.  Sounds like macro-blocking as you described it.  Glad to hear you found a workable solution!

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