Mac Mini Mediacenter

As a result of my research on how much power is used by my various media equipment at home, I’ve treated myself to a Mac Mini. It reduces the energy bill by 200 euros and at the same time adds a lot of functionality. You can read up here: part 1, 2 and 3.

My brand spanking new Mac Mini came in today. I love the smell of a freshly opened Apple box. Can’t help it. It’s amazing how Apple manages to put a full sized PC into such a tiny, beautiful, well shaped box. Not having a DVD drive helps with the small form factor and who needs one anyway. It will take it’s place tucked away in a cupboard beneath my TV set. Now it’s time to construct a proper media center from this little aluminum box. 

First some initial impression. Sound production is virtually non existent. In a typical environment, I have to put my ear to it to hear anything at all. The only giveaway it’s on is the subtle tiny white LED on the front. It came with OS X Lion and the first-time-setup was fast and smooth. Because it was purchased after the 11th of June 2012, I was eligible for a free upgrade to OS X Mountain Lion and after a somewhat elaborate licensing procedure and one hour of downloading and installing the upgrade was complete. I’ve only had a few hours playtime with Lion 10.7, so I’m not an expert on it, but Mountain Lion feels snappier and the implementation of various iOS elements like message center, spell check, and specially iCloud feels more natural and better integrated.

Goals
For the Mac Mini to become the beating heart of my media experiences, I had a list of pre set goals in mind. The main focus is on Plex, both the server and client. For those who enjoy downloaded movies and TV shows and not familiar with Plex, I suggest you check it out here. It’s a free and very powerful media indexer/streamer/transcoder. More details later, first here’s my list of demands.

The whole process of getting the MacMini exactly how I want it to work and for it to surpass the image quality, functionality and ease of use of the PopcornHour C2oo will be an ongoing one. I will post separate articles on the different subjects and link to them as I go. The list of goals will serve as the index.

In this article however,I will elaborate on the battle of the operating systems. I really liked the idea of complementing my home setup with another OS X driven device, but I ended up with Windows 7…

Why Windows, WHY!

I love Mac and Mac OS X. Having worked with (and against) Windows professionally for many years, I can say I prefer the more minimalistic, efficient and ‘thought-through’ approach of OS X. The simplest of simple examples I can think of being; the window beneath the mouse arrow is the one affected by scrolling and not necessarily the active one. It’s the little things. I spend many many hours less on keeping my workstations problem free compared to my Windows days. Although pricey, the prefect marriage between soft- and hardware makes for a very stable environment. But here we immediately hit the Mac’s biggest drawback. It customizability is very limited, hardware and OS. Apple’s philosophy ‘It just works’ is applicable to 90% of my work and home needs, but not to my tweaked media center. In this particular instance. I’ve got two practical problems with OS X;

1. No control over the display settings whatsoever. My Samsung d8000 does a very good job at improving the input signal with all kinds of filters and image processing. I want my media player to provide a relative raw and unaltered image and let my Samsung do it’s magic. To prevent them from working against each other, you need full control over the graphics card’s settings, something that’s just not possible in OS X but easily done with the Windows drivers. I also like to experiment with RGB colorspaces and YCrCb, force refresh rates, et cetera.

2. No support for 23,976 hertz. OS X (Mountain) Lion doesn’t support 23.976 hertz, only 24 Hz. The majority of my video library and other HD content out there is 23.976 hertz! This means a double frame every 41 seconds to keep in sync (more under Awesome picture quality) which shows a small stutter. Sounds negligible, but I can’t accept it.

These are the two main reasons why I decided to go with Windows 7 as the preferred OS for my media center. Installed it with Bootcamp without any issue (see below). Now I had my platform on which I could build my Mac Mini Media Center

Bootcamp and Windows 7 Upgrade sidenote
Installing a Windows 7 upgrade on a fresh Bootcamp partition can be problematic. Here’s why and how to get around it. It is possible to install Windows 7 within Bootcamp from a USB drive. Unfortunately, I only have a copy of Windows 7 Upgrade on disc. The Mac Mini no longer comes with an optical disc reader, so I had to loan a USB DVD drive, better known as Apple’s SuperDrive. Because it’s an upgrade, you need to provide proof of an earlier ‘full license’ Windows edition. I have multiple version I can provided, all the way back to Windows 3.11, but all on disc as well. The problem is you can’t eject the disc from within Windows setup. There simply is no physical eject button. The eject on a Mac’s keyboard is software driven and only becomes available when the Windows Bootcamp drivers are installed. Luckily, the setup enables you to complete the installation without the use of the product key or the need to provide an older version. It becomes a 30-day trial.Windows 7

Here’s the trick; after the installation is finished, restart the Windows setup from scratch by rebooting the Mac, hold down the alt key on startup and choose the Windows DVD as boot disc at the presented screen. Watch for the ‘press a key to boot from disc…’ message and do so. Once again in the Windows setup, format the Bootcamp partition (do NOT remove it, just format). There will remain some residual Windows info on disc (in the MFT or MBR, I’m not sure) which is enough to let the Windows 7 upgrade think it’s updating a previous installed full version. Complete the installation with the product key and activate as normal. Now you have a fully activated and legitimate (provided you own an older full Windows version) installation of Windows 7 on Bootcamp

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About thijsdebont

Enthausiast electronics DIY'er and music lover. Passion for (tube) audio equipment in particular, but I get sidetracked by all things digital as well.

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