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Mac Mini Mediacenter: Plex Client & Media Server

When I started my Mac Mini Mediacenter project, one thing was absolutely clear; I wanted, no, needed Plex as my media front end and server. For the ones who don’t know Plex; it’s a very powerful and easy to use media indexer, streamer and transcoder for images, music, videos and more. It’s free with multi OS and multi platform support. PlexIcon

I’ve been using Plex for some time now and love its multi-device flexibility. How it seamlessly delivers all my media with the exact same experience to either my TV, iPad or laptop over either LAN or WAN. It even allows you to resume watching a video on your iPad you stopped halfway on your TV or the other way round. Installation and configuration is fairly easy, but there are some things to consider.

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PopcornHour C200 power consumption revisited

In part 2 of my ‘Mediadevices power reduction quest’ I examined the amount power used by my always-on PopcornHour C200 mediatank. The original power supply died after two years of continues use, so I replaced it with an ATX supply from a donor PC. The amount of current drawn by the C200 was way more than I expected, but I suspected the not-so-standard supply might be to blame.

c200 power supplyAlthough replaced by my brand new Mac Mini, I ordered a new and orignal power supply. Mainly because the C200 would have no resale value in its DIY state, but I was also curious what the difference in power usage would be. It came in today, so time to measure some more to see what difference the new supply makes.

Out came my trusted Fluke 87, I plugged it in and immediately I saw a drop in current compared to my DIY donor power supply; 42 mA vs. 57 mA. That’s a significant 26% drop. Once turned on, the differences became even more apparent. Measurements showed the orignal power supply used an average of 75 mA, that’s 17,6 watts, less during normal operation. Another thing I noticed  comparing the ‘before and after’ values was the difference between the various states the C200 can be in. With the non-original power supply, the difference between e.g. the hard disk spinning or spinned down was only about 10 mA, while with the new original supply, the difference is 22(!) mA.

These measurements show different power supplies can make a significant change in overall power consumption. My knowledge of ATX power supply is only limited, but it looks like the original PSU only provides the current as needed, while the non-original PSU, with higher power rating I might add, is always at some kind of a base energy level in order to quickly deliver higher demands of power. Something not necessary for a relative low-power device like the PopcornHour C200.

Would knowing this have affected my decision to buy a MacMini to replace the C200? No. Although power consumption was what made me think again about all my media equipment, there were a lot of other factors that pointed me in that direction. More functionality and flexibility being among them. If I didn’t want to sell the C200, I wouldn’t have ordered a new PSU in the first place and would’ve continued on with the power hungry power supply for many… well… months to come.

Another thing to mention is the specified power consumption at popcornhour.com. It’s rated, and I quote: typical: 13 W (no additional device installed/attached). In its ‘typical’, white-ring power state without doing anything else, the C200 uses 19,5 watts of power. That’s almost a third more! Orange-ring state only uses 0.5 watts less. The only time it uses less is when it’s completely powered off (9,4 watts), but that’s not ‘typical’ use. False advertising perhaps? Something PopcornHour is not shy of (network speed anyone?)

For those who are interested, here are the actual measured values. Mains is 235 volts where I live. I will  use the powerbuttons color for the different power states:

  • Standby: Red
  • Idle, no picture: orange
  • Idle, picture: white
State Donor PSU mA
Orig. PSU mA
 Standby (red)  57 (13,4W)  40 (9,4W)
 Boot with HDD  190 (44,7W)  115 (27W)
 Boot without HDD  175 (41,1W)  86 (20,2W)
 Orange HDD spin up  182 (42,8W)  108 (25,4W)
 Ornage HDD spin down  172 (40,4W)  83 (19,5W)
 Orange without HDD  168 (39,5W)  81 (19W)
 White HDD spin up  183 (43W)  108 (25,4W)
 White HDD spin down  173 (40,7W)  86 (20,2W)
 White without HDD  169 (39,7W)  83 (19,5W)
 Orange, SMB access  ?  108 (25,4W)
 White, SMB access  175(41,1W)  114 (26,8W)

Mac Mini Mediacenter: NZB (usenet) and torrent downloads

This article is part of larger collection on various subjects about the installation of my Mac Mini as a mediacenter to replace my PopcornHour C200 and Plex server PC. You can find the index here

One thing I loved about my previous networked media tank was its ability to function as an allround hassle free downloader. Upload your NZB’s or torrents and forget all about it. Few hours later, it’s done. Downloaded, PAR checked, unrarred and already residing on the main media hard drive. I had to at least match this with my new setup.

NZB (usenet)
I prefer usenet downloading over all other forms. It’s fast and private. My old PopcornHour C200 used NZBGet as its out-of-the-box usenet client. NZBGet is a lightweight package with a pretty complete feature set. Multiple servers, watch folder, par check and unrar. Despite of the Popcorn’s limited processor and memory, it always maxed out my ISP’s download speed. But it looks like crap! Now having the advantage of a full fledged PC, I could pick whatever I want, but it was a no-brainer: SABnzbd. SABnzbdFree, fast, skinnable, open source and very feature rich. It also allows access to its API’s in order to communicate with other programs like Sickbeard, Couch Potato and the likes.

I’d like to highlight one very simple but much used feature, the watch folder. When working with multiple NZB files, it can be a pain to upload them all separately to SABnzbd. SABnzbd can monitor a given folder every few seconds for new NZB files and once detected, they are added to the cue. Very effective. As with all folders, the watch folder can be shared over the network for added functionality. I configured my MacBook and Windows PC to mount the shared watch folder on startup. I can now use the same watch folder on any system I like, while the Mac Mini is the one doing all the work.

Torrents
As I stated above, I like downloading via usenet. I’m not that big a fan of BitTorrent. Anti piracy foundations got their eye on it, it’s less private compared to usenet and bad quality modem-routers tend to crash with large torrent streams. But every now and then, certain files are not offered on usenet. The BitTorrent community is just better suited for the more obscure and hard to find files and media. So I installed a torrent client anyway. uTorrent

The PopcornHour C200 came with Transmission and ANSI front end. I like transmission on OS X, but it crashed constantly on the C200. Transmission is also not available for Windows, my mediacenter OS, so I had to look elsewhere. I found μTorrent. It’s an effective and free torrent client with a very small footprint. It can run in the background, waiting for torrent files and magnetic links, without using any significant amount of memory or other resources. All settings are there, folder setup, bandwidth management, up/download restriction, you name it. Perfect for instant once-in-a-while usage

Web interfaces
My Mac Mini’s only display is a TV set, which is also used for… watching TV. And although I’m able to manage everything through Teamviewer, it’s not ideal. So for the frequently used tasks like usenet- and torrent downloading, I like to have an alternative. Both programs come with a web interface option. Once enabled, they can be reached by connecting to the system’s IP address (setting a static IP address is advised) and pre set port number (http://192.168.1.111:8886 for example). The port number can be set to anything you like, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other programs or standardized functions like 25 & 110 for mail, 119 for NNTP, 449 for https, et cetera. This way, you can manage your downloads by just using an internet browser instead of Teamviewer or other remote desktop solution. Another advantage is the ability to connect to the download clients from outside the house. You just have to know your WAN IP address, provided by your ISP, and configure port forwarding in your router. Port forwarding detects requests at pre set port numbers and passes the ones allowed to the coupled LAN IP address. DON’T forget to set a username/password in every program reachable from the internet, or anybody could potentially connect to you computer or worse.

Sickbeard, Couch Potato and HeadPhones
Respectivly automated TV series, movies and music download. One misconception is that these programs actually download the content. That’s not the case. They just keep track of a personalized watchlist and automatically download the corresponding NZB file when a new item is posted on Usenet. They integrate very well with e.g. SABnzbd which in turn does the actual downloading.

I wanted to mention these kind of programs to get a full picture, but I’m not going to use them. I’ve played around with Sickbeard for a while. I do appreciate the functionality but like to manage my downloads manually. Here’s why. I like to download older series too. Something that can be quite tricky with Sickbeard. First of all, most of the essential index sites don’t backtrack, which means no history. So only newly posted episodes are available. Second, when backtracking, Sickbeard tends to pick the newest post if several exist. In practice however, newer post are usually password protected for some reason, or come with hardcoded subs. The older original postings are clean of tampering by other parties, but are ignored

Another reason is the fact I’ve got other sites to keep track of new episodes and movies. I’ve used them for a long time now and they give me suggestions based on the series I follow in return. Downloading manually also has the advantage of keeping track what’s new in your library, instead of stumbling upon a new item. So I’ll keep using the hands-on approach… for now.

Disclaimer: I’m not in any way affiliated with the programs mentioned above nor do I condone downloading illegal content in any way.

Mac Mini Mediacenter: Remote control

This article is part of larger collection on various subjects about the installation of my Mac Mini as a mediacenter to replace my PopcornHour C200 and Plex server PC. You can find the index here

Watching movies and browsing through your media library from the living room couch can only be done with proper remote control. I strive for an esthetically clean setup at home, so the Mac Mini is behind doors. That means no line of sight for infrared remote control. There are a couple of ways this can be omitted for relative little money. They all have their advantages and drawbacks. But a little tweaking goes a long way!

These solutions are platform independent. They don’t rely on a Mac Mini or the OS of choice. All or similar soft- and hardware is available for Windows, OS X and Linux.

Wireless mouse + keyboard
Many many options here. From cheap gear to professional equipment, not to forget Apple’s Magic mouse and matching wireless keyboard, so take your pick. They give you full control over the OS, but I don’t like it in my given setting. It’s a media center, not a workstation, and I don’t like the MagicMouselooks of having a keyboard and mouse lying around the living room. I do have a set connected for administrative purposes, but it remains behind closed doors most of the time.

Teamviewer
For full remote OS control, anywhere in the world, Teamviewer is still the way to go. It will pass through any firewall, works seamlessly with iOS devices and PCs are even accessible with the use of a web interface. An account keeps track of all your connected systems with online/offline status, so no need to remember or setup IP addresses or DNS resolves. And it’s free!

The free version does come with annoying pop-ups when disconnecting and it’s not the most stable in an OS X environment. It crashes every time when I close the lid on my MacBook Pro while connected to another computer for example. It’s also not the fastest package out there. The refresh rate, even on the same LAN, is pretty slow. Of course it’s dependent on the amount of screen changes and resolution, but watching videos is not done and full screen applications become very sluggish. For basic operations combined with it being platform- and geo location independent, it’s still the editor’s choice.

iPhone
Again, loads of options. I will be using Plex most of the time so the remote controller integrated in the iOS Plex client is the obvious choice. It automatically detects other clients running on the same LAN and gives you UI navigation and playback controls. Too bad it fails miserably in features and functionality. I really don’t understand why this isn’t properly worked out. Some buttons don’t do anything at all and basic features like enabling subtitles or zooming are nowhere to be found. You have to navigate through layers of menus to do this, while, e.g. direct keyboard shortcuts are working perfectly! Therefore, it’s unusable. I just hope it will get an overhaul in future updates.

A search in the Appstore comes up with a bunch of apps to control mouse- and keyboard input. I won’t list them all here. The workings are basically the same and they are all dependent on a piece of helper software installed on the PC being controlled, ranging from proprietary packages to freeware VNC solutions. But here’s the thing, Plex’s navigation isn’t designed around the use of a mouse. Mouse control can be enabled, but it ‘feels’ wrong, plus you miss out on a lot of direct control.

There are a few iOS apps that present you with dedicated control over a variety of programs like WinAmp, Windows Media Center, XBMC and… Plex. Just like the Plex client, but much much better. Snatch is an example, but I finally settled with HippoRemote. The helper software is available for both OS X and Windows and it has the ability to add custom macros (single or combined keyboard shortcuts). Very clean, big buttons and all the functionality you could want. Plus, it still has the touchpad for mouse control within Windows/OS X.

The major drawback of iPhone related remote control is in fact the touchscreen. Multitouch mouse control is nice, but for couch potato purposes, nothing beats physical playback- and navigational buttons.

PS3 bluetooth remote + EventGhost
My previous media player, the PopcornHour C200 came with a RF remote. The advantage of physical buttons vs. a touchscreen is the ability to control everything blind. After getting used to the button layout, you can use them without ever looking at the little PS3 remotehandheld box. As mentioned above, there is no line of sight to my Mac Mini’s IR receiver. So, like the C200, I had to find some kind of RF solution. The higher-end Logitech Harmony universal remotes can do this, but will cost you an arm and a leg. Keyspan produces a range of RF remotes with a separate RF USB dongle, made to look like Apple’s Frontrow and Microsoft’s MediaCenter remotes. Still pretty expensive and not readily available in Holland.

Then I came across Sony’s Playstation Blu-Ray remote. On sale for 19 euros. It connects via bluetooth to a PS3, like the normal controllers do. But it can be connected to a PC (and Mac Mini) with bluetooth as well. It’s discovered and installed as a HID game controller, but doesn’t do much on its own. That’s where EventGhost comes in. EventGhost (RemoteBuddy for OS X users) is one of the best pieces of freeware I’ve come across in a long while. It registers events that take place in Windows. Among them are display-updates, program starts, key presses and incoming bluetooth commands. It even comes with a special plugin for the PS3 remote, so it properly recognizes what button is actually pressed. You can configure EventGhost to trigger other commands and macro’s depending on the incoming events. So for example, when pressing the Subtitle button on the PS3 remote, EventGhost registers a bluetooth command called PS3.Remote.Subtitle, which in turn triggers an emulated keypress of the letter s, used to enable subs in Plex. You can configure the entire remote exactly the way you want! Special commands like putting the Mac to sleep or Wake on LAN are also available. I even got it to start and shutdown the Plex client by pressing the PlayStation button.

EventGhost provides a plug-in for XBMC as well. Way back, Plex was a branch of XBMC and it still has some XBMC in its DNA. As is the ability to control UI navigation over IP (localhost if the controller and client are on the same system). Combining the PS3 remote- and XBMC plug-in in EventGhost, you get a dedicated controller, instead of what is basically an odd looking keyboard. The advantage you get is when not using Plex, the remote doesn’t do anything else, like accidentally deleting all my media whenever my cat decides to mess with it. It takes a bit of effort to couple all the buttons to the different XBMC commands, but I now have a fully functional, physical, dedicated Plex remote.
HDM-CEC interface by RCAware
Although I haven’t tried it, this clever little box popped up during my search and might be usefull to some of you. It’s an HDMI-CEC interface made by RCAware. It connects to your HTPC through USB and captures and/or transmits CEC commands. CEC stands for Consumer Electronics Control and is a standarized communication protocol to interface between different HDMI equipped devices. For example, you can change your AV receiver’s volume with the TV set’s remote control. The TV set sends the volume command through HDMI to the receiver which understands the command and does as requested.

Combined with EventGhost (I can’t express often enough how cool EventGhost is) the ‘Computer Universal Remote’ as they call it, can either controll your TV set with CEC commands comming from your HTPC remote (or other EventGhost commands) or *drumroll* control your HTPC with the remote control from your TV set. You’ll only need one RC for both TV and HTPC. Makes for a very clean setup!

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