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Mac Mini HTPC Setup

2011 February 13
tags: , ,
by Joe

I recently received notice of yet another DirecTV price increase in the mail. We had been subscribers for about 3 years and despite being very happy with the service the price was just making less and less sense.

My first response was to see if Dish or Comcast or something else would work better for us but honestly they are all so close in price and channels there is not much difference. This led to considering whether or not we could just drop satellite/cable completely. I started looking at the Apple TV, Roku boxes, etc but decided they were all just too limited. The Mac Mini is what I wanted to try but I was having to think on it a bit longer given the higher price.

Then, I got a completely unexpected check in the mail from an old job. Typically that sort of surprise would go straight into a responsible place but this one got raided for addressing our TV situation.

I cancelled DirecTV. They offered as much as 30% off my bill for 12 months and a DVR+HD box upgrade but I was determined at that point. Even if you don’t want to cancel you should bluff it and see if they’ll chop your bill down for awhile. Next I picked up a Mac Mini and several other items to put together a HTPC setup. I’ve been very happy with the result so wanted to share what worked for us. We’re using AT&T’s 6Mbps DSL service for internet.

Our TV Habits


A big factor in whether this makes sense is the amount and type of TV your household watches. In our case it broke down like this:

  • Main, big HDTV in Living Room
    • Major network shows (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, some stuff on USA).
    • We rarely watch shows in real time – mostly DVR.
    • American football, college basketball, occasional baseball games. This is going to be the biggest challenge. We picked a good time to start this experiment so I can go until the fall. I don’t watch a ton of games, a huge sports fan would struggle with this setup.
    • Less frequently, would watch random home repair, cooking, whatever shows.
    • Movies.
  • Upstairs, smaller HDTV
    • News on in the background while getting ready in the mornings.
    • Occasional shows or movies but really don’t use this TV a whole lot.

We were paying about $90/month for our DirecTV service it just did not feel like we were getting that much value out of it.

Our New Setup


This is the pile of gear I ended up buying to cover everything, all links to Amazon and prices could obviously change. I had some of these items lying around already but including it all for people looking at their own configuration:

That’s a total of $1,003.70, a good bit of money no question. In my case it was paid for but even without that convenient shortcut we were paying $1,080 every year for DirectTV service so after 1 year we would be saving money regardless given we are paying $0/month now. You could certainly shop around for used stuff and save a good bit of money, the prices above are for everything being brand new.

If you are thinking about doing this I would buy just an antenna first and see what kind of signal you get. Honestly the computer on the TV is pretty awesome though and would be fun to setup even if you keep your primary channel source.

An important consideration here is that the main TV with the Mac Mini is going to have access to more content and features than your other TVs. The second antenna listed was so our upstairs TV would have basic HD channels.

The setup is pretty simple:

  • Connect the Mac Mini to a HDMI input on your TV. It comes with a HDMI cable.
  • Connect the Terk Antenna to the single side of the splitter.
  • Connect the splitter to your TV and to the coax side of the EyeTV device.
  • Plug the USB side of the EyeTV into the Mac Mini.
  • Switch your TV to the antenna input and do a channel scan to completion.
  • Turn on the Mac Mini (I would recommend getting it baseline configured elsewhere before hooking up to TV). Go into the Displays and Sound->Output sections of System Preferences to get the video and audio how you want it.
  • Install the EyeTV software, do a channel scan to completion, and pull in the TV Guide data.

The Mac Mini is a solid little machine. Its CPU is plenty powerful, the GPU in there is solid, it’s an amazingly small device, and the HDMI out makes it really convenient and plug and play as an HTPC. It detected the display capabilities of my TV so I just selected the one that looked best (720p looked better than 1080i, my TVs are a few years old so no 1080p to try).

The brand of Antenna really doesn’t matter but the Terk units are highly recommended online, reasonably priced, and work very well.

The EyeTV device is really slick. It lets you watch channels from the computer with an on screen remote you can control with the standard Apple remote. More importantly, it functions as a DVR with all the features our DirecTV DVR had. It is however only 1 tuner so that is the purpose for the splitter setup above. This way you can record a show and watch another at the same time (recording on the Mac and watching the antenna input on the TV). It’s nice having a regular computer as a DVR as you have loads of disk space to work with.

The MagicConnector+Trackpad+Keyboard makes a slick package for controlling the TV. There are some nice iPhone/iPad apps you could use instead but I really like having the full keyboard and mouse available. The connector is just a piece of aluminum with velcro pads for securing the input devices. There are some really fancy options out there but they cost over $100 and I thought $30 for this thing was already pushing it pretty severely.

I talk about this more below, but if you have other computers in the house, you can fully control the HTPC Mac Mini from those. After enabling sharing (described below) on the HTPC Mac Mini, just press command-K on one of your other Macs and enter “vnc://name-of-tv-mac” and you have full control. You can use any other VNC client if the other machine is Windows or Linux.

Programming and Features Now Available


So we now have all of the above setup and running. You actually have a ton of programming available, it just takes slightly more knowledge of the system to find what you want.

First Layer

The first layer of programming is the over-the-air antenna. This brings lots of channels and many of them are really excellent HD quality. I honestly think our local HD channels look better than they did coming through the DirecTV box. It is worth noting that I live 9 miles from the center of Atlanta. Your channels may vary or you may need a better antenna if you live further out.

These are the channels I get with excellent signals. On some of the lesser channels only certain shows are HD. I have excluded all channels that don’t come in perfectly and all non-english channels. I also am not including call letters as I find those worthless.

2.1 ABC (HD)
2.2 RTV Old school cartoons, TV shows, and movies.
5.1 Fox (HD)
11.1 NBC (HD)
11.3 NBC Universal Sports Skiing, Rugby, and other non-primetime sports.
14.1 ION (HD) Reruns of shows mostly from 2005-2008, occasional random movies.
14.2 ION Qubo Kids cartoons and shows.
14.3 ION Life (HD) Like a TLC knock off, 30 minute food/home/life shows.
17.1 TBS / PeachtreeTV (HD)
30.1 PBS (HD)
32.1 APGuide Guide for Atlanta OTA channels. Full of ads and commercials.
32.3 this TV Old shows and movies from MGM and United Artists. Lots of kids shows.
32.4 prism Old movies.
32.5 Oldie Really old movies (black and white).
32.7 Tuff TV Outdoorsy shows, reruns of old wrestling, kickboxing, racing, and similar.
32.8 Legacy Fishing shows, shopping shows, other random stuff.
32.9 JTC Shopping shows.
32.10 Corner 24/7 Infomercials, not sure why this exists.
32.21 – 32.30 Various audio-only music channels.
36.1 MyTV (www.mynetworktv.com) (HD) USA Network stuff.
36.2 Weather radar.
46.1 CBS (HD)
63.1 – 63.5 Church Channels
69.1 The CW (HD) TBS-ish channel with food/home/life shows mixed in.
 

Instead of using that guide channel listed above just use TitanTV.com – it’s a free, nice guide for OTA channels.

With the EyeTV unit you can DVR any of the above and watch them all from your computer.

Second Layer

With a computer connected to the TV you have lots of options added:

  • The major network websites (ABC, CBS, NBC, etc). Most post their shows the day after they air but Fox waits 8 days.
  • Hulu – Great for watching older stuff or shows you missed though not as useful for the latter when you have the OTA setup and can access the major network websites directly. You don’t really need Hulu Plus since you are using a regular computer for access and they can’t tell you have it connected to a TV.
  • ESPN3 – Lets you watch most sports live. This will be a key component of the main drawback to this setup (no ESPN). It works really well but is not HD quality and occasionally the streaming stutters. Some ISPs do not have access to this but ours (AT&T DSL) does.
  • Various other channels through something that rhymes with horrent. Transmission is a super nice OSX client for this. (e.g. HBO).

It is worth mentioning some software called Plex out there for the Mac. It basically streamlines all of the above internet sources of content into a single interface that can be navigated with the Apple remote. It works really well and I have it installed but typically don’t have a need to fire it up given I have a full keyboard and mouse.

Again the main drawback to this setup in my opinion is no ESPN for sports. But, between having HD ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS and ESPN3.com I think we can manage it just fine. I would honestly pay up to $20/month for a cable or satellite service that was nothing but ESPN channels.

For movies, you can rent from Apple/iTunes, keep a Netflix membership, or rent from Amazon Video on Demand so lots of options there.

Our Home Network and Other Benefits


One big bonus to this is you have a fully baked computer connected to your TV. It makes a great central server for the house. In our case, we now have our personal Apple machines (MBP and iMac), our new Mac Mini, and an old laptop that serves as a backup location and daapd server – that setup was previously described in my Cheap Home Network Storage post.

Some steps to make your new Mac Mini easy to use as a server:

  • Give your new machine a good, simple name like “tv”.
  • Give it a static IP or even better use dd-wrt or similar and assign the tv computer a reserved DHCP entry. The advantage to the latter is the dd-wrt router can pass the hostname through as a DNS entry to your local network.
  • Setup sharing of your picture, movie, and music folders on your other Macs. Now the new Mac Mini can play any of that content over the network and the iTunes on the new Mac can see all the other iTunes collections in the house (or any daapd share, our Linux share shows up in iTunes too). We import videos and pictures to the iMac and can now just watch those on the main TV over the network without having to take any extra steps.
  • Turn on “Screen Sharing”, “File Sharing”, and “Remote Login” for the Mac Mini. You can now connect to it remotely from any machine in the house using SSH or VNC. As mentioned above, from another Mac you can just press command-K, enter “vnc://tv”, login, and you have full control. The file sharing being enabled lets you easily push files over. SSH is handy too for remote control. Play with the “say” command in OSX for some fun – can make your TV talk in weird voices to the people in your living room.
  • You will probably want to play with the energy saver settings on the new Mac Mini. You don’t want it going to sleep right away. I have display sleep at 1 hour and machine sleep turned off.

Final Thoughts


That’s our new HTPC setup. I am very happy with it and we haven’t missed the satellite at all yet. We currently don’t pay for any services like Netflix or rent shows from iTunes or Amazon but those are options if we needed more content. Rumor is that Amazon is going to open up free VOD for Prime subscribers and if that happens we’ll be there.

The fall will be a good test given football gets started again but I suspect we’ll be able to manage just fine.

A Roku box or Apple TV or something along those lines that cost less might work fine but it is really nice to have a full computer connected to the TV to serve as a central home server and it’s now available for whatever service you would want running in your home.

15 Responses
  1. Wendy permalink
    February 27, 2011

    Thanks for this post – we were researching our options for doing the very same thing when we came across your post. One question – what did you end up using in the bedroom for the second TV? I do use the bedroom TV quite a bit and so we’re looking at how we might use the Mac Mini in the living room, but still have access to the same programming from the bedroom (without buying a second mini).

    Also, how are you handling “parental controls” (if you have kids)?

  2. February 27, 2011

    Hey Wendy, thanks for the comment. Right now we are just using that second Terk antenna upstairs so we get the 8-10 decent local HD channels but nothing else. We really only use that TV for news and major network stuff in the mornings. The weakness of this setup is definitely the disproportionate content on the mini-connected TV and the others in the house.

    I do know that Apple TVs ($99) can play content stored on another Mac in addition to Netflix. I don’t have one to experiment with and I don’t think this would help with online content (Hulu, ESPN3, etc). But, you could use an EyeTV unit like the one above to record shows and then export those to iTunes for playback on Apple TVs and anything you have in iTunes on the mini could be played on them as well. There would always be that downloading/exporting step so I don’t think it would be seamless.

    We do have a son but he’s very young and we haven’t had to consider parental controls yet. Macs do seem to have pretty robust parental controls built in, I just haven’t ever put them to the test so can’t speak to their effectiveness. Clicking through the parental controls dialog on my laptop it looks pretty nice. I can control which apps they can run, who they can talk to (on IM), which websites are available, and even set time limits for using the computer.

    Hope that helps some, sorry no better ideas for that 2nd TV. If we end up needing more content up there and I find something neat to achieve it I’ll update this post.

  3. Chad Pendley permalink
    March 15, 2011

    Joe, it’s crazy how I came across this article and seen it was you that wrote it. It’s been a long time! I just wanted you to know I liked the article, we have been trying to research this as well. My setup is with the apple tv and ps3. I also use a netflix subscription. Also the major networks are starting to stream in a format that the ps3 can access for free shows. Actually abc is the only one that works all the time. The apple tv is worth the money. I love mine, and they just added NBA pass and MLB network for those who have a sub. But I’m not the biggest sports fan but it’s a great option for college football. We have directv and the only reason I haven’t dumped it yet is because of nick jr. My two year old would be done with me, once I figure out how to stream it I’ll be set! I enjoyed the article, keep up the good work!!!

  4. March 16, 2011

    Hey man it has been a very long time, great to hear from you. I hadn’t thought about using a ps3 or xbox but makes a lot of sense now that they both are getting all kinds of media features added. I can understand the Nick Jr. part, ours is only 6 months so he doesn’t have favorite shows (or know what he’s watching yet) otherwise we probably would be been in the same boat.

  5. Bryan permalink
    July 10, 2011

    Wendy, There is a wireless screen sharing device called mctivia. It won best in show at mac world and looks like it would work for your bedroom tv. They have lots of videos on their website to show how it works.

  6. July 25, 2011

    mctivia looks really nice, thanks for commenting and mentioning it.

  7. deep permalink
    July 30, 2011

    what is the difference with plea and eyetv.

  8. deep permalink
    July 30, 2011

    i mean plex

  9. August 1, 2011

    Plex is a unified frontend for viewing digital content. It takes movies and such that you have saved on your hard drive along with online content and presents it in a friendly format you can control with the Apple remote.

    EyeTV is for capturing and recording over the air channels. You hook a physical antenna up to it.

    Don’t know if that helps or not, but they are certainly different products that achieve different things.

  10. deep permalink
    August 1, 2011

    i really don’t wan to record over the air content. would eye tv still be usefull to me.

  11. August 2, 2011

    In that case I’d say you don’t need EyeTV. It really doesn’t have any other features or extras outside of over the air channels. It’s purely for over the air channel DVR.

    Plex would be worth checking out though and I believe it is free.

  12. deep permalink
    August 2, 2011

    plea makes my computer run slower

  13. deep permalink
    August 2, 2011

    plex

  14. richard permalink
    August 12, 2011

    im just curious how its going with not being able to watch sports…….i really want to cut the cord on cable but it still seems a litter cumbersome to navigate with a family using the mac mini, eyetv, OTA antenna, plex……….and i really want to do it

  15. August 15, 2011

    Interesting post Joe. I have a similar setup in the UK but split the output on my Mini so I can watch it on the main TV and in the bedroom. At the moment I don’t use it for over-the-air content but rather to watch films etc on.

    If you’re interested you can read a bit more on my setup here:
    http://stuffonablog.com/2011/08/13/building-a-htpc-home-theatre-pc/

    Matt

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