Old Macs never die, they just get reused. An old MacBook becomes a school laptop for one of the kids. The old 21.5-inch iMac becomes a FaceTime “videophone” for Grandma. Macs have good longevity and older units are usable for a variety of purposes other than day-to-day work. Read along to see how we were able to transform a 2014 Mac mini into a home media server.
What’s a Media Server?
Wikipedia defines a media server as follows:
In this article, we’re using a Mac mini as the hardware and Plex as the application to organize the media. Why Plex? It’s the most popular media server app for macOS. Others that you may wish to consider include Emby, Kodi, Stremio, and Universal Media Server. NOTE: Several of these alternatives provide third-party add-ons that allow free streaming of paid video content. These are illegal and should not be used or installed.
Why Not Just Use an Apple TV?
Why build a media server when an Apple TV can provide just about every type of media you’d want? There are a few good reasons:
- You might be living in an area with very slow Internet service. That could make streaming movies, TV shows, and music almost impossible. With a local media server, there’s no delay or concern about bandwidth.
- Have you made a large investment in music CDs and movies or TV shows on DVD or Blu-Ray? Don’t buy that again in a streaming format – use that investment by copying the physical media content to your server.
With fast internet service and purchased physical media, a media server running Plex offers the best of both worlds. You can stream online content and make use of the media you’ve already bought and paid for.
Why a Mac mini?
Why use a Mac mini instead of a Mac with a built-in screen? You probably have a large-screen TV to watch your content on, and the mini can use that as a “monitor”. There’s another very compelling reason to use a Mac mini – older models are inexpensive. For the purpose of this article, we looked no further than the OWC website to find a Mac mini. We chose one with the ability to run modern versions of macOS (10.15 Catalina and 11 Big Sur in particular).
You don’t need a new operating system to turn a Mac mini into a media server. The minimum operating system requirement is macOS 10.9 Mavericks, so even an early 2009 Mac mini can fit the bill.
Where can you find a used Mac mini? OWC often has pre-owned minis available. Fairly recent Mac minis are listed on Apple’s refurb page. eBay lists many Mac minis, and used Mac stores do a bustling trade in these popular Macs.
We used a mini with fairly modest hardware to create our media server. The specifications? A 1.4 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i5, 4GB of RAM, and a 120GB SATA SSD. The Mac mini is one of the few remaining user-upgradeable Mac models. A large “hatch” on the bottom of the device makes memory and storage upgrades easy to accomplish.
To provide sufficient storage for photos, music, videos, and more, we added an 8TB OWC miniStack. This external drive works great with any Mac mini! It matches the looks of the mini and sits directly underneath the computer.
We had a spare USB keyboard and mouse, and connected to an already-existing monitor. After a clean install of macOS 10.15 Catalina, we got to work setting up Plex.
Setting Up Plex
1 ) Download a copy of Plex for Mac (64-bit) from the downloads page.
2) Drag the downloaded app to your Applications folder and then launch it.
3) Already have a free Plex account? Just launch the app and log in. If you don’t have a Plex account, no problem – you can sign up for one in the app. To make things really simple, use Sign In With Apple, Facebook, or Google.
4) Once you’re logged in, the Plex Home screen appears in the app. This displays:
- Picks of the Week
- Most Popular Movies and Shows
- Recently Added
- Featured Live TV Channels
- Web Shows
- Headlines (News)
and, most importantly, Your Media.
We’ll assume your Mac mini will be used as a full-time media server. Put Plex in full-screen mode and keep the app running all the time.
Add Your Own Media
Plex supplies a lot of free media in the form of movies and TV shows. However, you may have classics that aren’t available anywhere except on a DVD. You probably also want to add your own photos and videos, music, or other media… For that, you need another Plex app called Plex Media Server. Plex Media Server is the software that works with macOS to make your media available to the Plex app. That app browses and plays the content.
Click the + Your Media button, then the Get Plex Media Server button. Doing so launches Safari and a download page for the app. As before, drag the downloaded app to the Applications folder. Now launch Plex Media Server. Log in using your Plex account, and then read the short explanation of what the app does:
You may see an enticement to buy a Plex Pass. This provides additional features, including:
- Mobile Sync for watching your media offline on smartphones and tablets
- Parental Controls
- A Server Dashboard for keeping track of what you watch and how much bandwidth you use
- Live TV & DVR (add a tuner and antenna to record free over-the-air broadcasts)
- Webhooks for connecting your server to your home automation system
Can Plex pull data from Apple apps?
Everything has been pretty straightforward up to this point, right? Well, Plex can’t grab your photos from the Photos Library, which is one big file. It can’t take music from your Apple Music account or even “see” your iCloud Drive. You need to manually add your personal content to the server. Aren’t you glad you have that 8TB miniStack attached to your media server?
Your vintage Mac mini might have a built-in optical (CD/DVD) drive. If not, get an external drive for ripping DVDs and CDs. OWC has many external and internal drives that work with the Mac mini. Most of these drives have better specifications and lower price points than Apple’s SuperDrive.
One feature of Plex is that you can use it as a “one-stop-shopping” point for all of your media. Rather than using multiple apps to view different media types, you can do it all in one place. Let’s start by copying our photos to the miniStack so we can view them in Plex. The source? The Mac’s Photos library.
We created a “Vacation Photos” folder on the miniStack and selected it as our library location. Next, we selected the images we wanted to move to Plex. For this example, we didn’t create any folders to assign photos to a particular genre or event. Instead, we used File > Export > Export Unmodified Original for [number] Photos. After selecting the folder as the place to export to, we let the Mac copy the images.
Plex Server automatically and regularly scans folders designated as libraries. Shortly after the images are copied to the folders, they appear in the Plex Photos timeline (see screenshot below).
At the top of the Photos screen is a “playback” button. This is useful for viewing a slideshow of your images. Any videos in your Photos library are transferred to Plex’s photo library and play automatically in the slideshow.
Add movies and other videos
One compelling reason for having a media server is to reuse your physical media. For movies and TV shows, that consists of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs you’ve collected over the years. Copying movies from discs to server requires an app that reads the discs and moves the data to the Mac. This is called “ripping” a disc. One of the best open-source applications for ripping physical media is HandBrake.
Here, we’re ripping a copy of Blade Runner (Director’s Cut) from DVD to a Movies folder on the miniStack:
You may have issues ripping copy-protected DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. Many studios apply copy protection to their discs to prevent illegal piracy. Making a personal backup of a disc you own is legal in most countries.
If HandBrake can’t rip a disc because of copy protection schemes, another app might help. MacX DVD Ripper Pro ($29.95) is a commercial app that is often able to do the job when HandBrake cannot. It also seems to do a better job of ripping video at a higher resolution. MacX DVD Ripper Pro takes advantage of GPU acceleration during the ripping process and is faster than HandBrake.
You can rip CDs into Apple Music, but that won’t help you with Plex. It wants individual music files, not one big file. If you’re using Apple Music to store your tunes, you also have an issue – those music files are copy-protected. Several dubious open-source apps exist, but they usually won’t run on a Mac running a newer version of macOS.
CD ripping apps were quite common before most people decided to start purchasing their music digitally. One of the few remaining Mac apps is Phile Audio ($7.99, App Store link).
This screenshot shows Phile Audio copying music from a CD and saving it to the Music folder on the miniStack. Phile Audio gathers the track info, album genre, and year of the release. However, you may need to do some searching to find album cover art. Wikipedia is a great source of album covers. Download the art, then drag and drop it to the Phile Audio user interface to add the album cover.
Back Up The Content on your Media Server
Readers of The Rocket Yard know that we tend to emphasize the importance of having a good backup. It’s especially important with a huge media library you’ve spent a lot of time digitizing from the original discs. A good idea is to make an exact copy of your storage drive. Whatever storage drive you use, be sure to purchase a second one for backup purposes.
To automate backups, use a proven backup utility like Carbon Copy Cloner ($39.99). Install the app on your mini, and then set up a schedule to have your data drive cloned at least daily.
The RAID alternative
One other way to guarantee the safety of your media is to use a RAID array as your primary storage. RAID uses a number of drives in a redundant array. The array can withstand the loss of one or more drives without losing data. A good example of RAID storage is the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini (see image below). It’s available in Thunderbolt 2 and 3 versions, has four drive slots, and supports fast SSD drives. Most importantly, it can be set up with RAID 5 (AKA block-level striping with distributed parity). Set up a RAID 5 array with four drives, and any one of the drives can fail without data loss.
Connect to your TV
Now that your content is loaded, connect the Mac mini media server to your TV. Since 2010, all Mac minis have provided an HDMI-out port. HDMI is your gateway to connecting the computer and TV since one cable does the job for sound and video. The HDMI port on 2014 and later Mac minis supports 4K resolution at 30 frames per second. There is also a 3.5mm stereo audio port for connecting an amplifier or speakers other than those on your TV.
Usually, you’d place the Mac mini and external drive onto a TV stand shelf. If space limitations make that an impossibility, consider something like the NewerTech NuStand Alloy ($17.99). It hoists the mini into a vertical position that takes up less room.
Now, how are you going to control that Mac mini from the comfort of your recliner? You could use a Bluetooth keyboard/trackpad combo, but that’s clumsy to hold while enjoying your media! Our solution? Use a VNC app on your mobile devices to browse the Plex media library and enter search terms.
There are many solutions that are available, but one that we recommend is Screens for iOS/iPadOS. The app is installed on the mobile device, and a companion app called “Screens Connect” is installed on the Mac. Screens doesn’t have the distance limitations of Bluetooth since it works on your Wi-Fi network. It’s simply one of the best ways to control a “remote” Mac that we’ve seen. Since you usually have your iPhone with you at all times, it’s easier to find than yet another remote control!
In the screenshot above, you can see the Screens toolbar at the bottom of the Plex screen. This is a powerful and easy way to control Plex without the need for a full keyboard and pointing device.
A Plex alternative
As an alternative to using Plex, you can use the various Apple apps on your Mac mini instead. Want to watch TV or movies? Use the Mac TV app. Want to listen to music? Just use Apple Music, or the Podcasts app if you want to listen to or watch podcasts. Want to read the news, books or magazines on a big screen, something you can’t do with Plex? Use the Apple News app. For YouTube or Vimeo videos, Safari (or your other favorite browser) is a great portal.
This allows you to have a Mac dedicated to media, hooked up to your big screen 24/7. You won’t have all your media in one app, but can still control the Mac mini with our Screens solution.
A Mac mini makes a wonderful media server, regardless of how you set it up. Plex is a good all-in-one solution, or you can use the built-in Mac apps to organize and view your media.
We’d love to hear from readers who are using a Mac mini (or any other Mac) as a media server. Tell us what you use both in terms of hardware and software. Just leave your comments below!