Name Withheld asks,
Hey – I’m considering a Mac Mini to do a home entertainment solution as per your config. A few questions:
• What do you use to connect to your TV screen? Are you happy with the quality? I like the idea of the flexibility provided by a Mac Mini vs Apple TV, but notice that the Mini does not have HD out.
The Mac Mini can certainly do an HD signal. New ones have two video outputs: you convert either the mini-dvi to HDMI or mini-display port to HDMI. Your best best is probably the mini-display port to HDMI rather than mini-dvi, as that gives a higher resolution (and supports HDCP, which is the horrible copy protection that the industry created in order to make life that much more difficult for people trying to hook up their gear). But they’re both digital signals.
For what it’s worth, I have an older Mini and an older HDTV without enough digital inputs, so I just get 780 rather than full 1080 out of the Mac Mini. It looks great, though.
I don’t believe that the Mini as of this writing (or Apple’s software) puts audio out over the mini-display port, so converting that output to HDMI will only give you video unless that changes. There are, however, solutions for this. There’s a “Kanex” cable from Apogee that, on the Mac side, gets power and audio from the USB port and video from mini-display and converts both of those to a single HDMI. There are probably other adapters like this as well: search for “mini-display plus usb to hdmi.”
But here’s the deal: you only need a cable like this if you want both audio and video over HDMI. That would be appropriate if you intend to put the HDMI cable directly into a TV that has speakers (in general, yuck!). Or if you’re sending the HDMI cable into the back of a stereo receiver.
If, however, you’re running the HDMI cable into a recent stereo receiver, then you probably have several options apart from getting both audio and video over the HDMI cable. You could, for instance, hook a mini phono plug (it’s like mini headphones) into the audio output of the Mac Mini and route that into the stereo. Or better yet, the Mac Mini uses that same audio output for an optical digital signal, which can carry audio over a “Toslink” connector to your stereo and give you 5.1 surround sound. You’ll need a mini-optical to Toslink adapter cable. I found one at Radio Shack.
One good reason to go from the Mini to a stereo is so that you can play audio from your Mac through your stereo without having to turn the TV on. I detail some of this in a previous post, and talk more about it below.
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• How do you navigate the UI of the mini on your TV screen? Do you use a keyboard or are you able to navigate with a remote? If a remote, the one that comes with the Mini or something you bought separately?
I can navigate a lot of ways. The Apple Remote (which used to come with the Mac Mini but is now a separate purchase, I believe) is primarily for the Front Row application that comes with Mac OS, but I don’t use Front Row. I have too much audio for that UI, and I don’t like the screensaver.
Rather, I do like Front Row visually, but I’m concerned about burn-in given the type of TV I have. I think they use a different screensaver on Apple TV. The one that Front Row uses has areas of pure white that switch out every 20 seconds or so but nevertheless stay on the same region of the screen. So unless you’ve got a TV that won’t suffer from burn-in (and nearly all of them do), it’s not a solution for hours-at-a-time use in my opinion.
So back to the remote control question:
We have a lot of gear (stereo, Mini, TV, DVR, wii, etc.), so I use Logitech’s Harmony remote. Really excellent way to control everything if you don’t mind spending a while setting it all up. M wouldn’t have been able to do it, but now that I set everything up it’s easy for her and the kids to control it all.
Love the Harmony remote. We have two of them. The new models use Bluetooth and then use a re-broadcaster to convert that to infrared (IR) signals to control your stuff. If you can handle the cable complication this is a good thing, because a universal remote that’s setting up (or turning off) multiple pieces of equipment must otherwise keep pointing at your gear until it finishes sending the slow IR signals. Bluetooth means that you can press the button on the remote and it doesn’t matter where it’s pointing.
Not an issue for me, but my wife and kids sometimes forget and only half of the gear turns off.
So that’s the Harmony universal remote, which I can use to turn on and off everything, control volume, play and pause, etc. There are other ways to control the Mini as well, more directly. What I use depends on what I’m trying to do:
- Wireless mouse to directly access the machine, though often we access it over screensharing from other laptops etc. without ever turning on the TV (for audio, we just need the stereo!). You’ll need a wireless mouse and wireless keyboard, unless you’re going to control the Mac Mini entirely ‘headlessly’ over VNC/screensharing. It can certainly be done, but sometimes something will go wrong with the screensharing (another app will interfere with it, or a system update or something) and you’ll want to access the Mac directly. Hence the keyboard and mouse. I don’t use these very often, though, as a TV isn’t a great computer monitor. Small text that’s perfectly readable two feet from your face becomes really hard to see from a couch.
- Remote (the iPhone app) for playing audio. Again, no need to turn on the TV. I use this constantly. Love it! I can play any audio in my library (thousands of albums), controlled from my iPhone or iPod Touch. Since I have several Airport Express’ in different rooms of my house (all hooked to smaller satellite speakers) I can actually control volume and turn off different sets of speakers, too. All from my iPhone.
- VNC Lite (iPhone App) when I need to screenshare to the Mini. Not usually necessary, since I can get to screenshare from any other computer in the house. But it’s really cool and has come in handy several times.
- Air Mouse (iPhone app) — really cool. Uses the iPhone as a mouse. Since my iPhone is nearly always in my pocket, this is what I often grab when the TV is actually on, rather than using the wireless mouse. In fact, if you carry around an iPhone anyway, and the wireless mouse isn’t an every day thing for you on the Mac Mini, you can avoid the mouse altogether and just use the Air Mouse application. Apple should buy this.
The most minimal setup would be:
- a wireless mouse (or iPhone + “Air Mouse”) and keyboard for when the TV is actually on and you need to access the Mini directly
- “Remote” on the iPhone/iPod Touch to just control what songs or albums are playing