Geek Foibles

Mac mini as a media and network hub
May 26, 2008, 7:16 am
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This post is part of a series documenting the creation of a home media hub.  It may be helpful to read through the other posts in the series in order to better understand this one.

I’ve done a lot of thinking on the subject of what computer to use as the core of this whole project.  An Apple Mac mini is an obvious choice, but I’m also very fond of building custom systems.  I’ve always found VIA’s processor line very alluring, both because of their low power consumption and because of their potential for silent operation.  I’ve long had a custom, tiny Mini-ITX firewall planned out in my head that is silent, using a CompactFlash card in place of a hard drive and no fans.  There are a lot of VIA CPU-based motherboards out there geared specifically for home media centers or network gateways, packing features such as multiple Ethernet ports, hardware acceleration for MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 decoding and on-board CompactFlash slots.  Hardware-wise, these would be better equipped than a Mac mini.

The problem is, I have two things I want my solution to do that recommend or require the system to be running Mac OS X.  First, I’d like to keep my MacBook Pro’s Time Machine backup on a network volume.  This is supported by Apple in Leopard.  It seems like this may be possible using Netatalk under Linux or BSD if you apply a little elbow grease, but I couldn’t find anyone saying with reasonable certainty that it works 100% properly.  Given that Time Machine is my backup solution, I don’t want to have the hard drive fail on my MacBook Pro only to discover that my Time Machine backup is incomplete or corrupted.  So, while it might work with Netatalk, it’s not a risk I’m comfortable taking.

The second issue is that I want to be able to watch the videos I purchase or rent off iTunes (like my Daily Show subscription) on the system, and iTunes’ DRM makes this effectively impossible under Linux or BSD.  Despite my disdain for DRM, that issue is show-stopping.  So, despite my interest in a VIA-based system, that option is off the table.  I definitely want to revisit that idea at a later date, though.

After this deliberation, I selected a new Mac mini (Mid 2007).  The reasoning I chose this over any other Mac should be fairly obvious: It’s small, powerful and power efficient.

Starting with this project, I’m trying to be more aware of power consumption.  I intend to purchase a Kill A Watt, but until I do I’ll be relying on research and reasoning.  While the mini’s power supply is rated at 110 watts, my use is going to pretty light and others have measured the previous Intel mini’s idle power consumption at 20 watts.  Parallels uses some CPU power even when the virtual machine is idle, but my previous experience leads me to believe that even with two VMs running I will be utilizing less than 25% of the total available CPU power.

The physical size is also quite convenient, as it’s about half the width of a home stereo component and is designed to be stackable.  The AirPort Extreme Base Station I’ll be using has the exact same footprint and will stack nicely on top of it.  Furthermore, LaCie made some hard drives a few years ago creatively named the mini, which were designed to accommodate a Mac mini perched atop them.  I snagged one off eBay that had a failed HD, removed the dead drive and replaced it with a 750GB PATA one.  While all three of these components stack very neatly, my only concern is heat.  I’ll be keeping an eye on how warm the stack gets and might add some spacers to let a little more air flow between them.

Horsepower wise, the Mac mini appears to be more than adequate.  I did some testing at the local Apple Store and found that, so long as there’s enough memory available, I was able to play a 1080p H.264 video from the Apple trailers site smoothly, even with two Parallels VMs running in the background.  Parallels is quite memory hungry, and testing on my MacBook Pro made it clear that between the host OS and the two VMs 2GB of memory could be exhausted without much difficulty.  While Apple claims that the Core 2 mini only supports up to 2GB of memory, it’s wellestablished that it can address 3GB if you install it.  This creates a conundrum, however, as all the Macs with integrated graphics (like the Intel Mac minis) yield their best graphical performance when their memory consists of two same-size SO-DIMMs.  3GB is therefore not ideal, since the GPU will take a bit of a performance hit due to the mismatched SO-DIMMs.  A little research revealed that 4GB can be installed, but only 3GB will be usable.  This lets us have more than 2GB of memory without mismatching the SO-DIMMs.  While I’m not certain this avoids the graphical performance hit, everything I can find indicates it should.  Obviously there’s some wasted RAM here, but Crucial sells a 4GB memory kit for $104 so it’s not an expensive waste.

Next up, the networking…


2 Comments so far
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I’m pondering the same thing myself, as I move everything to Front Row / iTunes for my media… good post, informative as to your thought process.

Comment by eugenehuo

I’m using Netatalk (built by hand) currently on Solaris with my MacBook for Time Machine backups. Previously, I did the same on Ubuntu (also hand built, since Canonical does not include OpenSSL out-of-the-box). You have to jump through a few hoops to get the sparsebundle set up, but it works fine after you do that.

I could never get it to work on NFS, so I went with Netatalk and it works great. AFP is faster w/Macs than SMB or NFS, IMO.

Comment by Velociraptor

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