How to turn the Mac mini into a great media centre

Managing your content

Most folks will store their movies, TV shows and music in iTunes, and quite right too; it does a sterling job, though you may need a few of Doug's AppleScripts – 'Set Video Kind of Selected' is particularly useful – to help make iTunes tag your media efficiently.

Software from Nullriver lets you stream your media to an Xbox or PS3, and Elgato's EyeConnect software lets UPnP-aware media streamers access your iTunes library. You can then use Front Row to navigate this media plus your iPhoto pictures.

You'll probably want to store your library on a larger external drive, especially if you'll be adding lots of space-hungry video.

If you hold down Option as you launch iTunes this will then give you the option to create a new library on an external disk, or move your existing one from /Music/. Use the very same Option trick to point iTunes to the moved library.

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EXTERNAL DRIVE: Hooking up an external drive to the Mac mini USB port is a easy way to increase file storage

You can buy and rent stuff from the iTunes Store, but it's easy to add your own media. TV tuners powered by Elgato's EyeTV or Equinux's The Tube let you watch, pause, rewind, record and punt to iTunes the same Freeview channels you get on your regular TV.

And if you're happy to live on the wrong side of the law, it's easy to rip your own DVDs using software such as Handbrake, and to download content using BitTorrent clients and tracker sites, though of course we don't condone this. The multi-codec tool Perian is invaluable for dealing with odd video formats.

Watching your content

Once you've got all your media in iTunes, launch Front Row to navigate it. Even though Apple blocks third parties (such as Elgato) from Front Row, the freeware PyeTV lets you watch your EyeTV recordings without having to export them to iTunes first. (Part of the joy of recording TV on your Mac is that you can export the recordings to other devices, or even burn them to DVD.)


MEDIA CENTRAL: This program from Equinux is one of many alternatives to Apple's Front Row

Front Row isn't the last word, though; The are a few third party alternatives that can do the same job such as Equinux Media Central and Boxee.

Also, you need to use iTunes directly for iTunes DJ-fuelled parties, and on-demand catch-up services from the BBC, ITV, Channels 4, Five and more require or benefit from regular mouse-and-keyboard access in Safari.

Thankfully, the main terrestrial channels offer some kind of Flash or Silverlight powered streaming service that works on a Mac, and technically, you'll need a TV licence if you watch live TV online.

Of course, you don't have to watch mainstream media. There's plenty of video on YouTube, and the open source Miro app – a cross between a video optimised RSS reader, BitTorrent client, online television guide and video player – is a fantastic source of video.

The final analysis

The Mac mini makes a good media centre, but it won't be welcome in living rooms until Apple embraces free-to-air TV broadcasts, clarifies 5.1 surround sound, lets third parties into an overhauled Front Row, and blesses the mini with an HDMI port. As it stands, it's good rather than great, but with a little coaxing, you can bend it to your will.