Mac Media Center – Setup any Mac as a Media Center Easily
You can setup virtually any Mac as a home theater media center, all you need is the right tools. Yes, that means your MacBook Pro, MacBook, Mac Mini, iMac, even Mac Pro, can all turn into a media center, and it’s a lot easier than you might think.
For the purpose of this article, we are going to assume you have an HDTV that supports HDMI input, and, preferably a Mac that supports HDMI output with audio (for Mac’s that don’t support direct HDMI output with audio, read on anyway there is a solution for you too). When you are finished with this article, you will be able to have a complete Mac Media Center hooked up to your TV, creating an awesome home theater, and you’ll be able to control the whole thing wirelessly from your couch.
Setting up a Mac Media Center
Here’s what you’ll need to setup a media center with your Mac:
- HDTV that accepts HDMI input
- Mac that supports video/audio output (newer Mac models that support full HDMI highly recommended, the New Mac Mini is perfect)
- HDMI cable (and/or other appropriate cables if your Mac doesn’t support direct HDMI out)
- Apple Remote Control
- Apple Wireless Keyboard and Apple Wireless Mouse – these are optional but highly recommended if you want to browse the web and play games on your media center
- Plex – Plex is arguably the best media center software solution and runs right on top of Mac OS X as an application. It’s got a beautiful interface, vast media support, and is free to download. What’s not to love?
Step 1) Get the proper Video Output Adapters
So first things first, get your cable situation squared away. Newer Mac’s support full HDMI out with audio and video carried over the same cable, but on many models you’ll still need an adapter. For instance, my MacBook Pro 2010 model only needs a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter and a standard HDMI cable, because it supports full HDMI output. The new 2010 Mac Mini supports direct HDMI output with no additional cables at all, so you’d only need an HDMI cable.
Your cable requirements are going to vary from machine to machine, so determine which output adapter is needed for your Mac.
Step 2) Download and Install Plex Media Center Software
Plex is really great media center software that runs right on top of Mac OS X.
Features of Plex Media Server include:
- Easily catalogue, organize, and access all of your media files: movies, music, pictures, etc, directly within Plex
- Automatically download movie, TV show, and album artwork, episode information, IMDB ratings, and more
- Plays HD video content nearly flawlessly
- Plug-in video support for Hulu, Netflix, Youtube, MTV, Vimeo, and more
- Diverse codec support for various video and audio file types
- Interface is completely skinable allowing you to change the appearance to another theme that fits your setup, TV, or preferences
- Subtitle support for foreign language movies
- Shoutcast stream support and awesome visualizers for music
- Weather updates for whatever regions you specify (it will automatically detect one by default)
- RSS feeds support
- Works with the Apple Remote, Wireless Keyboard, or Wireless Mouse
- Support for hardware accelerated H.264 video playback on Nvidia 9400M, GT320M, GT330M chipsets
As you can see Plex is full featured, and that’s exactly why we’re using it for our Mac Media Center. If there is an app that is easier to use and as full featured as Plex, I haven’t found it yet. Setting it up is an absolute breeze.
How to setup Plex:
- Download the latest version of Plex
- Drag the app to your Applications folder
- Launch Plex
- Let it sync with your Apple Remote (it may want to install 3rd party drivers as a bug fix, no problem)
- Using your keyboard (or Apple Remote), navigate and select your Video source destination (directory, hard drive, whatever)
- Watch movies, TV shows, play music, whatever
Yes, it’s that easy, seriously. Plex will automatically pull your music library from iTunes too, so there’s practically no setup.
Here’s a screenshot of the media browser interface:
Step 3) Connect your Mac Media Center to your TV
This step is pretty straight forward, you just need to be sure you have the proper cables. For for the sake of this tutorial we’ll pretend we have a new 2010 Mac Mini, all this machine requires is an HDMI cable to connect from the Mini to an HDMI port on your TV.
Step 4) Enjoy your Mac Media Center!
Once you have Plex running and your Mac connected to the TV, that’s all you have to do! Now it’s time to sit back and enjoy your media center. You can also further customize Plex by downloading additional plugins, you can access these directly through the Plex application.
So that’s it. Now for some Questions and Answers…
How do I browse the web or play games on my Mac media center?
Just quit out of Plex and launch Safari or a game. Once your Mac is connected to your TV, the TV is basically a large external monitor for the Mac, so you can treat it as such and play virtually any game, browse the web, or anything else you’d otherwise use a Mac for.
Why just focus the media center on newer Macs with HDMI out?
The reason we recommend newer Mac’s that support full HDMI video/audio exporting is just ease of setup. In fact, you can setup the exact same media center on a Mac that doesn’t support full HDMI output, you’ll just need additional items. What can be done with just an HDMI cable on newer Mac’s requires additional cables to perform the same task on an older Mac; for example, an older Mac might need a mini-DVI to DVI adapter, than a DVI to HDMI adapter, plus the HDMI cable, plus an additional AUX cable to output audio. The exact requirements will depend on your Mac model but it’s not complicated as long as you know what you need. In other words, if you have an older Mac, don’t get discouraged, just get the right adapters and the rest of this guide works the same for your media center too!
My Mac doesn’t export HDMI, what can I do?
If your Mac doesn’t support direct HDMI output, you can use a DVI to HDMI adapter to still output to HDMI, just remember that you will need an additional cable to carry the audio signal from your audio output jack to audio input on the TV, since DVI does not transmit audio.
Additional Mac Media Center resources
- Mac Mini Media Center – a guide exclusively for setting up a media center on your Mac Mini, complete with remote torrents support and a webserver
- Rip DVD’s on your Mac – what media center is complete without media to watch? Rip your DVD’s and watch them from your Mac hard drive
Some pictures of the pictures in this article are from Flickr, others are screenshots from Plex. If you have any questions, feel free to chime in or email us!