Mac Mini Media Center / Web Server / Torrent Box

Posted March 23, 2010 by Jordan Little

Mac Mini - Great for web design

For the longest time I’ve wanted a Mac Mini as a media center. The Apple TV seems to be a decent alternative, but is underpowered and too restrictive on its content. So last Saturday I finally dropped the coin on a brand new Mac Mini.

Here’s the processes / resources I used to create a pretty sweet little home media server:

Goals

  1. Watch movies, videos, view photos, listen to music, and view weather from your couch on your TV.
  2. Add & delete torrents to download onto the Mac Mini, remotely
  3. Control the media center via your iPhone
  4. Watch the movies stored on your Mac Mini on your iPhone
  5. Serve websites from the Mac Mini

Disclaimer: Do this all at your own risk. This all worked for me and I’m thoroughly enjoying the setup.

Purchase a Mac Mini

Apple Store
Mac Mall
PowerMax
Amazon

Don’t forget to check the Apple Refurbished Store for discounted machines, though most of the time there aren’t Mac Minis available.
Make sure that whatever Mac Mini you get/have is capable of playing high definition if you’d like that capability. Generally speaking the newer the Mini the better, and an Intel chip is highly preferable.

Get the Media Center Software

Download and install Plex. Awesome media center app.
Download and install Perian. It’s a package full of all the codecs you’ll need.
Download and install Handbrake. Rip your DVDs to your hard drive in an array of different file types.

Video Cables

Depending on which Mac Mini you have and what TV you have, you will need a different cable. Here are an assortment of cables you may need:
Mini DisplayPort to DVI
Mini-DVI -> HDMI
Mini-DVI -> DVI
HDMI
DVI -> HDMI
MiniDVI -> VGA

Audio Cables

Some of the newer Mac Minis have optical audio out through the headphone jack. If yours is an older Mac Mini use the mini -> RCA (red/white) cable.
mini -> TosLink
mini -> RCA

Controlling the Media Center with your iPhone

Snatch. Awesome app that allows you to use your phone as a trackpad, as well as a remote control for Plex. This article shows you how to make a custom remote screen with a decently attractive theme. Very sweet.
Air Video. Allows you to stream movies from your Mac Mini to your iPhone, works over 3G (albeit very slowly)!

Setting up the Server

I highly, highly recommend a very strong password on your Mac Mini. Change it often! To use the Mac Mini as a web server you’ll need a few things. First, you’ll need to be able to reach the Mini from outside your network. I accomplished this by getting a free account at DynDNS. You can pick from a few free domains, most of them pretty terrible. You’ll then need to download and install their free IP updater client. This small app runs in the background and updates your dynamic IP to DynDNS. This way, when you type in your chosen domain name, your DynDNS account will always know to send the request to the correct IP and get the Mac Mini.

Download and install XAMPP (or WAMP). Very nice web server stack that installs and runs very smoothly.

By default, Apache listens on port 80. Most ISPs block traffic on port 80 (mine did), so you can make Apache listen to a different port by editing your httpd.conf file:

  • Open Terminal, at the prompt type: sudo vim /Applications/XAMPP/xamppfiles/etc/httpd.conf
  • Type your password and you’ll be editing the httpd.conf file in vim. It looks a little scary, but it’s just a command line based text editor.
  • Press the down arrow until you come to a line that says, “Listen 80.”
  • Press the letter “I” to enter edit mode, now change “Listen 80″ to “Listen 8080.” Press Esc to exit insert mode.
  • While holding Shift, press Z twice to save and exit.

(Note: you can use nano/pico or another command line text editor if you are more comfortable)

There, now Apache is listening on port 8080 and most ISPs will be none the wiser.

Open the XAMPP Control app (in your applications folder / XAMPP) and start all your services. You can quit this app once you’ve started the services, they don’t stop unless you re-open XAMPP Control and stop them manually. Now go to a browser and enter the following URL: http://localhost:8080 – That website is being served from the Mac Mini!

Setup Remote Torrents

:) Keep it legal!
Download and install Transmission or uTorrent whichever you prefer, although we’ll use Transmission in this guide.

In the preferences for Transmission select the “Remote” tab. Check the box for “Enable remote access.” After you read the next point (Router Settings & Port Forwarding) and activate port forwarding you’ll be able to reach this web interface from anywhere in the world by entering the URL http://your.domain.com:9091 – Neat, huh? I’ve used this feature waaay more than I thought I would considering I’m out of my house all the time with my Macbook Pro. I simply download the torrent to my MBP, then upload it to my Mac Mini to do all the heavy lifting. Torrents are ready to go by the time I get home!

Router Settings & Port Forwarding

If you’re like me, you have a few different machines all getting their internet from a wireless router. I have a Linksys WRT54GL running Tomato Firmware. In order for the router to know which computer to send requests to, you’ll need to specify a few port-forwarding rules. You’ll need to get the local IP of your Mac Mini from your router device list. My Mac Mini happened to be 192.168.1.145. So in my router settings I set up the following rules under the port-forwarding settings:

Port: 5900 – Label: VNC – Forward to: 192.168.1.145
Port: 8080 – Label: Web Server – Forward to: 192.168.1.145
Port: 9091 – Label: Torrents – Forward to: 192.168.1.145

Shortening Ugly URLs

If you happen to own your own domain name you can avoid having to type in those ugly URLs (blah.dyndns.net:8080) by using 301 redirects. Simply open or create an .htaccess file on your web host’s server that says:

redirect 301 /home http://name.domain.com:8080
redirect 301 /torrent http://name.domain.com:9091

Now when you type in yourdomain.com/home you’ll be redirected to your Mac Mini and the same for yourdomain.com/torrent! Handy.

Sharing Preferences

Open System Preferences and click “Sharing.” You’ll see plenty of options, mine look like this. You should do the same if you want the capabilities listed here.

Screen Sharing

Now that all that’s set up you should be able to access your Mac Mini’s desktop from anywhere in the world. Just activate Finder and, in the menu bar, click Go > Connect to Server. Type in:

vnc://your.domain.com

You should be able to type in your user/pass and, voila, you’re at your Mac Mini’s desktop.

Note: VNC is unencrypted traffic by default and you should tunnel through SSH if you’re concerned about security. You can see a guide to setup secure screen sharing in OS X here.

That’s about all I’ve got for now. Please let me know if I’m missing anything and feel free to add your input!

Conclusion

This should make for a pretty nice little Mac Mini that lets you:

  • Add/Edit/Delete active torrents without being anywhere near your house
  • Watch movies & TV shows, listen to music, view photos, and view weather from your couch
  • Control your media center with an iPhone
  • Create/edit websites on your Mac Mini and access those sites from the web
  • View your videos on your iPhone while in other rooms of your house or apartment

Enjoy!

Reposted with permission over at OS X Daily.

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