Turn Your Old Mac Mini into a Home Media Server with Plex
Don’t throw away your old Macs, recycle them and give them a new purpose. An outdated MacBook can become a school laptop for your kids, while an older iMac can be used as a video phone for Grandma. Macs are known for their longevity and older models can still be utilized for various applications other than just daily use. In this article, we will demonstrate how we converted a 2014 Mac mini into a media server for the home.
What is a Media Server?
A media server is a computer device or an application that stores digital media, such as video, audio, or images, and makes it accessible through a network. These servers can range from video on demand systems to small personal computers or Network Attached Storage devices for homes. In our case, we utilized a Mac mini as the hardware and Plex as the software to manage our media. Plex is the most popular media server app for macOS and other alternatives include Emby, Kodi, Stremio, and Universal Media Server. It is crucial to note that some of these options come with third-party add-ons that allow the illegal streaming of paid video content and should not be used.
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Why Not Just Use an Apple TV?
One may wonder why create a media server when an Apple TV can provide almost all types of media. There are several reasons why a local media server may be a better option:
- Slow internet service in your area can make streaming movies, TV shows, and music a challenging experience. A local media server eliminates this issue and eliminates the need to worry about bandwidth.
- If you have invested in physical media, such as CDs or DVDs, there’s no need to purchase them again in a streaming format. Copying the physical media to your server allows you to make use of the media you already own.
- With fast internet service and a media server running Plex, you can enjoy the best of both worlds by being able to stream online content and utilize your physical media.
Why a Mac Mini?
Why use a Mac mini instead of a Mac with a built-in screen? One, you likely have a large TV to watch your content on, and the mini can be connected to it as a “monitor.” Additionally, older models of the Mac mini are inexpensive and readily available. In this article, we used a 2014 Mac mini that had the ability to run modern versions of macOS (10.15 Catalina and 11 Big Sur). The minimum operating system requirement for turning a Mac mini into a media server is macOS 10.9 Mavericks, meaning even early 2009 Mac minis can be utilized. Pre-owned Mac minis can be found on the OWC website or through used Mac stores, and fairly recent models are listed on Apple’s refurb page.
For our media server, we used a mini with modest hardware specifications: a 1.4 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i5, 4GB of RAM, and a 120GB SATA SSD. The Mac mini is one of the few remaining Mac models that are user-upgradable, with a large hatch on the bottom that makes memory and storage upgrades simple. To provide ample storage for photos, videos, music, and more, we added an 8TB OWC miniStack external drive, which is compatible with any Mac mini and has a matching design.
Setting Up Plex
- Download the 64-bit version of Plex for Mac from the downloads page.
- Move the downloaded app to your Applications folder and launch it.
- If you already have a Plex account, simply launch the app and log in. If not, sign up for a free account within your own media collection easily accessible. The process of adding your media is straightforward:
- Open the Plex Media Server app on your Mac mini
- Click on the “Add Library” button and select the type of media you want to add (e.g. Photos, Videos, Music, etc.)
- Navigate to the folder on your Mac mini where the media is stored and select it
- Click on the “Add Library” button and Plex will start scanning your media and organizing it into an easily accessible library.
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Stream Your Media Anywhere
Once your media is organized, you can start streaming it to any device that has the Plex app installed. The great thing about Plex is that it’s cross-platform and works on a variety of devices, including:
- Smart TVs
- Streaming Devices (Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV)
- Mobile Devices (iOS and Android)
- Gaming Consoles (PS4 and Xbox One)
- Web Browsers
With the Plex app installed on any of these devices, you can access your media server from anywhere and start streaming your movies, TV shows, music, photos, and other media.
As a media server, Plex has some limitations when it comes to data from Apple apps. Unfortunately, it cannot extract your photos from the Photos Library or access music from your Apple Music account or iCloud Drive. This means that you’ll need to manually add your personal content to the server. On the bright side, having an 8TB miniStack attached to your media server can make this task much easier.
If your vintage Mac mini doesn’t have a built-in optical drive, consider purchasing an external drive for ripping CDs and DVDs. OWC offers several external and internal drives that work seamlessly with the Mac mini, and they often have better specifications and lower prices than Apple’s SuperDrive.
One of the great things about Plex is that it serves as a one-stop-shop for all of your media. To make use of this feature, start by copying your photos to the miniStack so you can view them in Plex. To do this, create a “Vacation Photos” folder on the miniStack and select it as your library location. Next, select the images you want to move to Plex and use File > Export > Export Unmodified Original for [number] Photos. The Mac will then copy the images to the designated folder.
Once your photos are in the folders, Plex Server will scan them and make them available in the Plex Photos timeline. The top of the Photos screen has a “playback” button, which allows you to view a slideshow of your images, including any videos in your Photos library.
For movies and other videos, you can reuse your physical media by copying it to the media server. To do this, you’ll need an app that can read the discs and move the data to the Mac. HandBrake is a popular open-source application for this task. However, if you’re having issues ripping copy-protected DVDs or Blu-ray Discs, consider using MacX DVD Ripper Pro, which can handle copy protection and offers faster ripping times with GPU acceleration.
When it comes to music, you can rip CDs into Apple Music, but this won’t work with Plex, which requires individual music files. If you’re using Apple Music to store your tunes, you’ll also face the issue of copy-protected music files. Phile Audio is a reliable Mac app for CD ripping and can gather track info, album genre, and release year. You may need to search for album cover art, but Wikipedia is a good resource for finding and downloading the covers.
To ensure the safety of your media library, it’s essential to have a backup. Consider purchasing a second storage drive for backup purposes and using a backup utility like Carbon Copy Cloner to automate the process. Another option is to use a RAID array for your primary storage, as RAID uses a number of drives in a redundant array that can withstand the loss of one or more drives without losing data. An example of RAID storage is the OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini, which is available in Thunderbolt 2 and 3 versions, has four drive slots, and supports fast SSD drives.
Additionally, a RAID array not only provides data protection, but it also increases the overall performance of your media server. You can choose from different RAID configurations such as RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, RAID 6, and more, depending on your specific needs and requirements.
In conclusion, using Plex as your media server comes with a lot of benefits. Whether it’s for photos, videos, music or any other media files, you can easily store, organize and access them all in one place. However, the lack of direct compatibility with Apple apps may require some manual steps and the use of additional tools, but with the right setup, you can enjoy a seamless and efficient media server experience.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Can you use the Mac mini as a media center?
Yes, you can! Your Mac mini is a solid computer that can handle playing media files from a server to your device. To set up your Mac mini as a media server, simply go to System Preferences > Sharing and check the Media Sharing box.
Can I use Mac mini as a Plex server?
As long as your Mac mini runs on macOS 10.9 Mavericks or newer and has an Intel Core i3 or equivalent processor, it can serve as a Plex server. Keep in mind that you don’t need a top-of-the-line Mac to be a Plex server. Any spare Mac or even a Linux box can do the trick.
Can I use my Mac mini as a streaming device?
With AirPlay, you can wirelessly stream music, videos, photos, and more from your Mac mini to your Apple TV, certain smart TVs, and even your favorite speakers like the HomePod mini. Just make sure that your Mac mini and other devices are on the same Wi-Fi network.