I recently purchased a new Mac mini (2.5GHz i5, AMD HD6630M GPU), Bluetooth keyboard, Magic Trackpad, and HDMI cable to use as a base for a streaming media server. The machine came with Lion (of which I am not currently a fan, but that’s another article) which gives me access to “full-screen mode” on apps that support it. I thought this would be especially interesting for a media streamer/HTPC application. As it turns out, it doesn’t really matter too much, as what I want to see full-screen are videos, which usually have a full-screen option in their control widget.
The Mac mini may very well be overkill for what I am trying to do. It’s got a Sandy Bridge Intel Core i5, a good (not great) dedicated mobile GPU, and 4GB of RAM for what is ostensibly a streaming server. However, if you look past the basics of what a streaming server can offer, having a ‘real’ computer allows me to do some things that could never be done on a Roku, or AppleTV. I have access to the desktop version of Safari/Chrome/Firefox and the Flash plug-in. Most streaming video is still Flash, and HTML5 video isn’t quite as good an alternative as I had hoped.
I chose PLEX, as it seemed to be the most mature of the 10′ interfaces available for the Mac. The interface is quite nice, but if you don’t find it to your liking, you can swap out the theme for something that works for you. The interaction using a simple button-based remote or keyboard is a bit clunky, but it works. If you have a large library, be prepared to hold down the button awhile as your library scrolls by. The current versions of PLEX have a client/server architecture and allow multiple clients to receive streams from a single PLEX server. This is fantastic, as I can then stream to any computer in my house, or over the Internet. Suddenly my hotel movie selection doesn’t suck.
They also have a sophisticated IOS (and Android) app, which I purchased for $5. While I was delighted to see that PLEX would stream to my device, I was upset that the touted Remote functionality doesn’t seem to work with PLEX Servers running on Lion. Indeed, this was the only reason I wanted to buy the app. The PLEX Forum wasn’t very helpful, and questions from multiple users about the topic went unanswered by the developers. I’m still using the wireless keyboard to move through the PLEX interface. Grrr.
Overall, despite the deficiencies in PLEX, with my set-up, I really dig my new toy. It’s dead simple to set up and maintain, and I am hopeful that the problems with the IOS app will be resolved soon enough. Alternatively, I could check out one of the VNC apps for the iPad and control the interface without the keyboard/mouse combination.
Earlier: 21st Century Digital Boy
Later: The iPhone 4S