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Media PC Upgrade


Back in July of 2008 I posted about my new HTPC Build. 5 years have gone by and it’s time to put in something new. This time around I decided to try something totally new to me. Since I seem to be becoming somewhat of an Apple fan, the hardware is simply the best built stuff out there, I decided to look into using a Mac Mini as the platform of my new Media PC.

Why the Mac Mini? The hardware specs on the lowest end of the spectrum is respectable, and still way better than my 5 year old PC. It has a mobile version of the Intel i5 processor, 4 Gigs of RAM (easily upgradeable) and a 500GB hard drive. The Intel HD4000 video chipset is still integrated, but it’s one of the best integrated video chipsets out there right now. The Mac Mini comes with HDMI as the primary video output already and it has 4 USB 3.0 ports ready for high speed devices. It is very attractive, small and whisper quiet. All things that make it very appealing as the foundation for a media center PC.

The downsides? The Mac Mini runs OS-X, not exactly the best operating system around for a media center. Honestly I have not found anything that can top Windows 7. I suspect Windows 8 is plenty good and I have a license already, but it will cost me an extra $10 to add media center to it. Windows 7 comes with media center and runs fine. Fix for OS-X: Bootcamp. The included 500GB is not nearly enough for a media center PC that will hold some movies, music and hours of recorded TV programs. Fix for storage: All that USB 3.0 and a 3TB external drive.

Building it was pretty much uneventful. Bootcamp was a little less straightforward than I thought it would be. I had to learn how to select what disk to boot the Mac from by holding down the option key. Once I had that mastered I used Bootcamp to split the disk in half so I could keep all the OS-X goodness just in case! Installing Windows 7 was simple and the drivers provided by Apple for Bootcamp installed painlessly and made all the internal hardware operations (wifi, bluetooth, etc).  I added two Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q TV tuners so I can watch and record simultaneously or record two channels at once. It was a simple plug and play affair and the updated drivers came down from Microsoft’s update tool. I tweaked media center by telling it what stations I receive, how I want it to record and I also set up Netflix. Next I plugged in the 3TB Seagate Backup Plus drive moved the recorded TV location to point to the drive and moved all the recorded media from my old Media Center to the new one. Everything came right up and worked perfectly. Lastly I needed to make sure all my recording schedules where there. I found a very helpful page at hack7mc.com that made it a very simple task.

That was all it took. I am now enjoying live and recorded TV on my big screen coming from a very attractive Mac Mini that I got for $100 off out of the Best Buy returns cabinet. The Mac running Windows 7 does a great job at most everything. It sleeps when it’s supposed to. It wakes up from the keyboard or media center remote and it records TV on schedule as expected. Honestly, the USB TV tuners work as good or better than I expected them to. I was able to use the same Logitech K400 keyboard that I used with my old media center on the Mac Mini and it even works fine when I run it in OS-X.

What’s in the box:

  • 2012 Mac Mini (refurb, $489)
  • Windows 7 64-bit ($99)
  • 2 x Hauppauge q950 USB TV Tuners ($65 each)
  • 3 TB Seagate External hard drive ($119)
  • Belkin USB 3.0 4 port hub ($50)
  • Logitech K400 keyboard ($20)
  • Microsoft Media Center Remote ($20)

There only glitch I hit was completely unrelated to setting up the media center. I wanted to create system images along the way so I could restore a previous version of Win 7 if I needed to during setup. For example I want to install comskip to automatically extract commercials from recorded TV, but I want to have a clean snapshot of the OS in case I have to try a few times to get it right. It turns out Windows 7 cannot backup to drives with cluster sizes larger than 2k. This means I could not use the awesome backup built into Windows on the Seagate drive because it uses 4k clusters to handle the addressing space issue of drives larger than 2TB. This was extremely annoying and I’m hoping some day soon someone fixes this, either Microsoft or the drive manufacturers. If you know of a fix for this issue please add a comment below.

  1. Andrew
    May 14th, 2013 at 09:34 | #1

    Another thought about the Mac Mini: It was nice having the thunderbolt port to set it up initially. I simply plugged it into the thunderbolt display that I normally use with my MacBook Pro. It saw all the devices connected including my Time Machine backup device and 2nd monitor. This was a very cool realization that I could connect any modern Apple computer to this display and have instant access to all the hardware associated with little to no fuss.

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