HTPC/Mac Mini 2011 Discussion

About two years ago, I bought a second-hand 2011 Mac Mini to serve as a HTPC and it’s been awesome. It hasn’t been without its own set of quirks and need for additional purchases but overall I’ve been really happy with it.

The first owner went with the highest-end CTO i7 chip. Big spender!

Why a HTPC over streaming boxes (Apple TV, Android boxes…)?

  1. Hardware/Performance
    A full-fledged PC or Mac is undoubtedly going to perform much better than a cheap Android box. It’s not going to choke while loading a simple 1080p video on YouTube. You get a whole lot more options for A/V and networking connections, whether it’s optical audio, HDMI, Thunderbolt/MDP, gigabit ethernet and so on. Of course, you get to choose the processor, RAM, graphics and storage too.
  2. Software
    Codecs and player apps. You’ll want to be able to play every video and audio format that exists in the world without converting and that can sometimes be hard with an iOS or Android device. Especially if you live outside the U.S. without a good range of content on iTunes Store and streaming services, being able to play your media from elsewhere easily is a big thing. Also, games! You can run Steam (or its In-Home Streaming feature) and emulators on your HTPC, so you don’t need a console. Being able to get USB gamepad support is awesome too.

Just trust me and get a computer. It’s more expensive, but you don’t even need to get a brand new one. A used but fairly recent (3–5 years old) computer will run circles around any streaming box.

Windows or Mac?

Having used both, I’d say that they’re about equivalent, with a slight preference towards Windows.

  1. Games
    Needless to say, a number of games (even on Steam) are Windows-only, so if gaming is a priority definitely go with a PC.
  2. Video drivers
    Up-to-date graphics drivers mean a lot in getting the best gaming performance, and Apple doesn’t have a great track record at updating video drivers for OSX or Windows via Boot Camp. But gaming aside, it seems easier to modify the EDID or install third-party drivers in Windows vs Mac if you run into HDMI issues.
  3. OS GUI Scaling
    Windows has better scaling of its GUI compared to OSX, which only has a semi-usable HiDPI Mode. I run the Mac Mini at 720p scaled and while mostly usable, some menu bar elements are way too small still.
  4. Peripherals
    The Apple Wireless Keyboard, Magic Mouse 1 and Magic Trackpad 1 can be a bit finicky with its Bluetooth connection dropping out sometimes or laggy on wake, while the much cheaper Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard and Mouse have never dropped their wireless connection to the USB dongle and needs battery replacement way less often. You also get to choose which wireless mouse/keyboard you like vs being stuck with Mac keyboards because a) you’re a purist and b) you hate trying to figure out which Windows key maps to what Mac key on a Windows keyboard. (My hackintosh days are behind me.)

However, Mac is decidedly less hassle and tinkering to do and less ways for things to go horribly wrong. Also, the app ecosystem is such that everything is built more beautifully on Mac. And you can always run Boot Camp if you need to.

Should I upgrade my Mac Mini to SSD/add more RAM?

Yes, add SSD. The Mac Mini came with a 7200rpm 750GB spinning disk drive. I thought it wouldn’t be as bad as say a 5400rpm drive but it was also painfully slow to boot, launch apps and apply updates. Chrome also suffers quite a bit at launching new tabs with a HDD for some reason.

I recommend at least a 250GB SSD — I have 128GB SSD on my 2010 iMac and I’m reaching the limit, even though I don’t keep any files on it and didn’t install most of my coding/design apps (basically only Photoshop, XCode and Office/iWork).

The best thing about the 2011 Mac Mini is that it already has a space for a second disk and all you need is a flex cable like from OWC Data Doubler. I did contact Patrick from SimplyMac to assist with the install because the second disk slot requires almost a full disassembly (see iFixit).

No, 4GB RAM is enough. Of course, it depends what you’ll be using your Mac Mini HTPC for, but generally I’ve never found 4GB to be overly limiting. Surfing while playing YouTube in the background, or streaming 1080p/7.1 movies in Plex has been flawless. In both OSX and Windows, I’ve found typical usage to be about 3.3GB while running YouTube and multitasking with surfing and general usage. Upgrading to 8GB might be worth it if you like to have some extra headroom but 16GB is really overkill for HTPC.

Your processor matters too. You can’t upgrade your processor, but I think it’s important to point out that if you’re grabbing a used Mac Mini or repurposing an old laptop as HTPC, hopefully it’s got at least an i5. My 2009 17" uMBP has 8GB RAM, 500GB SSD but only a C2D 2.4GHz and it does struggle with YouTube 1080p.

3rd-Party SSD TRIM

So you’ve installed a shiny new SSD in your Mac and it’s easy to get all excited but don’t forget to enable TRIM! Just open up Terminal and run:

sudo trimforce enable

HDMI/EDID Problems

This is a common issue with HTPCs, where the computer’s HDMI signal to the amplifier doesn’t do a proper handshake and you end up with issues like HDMI having picture but no sound. There are several brands/models of graphic cards and amplifiers that are common offenders, and my combination happens to be both — ATI and Denon. I ended up splurging on the Gefen HDMI Detective, which is the pricey but near miraculous fix for this problem by spoofing and continually sending the computer’s signal to the amplifier so the connection never breaks.

I was initially worried that by essentially capturing and locking the HDMI signal, I would not be able to change screen resolutions or sound format easily. For example: using the Mac Mini at 720p including surfing and then full-screening a 1080p video works fine. Plex interface and movies run at 1080p and the Mac goes back to 720p automatically on exit. Movies in Plex will change the output to Dolby/DTS and go back to Multi-Channel In 7.1 for music. Awesome!

Surround DTS/Dolby Settings for Mac (Plex & VLC)

One of the biggest challenges in HTPC setup is getting the stars to align for proper passthrough of surround audio. Firstly, you’ll want to use the built-in HDMI for sound. Optical won’t carry the HD versions of DTS and Dolby, and Mini-DisplayPort to HDMI adapters sound like trash.

System Preferences > Sound > Output

You’ll want to make sure your output device is set to your amplifier.

Applications > Utilities > Audio MIDI Setup

Check in Audio MIDI Setup that your HDMI sound device is set to Multichannel and 7.1 Surround. If it isn’t you may have to switch on/off your Mac or amp until it does. Yes, some kind of black magic, I know.

Plex: Settings > System> Audio Output

Check under Plex that everything is enabled and set up properly. Leaving the last two as Default works for me.

VLC: Audio > Audio Device

Check under VLC that your Audio Device is set to HDMI (Encoded Output).

Denon: Surround > Standard

On your amplifier, you’ll want to make sure that your surround mode is set to one that automatically switches instead of a fixed mode. For example, on my Denon it’s “Standard”. If you choose “Multi Ch Stereo” you’ll never get DTS or Dolby sound.

Multi Ch In 7.1, NOT Multi Ch Stereo

It can be easy to mix them up if you’re not paying attention. Multi Ch In 7.1 (NOT Multi Ch Stereo) is what shows when you play YouTube or Spotify on the Mac with “Standard”. If you start playing a movie on Plex or VLC with DTS, it should change automatically. If it doesn’t, you might be on the wrong surround mode (or your software settings are wonky, see above to fix).

Sweet success :’)

Mac Mini 2011 Boot Camp Underscan Registry Fix

After installing Windows 7 on Boot Camp, the first noticeable thing is the black bars, or underscan on the screen. Because Apple has locked down the ATI Catalyst Control Centre, we can’t change the settings either. Thanks, Apple! So here’s a Windows registry trick:

Using regedit, go the following path: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\video\{####….}\0000
Look for the 0000-folder containing the most ATI related content
Create a new DWORD and name it “DigitalHDTVDefaultUnderscan”, set it’s value to “0”

Netflix 1080p playback

If you’re subscribed to Netflix, remember to run it off Safari or Edge (on Windows) for full 1080p goodness! Chrome will only give you 720p.

What are some apps I can run on my Mac Mini HTPC?

Plex: For a great home theatre experience
VLC: If you just want to play videos without library management
Audivarna: Sounds much better than iTunes with the same lossless M4A
Steam/OpenEmu: Games!

Steam fun fact: Playing Lego Marvel Super Heroes on Mac natively doesn’t give gamepad rumbles, but playing it via In-Home Streaming from PC desktop to Mac does. Hmmm.

That’s all, thanks for reading!

Let me know if you have questions or comments. I’ll continue to update as I find new tips.

Jay Yeo