Earlier this year we purchased a 32″, HD-ready Philips LCD TV. So when our DVD player died a few months ago, we found ourselves staring at the PC input on the back of the TV and wondering whether our next DVD player should in fact be a computer.

About eight weeks ago we bit the bullet and bought a Mac Mini as a home media server. We’ve been delighted with the results, so I thought it was time to share the details of our set up, the ways in which it’s changed our entire relationship to the information age, and our remaining wishlist.

The hardware:
Mac mini 1.66 GHZ Intel Core Due with 2 GB of SDRAM
Ministack 465 GB hard drive
Apple Bluetooth keyboard
Logitech cordless optical mouse (replacing a Macally Blueooth Mouse Jr that wouldn’t track)
Series 2 Tivo with 300 GB hard drive upgrade from Weaknees [UPDATE: Our hard drive — and thus our Tivo — is toast, just under a year from purchase. Weaknees only warranties for 6 months so we’re looking for alternate vendors before replacing the Tivo drive.]
Motorola HD digital tuner
Yamaha stereo receiver

The software:
Mac OS X 10.4.8
Parallels (for PC virtualization)
Windows XP Home edition
Mac the Ripper (for ripping DVDs)
Bits on Wheels (for downloading BitTorrents)

Earth-shaking ways we use our new server, starting with the most fundamentally life transforming:

  1. DVD archiving: We have quite a collection of kids DVDs. Make that scratched DVDs. As any parent of toddlers can attest, the value of that Dora the Explorer collection is seriously challenged by a toddler’s interest in laying dirty hands on each and every disc. Now we use Mac the Ripper to copy our daughter’s favorite DVDs to our massive external hard drive, and keep the originals safe on a high shelf. Our daughter can watch whatever DVD she wants whenever she wants, and all we have to do is play it back on the computer (by using the Mac’s built-in DVD player and selecting “Open DVD media”…then navigating to the DVD we want on the hard drive, selecting its Video_TS file, clicking “choose”, and then choosing “Play” from the DVD Player menu.)
  2. TV downloads: For a long time it seemed we’d been excluded from the joys of BitTorrent by our ISP’s throttling BitTorrent packets. Maybe we’ve become more patient, or maybe our ISP has relaxed: BitTorent has finally become viable. And with the computer hooked up directly to the TV, we can easily watch any shows that we’ve forgotten to Tivo. Most crucial use case: downloading HD BitTorrents of Battlestar Galactica, which is not yet shown in HD in Canada.
  3. DVD timeshifting: Notwithstanding Blockbuster’s “no late fees” policy, we’re able to incur a decent number of restocking fees before we get around to returning the movies that we’d hoped to watch weeks ago (another hazard of life with toddlers: no movie time!) Now we rip a DVD as soon as we rent it, and watch it when we have a chance (before we delete it — just for the benefit of our MPAA buddies).
  4. Audio landscaping: I’ve always wanted to be one of those people with mood music playing whenever my friends are over. Now we’ve consolidated all our MP3s and iTunes playlists on one server, and can easily choose to listen to any of our playlists, which play back through the stereo.
  5. Video landscaping: Instead of having our photos scattered across multiple hard drives, we keep our camera’s USB cable hooked up to the Mini. All new photos get loaded onto the Mini, but we keep sharing turned on (within iPhoto preferences) and iPhoto running so that we can still access the main iPhoto library from each of our laptops. We use System Preferences/Desktop & Screen Saver to set an iPhoto album as our screen saver, and set a “hot corner” so that we can activate the screen saver by moving our mouse to a corner of the screen. Once we’ve chosen a playlist for our audio landscape, we activate the hot corner and enjoy an on-screen slideshow of our favorite photos.
  6. Long-term Tivo programming storage: As Mac users, we were locked out of the joys of Tivo2Go, Tivo’s option for dumping Tivo-recorded programs to a PC. Thanks to the combo of Parallels and Windows XP Home we are now part of the Tivo2Go universe! We haven’t actually watched any of the programs we’ve dumped — this will require us to figure out how to move stuff off the virtual PC and onto the main folder for our Mac so that we can play back the programs. Or we could download the premium version of Tivo2Go to get decryption capacity on the PC side.

What’s next:

A series 3, HD-compatible Tivo with another massive Weaknees hard drive. Sure, we could download all those HD shows with Bittorrent — but we like the ease and control of having a Tivo.