Turn your old mac into a CHEAP home media center

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This guide will help you turn your dusty old mac (or new one) into home media center that makes smart TVs seem like fools!

In my case, I wanted to find a use for my slightly obsolete iMac and couldn’t afford cable TV on a fancy smart TV and top-box. Although a bit more work and a bit less user-friendly than buying a top-box like an Apple TV, you get much more power and many more features from this kind of setup – Imagine actually TYPING a search into YouTube, rather than selecting each letter with a clumsy remote!

When I began the process of setting up my Mac as a media center, I found that other guides were specialized for Windows PCs or left out important functionality that made it less fluid to use. I thought that sharing my experience of creating my media center would hopefully help users who also want to get some use out of their old Macs.

I am now able to watch full 1080p HD video including Netflix, YouTube, downloaded media, and my digital music library, all through my home stereo system. I’m also able to see and control everything from my couch!

Step 1: Make sure you have the right equipment

Old mac capable of running HD video.

I would guess an absolute minimum of 128MB of graphics card memory is needed. Note that for 4k output you likely need a much newer computer.

This guide assumes your mac can run OS X El Capitan, I suspect older operating systems would be fairly similar to set up with only a few small tweaks.

My setup:

  • iMac 24 inch (Mid 2007), 2.4Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo Processor, 4GB RAM, ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro 256MB Graphics Card

TV with HDMI input

A dumb TV is fine. You don’t need a “smart” TV if it’s connected to a much smarter mac! I saved about $50 off of the equivalent smart model.

caution

Some older TVs from the early HD era do not treat HDMI images from computers properly. They will cut off some of the picture. This is called “overscan”. More recent TVs have overscan options, but some do not! Check online if this sounds like a possible issue with your model.

My setup:

  • 2015 LG 49’ Dumb TV.

For high quality sound, you need some good speakers connected to a receiver. The model doesn’t really matter.

My setup:

  • I use one with an HDMI controller to help swap between other devices while keeping the same sound output.

This is a must if you plan on storing a lot of digital video media. Old macs probably have tiny hard drives compared to modern needs. A 1080p video can take up 3-10 GB of storage.

My setup:

  • 1TB Western Digital USB hard drive

Not necessarily needed if you have a USB external hard drive, also not needed if you decide not to do a clean install.

My setup:

  • Kingston 32GB flash drive

Connectors from Computer to TV (or receiver)

This part is tricky. You will need to find out what audio and video outputs you have on the back of your Mac, and what connectors you have on the back of your TV (or receiver). For video, you almost always want to get your Mac’s output converted to HDMI. Most older Macs have either a mini-DisplayPort (there are multiple kinds!) or a mini-DVI port. You can buy cheap HDMI converters for both of these on Amazon.

For audio, most Macs don’t output audio through the video outputs like true HDMI does. So you need to connect this separately. Usually, older Macs either have a 3.5mm audio out jack, or a combined 3.5mm audio out/ mini optical out jack. Most receivers can accept optical inputs, but some TVs do not. The optical option will give you the best audio quality, but RCA plugs work fine too, and can plug into almost all TVs and Receivers.

This Apple support guide can help you identify the ports on your mac:

https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201736

My setup:

  • I use a mini-DVI to HDMI connector (and HDMI cable) for video, and a 3.5mm to RCA for audio.
  • both are hooked up to my receiver, and my receiver hooked up to my TV separately.
  • I recently ordered a mini-optical to optical cable to replace the RCA. I ordered all connectors from Amazon for less than $5 each.
  • Update: the optical cable was a big improvement for sound quality

Wireless mouse and keyboard

Any wireless mouse and keyboard will work, but I recommend getting a wireless keyboard with a built-in trackpad. This keeps everything tied together in one system like a controller, and lets you pass it around to friends and family members easily.

My setup:

  • Logitech K400r. It is super cheap (<$30) and although the trackpad feels a bit cheap, it works fine enough. The keyboard is great. There are much higher quality options out for more than $75, but that that’s hefty price tag. I’ve been using it for 3 months and haven’t switched the battery. Highly recommended!

Step 2: Prepare your computer

Many older Macs run very slowly and have buggy operating systems. Sometimes this is due to your Mac accumulating tons of useless system and application files over the years. For this reason, I recommend that you start with a completely refreshed computer.

Before doing anything MAKE SURE YOU BACKUP ALL IMPORTANT DATA!! This process will completely wipe your computer and reinstall OSX. A fresh install will usually run more smoothly and faster than before. For me it really made things run snappy.

First thing is to prepare your USB OSX installer using this guide:

http://www.macworld.com/article/2981585/operating-systems/how-to-make-a-bootable-os-x-10-11-el-capitan-installer-drive.html

Then do a fresh El Capitan install by using this guide:

http://osxdaily.com/2015/10/01/clean-install-os-x-el-capitan-mac/

Finally, make sure all software is up to date using the App Store.

Step 3: Connect components

Hopefully you bought the right connectors! Start with the video HDMI. Connect the video out on the computer to the back of the TV. Note: If you’re using a receiver, make sure you start by plugging into the TV directly to make sure it’s working before sorting out the receiver. Make sure the TV is set to the right input. You should see the computer’s image on the screen.

Go to System Preferences>Displays>Arrangement. Make sure to uncheck “Mirror Displays”. Drag the little boxes to arrange the two monitors to mimic how you physically have your computer and TV set up. This will make your desktop span the two displays in almost real space. Try moving the mouse around between the two displays and see how it works. Notice how one of the monitor boxes has a white bar on it. This is telling you which monitor is the primary monitor. At this point it should be your computer’s monitor. But since we are going to be using this mostly as a TV and not a computer per se, we want the TV to be the primary monitor. Drag the white bar to the top of the TV screen’s box.

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Now go to System Preferences>Displays>Display, and move your mouse over to dialog on the TV screen. Set the TV’s resolution to “scaled” and pick the 1080p output option.

If the image is cut off, cropped, or doesn’t fill the screen, this is an “overscan” problem. Your mac has an “overscan” checkbox back in the Displays preferences. If this doesn’t work, check your TV’s overscan settings. Some TVs have “Direct” or “Game” modes for video input. For my setup I think I had to check the Mac’s overscan checkbox, and also alter the TV’s HDMI input to “Direct”.

Next connect the audio cables. Make sure the TV/receiver is set to the correct input. Many receivers need special settings to use the optical input. I found playing a very long YouTube video helped because it’s constant sound while you’re fiddling with the connections. Make sure the Mac’s volume is set to max, and control the volume from your other devices for now.

Step 4: Adjust OS X Settings

Now you should have an image displayed on your TV! Go grab a coffee, take a stretch, rest your brain for a bit.

You may have noticed that although the TV is showing the beautiful glow of success, the text and interface are probably too small to read from your couch. We can use an unknown feature built into OSX that is still in development by Apple called HiDPI mode. This makes the user-interface elements of your mac appear twice their normal size, but still uses the full resolution of your screen so things don’t appear pixelated. YouTube and other videos will still show you a 1080p picture, but all the interface elements will be easy to read. We can enable it using some easy Unix hacking in Terminal. This quick hack made my media center experience 100x better and fully completed the usability of my media center Mac.

Follow this guide to enable HiDPI mode:

http://www.tekrevue.com/tip/hidpi-mode-os-x/

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I found it helpful to add a little menu item to help swap between normal 1080p and HiDPI mode. Go to System Preferences>Displays again, and check the little box at the bottom that says “Show Mirroring options in the menu bar when available”. This adds a little monitor menu next to your volume in your top menu bar that lets you quicky access the resolution preferences.

We want our mac’s screen go black when we watch a movie on our TV. Go to System Preferences>Mission Control. Uncheck “Displays have separate Spaces”. This option will make sure that full screen apps on the the main display will blacken other displays.

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(If your mac has a DVD drive) Next we want to auto-play DVDs that we insert into the mac. Go to System Preferences>CDs & DVDs, and select When you insert a video DVD>Open DVD Player.

Almost there. If you are using a new keyboard or mouse, make sure you have them set up so they are responsive. Go to System Preferences>Mouse. I had to make the trackpad more sensitive on my cheapo Logitech 2 in 1 keyboard (Note: Mac OS treats this particular model as a mouse, not as a trackpad).

Now go to the System Preferences>Dock. Check “Automatically hide and show the dock”, to make sure the dock never blocks your view when you’re not using it. You can make it appear by hovering the mouse at the selected edge of the display.

Next, I set up a schedule for my computer to turn off and on at times I usually watch TV. I didn’t want to have to wait for my computer to boot up every time I wanted to watch TV, but I also didn’t want to leave my computer on permanently. This is a good balance for me and saves a bit of power. Go to System Preferences>Energy Saver, and at the bottom right there’s a little button called “Schedule”.

If you have guests or children that will be using the TV often, you might want to consider creating a new OS X User for them with special restrictions or privileges. I won’t go into detail about how to do that here. Google is your friend.

Step 5: Install software and set up media files.

My setup:

  • Music: iTunes
  • Netflix/Youtube: Safari
  • Downloaded movies and shows: Plex (Some movies I have on iTunes through iTunes store)

I use iTunes for my music. If you are using an external hard drive for storage, you want to let your mac know to put the library in there. Plug in your external drive. Open iTunes while holding the “Option/Alt” button. A dialog should pop up and ask you about your library. Click on “Create New”, and create the new library on the external drive. Next go into the iTunes>Preferences>Advanced tab, and make sure you check the options “keep library organized” and “copy to iTunes library” to let iTunes manage your music files for you. Now drag and drop all your music files into the iTunes window.

For downloaded TV shows and movies, I use a free program called called Plex (formerly called XBMC). Plex organizes your TV shows, movies, and can do music too if you don’t like iTunes. Plex has two parts. The first part is a server that is always running, and lets you access your media on the go from other devices. The second part is the actual player itself that lets you watch the files on this computer. It’s pretty easy to set up.

Follow this guide to set up Plex.

https://support.plex.tv/hc/en-us/articles/200288586-Installation

Naming your media takes a bit of time, but is worth it in the long run, since if it can recognize which files you have, it can automatically download metadata and pictures to make the experience much nicer.

Although Plex and iTunes can play almost any type of media file, I also downloaded VLC, a free program that can play literally every file format you can think of.

VLC download: http://www.videolan.org/vlc/download-macosx.html

All done!

At this point you should have a working media center that can play pretty much anything! To simplify things, I removed everything from my desktop and only have Safari, Plex, and iTunes in my dock. I have Safari remember my Netflix and YouTube passwords. I also usually run all applications in full screen mode (the little green button at the top left) since this dims the mac’s monitor and lets me focus on the TV screen.

Happy viewing, and I hope this guide was helpful!