Now that the new Apple TV is out, you're probably debating whether to buy it or not. After all, it's only $99--even if you just use it to stream music from your various iTunes libraries, it might be worth it, right? Well, hold your horses! Before you plunk down your well-earned $99 plus tax, just hear us out--we've got a far more powerful and free solution to your dilemma.
Most of us die-hard Mac users have an old Mac or two laying around. Perhaps an old MacBook, MacBook Pro, or Mac mini. Even an iMac will work, if you have the space. Now, you could sell that old machine on Gazelle or Craigslist for a fraction of what you paid for it, or you can install some kick-ass software on the thing and hook it up to your TV. Of course we prefer the latter, so we're going to fill you in on exactly how to do it using Plex, a beautifully designed, super complete media solution that plays just about everything!
Hardware - what you'll need
1. A Computer
This one's a no-brainer--the first step to building a media PC is finding a computer. As we mentioned, an old Mac works perfectly for this. But here's the caveat-- It will have to be Intel-based to run Plex. Intel-based Macs have been around for enough years that you've probably upgraded since you got your first one. The absolute ideal is an Intel-based Mac mini. It's clean looking, has a front loading DVD drive, connects via DVI or HDMI, and is more than fast enough to play HD video. Of course, you don't need that sleek form-factor to get the show on the road. An old MacBook, as we'll be using in this how-to, works great too.
Have an old PowerPC? We'd still recommend hooking it up to your TV and using FrontRow and Safari for your iTunes and internet streaming needs. It won't be as fancy, but it will get the job done.
2. The Hookup
Depending on your Mac, your TV, and the external monitor adapters you have on hand, hooking up your Mac to your TV will be a little different. We're assuming you have a run of the mill flat-panel HDTV--even the cheapest off-brand from Costco will do the trick, and should at least have both a VGA port and multiple HDMI ports.
Essentially, you're treating your TV as an external monitor for your Mac. If you're using a Mac mini, just hook it up to the TV as you would any other monitor. If you have an older Mac mini, use a VGA cable. Lucky enough to have a new Mac Mini? Use an HDMI cable. If you're using a Macbook, as we are, you'll need a display adapter. So, find that little dongle your computer hopefully came with to connect a second screen. If you have an older MacBook, it's likely you'll have the goods. If your machine is on the newer side, or you just lost the connecter, you'll have to buy one from Apple.
Don't fret--it'll only run you $19. Just make sure you get the right one. Since you're using an Intel-based Mac, this one should do the trick. Just plug it into your DVI port, grab a VGA cable, and connect the computer to your TV. OS X will automatically detect that you have hooked up a second monitor. You can either choose to set the screens up side by side, mirror the screen on your MacBook, or use the TV as your primary screen. Unless you're setting up an iMac next to your TV (which also requires a display adapter), you'll want the TV to function as your main screen.
The display panel in System Preferences makes it pretty clear how to use a monitor alongside your laptop screen, and how to make the second screen mirror what's on the first. But naturally, we don't want an open laptop as our media PC, that's just not very pretty. So, plug a keyboard and mouse into your laptop, or set up a Bluetooth pair (the better solution). Shut your laptop screen. The computer will go to sleep, so everything on the TV will disappear. Just press a key on the keyboard, or click the mouse, and the laptop will wake up and your TV will be your primary monitor.
Now that you've gotten video down, you'll need to take care of sound. You'll either be using an optical cable or a standard audio cable, based on what you have. Since you're using an Intel-based Mac, your computer should support optical audio. On Macs, the optical audio jack and the headphone/audio out jack are one and the same. So whatever cable you do use, plug it in there.
If you have a newer receiver or fancy set of 5.1 computer speakers with a controller, you probably have an optical audio in, utilize that for optimal sound. If that's the case, you'll need a cable that has a mini TOSLINK on one side, and a standard TOSLINK on the other. A 6ft cable is only $2.56 at MonoPrice, and you can order it here.
If you need instant gratification, you can go to your local RadioShack or Best Buy--but be warned, they will charge you an arm and a leg. So, get your cable, plug it in, and you should be ready for all the audio and video content your computer can handle.
If you just want to plug your machine in directly to your TV because you're using its in-built speakers, that's fine too. Just get a standard audio cable and connect your audio out to the audio in on your TV, it should be right next to the VGA or DVI port.
As we mentioned earlier, you'll need to get a keyboard and mouse to use with your system if you're using a laptop and your computer didn't come with them. We recommend the Apple Bluetooth wireless versions, if you're going wireless (as you probably should, it will be a lot cleaner). They're well designed and don't look too bad on the coffee table. If you want another solution, such as an all-in-one media keyboard, we strongly recommend you use a Bluetooth solution, not a wireless USB one.
A Bluetooth peripheral will wake your computer up when it's in sleep mode. wireless USB won't do this.
1. Download and Install Plex
Now that you've gone through the tedious process of hooking up your Mac, you're probably pretty eager to get some movies and music going on the thing. Unfortunately, you've still got a bit of work ahead of you. Luckily, we're going to explain exactly how to do it, so setup should be a breeze. So, first things first: Download Plex. It requires about 220 MB of your hard drive.
Plex doesn't work with a mouse, so set that critter aside (after the initial setup), and grab your keyboard. Navigation is pretty intuitive--you just need to use up, down, left, right, enter, and escape. Commands are a little less intuitive--to access the main menu in any section of Plex, you'll hit C. Commit that one to memory, you'll need it!
2 Add Local and/or Network Video Files
Plex supports pretty much every format under the sun. So no matter how you rip your DVDs and Blu-rays, Plex will play it-- DivX, .mkv, uncompressed DVDs, and even Windows Media. You can check out a full list, here.
Plex is designed to automatically organize all your files for you, and automatically detect information about TV shows and movies using various internet databases. But, we still recommend organizing your files. Make a separate folder for TV shows and a separate folder for movies. You can store it all on your media Mac's drive (if you have space), an external hard drive connected to your media Mac, or on a different computer altogether that you can access over the network.
Dump all your movies into the movies folder. To keep your favorite TV shows in order you should organize them in folders by show, season, and episode. Whatever the files are named, the magical internet databases (IMDB and TVDB, more specifically) will figure out what they are.
When you open Plex, it will ask you where your movies are located. Navigate to the Movies folder you created as described above, select it, and hit next. As Plex prompts, do the same for TV shows.
Next, Plex will prompt you to add music. If you use iTunes, skip this step. We'll talk about iTunes later. If you use something else or just want to move selected files onto your media Mac, add that folder.
Plex will then prompt you to add third-party plug-ins,. Pick any that pique your interest (Vimeo and The Sixty One, for instance) and move on. Click through the next few menus, and Plex will get you set up and update your system components.
Now that you've told Plex where your files are, it will start downloading titles, tags, cover art, and the works for your files, will set up your Media Manager.
If you want to see all the files it's working on, just click the newly installed status icon in the Menu Bar for Plex and select media manager. It will probably take a while to get all your files in your new Plex library, so just sit tight.
In the meantime, you can fire up Plex itself, which has already organized your files into movies and TV shows. At this point, you can no longer use the mouse. So, hit that down arrow and check out your movies and TV shows. Don't go into full screen mode yet -- while you're setting things up, it's easier to stay in half screen so you can access the rest of you computer easily. Short of quitting or using Exposé, Plex does not provide easy access to your dock.
By default, Plex displays your movies and TV shows in a list. You can change this view by hitting enter on All Movies or All TV Shows and hitting the right arrow key. There you can select cover flow, which will get you a view pretty similar to Apple's own iTunes cover flow. We're partial to this view, but there are a few others to choose from. To select a different one, hit the "up" key to bring up the view menu once again. Escape takes you back to a previous menu.
Chances are, you'll occasionally want to play an actual DVD, not just a digital file. Just navigate to the Applications tab and you'll notice both DVD Player and Front Row are there by default. If you've got a DVD you'd like to play, just launch DVD player right there.
At this point, you should be all done with your movies and TV shows--the Plex media manager will do the rest of the work for you, downloading meta tag information for everything you added to the folders it's linked to.
2. Add Streaming Internet Services
As you may have noticed when you were first setting up Plex, it supports plug-ins. The list displayed within Plex is just a fraction of all the media services it supports.
To browse the entire set, navigate to the Plex Online tab. There you can browse all the plug-ins Plex supports by category. Obvious must-haves in the movies category include Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. In music you'll find great services like Pandora and The Sixty One. Plug-ins will automatically install to their appropriate folder--for instance, you'll find Pandora under Music plug-ins. It's the most comprehensive set of services you'll find in any HTPC app to date, and it's all free.
Note: Netflix recently changed its API so the current Netflix plug-in for Plex is broken. The developer says an update is on the way, but until then we recommend a program called PlexFlix. It's free, straightforward, and syncs your entire Netflix queue with your Movie and TV Show libraries. It's really all you need, but don't delete that Netflix plug-in just yet--it's still handy for adding movies to your queue, and it'll let you know when an update is available.
3. Access Your Tunes
If you added a music folder during the initial Plex set-up, you'll have a Music tab ready for you to go. It's more likely however that you want to use your already existing iTunes library. Luckily, Plex will automatically recognize iTunes as well. If your iTunes library is located directly on your media Mac, then it will automatically show up under "Music Plug-Ins." If you want to connect to an iTunes library on another computer, it's pretty easy too.
Just install Plex on the computer where your main iTunes library is located and enable the Plex media server on that computer. The Plex media server will have to be running on that computer if you want to access its iTunes library. To enable the media server, go to Preferences > System > Media Server and make sure Always Running is selected. It should already be selected, since this is Plex's default. You don't have to have a full instance of Plex running to keep the media server going. Once you've got this done on your iTunes machine, the Plex on your media Mac should automatically see the new iTunes library. You'll see the iTunes-hosting computer's name, under the music plug-ins tab.
It'll take a few moments to access your library at first, but you'll be able to browse all your music the way you do in iTunes. If you have a big library, it helps to navigate alphabetically, using shift+[letter you're looking for].
We aren't going to get too detailed with Plex customization, but it's worth noting that Plex supports themes so you can make it look however you like! We find the default to be pretty handsome ourselves so we stick with it, but we're sure there are some superior alternatives out there. You can manually change the various background images by going to Preferences > Skin > Backgrounds.
Control it all
Now that you've got your videos, Internet streaming, and music all ready to go, it's time to figure out how you want to control it. There are a few options. A keyboard and mouse, either wired or wireless Bluetooth as we discussed earlier, are the easiest options. Once you're in Plex, all you really need is a keyboard. It's intuitive and feels comfortable. The Apple Bluetooth keyboard has the extra perk of looking pretty slick, too.
You can also control Plex with the Apple remote that may have come with your computer. It's small and unobtrusive on your coffee table. But, you can't get to options within menus, search through your music or set up various accounts (Netflix, for instance) with it. Plus, you'll have to make sure your computers IR receiver isn't blocked (if you keep the computer behind a cabinet door, for instance). We prefer a Bluetooth keyboard to this option, but can see how the Apple remotes small footprint might be appealing to some, especially if you have the newer aluminum remote.
Mobile Mouse for iPad
Another option is to control Plex using your iOS device--your iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, or any combination. Two excellent options include Mobile Mouse and the official Plex app. It's a hybrid app, so you can get it for one price for your iPhone and iPad. Mobile Mouse is $2.99 for the iPad and $1.99 for the iPhone/iPod touch. However, you'll definitely benefit from the extra screen real estate using your iPad with these apps.
Plex for iPad
Mobile Mouse is a fully functional trackpad, keyboard, and remote, while the Plex app, as you might imagine, is designed specifically to control Plex. We like the flexibility and polish of Mobile Mouse, but it's been around a lot longer than the Plex app.
Hooray! Hopefully by now you've made it through and gotten an incredibly functional HTPC running, on the cheap. If so, pat yourself on the back and get started on mastering the art of the couch potato. As you do, be sure let to let us know what you think of your new system in the comments!
Follow this article's author, Ambika Subramony, on Twitter.