Why the Mac Mini sucks for MythTV/PVR

9 Comments | This entry was posted on Nov 17 2008

I bought the mac mini for a few reasons:
1. It is very small and very quiet
2. It looks good with my AV equipment
3. There are a lot of accessories that match the looks of the mini
4. It came with good enough specs for video playback and recording

The main problem I had was dealing with the small/slow hard drive. So I wanted to upgrade that but here are some of the things I ran into.

First of all, the Mac Mini had almost everything I wanted (and some things I didn’t care about) built in. I wouldn’t need to add any features to the device unlike other small computers I was looking at. Most other small computers came with almost everything I needed except one or two thing, built in IR for a remote or firewire. These were requirements for me. I know I could have used a USB -> IR adapter but I wanted this computer to look a little less DIY than my last MythTV. And not having firewire seemed too complicated to try and add my own through expensive adapters.

My goal for the Mac Mini was to upgrade the internal hard drive and use an external 1 TB drive. The reason for this was storage and speed. The internal hard drive in the Mac Mini is only 5400 rpm and while that works fine for web pages and word documents, when reading and writing large media files all day it just would not be fast enough for the task. One option was to install the OS on the internal hard drive and use a external hard drive just for storage over USB but the CPU overhead of USB and the read/write speeds would just not cut it (internal SATA II is over 6 times faster than USB 2.0/Firewire 400). There also is no firewire 800 port so that wouldn’t work either. I tried following a walk through that someone else already did with a mini hard drive upgrade but apparently Apple has updated their device since this was done and adding a hard drive the same way is no longer possible. If this worked for you on a post Nov 2007 Mac Mini please let me know in the comments. The problem I had was the Mac Mini would never detect any hard drive outside of the chassis. I tried with multiple cables, hard drives (2.5″ and 3.5″) but never once was able to get OSX or Ubuntu installed on the bigger hard drive.

To break it down, the reasons the Mac Mini actually sucks for building your own PVR are these.
1. Slow (low storage) hard drive
2. Expensive features that are not needed but you don’t have a option but pay for. (OSX, iLife, Apple tax, etc.)
3. Hard to upgrade processor and memory

And these are the reasons I picked the AOpen over the Mac Mini.
Mac Mini uses a older 945GM chipset with 667 Mhz vs. GM45 chipset with 1066 Mhz, it uses a more power hungry 65nm (T5600/T7200) processor vs. 45nm (T8100 or any socket p processor you want), and GMA950 GPU vs. GMA X3100. Not really big deals considering both should have the ability to play back most 1080p content. But having updated specs just make things a little easier, and the ability to upgrade helps make the PVR future proof…well almost.

For anyone interested, here are some pictures of the steps I took to make the Mac Mini NOT work with an external eSATA 1 TB hard drive.

Sata to eSATA adapter. I was sent the wrong adapter and Microbarn would not accept the fact that this was a female SATA to male eSATA cable when I needed male to male. Even after sending them this picture. P.S. don’t order this, order this.
Adapter plugged into the Mac Mini SATA riser card with a male to male sata adapter I had to buy extra thanks to Microbarn. Maybe I just don’t understand male and female connectors. :)
SATA cable run inside the case. This wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. See the picture above for what it looked like coming out of a slightly modified Kensington lock hole.

Let me know how a Mac Mini is working out for you as a PVR or what other machine you bought as a substitute in the comments.