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Turn a Mac mini into a media server with Plex

Kirk McElhearn | Jan. 4, 2016
If you have a large media collection, you may want to use a Mac as a dedicated device to run Plex. And the Mac mini is a perfect device for Plex.

You need to plan ahead as far as storage is concerned. If you buy a current build-to-order Mac mini, you can get a 2TB drive in the most expensive model, but that would cost you $1100. It’s cheaper to get a less expensive Mac mini and use external hard drives. You should have one for your media, and another to back up the first drive (and the operating system; you can use Time Machine so this runs automatically.)

You can buy a 4TB external USB 3 drive for about $120. For about the same price, you can get a 3TB USB 3 WD My Passport portable hard drive (or a 2TB model for less than $100). These drives are compact, and only need to be plugged into a USB port; no power cables are needed. With these portable hard drives, it’s a lot easier to transfer lots of data from another Mac; instead of transferring files over your Wi-Fi network, you can plug one of the drives into another Mac to copy movies you’ve ripped.

No matter what, make sure that you have a second drive to back up your movies, unless you’re keeping copies on another computer.

Managing a headless Mac mini

My Mac mini runs OS X Server ($20, or free with a paid Apple developer account), which allows me to use it for such things as caching software updates, and storing Time Machine backups of other Macs. You may not need this; the standard version of OS X is just fine.

When you initially set up the Mac mini, you need a display, keyboard, and mouse, but you’ll be setting it up so that you won’t needs these items later. Go into the Mac mini’s System Preferences and open the Sharing pane. In the left column. check the box for Remote Management. This will turn on Remote Management so you can manage the Mac mini from any other Mac on the network. In the “Allow access for” window, you can specify which users can have remote access, or you can select “All users.” Click the Options button and check the boxes for Observe and Control.

After you configure the Sharing settings, the Mac mini doesn’t need a display; you can manage it remotely from any Mac. Just find it in the Shared section of the Finder window sidebar, and click Share Screen to start screen sharing. You can point, click, and type in the Screen Sharing window, just as you would on a normal display.

screen sharing
You can control a Mac without a display using Screen Sharing.

I’d recommend getting a video display emulator, or the $3 Resolutionator, so you can switch resolutions, making it easier to work with the device. Since you’ll need to access the Mac mini in this way from time to time, create a screen sharing alias.


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