Budget Home Server

Mac Mini 2014, Available from OWC

I’ve been running Mac-based home servers since 2011 when I purchased my first Mac Mini for that very purpose. It started as a way to record over-the-air television with an Elgato EyeTV and to store movies, television shows, and music in iTunes that I could stream to our Apple TVs and sync to our iPhones.

I’ve since upgraded to a 2018 Mac Mini, switched to Plex for my media management, and I’m now using an HDHomeRun as my over-the-air capture device. And while I’ve added quite a few services to my home server over the years, streaming media to all of my devices is still, by far, its primary use case.

Recently, while perusing OWC’s used Macs, I started thinking about what I would recommend to a friend or family member if they wanted to get started with their own home server.

I think a lot of people would think of starting with a mini PC. They have become very popular recently and are inexpensive. But I’m not too fond of using Windows unless I absolutely have to and I don’t think managing a Linux server is user-friendly enough for most people — it’s barely user-friendly enough for me.

So the Mac Mini, in my eyes, is the way to go. Of course, you could just buy whatever base-model Mac Mini Apple has available at the moment, attach an external drive for a bunch of storage and you’ll be mostly off to the races, but I think you get a lot more for your money if you go the used route.

I would recommend a 2014 Mac Mini with 8GB of memory, 2.6GHz Core i5 processor, and a 1TB solid state drive.

At the time of writing, you can pick one up from OWC for $195.

That will get you a pretty good amount of storage to start with on a machine that can run up to macOS Monterey. That’s not the most recent version of macOS, but it’s still receiving updates from Apple and should have software support for the apps you’ll want to run for at least a handful of years.

In addition to the Mac Mini itself, if you don’t plan to connect it to a display, you’ll want to get a display emulator dongle. I use this one from CompuLab, but you could also get a Newer Technology one that’s a couple of dollars cheaper.

The last bit of hardware I’d recommend is an optical drive. This will let you rip movies and TV shows from discs to store on the server. I’m using an external Blu-ray drive from Pioneer, but it’s a bit more expensive than I think I’d spend on one today. If you wanted to rip Blu-ray Discs, you should be fine with this one from OWC. And if you are just expecting to rip DVDs, there’s literally thousands of options that are available for $20-40.

I’m not sure if there’s really any meaningful difference between any of the DVD drives available, but I’d recommend getting one from a brand you recognize. You won’t spend much more than if you bought a no-name brand, but you’ll likely end up with something that’s more reliable.

As a bit of an aside, I first started ripping Blu-ray Discs when I was still using a 2011 Mac Mini. These older Macs — including the 2014 Mac Mini that I’m recommending — are going to take a long time to rip and convert Blu-rays. That doesn’t mean I would shy anyone away from doing so, but I think it’s worth setting expectations.

With hardware alone, we’re at about $306 before tax and shipping — if you opt for the Blu-ray drive. That’s not too shabby to get you in the door. And you could certainly use this hardware as a home server for a handful of years, paired with free software options, and you’ll get by just fine.

For free software, you could use:

Plex is perfectly serviceable for hosting your media without a Plex Pass and the pairing of Handbrake and MakeMKV will make ripping Blu-ray Discs and DVDs a breeze. And with MacOS’ built-in screen sharing features, you can run the Mac Mini without a display attached and administer it from another computer on your network.

If you wanted to take the software setup to the next level, I would recommend purchasing a lifetime Plex Pass — $120 — which will give you the ability to download media to the Plex mobile app, give you access to Plexamp, and a whole host of other features.

In addition, I’d recommend purchasing Screens 5 — $80 for a one-time purchase. This will make management of the server significantly easier. You can install Screens Connect on the server and Screens 5 on your Mac, iPhone, and/or iPad to connect and control the machine locally on your home network or remotely anywhere you have access to the web.

And lastly, I would suggest purchasing a MakeMKV license — $65. You can get by with the beta key referenced above, but it expires and sometimes it expires before a new beta key is available. To support the developer’s work and ensure you can always rip when you want to, I’d recommend just buying a license.

With these extra software purchases, we’re looking at around $571 total. That may seem like a lot. But this is a system that you’ll be able to run on your network and use for the next five years, easy. Serving up media that you likely already own — everyone has a box of CDs and DVDs somewhere in their house.

And perhaps, if you really want to commit, you can cancel a streaming service or two and redirect those funds toward physical media. You’d be surprised at how cheap DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, and CDs can be acquired for these days. And after enough time of purchasing media, you’ll find that your own media library has more good content than any of the streaming services offer.

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Tech Is Still Cool

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for present-day Apple, there’s still a lot to be excited about in the world of technology. The following is an unordered list of things that I’ve been excited about recently. If you have any thoughts about the following items or have some tech that you’ve been excited about, I’d love to hear from you.

Old MacBooks

I recently purchased two 2015 11-inch MacBook Airs — one for myself and one for my wife. They can run up to macOS Monterey, which is still supported by Apple and by the vast majority of application developers. And if you’re willing to deal with potential pain points, you can use OpenCore Legacy Patcher to install macOS Sonoma on the machines as well.

I have Sonoma running on mine and it runs like a champ. Other than the non-retina display and lack of USB-C ports, these machines feel surprisingly modern.

Old MacBooks are also very easy to upgrade. In addition to the 2015 MacBooks that I recently purchased, I have a couple of older 2011 models that I’ve been toying with as well. The battery and storage has been a breeze to upgrade on these machines. I’ve put brand new batteries and 500GB SSDs in both and completed the tasks in less than ten minutes each.

Linux

An entire operating system, complete with its own selection of applications and features to explore. I’ve been doing so primarily through virtual machines on my work laptop, but I plan to dual boot Sonoma and Ubuntu 24.04 on my 11-inch MacBook Air now that this new long term support release is available.

The most interesting thing about Linux to me is the myriad of windowing managers. I can’t say its necessarily better than what we have on macOS, but it has plenty of innovative ideas that has me working a bit differently — using multiple virtual desktops never clicked with me on macOS like it has in Linux.

Self-hosting

There isn’t much that excites me more than being able to eliminate my reliance on a service controlled by someone else. I have three servers where I run various applications from my home office alongside a Linode and SiteGround account where I run services as well.

Plex and Mastodon likely get the most use from me, but I’m also a huge fan of Invidious, Miniflux, and Wallabag.

I’d like to self-host even more and should be doing so soon. I’m waiting on the arrival of an Umbrel Home. It should be here in the next few weeks. I have Umbrel running on an old Mac mini now, but it seems to bog down quite a bit when I have more than a few applications running on it. I expect the Umbrel Home should handle things a bit better.

Emulation Handhelds

I have a Retroid Pocket 2+ and a Retroid Pocket 3. Both of which are excellent devices for what they are, but I’d love to have something that features a bit more horsepower for PlayStation 2 and GameCube emulation.

I’ve been hemming and hawing over whether I want to get myself an Ayn Odin 2 or a Retroid Pocket 4 Pro. I believe both of them would be able to run the games I’m interested in, so it’s just a matter of which form factor is preferable to me.

I just love the idea of having a single device that can run all of the games from my childhood.

Emulation on the App Store

Apple updated their App Store guidelines earlier this month to allow for retro game emulators in the App Store. It’s still very early days and Delta appears to be the clear standout. It supports Nintendo systems up to Nintendo 64 and Nintendo DS.

I’m still using AltStore for now, though. Delta is a great emulator, but it just doesn’t compare to RetroArch in terms of the number of systems supported. I expect RetroArch will eventually make its way into the App Store, but that will take some time. I’m sure there are some changes that will need to be made to the app to fully come into compliance with Apple’s guidelines.

I’m okay using AltStore for now, but I’m excited about a future where I won’t have to resort to hacks in order to run this type of software on my own device.

PC Building

I built a gaming PC last fall, with the goal of having it run Steam as a headless home server. I’m using one of these inexpensive display emulators and interacting with the system entirely through Steam Link and VNC — using Screens. With this setup I can play any PC game I’d like and emulate more powerful systems from any device in the house — most often my iPhone and the living room Apple TV.

For anyone curious, here are the parts I used for the system:

  • AMD Ryzen 5600 Processor
  • AMD Radeon RX 7600 Graphics Card
  • 32GB of Crucial DDR4 3200 Memory
  • ASRock B550M-ITX/AC Motherboard
  • 2TB Crucial NVMe Solid State Drive
  • 4TB Samsung SATA Solid State Drive
  • Fractal Terra Mini-ITX Case
  • Noctua NH-L9x65 CPU Cooler
  • Corsair SF750 Power Supply

It’s not the most powerful thing in the world, but it’s more than capable of playing everything I’ve thrown at it. And since I’m streaming everything over Steam Link, I’m not all that concerned about playing anything at high resolutions — 720p or 1080p are more than sufficient for my needs.

But with this project, I’ve started paying attention to the world of PC hardware again. Primarily through YouTube channels like Gamers Nexus, JayzTwoCents, optimum, ozTalksHW, and more. This is an area of tech that I haven’t really paid attention to since the early 2000s. And, boy, does it feel fresh and exciting in comparison to Apple hardware.

Steam Link

How amazing is it that you can just play games from your PC on all of your devices? I can have Skate 3 running in RPCS3 on a computer in my home office and use my iPhone as a display and a Backbone One as the controller. Or I can use the television in my living room paired with an Apple TV and an 8BitDo Pro 2 controller.

Steam Link is to video games as Plex is to movies and TV shows.

There are definitely times when the bandwidth just isn’t there, but most of the time everything works smoothly. And I’m sure it will get even better if I actually work on running ethernet to all of our Apple TVs — a project that never seems to receive the priority necessary to accomplish.

iPods

I recently purchased an iPod from Elite Obsolete Electronics. It was a 5.5-generation model that I paid to have modded with a 128GB microSD card and a brand new face plate, backplate, and click wheel.

I’ve since toyed around with just about every feature the device has to offer. I’ve added Click Wheel games, played around with the Notes feature, setup a preset in Handbrake to convert video to a compatible format, and it’s been a blast all along the way.

There’s something nice about using an offline device. Something that, by its very nature, only has the content that’s on it right now. If I want something new, I have to connect it to a computer and sync. It allows me to be a bit more intentional about the content I’m consuming.

Currently, the iPod is my primary method for podcast and audiobook listening. Huffduffer is a great tool that I’ve been getting a lot of use out of for adding random audio files to the iPod.

I’ve also been using the iPod for the majority of my YouTube viewing. I download the videos with my Invidious instance, convert them with the aforementioned Handbrake preset, and then add them to the Apple Music app for syncing — I’ve found it to be a bit easier to add them to the Apple Music app as music videos rather than adding them to the TV app.

The Magic Is Gone


— April 16, 2024

Action Button as Game Launcher


— March 31, 2024

11-Inch MacBook Air


— March 28, 2024

Emulation on iPhone


— February 29, 2024

Assistive Access


— February 7, 2024

My First Macintosh


— January 24, 2024

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