Mid 2010 Mac mini: The Perfect Low-End 1080p Media Center

With every story there are two sides. While there was certainly some negative sentiment in my previous article – Original Apple TV: Apple’s Improper Abandonment and What to Do – you have to also take the good with the bad. Change forces us to move forward sometimes and get creative.

Ports on back of original Apple TV.

Ports on back of original Apple TV.

While Apple essentially cutting the cord on the original Apple TV was a bummer for those with sizeable iTunes libraries or Blu-ray pack-in digital copy collections, I highlighted a great option I that I decided to go with as a replacement – the mid-2010 Mac mini.

As an aside on the first generation Apple TV, digital copies of official iTunes content will still run on your unit provided that it was authorized prior to May 25, 2018 and should work until the unit dies as long as you never restore the device. Any other original Apple TV units out in the wild waiting for new owners are also now out of luck due to no longer being able to be authorized.

2010 Mac mini the Perfect Replacement for Original Apple TV

Going back to the mid 2010 Mac mini: This was my family’s daily driver desktop and was running macOS 10.12 Sierra on one partition with a smaller partition dedicated to OS X 10.6.8 Snow Leopard. I was satisfied with the performance of Sierra on this machine (configuration: 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo, 8 GB of DDR3 Crucial RAM, and a Samsung 750 EVO 250 GB SSD), but it honestly was more of a stop-gap as I was nearing the point where I was about to go to a different Mac as our daily driver. I was also having issues with the partitioning scheme (I could not increase the Snow Leopard partition with Sierra running in unison – only the reverse), so the decision made perfect sense for me to just wipe it, move on, and dedicate our mid-2010 Mac mini as a Media Center/Media Server.

Mid 2010 Mac mini

Mid 2010 Mac mini

Here are a few key reasons why I made this decision (besides the obvious Apple TV support and drive partitioning issues):

  • Optical drives remained available on the mid-2010 model, and, better still, SATA 9.7mm drives are the standard on this model, which makes it easy to swap out with many current optical drives that remain on the market today (a dwindling breed though indeed). My unit is outfitted with a Blu-Ray ROM/DVD-RW UJ-167, which can be purchased from various sellers and re-sellers such as eBay seller virtanen13. I highlighted a swap to Blu-ray with my 17″ MacBook Pro in my 2012 article, Blu-Ray No Longer a ‘Bag of Hurt’ for Macs. This gives you options for ripping more HD content to iTunes (including your own Blu-rays) and also allows direct playback of those discs using software players such as MacGo’s Mac Blu-Ray Player.
  • Rear of 2010 Mac mini

    Rear of 2010 Mac mini

    The Mid-2010 Mac mini has direct HDMI output with audio support – perfect for use with virtually all HDTVs (something not available on the 2009 and earlier models). and with the integrated power supply, you don’t have a power brick to bring around with you. You just need the unit, power cord, HDMI cable, and some sort of I/O device

  • The requirements are met on all Mid 2010 Mac minis for 1080p/30 support for iTunes purchased content (suggested 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo or greater CPU per Apple)
  • Built-in IR on the Mac mini makes it easy to use with the Apple Remote and Front Row, thanks to the Mid -2010 Mini being fully supported by Snow Leopard retail 10.6.3 and later (Front Row is no more with OS X Lion 10.7 and later)
  • iTunes 10 is widely still considered to be the best somewhat supported* version of iTunes out there thanks to Cover Flow, Visualizer, and various other features missing from more recent versions.
    *You can’t change your payment method in iTunes 10 any longer. You have to use a newer version for this, but you can still download new content and previous purchases for now (hopefully that at least sticks around for a while)
  • The gamer in me also liked the option of retaining Rosetta (another feature gone after Snow Leopard) so I could still run a variety of games and software from the PowerPC era on such a nice, compact device integrated into my media center
  • My Logitech DiNovo Edge Mac Edition keyboard has special dedicated media keys for Front Row – a perfect companion to this Mac
  • Time Machine will provide easy restore options for my media

The shortfalls of the current Apple TV resulted from not having local storage that can be dedicated to media as explained in the prior article on this topic, which was why the original Apple TV was a special device that didn’t have a true replacement. The 2010 Mac mini fits the bill for this key feature – and offers so much more. You have the SD card slot, expansion through ports for external drives, wireless options for streaming from another source, and more. The 2.5″ standard storage option allows you to easily swap out for another drive (I currently have a Samsung EVO 750 in my unit – it’s not quite as peppy as the Samsung EVO 850 Pro in my 17″ Early 2011 MacBook Pro that I’m typing this on, but it is still night and day compared to a spinning drive).

Road Warrior Device

My favorite use case of this Mac mini to date was taking it on my family’s most recent vacation to North Myrtle Beach. While I love the fresh sea air, it’s a long ride for kids, but my 2015 Chrysler Town and Country offers some nice creature comforts – including an HDMI/AV input, 2 flip-down screens, and a 115V outlet. This allowed me to hook up the Mac mini and send the video right to the screens. Talk about pure bliss for your “in flight” movie selections!

This kind of self-contained functionality and utility was something I once had with the original Apple TV that I now have regained with the 2010 Mac mini.

What About My Family’s Daily Driver Desktop?

My Mac Pro 1,1 and 17″ MacBook Pro are doing the job for now, but they too are running Snow Leopard primarily (the 17″ MacBook Pro also has a Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks partition, and the Mac Pro 1,1 has an OS X 10.10 Yosemite partition that I can use if I swap in one of the other GPUs I have available, like the flashed Sapphire Radeon 5770).

What can I say. Maybe I’m stuck in a rut, as the old adage states – “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” To me, though, I see it more like another saying – “They don’t make them like they used to.” Snow Leopard to me is still so much more refined than anything since. While it’s going more and more out of support for most stuff, it still “just works” and probably will for a while longer, but for many things is not the best solution. Office 365 and other various browsers and applications have begun to just move on.

While I can still use Snow Leopard for various purposes like the Media Center/Media Server solution I pieced together, it’s probably high time to adopt something else that’s fully supported for daily use. While the 2010 Mini worked fine for Sierra while I was using it (and is supported by macOS 10.3 High Sierra), the same won’t be said about macOS 10.14 Mojave. Mojave needs a 2012 model officially for the Mac mini or a 2010 or later Mac Pro with a Metal Compatible GPU.

Being the stubborn old fool I’m becoming and after evaluating my options, where does that leave me? I’m leaning towards the Mac Pro 5,1 or getting a 4,1 and flashing it to a 5,1. That will give me the most options. At least I can run dual GPUs (or swap back and forth) and use one drive with Snow Leopard and another with Mojave. That solution eliminates the partition issues I was having with the mid-2010 Mini and lets me use the machine how I want, when I want.

There’s also undoubtedly new Mac minis on the horizon. While they obviously won’t be as diverse as the Mid 2010 for having various multimedia options with a user interface I appreciated more, they will do more than enough as a modern computing device and will certainly be several times more powerful. I certainly would not mind a Core i9 Mac mini “Pro” with 32 GB of RAM and 1-2 TB of PCIe SSD, so maybe that’s an option, but the Mac Pro 4,1/5,1 route will frankly be much more economical for now as a daily driver.

The Future and 4K Media Center Macs

Looking even further down the line, I will have to give up the ghost at some point for media – at least with purchased content. iTunes 10 or Front Row does not support 4K playback to my knowledge (definitely not for iTunes purchased content and likely not for any non-iTunes media). I have to look deeper to be sure, but it’s not likely, and I would like to eventually take advantage of Apple’s 4k offerings.

That means sucking it up and moving on, living with less-desirable solutions like the streaming-only 4K Apple TV or creating my own experience though locally stored content and a media center application that can replicate an experience similar to what was there with iTunes 10 or even XBMC that were feature rich. From a hardware perspective that won’t be hard – the “trash can” Mac Pro before you know it could be a great candidate. It has more than enough oomph to drive 4k video and is still relatively compact. I have a feeling that they will go sub-$1000 in the next 2-3 years given the road-map of a new Mac Pro in the next year or so.

keywords: #appletv #mediacenter #macmini #mid2010macmini #2010macmini