I had been having a love/hate relationship with my Mac Mini. Actually, it was my wife’s Mac Mini first; I bought it for her in 2011-ish. She always complained about how slow it was. She complained about how slow her PC was before that, so I don’t know if it was her or the computers. Eventually, I got her a similarly spec-ed, refurbished Dell PC and she’s been happy ever since.
I had had a Mac Pro tower at one point, but Apple saw fit to stop supporting it with OS X upgrades back in 2010. Then the graphics card died, so I gave up on Mac’s. I got an open box PC running Windows 8 from Best Buy. I’ve been happy ever since.
I used the Mac Mini as a backup server. As long as I didn’t have to mess around with the UI, it seemed fine. I did all the copying using network protocols, and only occasionally needed to actually us the UI. I do recall it seemed pokey when I did. Maybe that’s what my wife complained about.
Recently, I’ve been using the Mac Mini as a replacement for the set top box from Xfinity. That box was from hell, pure and simple. As long as I only watched video, my use of the Mac Mini UI was minimal. The video did stutter a lot. I figured that’s just the way it had to be. Then, I watched video with a Firestick TV. Far less (almost no) stuttering. So, what was up with that?
Now the disk got corrupted on the Mac Mini. I could restore the system to Macos Sierra, but I’d have to use a CD of the original OS X, and do upgrades. Oh wait, the CD drive doesn’t work. Really. It rarely ever got used and it doesn’t work. WT?
So, now I’m giving Linux a try. We’ll see how that goes.
Well, I managed to go through a bunch of different Linux distros. I had been using Debian for years on another in-home server box. (OK, it’s just an old PC.) I also tried some Ubuntu flavors: Linux Mint, Kubuntu, Ubuntu, and CoreOS. I even tried CentOS (a Red Had derivative). There were small problems with each of them. But, Debian seems to have won the day. The problem I had with it had to do with the Broadcom Wireless chip. Debian doesn’t automagically install 3rd party non-free stuff. The Ubuntu’s do (but you have to say that is what you want.). It took a while after-the-fact to get the wireless working, but I found something online. It worked.
I actually don’t need the wireless. The Mac Mini is hard wired. But, I chased it down on principle.
The other “problem” is that I can’t get XDMCP working. That would let me pull up a complete desktop on my Windows 10 system. It’s another thing I’ll poke at to get working, but I don’t really need it. Mostly, I just have to make sure I can copy files to and from the Mac.
What about Xfinity? …well, that’s a bust. The Linux distros and the video servers just aren’t happy. There are Silverlight, HTML5, and Flash issues. I even have that problem on Windows 10…I can only run the Xfinity site on Microsoft Edge. The Chrome-based browsers don’t have the right Flash version. Fortunately, the FireTV Stick handles things like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. I’ll just have to wait for Comcast to finally get around to releasing their stuff on Roku…then I’ll get one.
So, if I want to watch regular TV, what do I do? On my PC, it’s Edge. On my Android phone and tablet, the Xfinity TV app just works. Weirdly, Adroid is based on Linux, but it doesn’t work on Linux.
I decided to get a Roku ahead of time. I had to get the Ultra model. It’s their most expensive. I needed it because I needed to connect a digital audio signal to my surround sound system. None of the other Roku’s has this feature.
I can watch a lot of shows with. I could with my previous FireTV Stick. I guess even the Chromecast would do. The problem? …not really many options for live TV. That’s why the Xfinity TV app looks appealing. I’m relying on Comcast and Roku to get it done.
My fallback, should the live TV thing fail, is to find an indoor HDTV antenna. We live in a good spot for one. Time will tell.
I found a middle-of-the-road HDTV antenna for about $32 at Walmart. I thought I’d give it a try. I was surprised how well it worked. In my location, I was able to pull about 30 stations. I got the important ones (important to me). Those include NBC, CBS, AMC, PBS and, happily, CW and some others. There are some stations I won’t watch. My TV is older and I don’t have a favorites feature, so I have to deal with all 30 channel numbers. I have an index card with the ones I want to remember. Over time, I’ll memorize them.
If Xfinity does release their app for Roku, I really won’t even need the antenna, except that it lets me do picture-in-pictures. So, I might have some fun with that during certain events. (Of course, with smart phones, tablets, and computers…why needed PiP anymore?)
Back to the Mac Mini running Debian Linux. There have been some problems. I had trouble with formatting my external drive. I eventually went back to using a tried and true command line mode (fdisk) and, later, gparted. This gibberish makes sense to a Linux person. The computer seems stable and, hopefully, it’ll stay that way for a long time. In all honesty, the Mac Mini running Macos Sierra (and all the OS X versions before it) were rock solid, too. The biggest problem I had was the user interface. I felt it was just too slow. I think Apple really screwed up in that department. I don’t know why. Shame on them.
Last time I checked, the uptime was 10 days. That’s not bad and, in fact, the MacOS uptime was decent, too, while it was running. (It was the UI that was sloooow.) Realistically, one expects uptime on Mac’s and Linux systems to be in months. There used to be an expression that you test Windows uptime with a stopwatch and Unix uptime with a calendar. Of course, Window 10 is quite stable, but it still relies on reboots for updates. Very silly. But, that’s Microsoft.
I’ve been trying to get XDMCP to work. I know there’s some greeter setting or some such nonsense. I have had to deal with this in a previous encounter using Debian (many years ago). It’s really not worth pursuing, though. X11 lets me just run graphical apps on Mobaterm X (on Windows 10). I think wanting to get XDMCP to work is just an intellectual exercise.
It’s been some time now – months – and the Mac Mini is working smoothly for the most part. I’ve had two unusual hangs that required a hard reboot. This is almost unheard of in the Linux world, but as I’m doing this Mac Mini thing, and my debug skills are limited (and I’m not that interested), I’d say it’s a success. I mostly use the Mini for backups and I’m not running a server farm where I have to have 99.9999999999999999999 uptime or my clients go elsewhere. Still, it’s disappointing that it’s crashed twice this way. Also, I’m pretty sure the crashes all happened when there was nothing going on. Maybe there’s a weirdness in the cron jobs. Maybe it’s the Mini. I dunno.
Would I do it again? I think if I knew that I couldn’t get Xfinity TV working on Linux, I’d try harder to install MacOS (what used to be OS X). Right now, there’s some question about whether Comcast will want to charge for Xfinity Stream (what they’re calling their new apps). If they do, I may reconsider…or, I may just use Roku for ad hoc viewing. I have antenna for live TV broadcasts. I would miss my local channels, but I can watch those on my PC, so it’s not a big deal.
My Mac Mini’s crashing/hanging got worse. So much so, that I had to remove it as my backup server. (One crash per day is too much.) I fiddled around and suspected that one of the memory sticks was acting up. It’s not a definitive diagnosis, but I removed the stick and things seemed to improve. I still didn’t have confidence that I could use this as a backup server so I took my Dell Netbook and used that. It’s a very low-power laptop that was the craze back in 2010. They were inexpensive but surprisingly robust. I now have an SSD running Linux Lite (known for its low resource needs). As the Mac Mini had been running as a Linux server (Debian), the switch to the Netbook was easy. The large capacity USB drive just plugged in and I was up and running.
Now, what to do about the Mac Mini? …I researched a bit harder and learned that I could, in fact, do a net-based reinstall of the original operating system (Lion). It took a couple tries but I managed to get it all to work. I upgraded to the latest flavor (macOS Sierra) and I’ve put the Mac Mini back in service as a computer for my large screen TV (for those times when I want to get an eyeful of macOS). Actually, this is a backup to my strategy to use a Roku and Comcast’s Xfinity Streaming App.
There’s a question about whether they will charge a fee for the software once it comes out of beta. If they do, then I can just run it on the Mac Mini for free. (Comcast has this weird strategy…deliver the streaming content without an additional charge to a computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet, but charge if it’s delivered via a Roku. What a dumb idea.)
If I watch Xfinity Stream on my Mac Mini because of their weird pricing ideas, then I can probably get a day out of the experience before whatever is causing the Mini to die after a day’s use makes it stop working. I can live with that.