In May 2005, iTunes evolved from a music player into a video library manager, paving the way for video iPods (October 2005), Apple TV (March 2007), and AirPlay video streaming (September 2010). Since then, iTunes libraries have become bigger and more central in homes, as users now stream content stored in iTunes — sometimes called a media “server” — to “clients” including Apple TVs, iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches. Unless you stream all of your content from the iTunes Store, you probably have some space-consuming videos sitting in your computer’s iTunes library, where they can be accessed by client devices so long as both the server computer and iTunes are turned on.
Apple has resisted calls to release a standalone, inexpensive iTunes home media server for years: 2008’s release of Time Capsule came tantalizingly close, but couldn’t act as a standalone streamer. So when my video library became too large to keep on my iMac, I bit the bullet and bought a used Mac mini to serve as an iTunes server. It works well, and consumes a lot less power than keeping my iMac on all the time, but it’s still a full-fledged $700 computer — overkill for streaming videos to the Apple devices in my home.
Today, I’m going to help you build a small, inexpensive, and ultra energy-efficient iTunes media server. Depending on the size of your iTunes library, it could cost as little as $150, or as much as $300, in either case much less expensive than a Mac mini. The key component is Intel’s new Compute Stick, a tiny basic Windows PC that can plug directly into an HDTV, run iTunes, and stream videos across your network. For around $130, you can now get an iView-branded Compute Stick with a CPU similar to the 12″ Retina MacBook, bundled with a wireless keyboard and trackpad. Although there are some important caveats you should understand up front, the Compute Stick can become a ~3-Watt video server using a $20+ microSD card, radically reducing the energy required to stream iTunes content in your home. If you need more storage and power, you can easily add a near-silent $90+ hard drive with 2TB-5TB of capacity…
The Apple Option: A Mac mini ($500 and up)
When my iTunes library outgrew my iMac, there was only one Apple-built option that made sense to me: a 1TB Mac mini. Keeping a large, screen-laden iMac turned on as an iTunes server struck me as a huge waste of both components and electricity. An energy-efficient Mac mini, even a previous-generation model, would save a lot of cash up front and hopefully enjoy a major power savings over time, as well. (My iMac consumes 142W of power when idling, and 200W maximum. The Mac mini consumes less than 8% of that power (11W) when idle and 42% (85W) maximum.)
You can get an entry-level, current-generation Mac mini now for $465, including a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and 500GB hard drive. It has an HDMI port on the back and can be connected to any HDTV in your house with a $5 HDMI cable. If you want to step up to a faster version with a 1TB hard drive, you can get one for $664 through this link.
To set up the Mac mini and occasionally use it for OS X updates or managing files, you can either use a $22 dedicated Bluetooth track pad and keyboard combination, whatever spare USB or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse you already have on hand, or Apple’s official Magic Trackpad and Wireless Keyboard. (More choices are in my Best Mac Accessories article here.) So the total cost of a Mac mini-based iTunes server solution starts at $500 and goes up from there.
There are several major advantages of using a Mac mini as a media server. Apple’s hardware runs near-silently, has great long-term reliability, and is typically trouble-free when it comes to running OS X and iTunes. You shouldn’t expect the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to just stop working, your iTunes library to disappear from the network, or the computer to just not turn on after a few years of active use. Moreover, depending on the Mac mini you buy, it may be able to do lots of other things on an as-needed basis. Faster machines can run video game emulators and smoothly play back high-definition videos on the connected TV. But even if you go with a cheap Mac mini, it will still be a problem-free iTunes server for your home.
The DIY Option: A Compute Stick Plus Additional Storage ($150-$300)
Thanks to Intel’s release of the Compute Stick, you don’t need to spend $500 or more to get a basic, quiet-running iTunes media server — so long as you’re willing to accept an extremely basic computer that won’t reliably do anything else. To underscore a point sometimes missed by the TL;DR crowd, the Compute Stick works properly for the purpose discussed in this article, but as the size and price make clear, it’s not a full replacement for a big, powerful desktop PC. You can get an Intel-branded Compute Stick for $170 through this link or faster for $199 through this link, adding the Bluetooth keyboard and track pad yourself. Or you can buy iView’s Cyber PC bundle, which includes a Compute Stick and wireless keyboard/track pad combo. It sells for $130 via Amazon or $150 at Newegg.
The major advantages of the Compute Stick are its size, low power consumption, and extremely low price. Roughly the same size as a candy bar, the Compute Stick has a quad-core 1.33GHz Intel Atom Bay Trail processor, is pre-installed with Windows 8.1, and connects directly to a TV’s HDMI port — no extra HDMI cable is required, but an extender is included for tight-ported HDTVs. The photo below shows the extender on a TV’s side, but it can easily be hidden behind the set, as well. Power is supplied via an included micro-USB wall adapter, but Compute Stick is amazingly efficient: when it’s idle, it draws only 3W of power, with a maximum power draw of 8-9W under stress. That’s roughly 1/4 the power consumption of my already impressive Mac mini at idle, and 1/10 at maximum.
Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi are built in, along with 32GB of storage space, and 2GB of RAM. You can easily expand the storage space using microSD 32GB cards, doubling the capacity, for $20 and up. (Note that iView’s packaging and marketing materials differ on the maximum microSD capacity supported; some references say 32GB, others say up to 128GB.)
Whether that’s enough for your needs depends on how you plan to use your iTunes media server. Of the built-in 32GB storage space, 18GB is usable, which means that a 32GB card will give you 50GB of total space, with up to 146GB total if a 128GB microSD card works. If you just want to stream a music collection and relatively small number of videos throughout your house, a microSD card may have enough space for you.
If you’re planning to share your entire video library over your network, you’ll want a bigger, wall-powered external drive, and that’s where the Compute Stick’s USB expandability comes in. For $90 to $130, you can get a 2TB, 3TB, 4TB or 5TB Seagate Expansion USB 3.0 hard drive (shown below), which has earned a lot of positive reviews (4.4/5 stars from 178 Amazon users) for operating whisper-quietly, waking very quickly from sleep, and delivering incredible storage capacity for the price.
There are pricier options with longer warranties and greater long-term reliability in my best external hard drive guide, but they’ll push the total Compute Stick price up from under $300 to around $400. At that point, you may want to consider the Mac mini instead, as you’ll get a more powerful machine (albeit with less storage space) for the price.
Setting Up The Compute Stick
Unlike the Mac, which will arrive with OS X ready to go after a really quick Wi-Fi and Bluetooth setup process, the iView Compute Stick will take a little work. The hardware part is fairly easy: once it’s unpacked, you can just plug it directly into an HDMI port on your TV, and then into the wall with its wall adapter. Some TVs may require you to connect it to the port labelled HDMI 1, while others will not.
After the Compute Stick is connected to your TV and wall, you’ll need to plug its combination keyboard and trackpad in using an included mini-USB cable. This is necessary to charge the remote’s integrated lithium ion battery, as well as to set it up as a wireless device within Windows. Once it’s charged and wirelessly paired, you won’t have to do this again; an included USB wireless dongle will let it operate independently, while an included micro-USB to USB adapter can be used to connect a USB hard drive. (You may want to keep the remote’s charging cable connected to a separate USB charger in case the remote’s battery runs out.)
Setting up the Compute Stick will require jumping through standard Windows hoops, including the aforementioned pairing process, joining your home’s Wi-Fi network, and installing updated drivers. The keyboard is small, but surprisingly capable, and the trackpad is similarly tiny but entirely functional for occasionally navigating the Windows 8/iTunes environment. Once the computer’s all set up, you’ll want to grab the latest version of iTunes from here for free and install it.
Although PC-to-PC iTunes library transfers are fairly easy, the single biggest pain point for Mac users will be moving the content of a complete iTunes library from a Mac to the Compute Stick’s PC hard drive. Reformatting the external hard drive as exFAT will make it easier to access the drive on either a Mac or PC. Apple provides an iTunes library moving guide here, but it’s mostly intended for Mac-to-Mac or PC-to-Mac transfers. Preserving a larger iTunes library’s structure when transferring from Mac to PC will require additional guidance beyond the scope of this article.
If you’re using a microSD card instead of a hard drive, the process is less painful. You can put that card into an SD Card adapter, plug the adapter into your Mac’s card slot, and drag-and-drop individual files to transfer them between platforms. Alternately, you can set up Home Sharing on the Compute Stick’s copy of iTunes and iTunes on your Mac, then drag and drop files from the Mac’s library to the PC. The transfer over Wi-Fi will probably take a lot longer than using a card or hard drive for the transfer, but you won’t have to do it more than once.
In any case, you’ll need to have Home Sharing turned on to see the Compute Stick’s (or Mac mini’s) iTunes library on your network. So long as iTunes and the Compute Stick are on, your library will be visible and ready to stream to Apple TVs, iPads, iPhones, iPod touches, and other iTunes computers in your home. Rebooting the Compute Stick and iTunes can help your iOS device or Apple TV to see an upgraded iTunes library that isn’t appearing in their “Shared” library list/tab (generally found within the Videos app).
Three potential issues you should be prepared for with the Compute Stick are non-iTunes performance, wireless stability, and Windows 10. While reviews of the Compute Stick have been fine when it’s used for media streaming and web browsing, it’s not capable of more powerful computing, and unlike the Mac mini can’t replace a desktop PC for gaming or other tasks.
Some reviews have noted that its Bluetooth wireless performance is spotty, particularly when its wireless chip is simultaneously being used for Wi-Fi connectivity. Driver updates may well help with this, but there could be other underlying engineering issues that only get improved in later versions. The iView version of Compute Stick works around this by including a separate wireless dongle.
Last but not least, Compute Stick is intended to be compatible with the upcoming release of Windows 10 in late July of this year. It’s unclear whether Windows 10 will improve or reduce its overall performance as an iTunes server, so you might want to hold off on performing a Windows 8.1 to 10 upgrade until its reliability is established.
Those issues aside, a Compute Stick can serve as a nice (and inexpensive) iTunes media server for your home. It runs quiet, consumes very little power, and works just like a much larger PC when used to stream audio and video files. If you don’t want to spend the cash on a Mac mini, it may well be your next best option.
Check out more of my How-To guides and reviews for 9to5Mac here! I’ve covered a lot of different topics of interest to Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, and Apple Watch users. Don’t forget to click on Older Posts at the bottom of the page to see everything!