Review: miniStack MAX Completes Our Mac mini HTPC

Jan 5, 2014 by

Earlier in 2013, NewerTech, the product development company behind Other World Computing, released an intriguing, new storage device called the miniStack MAX. Mac owners may already be familiar with Other World Computing, a.k.a. OWC or MacSales.com. They’re best known for products and accessories to upgrade and extend Mac computers.

The miniStack MAX joined an existing line of external storage enclosures, already sold by OWC, designed to stack perfectly with the Mac Mini. As we’re heading out to cover the new year’s CES, it seems fitting to share our real-world review and test results after nearly 9 months of at-home testing of this device that so excited us at a past CES.

What makes the MAX stand out isn’t the perfectly mimicked mini footprint but the integrated optical drive available in DVD rewriting, Blu-ray reading, and Blu-ray writing options. In an age where external storage enclosures for PCs and Macs are quickly becoming commodity items, it’s refreshing to see someone doing something unique and interesting in this space.

For Mac owners, the miniStack MAX solves one problem that Apple never addressed (by adding a Blu-ray drive) and another that they created (by eliminating optical drives entirely on newer Mac models). For PC owners, the product offers external drive, optical drive, and SD card support to any computer in one compact package.

Our main interest in this product is—and has been since its announcement over a year before it’s availability—as a companion device to a mac Mini used as a home theater PC. Running Windows. But we’ll get to that in bit. First, the specs.

Something Old, Something New

The miniStack MAX offers a lot in one relatively small package—an enclosure for an external hard drive, an optical disc drive, a front-facing SD card slot, and a bank of ports on the back, including USB 3.0, Firewire 800, eSATA, and a USB port designed to charge or power mobile devices. This kitchen sink interface inventory likely looks good on a spec sheet, but we found it somewhat puzzling.

Let’s start with Firewire. Both the optical drive and SD card adapter require USB, so the only use for the Firewire connection is to provide a pass-through connection for the hard drive. But why? Is this just a nod to Mac users? In our tests, connecting via Firewire superseded any active USB connection, which possibly redirects data traffic through a different channel…or perhaps an otherwise available computer I/O port. Either way, it seems antiquated and, in our opinion, it takes up back panel port space and both manufacturing and licensing budget that might have been better used.

The USB 3.0 interface—not in the original specifications for the miniStack MAX—is a great touch, and it’s what makes the product so powerful (cable included, thankfully). As mentioned above, it’s the interface to everything: hard drive, optical drive, SD card interface and two available USB ports. In our testing, it did not appear to drive the “powered” USB port, though. Nothing we plugged into that port appeared to connect to the computer, be it PC or Mac.  That may be by design, but we found it strange and would expect it to be a potential point of confusion for consumers.

Did we mention eSATA? Yeah, that’s there too for anyone who wants it. We had hoped it could be used to attach yet another external drive, but unfortunately, its only function appears to be as a dedicated channel for the hard drive if you want that. You still need the USB connection to use everything else this device has to offer.

Something Borrowed

With just a quick glance at this device, you can clearly see Mac mini design cues. Designed to be paired and stacked with the mini, it very closely matches the footprint and material finish of Apple’s small and oft forgotten, yet powerful computer. But that’s about where the design parallels end.

The miniStack MAX is taller—or perhaps better described as thicker—than the mini by about 50%. The deep dimples surrounding the SD card and disc slots lack the clean, understated lines of Apple’s now-retired slot drive openings. And the white activity LED, designed to reflect off of a supporting surface, seems out of place beside the mini’s pin-hole power indicator. It’s not necessary bad design…just a bit inelegant next to the mini.

Something Blu

Did someone say Blu-ray? We’ll pretend we weren’t jumping up and down a bit at the prospect of an external slot Blu-ray drive that could be added to any Mac or PC (we were) or that we don’t secretly dislike the trend toward eliminating physical media drives from computers (we do). The slot-loading optical drive in this unit gives back to the mini and any other computer it’s connected to what Apple insists we don’t need—access to physical media. Of course, with Windows and the Mac both lacking native Blu-ray support, you’ll need to get yourself some playback software to take full advantage of it.

In the review unit we originally received from OWC, the slot loading mechanism was not functioning—the result of physical internal damage to the drive itself. The replacement unit, however, functioned flawlessly. The drive is quick to recognize and grab inserted discs. It’s also quick to spit them out when ejected (via software—there’s no physical eject button on the device). And we do mean spit. As you can see in this video, the ejection mechanism is very powerful, and could possibly benefit from some dampering with felt or bristles in the disc slot.

The Honeymoon Period

When our review unit first arrived, we were eager to run it through the paces. So we plugged in the external power brick (grrr) and turned the thing on. But first things first. Our unit came loaded with a ton of goodies—media and utilities that were interesting to peruse. This was a refreshing change from devices that have so much crapware pre-installed. Since these bits aren’t installed anywhere but are instead just loaded on the drive, you can easily remove them if you want to reclaim the space they occupy. Before doing that, though, you may want to peruse some of the loaded software and media, including some classic Apple commercials that may remind you why so many of us are still repelled by translucent teal, raspberry blue, and grape!

With the trip behind memory lane behind us, we immediately went to test the USB 3.0 interface. Try as we might, we couldn’t exceed this thing’s limits. With a Blu-ray disc playing, we simultaneously threw five streams of recording HD video onto the device over the same USB connection without a hiccup. Then we attached two USB Drobo devices to the rear USB ports and started diving through some content there. Still no problems. USB 3.0 for the win!

Next, we decided to violate the warranty on our loaner unit and replace the internal drive—an exercise that was refreshingly simple. A few screws to remove the base and a few screws and cables internally made for an easy exchange of the included 1TB drive that came with our review unit to our own 3TB drive. The job took fewer than five minutes total. Powered back on, we readied the unit for our next test: Windows.

Our HTPC mini
After our initial tests of the miniStack MAX, we put it to work as a storage and media device for a Mac mini configured as a home theater PC. OWC upgraded our Core i5 mini to 8 GB and replaced the built-in hard disk with a Solid State drive. Using Boot Camp, we installed Windows 7 and fired up Windows Media Center.

For TV service, we paired SiliconDust’s network-based 3-tuner HDHomeRun Prime with a FiOS CableCARD. The 3TB hard drive we installed in the MAX gave us plenty of room for Recorded TV and media. For Blu-ray playback, we installed ArcSoft’s TotalMedia Theatre 5.

As we mentioned earlier, our interest in this product is primarily for use with a home theater PC, and our platform of choice for that is WIndows. So we formatted the new drive as NTFS, Boot Camp’ed into Windows and were pleased to see the miniStack MAX immediately recognized as multiple devices in Explorer—an external hard drive and an optical drive. For some reason, we were not able to get our PC to recognize the SD card reader. But with the key components of an HTPC now available, we hooked the Mac mini to a TV, hit the Green Button, and took the new device for a long drive.

Settling In

We learned something very quickly once we stacked the mini and the miniStack MAX: the Mac mini tends to get really hot. After initially stacking the MAX atop the mini, we ultimately realized it might be in the best interest of the hardware to switch them. Unfortunately, neither appears to be designed for that configuration. The bottom of the miniStack MAX grips surfaces nicely, but the top is adorned by a glossy black appliqué of sorts. So the mini’s plastic footing slides around on it somewhat annoyingly.

Footing issues aside, the miniStack MAX looks right at home with the Mac mini. Combined, they create a powerhouse computer system with tons of storage, access to various forms of external media, and throughput to spare. On OS X or Windows, the device seems like the perfect self-contained storage solution. And on an entertainment center shelf, the miniStack MAX truly makes the Mac mini an ideal HTPC solution. We’ve been “testing” (ahem, using) our loaner for months in this configuration without incident, and that included swapping it between different entertainment centers and shipping between them.

Of all the product’s capabilities and quirks, only one thing concerns us: As mentioned earlier, the device offers two rear USB 3.0 ports that, combined with the hard drive, optical drive, and SD card interface, appear to be the extent of the internal (5 port?) USB hub. The third USB port appears to be for charging only and not actually connected to this hub. Since ports are often in high demand and short supply on computers in general, we find it both frustrating and confusing that the third, powered USB port is not actually usable as…a USB port.

The Price of Function and Style

Apple customers are used to paying a premium for hardware, and this third-party peripheral has us feeling right at home there. Licensing costs for Blu-ray and all the included port connectivity isn’t cheap, and the pricing of the miniStack MAX reflects that  fact. Ultimately configurable, you can mix and match any combination of optical drive (Blu-ray reader or writer) and hard drive size (500GB to 4TB), ranging from $235 to $479. For a more economical solution, they do offer some bare-bones, bring-your-own-disk versions with or without one of the optical drives, starting at just under $130.

Is it worth it? That likely depends on your needs, your budget, and your use case. From our perspective, this is a device we’ve been waiting for to round out the power and features of the mini. And with the latest generation of MacBooks and iMacs—even the Mac Pro—lacking optical drives or readily-upgradable storage, this product is positioned nicely for the entire Mac lineup. A marriage made in heaven? Maybe…maybe not. But from our perspective, the miniStack MAX completes the Mac mini.

Special thanks to Other World Computing and NewerTech for their extended loan period for our real-life review of the miniStack MAX.

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