Alternative media centre software for Mac: Plex best, Boxee not bad

Front Row isn’t too bad as media centre software goes, but it doesn’t do a particularly brilliant job of displaying collections of movies and TV shows which you have on your hard disk. It also doesn’t allow plugins (although a couple of hacks have tried to get around this) and it doesn’t have a mechanism for launching other applications (which I particularly want for my TV software because Front Row doesn’t support TV hardware). I therefore decided to look at alternative media centre applications.

Firstly I looked at a demo of MediaCentral by Equinux. This initially seemed to have a lot of promise but in practice it appeared only half finished: slow and buggy with bits missing. I quickly gave up on that and moved on to Boxee and Plex. These have quite a lot in common as they are both open source applications which are based on the XBMC media centre application.

Boxee is a cross-platform application which is particularly good for watching online content and for sharing your tastes and activities with other Boxee users in a ‘social networking’ kind of way. Personally I’m not too keen on this aspect because sitting down and watching films and TV is an opportunity for me to get away from the Web for a while, and I don’t really want my media viewing to turn into an interactive Facebook-type experience. I also found Boxee to be rather buggy and rough around the edges with a lack of support and documentation. To be fair, though, it hasn’t reached version 1 yet, so it can probably be excused some wobbliness.

When I tried out Plex, however, I felt as if I’d found just what I’d been looking for. It’s solid, it has a slick feel and a professional look, and it has excellent help and support. I didn’t find it totally intuitive to start with but I got the hang of it fairly quickly with the help of the online documentation. Once I’d done a bit of sorting out of my media files and folders, Plex was able to index my films and TV shows with covers, artwork and information from online sources such as IMDB. Very nice.

Plex is a Mac-only application and this seems to work well in its favour. It comes with the Plex Media Server which connects Plex to Apple applications such as iPhoto and iTunes, which means that it accesses the libraries from those applications directly in just the same way that Front Row can. In my view, this is absolutely brilliant. As if all of this weren’t enough, they’ve just added an ‘App Store’ plugin architecture which enables you to watch online content from YouTube, Hulu, etc. And you can easily launch other applications, so I can get to my EyeTV television software without any hassle whatsoever. Plex quits whilst EyeTV is running and then automatically restarts when I quit EyeTV. Very smooth indeed.

All in all, then, I’d say that Plex is very impressive, and it’s still some way off version 1. And it’s free! Amazing. For anyone needing media centre software on their Mac I’d definitely suggest looking at this straight away. Take an hour or two to learn how to get the best of it and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. However, there are a few issues I’ve had with it, and I’ve listed them below in ‘wishlist’ style:

  • I’m currently using Plex on a Mac Pro which means I can’t use an Apple Remote, so I use a Keyspan RF Remote with IOSPIRIT’s fairly excellent Remote Buddy software. However, using Remote Buddy with Plex seems to be a massive palaver for some reason. It took me ages to get this combination working, and in the end I had to tell Remote Buddy to trigger the Plex keyboard shortcuts. Each of these had to be set up manually. This was because none of the available menu commands would work properly with buttons that were set to do different things depending on whether they were pressed quickly or held down for longer. I don’t know why this didn’t work as it should and I couldn’t find any help online, so I hope this gets properly sorted out at some point.
  • Every so often the library scanning is a bit hit and miss, so Plex might not notice a new film that has been added or it might get confused when something has been deleted.
  • I think the way that Plex navigates iTunes libraries could be improved. If I choose a genre, it immediately shows me a mix of artists and albums which I find confusing. When I choose a genre I want it to show me just artists, and if I choose an artists it should then show me their albums. Also, each of these navigation pages should have an ‘all’ option at the top which should then drill down to an option to start playing all the songs in that genre in shuffle mode. Basically I want to be able to access my iTunes library in precisely the same way that I can in Front Row, because that’s a very nice way of doing things.
  • Last.fm scrobbling isn’t working for some reason.
  • Plex doesn’t play DVDs. I know it’s not a huge amount of hassle to start up the DVD Player application, but that’s a slightly messy way of doing things and I’d much rather play DVDs from within Plex.

I can’t think of any other negatives at the moment, and I have to say that Plex is extremely impressive and it just keeps on getting better. I’ve been using it extensively for a couple of weeks now and I imagine I will be sticking with it for some time.