Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

The search for the perfect media centre

Posted on 22 November 2010 26 comments

Article illustration for The search for the perfect media centre

Yesterday, my mate Jon Hicks just posted a thorough review on the Boxee Box, the just-released hardware solution from Boxee and D-Link that places the Boxee app in its own dedicated machine. I was keen to read Jon’s review for two reasons: firstly, because I’ve previously been a user of Boxee on my Mac, but most importantly because Jon has been posting a lot about finding the perfect media centre set-up.

I’ve long been after the same solution, and Jon’s posts on the subject have helped inform my (ever changing) decision. Now that we’ve just moved house — into the first place we actually own — I can now finally set things up the way I really want, and rewire any cables if necessary.

As I suspected, the Boxee Box doesn’t sound like an all-round winner, which is a shame, because it looks great. I used Boxee for some time and desperately wanted to love it, but I never found it to be reliable. As Jon noted, it doesn’t always fetch the right metadata, even if you’ve stuck to the right file-naming convention:

Boxee has a bug which means if you have episodes of classic series Doctor Who, as well as new, Boxee will only show the new. The missing episodes don’t show up in ‘Unidentified files’ either. You can of course still play any of your files by going through Files > Source and finding the file, but this is no improvement on using the PS3. This is a bit of edge case, but would’ve been solved by allowing users to grab data from tvdb (as Plex does) instead of imdb.

~ Jon Hicks

And that brings me to Plex

Plex, like, Boxee, is based on XBMC, and they basically do the same thing. However, Plex — in my opinion — has four key advantages over Boxee:

  1. It just works. The meta data is always correct, and everything is extremely simple to set up. (There are still a couple of weird bugs, though: see my note at the end of the post.)
  2. The way it serves files is far superior. Whereas with Boxee I have to manually connect a drive or use a NAS if I want to connect over the network, Plex will stream files from any machine in my house. What this means is that I can leave all of my external HDs (containing films, TV shows, music, and photos) connected to my MacBook Pro in the office and the Mac Mini connected to the TV in the living room will be able to play all those files. No more farting around with NAS drives (which I’ve never been able to get to work reliably over WiFi, anyway).
  3. Whereas Boxee’s iPhone app is just a remote control, the iPhone and iPad apps from Plex are playback devices in their own rights. You can pause a movie on your Mac Mini connected to the TV, and then carry on watching it on your iPhone or iPad. Sure, you have to remain on the same network, but in my mind this kind of integration is brilliant.
  4. It looks beautiful. Especially now that Boxee have redesigned their UI (which is one of Jon’s major gripes), Plex most certainly has the edge.

That’s my opinion of Plex vs. Boxee, so certainly no Boxee Box for me. However, they are just two options. What about the others?

Xbox & Playstation

Many people have recommended using an Xbox or Playstation for their media centre capabilities, and Jon is still currently favouring his PS3 as the superior media handler, although admittedly the PS3 lacks the graphical, metadata-driven media listing of Boxee and Plex. Plus, the very obvious upside is that you’re getting a fantastic gaming console as well (and a Blu-Ray player in the PS3), so that makes sense if you’re in the market for a hardware solution.

However, I already have a Mac Mini that (while a little loud) has proven itself as a great media centre. Not only are the Plex and Boxee apps completely free (which is great — I would actually pay good money for either), but it also means I have the fallback solution of being able to play any file I can imagine through VLC, iTunes, etc. if the other apps were to fail.

But I want to hear your opinion!

It may sounds like I’ve made up my mind that the ‘Mac Mini + Plex’ solution is the best option out there, but there’s something nagging at the back of my mind: I want to love the Boxee Box! There’s something extremely sexy about it, and I still like the idea of a dedicated box that just works. Plex is being bundled with some LG hardware pretty soon, and that will be amazing (especially once I eventually get a Blu-Ray player), but there are still a few small oddities about Plex (at times the ‘master’ app on my MBP needs to be restarted before the Mac Mini recognises the Media Library), and I’m still keen to hear about other peoples media centre set-ups out there.

What is the perfect solution?

[Illustration: my current set-up. External HD connected to the MacBook Pro in the office, streaming content over WiFi to Plex on the Mac Mini in the living room, which is connected to the TV.]

26 comments

  1. Tony McBeth

    Tony McBeth

    22 November 2010 @ 12:43PM #

    Have a look at the Western Digital Live HD media player. It will play any content you throw at it and has a very simple interface. Can’t argue for under £90

  2. Stewart Curry

    Stewart Curry

    22 November 2010 @ 12:44PM #

    Just switched from using PS3 to Plex this weekend – it’s so much easier to stream files or just use a portable hard-drive to move them about,and the metadata is sweet. Love how it plays the theme tune to TV shows. If anyone has a spare/cheap Mac Mini I’d definitely recommend it, but I think a new Mini would be way too expensive to justify. A portable hard-drive like a Passport is essential too as there’s not enough space. A few niggles I need to sort out are:
    1) How to get Plex to default to TV Shows rather than Add Source as the default screen on startup
    2) How to stop the screen from dimming a short time after startup (trying an app called Caffine for this but I don;t want to have to do it every time – maybe it’s not set up right)
    3) I’ve a Logitech Harmony 1100 remote which is great for switching but it just won’t switch TV input to PC -it’s fine for switching through AV channels though.

  3. Frank Stallone

    Frank Stallone

    22 November 2010 @ 12:48PM #

    Believe it or not, I use a MacBook Pro with a cable that takes the video & optical out on the MBP and converts that to HDMI — by doing that the laptop becomes a device that is easily connected to a TV, and has all the advantages of a full OSX operating system. I too have been looking at Boxee, Roku, Apple TV, and a few other non-hard drive devices and have bit my lip on buying any of them for full reviews.

    Here’s what it boils down for me, I want something with a hard drive in it. Yes it’s great I can stream but WiFi is not available everywhere. Hearing this story about Boxee is a let down as I presumed it would be top notch considering how many years it, and XBMC has been open source.

    I haven’t heard of Plex, and now it is one I am going to look into but again I fear that streaming a 720p video from upstairs in my house may not fair well and that if I could just have it locally on a hard drive device than it is way more portable IMHO.

    Example: Years ago I modded original XBOX’s to have XBMC on them with bigger hard drives. If I wanted to go to a friends house I just brought the XBOX with me, no need to setup a wifi network, within seconds we could watch something.

    Now this isn’t for everyone — I happen to be part of a breed that buys BluRay discs and downloads backups, and just chooses to use those instead. To each their own and I don’t think my solution is the best for everyone. That being said, I am looking forward to hearing a few reviews on the Mvix Ultio Pro Media Center. =)

    Cheers!

  4. Jon Hicks

    Jon Hicks

    22 November 2010 @ 12:57PM #

    Just a wee note about your point #2: Boxee (like Plex) can take files from anywhere, not just a NAS. A NAS is just my preference to having to leave a computer on all the time, and I find it easier to add files to it.

    Most importantly, if you store your media library on external hard drives (which is often the case when the HD runs out of space), there’s always the risk of losing it all when the drive packs up. This means a mirrored RAID drive, which in turn often means a NAS drive. Rather than having to have another computer on as a go-between, I prefer to get the files directly from the NAS.

  5. Martin Lucas

    Martin Lucas

    22 November 2010 @ 01:05PM #

    I have a couple of friends who are Plex fans, they love it — but I think I’m going to go down the Apple TV 2 route.

    I like the idea of being able to rent from the iTunes store; I’ll be ditching LoveFilm’s postal DVD service, and I’ve also got a Western Digital 1tb network drive to store all my content on, accessed with an “alt click” second iTunes library. I’ve just to rip our 240+ DVD collection now!

  6. Kyle Meyer

    Kyle Meyer

    22 November 2010 @ 02:41PM #

    @Stewart: Most of your niggles are configurable from the Settings area, though they may take a moment to locate in there.

    Having used an Xbox as a media centre, tried the Western Digital media player, and toyed with the Apple TV… Plex takes the cake by a long-shot. Plex handles online content in a great way, including Netflix, and is definitely the best local files player available. Add in the fall back to VLC for any odd file types since you’re already on a Mac, and I haven’t come close to finding a better experience.

    To boot the development team took a great leap forward with Plex 0.9, introducing the media library (the old source system and what-not was more difficult to use), and other enhancements that were less about adding bling-bling and more about performance and experience. I’d happily pay money for Plex if it wasn’t free.

  7. Alex

    Alex

    22 November 2010 @ 04:45PM #

    I use PS3 Media Server on a ‘09 Mac Mini to stream content to the PS3. Works for most media files. I’ve been told that the same setup would work just as well even with a G4 Mac Mini.

  8. Keith

    Keith

    22 November 2010 @ 05:44PM #

    Thanks for the write up Elliot! My own set up is similar, except I use Boxee and have an HD directly connected to my Mac Mini. But I also have an xbox 360 and PS3 that I use. I like the idea of hooking my HD to my MB Pro and streaming as it makes managing my files much easier (don’t like to “work” on my TV.)

    Question: do you take any quality or performance hit with the steaming?

  9. David

    David

    22 November 2010 @ 06:19PM #

    Elliot, your points really bring up that old chestnut: wouldn’t it would be great if the Mac Mini had a Blu-Ray drive. It would make one less piece of hardware to worry about.

    I own both a 360 and a PS3 and as nice as they are they just don’t make good media centres. Both solutions are just too file-system driven, particularly when you’re talking about video.

    Plex + Mac Mini (or in my case MacBook Pro) is one of the more flexible solutions by far, you certainly sound happy with that set-up. I like the set-up too, particularly when paired with Remote Buddy for making switching between Plex / VLC more pleasant.

    I really want to love the Boxee Box too, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on it to see how many of Jon’s concerns are addressed with updates.

  10. Matt Coyne

    Matt Coyne

    22 November 2010 @ 06:39PM #

    I also use a Mac Mini (w/ external HD) connected to my TV via HDMI running Plex.9. It’s a great combination that even my 5yo daughter has no problems with (she too loves the theme tune that plays as you select a TV programme). The ability to play media on your iPad or iPhone is a massive bonus for me (try playing the same film on your iPad and the Tv at the same time!)

    But it is overkill and I do hanker for a ‘box’ solution, rather than a HTPC as the need to maintain the Mini at times means it’s not the dead simple device that you can just turn on and off if there’s a problem. Perhaps a future Plex box, or an Apple Tv running a Plex app, or similar could be the answer?

    And as Jon has suggested in his post, the issues with Boxee are software only and resolvable. So give it time and Boxee could be the one.

    I’ve also tried the WDTV Live, it is a very simple setup. However, I did not like feel of the interface or the lack of metatdata.

  11. Alex Kavel

    Alex Kavel

    22 November 2010 @ 06:00PM #

    My Setup: Started life on XBMC on XBOX with a MythTV backend for a true HTPC experience. Now a using Asus EEE running XBMC + AEON Skin with 2 shiny iPhone Apps.

    - http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/xbmc-remote/id289316916 - http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/xbmc-music-streamer/id308629886

    Like most open-source applications XBMC has been developed by/for the tinkering community, not ideal for those who want a dedicated out of the box solution. Boxee have targeted themselves well at plug and play folk, but I think its temporary solution.

    The laws of convergence suggest this type of hardware will probably be installed into TVs in line with the Plex/GoogleTV vision, or maybe it’ll be set-top manufactures like Samsung, Amstrad and Pace to bridge the HTPC gap elegantly. Who knows?

  12. Alex Kavel

    Alex Kavel

    22 November 2010 @ 06:01PM #

    My Setup: Started life on XBMC on XBOX with a MythTV backend for a true HTPC experience. Now a using Asus EEE running XBMC + AEON Skin with 2 shiny iPhone Apps.

    - http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/xbmc-remote/id289316916 - http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/xbmc-music-streamer/id308629886

    Like most open-source applications XBMC has been developed by/for the tinkering community, not ideal for those who want a dedicated out of the box solution. Boxee have targeted themselves well at plug and play folk, but I think its temporary solution.

    The laws of convergence suggest this type of hardware will probably be installed into TVs in line with the Plex/GoogleTV vision, or maybe it’ll be set-top manufactures like Samsung, Amstrad and Pace to bridge the HTPC gap elegantly. Who knows?

  13. Al Power

    Al Power

    22 November 2010 @ 06:11PM #

    I’m a plex user, and also an appletv2 owner. I’m hoping with the introduction of airplay shortly, I should in theory be able to play plex via the appletv, using my iPad as ‘remote’. Fingers crossed!

  14. Daniel

    Daniel

    22 November 2010 @ 07:18PM #

    I have to say that I completely agree with Frank Stallone. I love the fact that my classic xbox with 300GB (filled) drive can be brought anywhere, instantly hooked up, and watched. That’s the main reason I didn’t purchase the boxee box – having to carry a USB drive (that can’t be stacked) on top of the Boxee box seemed to just be inviting me to drop something.

    Include a 1TB drive in the Boxee box for $200 .. now we’re talking.

  15. Dalton

    Dalton

    24 November 2010 @ 06:17PM #

    I’m a huge fan of the Plex + Mac Mini setup. I was very happy to learn that they have an iOS app as well, it really seals the deal as the best media center app around.

  16. Anup Matharu

    Anup Matharu

    24 November 2010 @ 09:10PM #

    This is easy. Two options, if you aren’t fussed about having an ‘app’ to do everything, but in the name of hi fidelity sound reproduction….

    1) Hi-fi/properly good DAC/squeezebox/digital source of your choice

    or

    1) Naim HDX → Naim Pre → Naim Power → Some ruddy whoop-ass speakers …. there may be some bias here!

  17. Anup Matharu

    Anup Matharu

    24 November 2010 @ 09:13PM #

    Two options, if you aren’t fussed about having an ‘app’ to do everything, but in the name of hi fidelity sound reproduction….

    1) Hi-fi/properly good DAC/squeezebox/digital source of your choice

    or

    1) Naim HDX → Naim Pre → Naim Power → Some ruddy whoop-ass speakers …. there may be some bias here!

    I’m too much of an audiophile to consider streaming music over wireless though. Definitely looking to ditch the CDP and work out a worthy DAC/NAS replacement though.

    I believe there’s also a Naim app to control all this stuff. I’ll stick to the remote though, thanks.

  18. David McNamara

    David McNamara

    09 December 2010 @ 03:49AM #

    It’s a thorny problem indeed and still one looking for a killer solution.

    I have a Drobo with all my files on served by an old iMac G5. That’s great, but Plex won’t work on PPC, so that rules out that one.

    I’m using both a new and an old Apple TV for playback, but constantly have troubles streaming without stutters from one end of the house to the other.

    Apple Airplay kind of works, sometimes I take my MacBook Pro and plug it into the TV with the VGA cable and sometimes I just give up and watch telly.

    Still despairing then. Even more annoying is the remote issue. My Harmony 900 has just failed again after being replaced once already and I can’t believe the set up software on that thing is the best they could come up with!

    We’re not quite living in the future yet.

  19. Aleksandar Vacić

    Aleksandar Vacić

    13 December 2010 @ 02:09PM #

    I’m using a Mac mini with Plex 0.8.5 on it. Works wonderful and look beautiful. I tried 0.9 when it got out, but went back since 0.9 is really awful (at the moment) when dealing with home videos.
    0.8.5 simply shows the dummy lists of files it found, which is enough for me, since I don’t want to set meta data for all of it, which 0.9 seems to require.

  20. Kurt Trew

    Kurt Trew

    16 December 2010 @ 07:52PM #

    I use an Apple TV, second generation. I have hacked it using ATV Flash so I can connect it to an external hard drive, plus use Boxee and other bits and pieces including XBMC, NitoTV. Does me just fine.

    http://firecore.com/atvflash

  21. Delon Summersett

    Delon Summersett

    22 November 2010 @ 03:09PM #

    I highly recommend using PLEX on a dedicated mac mini media center. I use a harmony remote to control the mini and television seamlessly (so pressing ‘watch media center’ button launches PLEX and turns the tv on with no clicking). The lack of blu-ray really doesn’t matter to me – who wants to have to get off the couch to put in a disc when you can just select it from a menu?

    PLEX also offers a wide variety of video plugins….and this is especially important for sports fans without cable or satellite. There are ESPN3 and MLB dedicated video plugins which make watching live sports a menu option away. It’s only a matter of time until the rest of the sporting world offer live streaming.

    The new mini makes it extremely easy to setup with HDMI out, while supplying enough options as a full fledged computer. PLEX is by far the best media center option as well, especially with the latest update making meta data updates worry-free.

    I don’t see any other system making this process easier or smoother.

  22. david hoogland

    david hoogland

    22 November 2010 @ 12:52PM #

    Hi,

    I’ve been researching for a “perfect” mediacenter myself for the last week. So I was quite chuffed to see your tweet passing by. Nice read!
    I believe that plex with mac mini is (from what I’ve been reading so far) the best solution. The only drawback for me is that it’s quite an expensive setup. After having read John Hicks review I pretty much decided to go for the boxee box. I understand there are some drawbacks, but for the price I think it’s a pretty solid solution (and very pretty). I haven’t seen the previous interface of boxee, but with all the negative reviews about it I think they might just change it in the near future (can’t they just hire John Hicks??). Been testing some different files (.mkv, avi, etc) this weekend on plex and boxee. Boxee had the least problems (no problems at all), where Plex would hang after a while playing a .mkv file.

    Haven’t checked out the WD Live HD though… but just loving the boxee box the most so far.

    Thanks for your article!

  23. Frank Stallone

    Frank Stallone

    26 December 2010 @ 10:34PM #

    Just to take back something I commented on before, The MVix Ultio Pro has proven to be the worst user experience I have ever had in a device; I received it for Christmas and will be returning it. Looks like a Mac Mini is in my future as I have been playing with Plex and love it!

    If anyone has any Boxee Box type devices that have hard drives, or have hard drive capabilities please let me know!

  24. Chris

    Chris

    03 January 2011 @ 04:47AM #

    A PC hooked up to your TV, running Windows Media Center is easily still the best option. Most of the boxes that exist right now do not function as DVRs. So if you want that option, you need a separate box. Media Center eliminates that trouble (and, aside from hardware costs, for free).

    The one and only draw back is that it is still a PC and if you exit the media center application interface, you are left with a mouse and keyboard setup. That is not ideal for a typical end user. However, as someone who understands computers, the flexibility of Windows Media Center is nearly perfect.

    And, honestly, the WMC interface is really quite nice (especially for a Microsoft product).

  25. KJ

    KJ

    25 January 2011 @ 03:39PM #

    I have also been on the search for the ideal media center. I started playing with boxee on an old toshiba laptop but the video quality was just horrible and I was forced to run the audio out of the headphone jack.

    I ended getting the new apple tv 2 and I am very pleased. I am a bit unsatisfied with having to open my macbook for the atv to located the files on my time capsule, but I hear that one can now install plex or XMBC on the new atv2 with a bit of fiddling.

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