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The search for the perfect media centre

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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.]