Mac Mini Media Center Update: Plex and Boxee
First, the problems with Mira have been fixed, and it now works with Leopard. I don’t know if it’s better than SofaControl or Remote Buddy, but at least it’s still a viable option.
It also works with Plex.
Plex is what happened to the OS X port of Xbox Media Center. They forked off and have been attempting to make XBMC easier to set up and use, and the latest release is something to behold.
Setup is still a little finicky. To get full use of the fancy interface and metadata, the app needs to scan your libraries, so you need to point it where to go and tell it what sort of files it’s seeing. Then, it crawls the file structure and tries to make sense of it all, sucking down cover art and plot details and what have you. (Of course, you can forego this process and simply browse a flat file list, but that’s for suckers yo.) Films worked mostly pretty well, but TV shows were all over the place. I recommend you organize your files before scanning them in – organizing shows like “Show/Season 1/ShowS01e01.avi” works well. I had a few folders of personal videos that were radically misinterpreted, of course, and I went through each file removing them from the library, but the next time I scanned the sources to get some new stuff in there, all the old files showed up again. So you kinda have to move them into a different folder.
Once you have everything scanned, however, this app takes off and soars like a majestic eagle-god for couch potatoes. Let me bring in my old friend the unordered list:
- HD playback is the best I’ve seen, way better than Front Row and much better than VLC Player. On my 1.83gHz Mac Mini, Front Row can choke on some 720p files and barfs up 1080p; VLC can stomach the former but not the latter. Plex drinks them all down. This is huge. It’s also probably true of other XBMC-based projects, such as Boxee, which I’ll get to later.
- Surround-sound decoding is also best-in-class. When I tried XBMC, it refused to output AC3, DTS, etc. etc., failing at one of the key things I want out of a media centre. It has to do with one’s amp, and it’s complicated and I don’t understand all the details, but I know this: Plex works, and other apps don’t.
- It interfaces with iTunes, giving you access to iTunes libraries locally or around the house, and even plays DRMed stuff.
- The interface, dude. Check out the screenshots on the homepage.
- When you navigate to a TV show, it plays the theme from the show.
- It’s very powerful and configurable. You can pull up an options screen during playback and do lots of shit, like toggle subtitles, set bookmarks, change aspect ratios, etc.
- I was able to compensate for overscan.
- You can customize the background images for the different sections, or the whole skin itself.
- It can auto-update itself.
Now, keep in mind that a lot (but not all) of these features are common to other XBMC apps. Such as Boxee.
I finally got my Boxee alpha invite, so I gave it a shot too. If you hadn’t heard of it, Boxee is also based on XBMC and is available for Mac, Apple TV, Linux and Windows. It does almost all of the things Plex does, and sports a fine interface itself. The additions it brings are twofold:
- It incorporates a lot of net sources, especially Hulu, Comedy Central, YouTube, CNN, CBS etc.
- It has social networking features – you can view lists of what your friends have watched and/or recommend.
Boxee requires the same sort of setup as Plex, with many of the same problems.
Boxee is also pretty awesome, and I could see many people choosing it over Plex, both for Hulu and the facebooky features. However, it has the same surround decoding problems as XBMC did, which is a big issue for an A/V nerd like myself. Also, Hulu doesn’t work outside of the US, so that’s not a big draw for a Canuck, and until it has mass acceptance the friend features aren’t going to do me much good.
As you can probably tell, I’m favouring Plex right now. I’m totally hyped about it, in fact, and am getting ready to customize all the screens and such (ghetto blaster for the Music screen, yeah?). It’s also a small team doing amazing things, whereas Boxee is venture capital funded. But that’s sort of a false dilemma, and I’m definitely going to check back in on Boxee as it develops; as I understand it with these open source projects, they could fold whatever Plex did with their surround decoding back in to their project and that could be enough for me. So check out both and see what you think.