Boxee and Plex

My journey to find the ideal Media Centre has brought me via Plex and Boxee. Both are media center applications based on the popular open source XBox Media Center (XBMC), with Boxee focussing on the social network slant, and Plex solely on OS X integration.

Plex has a very slick interface, and everytime I mention Boxee, there is the inevitable "Why not Plex?’ cry from other Mac users. At the moment, the answer is that Plex doesn’t yet offer me much over just using Front Row. The slick interface has more character than Front Row though, particularly in it’s use of online databases to provide metadata and large format photographs:

It doesn’t always get the show/movie right however. The Secret Show recordings were believed to be ‘Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show’, and this couldn’t be manually removed.

The main appeal of Plex is that it’s built for OS X only, so you’re getting the best integration - no pandering to cross platform needs. In particular iTunes library scanning works really well, and plays iTunes store DRM’s material, an area where Boxee failed (see below).

What I miss from Plex are services like BBC iPlayer and EyeTV integration, which I believe are planned. That’s where Boxee comes in.

Boxee, on the face of it, doesn’t have quite as much UI sexiness as Plex, but I think it’s more thoughtfully laid out. For example, when you log in, the home screen shows you not only what you and your friends have been watching/listening to, but what you’ve recently added. Here is your new content - go straight to it.

The social network side is intriguing, but the integration of internet services (too numerous to mention) is it’s forté. In particular, the one that interests me the most, is that the latest release supports BBC iPlayer, and does it rather well, using the Beeb’s Big Screen Interface :

There are only two downsides I’ve experienced so far: Firstly, it doesn’t show all of my Music (around 800 non-DRM albums are just missing), despite leaving it overnight to process the collection. After digging around on forums, this seemed to be caused by scraping for information, and that a different source was intended for future releases. That doesn’t explain why random songs are missing from albums though. Until then, I have to browse the folder structure to find what I want to play.

The biggie is stability. In the middle of watching a movie with the family it crashed. I installed the EyeTV plugin from XBMC and it crashed. I asked it to look for a SMB share and it crashed. When it crashes on the Mac Mini the only solution is turn it off and restart it. It feels churlish mentioning this when Boxee is in Alpha, and if you follow Team Boxee on their blog and twitter, you’ll know it’s progressing at a good pace. It just means it’s not that usable for me at the moment.

While playing with Boxee, I found a few useful tricks and add-ons, such as:

* You can also get a Front Row appliance to put a Boxee entry into the Front Row Menu, making it easy to launch with the Apple Remote

* If you have problems (like I did) getting TV Shows to show up in the TV Show menu, editing the filename does the trick, but obviously that’s a bit tedious.

* To stream from your Mac, you can set up an SMB share, which will then show up as a media source in Boxee:

Ultimately, Boxee is geared up for the US market - Hulu, ABC, Netflix and such, some of which can be accessed in the UK via VPN trickery. You would then have to disable that in order to watch BBC iPlayer, which I’m more likely to watch. Not a big deal on your laptop, but when you’re trying to control a Mac Mini with a little remote, it’s going to require clever scripts and patience.

Despite stability and iTunes library niggles, I prefer Boxee over Plex. In fact, Boxee instills feelings of love and devotion in me for it’s online services, recommendations and layout. However, I’ve come to realise that the problem for me isn’t ‘Boxee or Plex’, it’s that controlling a Mac Mini remotely can be a pain in the arse. I haven’t tried Boxee on AppleTV though, which may well be the answer, but the hacky nature of it put me off.

Neither Boxee or Plex have ended up being my ideal solution, which is in fact a Playstation 3 with PlayTV. That’s for another post!