Attention, would-be cord cutters: If you’re going to tell the cable man to shove it, you’re going to want a full-featured media center app to make browsing your digital movies, music, and pictures as pretty and painless as possible. Two of the top no-cost contenders are the open-source XBMC and Plex, a partly proprietary fork of XBMC that focuses on streaming media to multiple devices. Which is the blockbuster and which is the dud? Let’s find out.
Round 1: Setup
XBMC, formerly known as Xbox Media Center, identified the music, movies, and TV shows in our massive 200GB collection in minutes, quickly dishing out accurate file details, episode summaries, and album/show art with next to no fuss. Plex, on the other hand, was a nightmare. During our initial setup of the Plex Media Server we ran into a crippling bug that wouldn’t let us add anything. After stumbling around the Plex forums for two hours we managed to fix the issue.
Plex’s plodding browser-based media manager took over three additional hours to scan our media, and when it was done, the video library was full of incorrect information. Note: Before you scan your library, rename your media according to specific (yet for some reason, unadvertised) Plex conventions (see here). Also note: Plex’s newbie documentation sucks.
XBMC correctly identified our videos and used the information to provide episode summaries and filters by actor, genre, studio, and more.
Round 2: Device Support
Both services offer fairly robust desktop PC support, with full-blown Windows, Linux, and Mac offerings. XBMC also supports iOS devices and Apple TV, but they need to be jailbroken. It is also now available for Raspberry Pi and Android.
You’ll want to install Plex’s Media Server on a central PC or server, but the service also has client apps available for a wide array of devices. There are $5 Android, iOS, and Windows Phone apps and you can find Plex clients baked into Google TV, the Roku Channel Store, and various LG and Samsung products. Plex also supports basic DLNA streaming to the PS3, the Xbox 360, and WD TV Live.
Plex’s On Deck function is awesome, but its automatic media identification isn’t: All of those videos are incorrectly ID’d.
Round 3: Multi-device Setups
This round is no contest. The entire Plex ecosystem is based around a central media server that stores your media library and dishes it out to the various Plex clients on demand. Any changes you make to files in the Plex Media Server immediately show up in the Plex clients, and the media server transcodes video on the fly to ensure it can play on your mobile gadgets and connected devices. It’s wonderful—once you get it running.
Click the next page to see round 4 (interface), round 5 (extra features), and the overall winner!
Round 4: Interface
Plex is a fork of XBMC, so it’s no surprise that the Plex Media Player (not the server) bears a striking resemblance to XBMC’s vertical interface. Both are very pretty, functional, and sport a great 10-foot interface that’s perfect for watching videos on your TV.
We love how easy it is to create custom content collections with Plex, which allows you to assign movies, music, and pictures to named groups that are then accessible from Plex’s home screen. Though Plex’s browser-based server media manager is slow, it’s much easier to tweak content details on your laptop than on your TV screen.
On the other hand, XBMC’s developer base has whipped up dozens of skins that let you tweak and tune the app’s look, and the click-to-install process is remarkably easy to use.
Round 5: Extra Features
XBMC is built for HTPCs; it plays physical discs, supports a wide variety of remotes, and offers a deep add-on repository that greatly enhances XBMC’s overall functionality. As noted previously, XBMC’s media-scraping functionality just plain works, though its DLNA functionality often doesn’t.
Plex’s deep feature list is skewed more toward people who stream content. Since all media is streamed from the central sever, Plex includes an awesome On Deck function that lets you pause a show on one device, then pick up where you left off on another device. Additionally, Plex’s streaming Internet channels are more numerous, stable, and of a generally higher quality than XBMC’s video add-ons. You can also send web videos to Plex for future watching… but Plex can’t play DVDs.
And the Winner Is…
In this tale of the tape, the ability to stream content to several devices in an increasingly multiscreen world gives Plex the win, though XBMC’s DVD and remote support make it the better option for HTPC purists. We got the best of both worlds by installing the PleXMBC add-on for XBMC, which lets you stream content from your Plex Media Server to XBMC. Woohoo! The plugin can’t handle Plex’s Internet channels, though.