I have been using my Mac Mini for over 2 years as a media centre. It has been a very enjoyable experience. It is a first generation intel core duo and has been playing HD and live streaming for years (even over my ADSL 1, albeit 8000 kbs link).

The missing link has always been treating it like a real media centre - large fonts you can read, using a remote control.

My software has been:

  • Quicktime
  • iTunes
  • Miro

Which really requires a keyboard and mouse.

I turned to Boxee after hearing good things from Geek Brief TV. It has been a great pleasure, but there is some pretty basic features missing from it, which you can find on my Boxee page.

Then, thanks to Screencasts Online I looked into Plex.

Comparison

What I like about Plex

  • The high resolution background graphics - VERY nice !
  • Ability to select thumbnail & background
  • Genre, Actor, Directory and other groupings of Movies - brilliant.
  • Easy manipulation of sound sync (I only had one film I needed to do it on, but it was worth it).
  • Remembering where you last played from - I often find I am switching movies (adult to kids for example and back again).

The main complaints

Many of these are done by comparing them with Boxee, or my default setup.

Bad movie matching

My online movie collection is approaching a decade. The movies are all put into folders by Genre, and then just names, such as "Le placard". I search for "Le placard" in the IMDB and it is the first link. But Plex found "The Indian in the cupboard".

My estimate, from a random selection, is that Boxeee got over 90% of my titles matched correctly, while Plex receives a score closer to 60%. Yes that is bad, maybe my collection is a little esoteric. But I am sure they are doing the same source - what is the difference - not sure?

Zero TV matching

Plex requires TV shows to be stored separately. Why? Boxee picked up and organised all my TV shows (90% accuracy at least) and even found all of my obscurely named goodies episodes, e.g. "Comedy/Goodies/Tower of London.mp4" - and it worked out that it was the Goodies and which episode, series etc. Without having to use the complicated SnEn number type format.

Plex on the other hand found it as "Tower of London (1939)" on the IMDB.

Missing Social - recommendations etc

I love seeing what my family have been watching, letting them see what new stuff I watched, so we can share. Getting and sending recommendations. That is a very nice feature of Boxee that is missing from Plex.

Missing History

It is great being able to see the last few shows I watched. This is really linked into the social list above (functionally anyway). It is missing from Plex.

Performance

I can't speak for why, but the performance is just not as quick as Boxee. Maybe because of all the extra features Plex has :-).

Usability - POOR !

This is by far the number one. I can't say how much I hate the interface. Boxee requires no knowledge to use. I give it to my mum & dad, and they use it without any training. Having menu go back, and play go forward - logical. Always being able to get to the top level menu with the left arrow. No long hold buttons required.

Plex on the other hand, I still can't work out fully. I have had to lookup how to get into functions on the net 3 times.

And it is not just the remote control. A classic example of bad design is the Preferences... there is a list:

  • You can't get back - going back after selecting the first level, takes you back to the main menu.
  • After you make your first selection (e.g. Appearance), your second selection is on the Right side ! So we have gone from Left -> Right, and now Right -> Left, because now when you select something on the right, you are back to the left ! WHAT !
  • Selecting list entries via Arrows you have to move over. You have to move left/right to the arrow of choice, then click up/down. Instead you should use up/down to select the entry, then either press Play to see a list of choices popup, or use left/right to scroll through choices. There are three ways to select entries out of a list - this one is the worst of the three. This is mainly due to the next entry...
  • Using it like a mouse on the screen - the system is build so you use the remote like a mouse. To get to the OK button after adding a source, you have to arrow up the list until it effectively highlights the OK button. Imagine if your DVD player worked like that.

When building an interface for a remote think about how a DVD works. You move around the screen with the arrows, you click Play to get into something, and menu to go back - that is how these interfaces should be done. Always keep moving right. The pop out on the right for changing sort order etc is fine, but not the preferences.

What I really dislike about BOTH

Applications !

It seems to me that the majority of the applications are written to distribute a single RSS feed. Why can't I just add an RSS feed, like I do in iTunes or Miro. Boxee has added an experimental feature to add RSS feeds via their online web interface, which is a little annoying, but at least I can add some (the support is pretty limited though). Why is it these new applications have taken such a huge step backwards. Even iTunes, a commercial application that wants you to use their central store, allows for it.

Universal Removes

I have an old, but good one, and I can't work out how to get it to record long holds on the buttons. Boxee does not really require any long holds, so it is not a big pain there, but Plex requires the menu button all the time.

DRM content from iTunes

I love open source, I would love to promote the use of DRM free content, but the reality is that I own DRM content. I can understand Boxee not supporting DRM content, but Plex is built for mac, so it can embed Quick time.

Conclusion

Plex is beautiful. It has a high number of important features I want out of a media centre (and missing from Boxee). The search, list by genre is good (although a little slow on my collection - 1000+ movies). But even with all the beautiful interfaces and features I want, I really much prefer using Boxee. Boxee is faster, easier to use, has nicer matching on titles and social features. While Plex has search, group by genre (and actor, directory etc), resume and very pretty backgrounds.