Recently, I’ve had a little down time thanks to appendicitis and a good round of surgery, so I’ve been working on getting a media center set up on my laptop. Unfortunately, none of them do everything that I require. The big choices right now are XBMC, Plex, and Boxee. They’re all excellent in some areas and pathetic in others.
I’m pretty picky about what I need from a media center. My needs are not the same as everyone else. First of all, I have a poor internet connection. It’s fast enough to stream from Netflix, but it’s a verizon mifi card, and they don’t like it when you rape their bandwidth. Therefore, I have to keep my streaming to a minimum. Because of that, I have these things called DVDs. They’re these neat little discs that hold movies. I get them from Netflix and Redbox and I put them into my little disc drive and movies play on my screen. It works pretty well. I need for my media center to handle, at a minimum, Pandora radio, Netflix streaming, DVD playback, music playback, and the ability to control it all from my android phone with a wifi remote. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Guess what. None of them do it.
Boxee is great. It’s a little do-it-all media center that can run on your computer or a dedicated “Boxee Box” that you can buy. Ever since the Boxee box came out, development has been focused on it. Recently, everybody started whining so they promised to pick development back up and have a release out by… this fall. In any case, Boxee in its current incarnation is very nice. It can play Pandora better than Plex, and it can stream Netflix just fine. It can do a whole lot of other stuff as well. Unfortunately, the latest version for the mac, 0.9.23.15885, cannot play DRM’d DVDS. They’ve disabled DVD support and an issue in their issue tracking about it was closed as ‘won’t fix’ with no explanation. Goodbye Boxee. I hope that, in that next release, it’ll be enabled. If the DVD support worked, Boxee would be absolutely perfect.
XBMC is the biggest one of them all. It’s the media center that the other media centers we’re talking about were based on. It’s a fantastic media center within itself. However, it doesn’t even come close to doing what I need. Out of all the things I require, the only thing it does is handle DVD playback and music playback. They haven’t even taken a shot at adding Netflix and such. No clue why, seeing as how the media centers like Boxee and Plex that are based on it do implement them. There are third party add-ons for Netflix and Pandora though. Haven’t tried the Pandora add-on, but the Netflix plugin, XBMC flicks, at this point in time, doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for the better part of this year. Whether or not it’ll actually be fixed is up in the air. XBMC isn’t really much of an option for me.
Plex is awesome. It is like Boxee in that it gets all of the streaming and local media stuff right. Its Pandora support is a little wonky but appears to work. The Netflix support is perfectly fine. The problem is that it doesn’t support DVD playback in a meaningful way. It has *some* support for it. You can turn it on and hit ‘dvd’ in the menu. It goes straight to the DVD menu. I couldn’t find any settings for anything, and turning on subtitles is tedious and unintuitive. You can’t even eject the disc when you’re done. Plex is great, but the DVD support is basically worthless. The biggest thing that irks me is how little the developers seem to care about DVD support. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the only person who sees the importance of it. For the past 2 years or so, they’ve been saying things like “It’s on our radar.” and “We need to improve that.” but haven’t done anything. Maybe in the next 10 years or so when DVDs are obsolete they’ll finish up the DVD support. ;) Now, there is a workaround. You can set up applications to launch from within Plex. For example, you can make the mac’s default DVD player launch, and when it’s closed, Plex will reopen. Nice! The problem is that, while I *can* control Plex using the Plex remote from my Android phone, I cannot control DVD player. Alas, the dream is dead. Until Plex has decent DVD playback, I’m out of options. I’m extremely disappointed with my findings. At this point in time, all media centers suck (in certain ways).
Updates: July 19, 2011
Eventually I decided on Plex. I ripped my entire DVD collection so the poor DVD support is less of an issue for me now. Furthermore, the Pandora plugin crappiness is not their fault. It turns out, Pandora is run by assholes who favor Boxee. I still think Boxee is nice. Plex is nicer. The media server and manager is fantastic and I can think of tons of uses for it in the future. Boxee plans to release a new version this fall (after the majority of their userbase had given up on them, assuming they had abandoned the downloadable version for the Boxee Box version), so it remains to be seen if it can win my heart. I doubt it. All it has that Plex doesn’t have that I want is a decent Pandora app, and it isn’t even Plex’s fault that it doesn’t have a good one. Boxee could be the best all around if it just had a few more developers to spare towards the downloadable version. But, it’s forgivable. They aren’t a huge company and they have to prioritize. I just wish the Boxee Box wasn’t the priority. They had a dream and they’re living that dream. Good for them!