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Review: Plex Media Center

Access all your online and offline media in one easy-to-use program

iTunes and Front Row are both excellent applications for playing various types of media files on your Mac and they cope admirably with music, videos and photos. Are they the best they could possibly be, though? After trying Plex instead of the two applications that Apple bundles with OS X, you might find them a bit short on features. Plex replaces both of them for media organising and playing and it has many more features that aren’t in iTunes or Front Row. Its online features are brilliant and it uses the internet to get extra content and information that is sorely missing from Apple’s apps. What’s more, it’s great for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
Plex is a 109MB download and getting it up and running can take some time because when it is first run, it requires setting up. You have to select the folders you use for photos, videos, television shows and movies. The time- consuming part is the wait while it scans the folders and, if necessary, converts the media, or downloads plug-ins to handle the codecs.
The mouse can be used with Plex, but it is best with an Apple remote control, the keyboard or the iPhone/ iPad/iPod touch (more of that later). The home screen has a text menu on the left-hand side and this is used to access the music, movies, TV shows and other features like online content. As you select each item, a large image is displayed on the right, such as a guitar for music, a television for TV shows and so on. The interface looks striking.
Select Music, for example, and there’s a menu to list the artists, genre, decade, year and recently added. Select an artist and Plex displays a photo and biography, which is sometimes quite detailed. It’s a fantastic feature of the program. However, biographies irritatingly scroll up the screen automatically and there is no way to control them. This is typical of Plex and it is both brilliant and annoying at the same time. Selecting an artist displays the albums in your music collection and then selecting an album displays the artwork and a track listing, and you can set it playing. A window floats on the screen to show what’s currently playing as you browse the menus.
The Movies section has a similar menu structure and you can view all movies, recently added, by genre, year, director, starring actor and so on. The number of ways of viewing your libraries is excellent. Select a movie and you get an informative description and artwork, if any exists. Unfortunately, the information scrolls automatically as with music, but a bigger problem is that it wouldn’t play all movies and TV shows. iTunes Store DRM protection seems to throw a spanner in the works and media won’t play. DRM-free movies, TV shows, trailers and your own movies are fine, though. It’s an annoying limitation.
One of Plex’s best features is its ability to play online content and you can add plug-ins to access a wide range of services. Sadly though, some don’t work in the UK. Plex must be brilliant in the US, but here it is somewhat limited. It has a BBC iPlayer plug-in, but TV programmes wouldn’t play. It does have YouTube and Vimeo access, though, and this is excellent. It’s easy to find videos and stream them to your Mac.
Another interesting feature of Plex is the way that the iPhone and iPad are integrated. Get the app (£2.99) and you can use the device as a remote control to access Plex’s features and media library. The remote screen display is just like a remote with up, down, left and right buttons, menu, info, back and so on. What it’s really good at is streaming media from the library on your Mac to your iOS device. It automatically converts it into the right format and simply sends it without any hassle. It’s a really nice app if you want to sit on the couch with your iOS device and enjoy movies.
Plex is packed with fascinating and powerful features and the software is a media server. It is able to share your library of movies, photos and music on your local network and even over the internet. In fact, you can access your friends’ media libraries as if they were on your own Mac and play all the content. This is fantastic, but again Plex shoots itself in the foot and the technical knowledge required for this is beyond many people.
Plex has some irritations, but it also has a lot of great features too and it is definitely an application that is worth trying – after all, it is free.