Despite Apple’s near-domination of the digital media world with iTunes, Macs have never really had a stand-out solution for watching video – iTunes supports approximately 0 codecs, Front Row is pretty cumbersome, and standalone video players like QuickTime or VLC require far too much rooting around in my movies folders to find the movie I want. I’m looking for an easy-to-use, beautiful piece of software which will make watching movies on my Mac a pleasure.
This is where Plex comes in. As a firm favourite among movie-loving Mac users, Plex allows you to watch movies on your Mac from the comfort of your own sofa – It has support for the Apple Remote and accompanying iOS apps to improve the experience. To top it off, Plex even looks great. Could Plex be the media center app of my dreams? Let’s take a look!
Plex is not available from the Mac App Store, only from their site. Luckily for you though, it’s 100% free and open-source, due to the fact that it is a fork of XMBC. The download file is a little hefty at 108MB, but they’ve still done a pretty good job at compressing it, considering that the app itself is double the size. Installation is pretty run-of-the-mill – Drag the app icon to the Applications alias and you’re good to go!
Upon first opening Plex, you’ll be greeted with a welcome screen, and a few initial bits of info you need to use the app. The most important of these is where you keep your movies, TV shows and music. Simply point the app to the right place, and Plex will keep an eye on that folder, adding any new files to the library whenever you add something to the folder. One handy feature is the ability to add multiple folders. So if I, for some reason, wanted to keep my English-language films in one place on the computer, and my foreign-language films somewhere completely different, but still wanted both of them in Plex, that would be incredibly easy.
Once you’ve told Plex everything you want to, it’ll go away and scan your library, gathering lots of metadata from a number of online sources to create a nice selection of movie data and images to make your Plex experience even better. In terms of movies, it found plenty of data for all of my movies (including a few somewhat obscure films). The only film it had any problem with was Back to the Future Part I, however that was fixable, simply by adding the film’s release year to the file name in Finder.
Plex sports what is known as a 10-foot interface, which does exactly what it says on the tin: you can use it from 10 feet away. This is certainly useful if you want to put your MacBook down on the coffee table and watch a movie from the comfort of your sofa. The interface is very straightforward when it comes to usability. If you’ve ever used a DVD, video game, or anything in a similar vein, you’ll be very used to the linear structure of such an interface. You have a list of items, and if you click one, you get a new list of items, as each list of items bringing you closer to your target.
Aesthetically, the interface is quite nice, each item accompanied by a lovely big graphic. If you want to, you can change the background image to whatever you want in Preferences. Even the movies have an appropriate background image, in most cases an image from the film. In addition to the original theme, you can download third-party skins. Unfortunately, I found it almost impossible to find a skin online.
Watching video that is stored on your computer is very straightforward with Plex. There’s really not much that I need to go into. You can play, pause, fast forward, rewind, and all of the other things you’d expect to be able to do in a video player.
One thing that is worth noting, however, is how to control the player. By default, there is no cursor in Plex (you can enable one in Preferences), so any controls are done via the keyboard or a replacement device. I personally found navigating, pausing and playing using the arrow keys on the keyboard quite a pain, so I used my Apple Remote, which works perfectly with Plex, with almost the exact same functionality as in Front Row.
If you are more financially sound, and didn’t want to spend $20 on a small slab of metal with a few buttons on it, you can also whip out your slightly larger slab of metal with a few buttons on it, your iPhone, and control Plex via that, or your iPod Touch or iPad, for that matter. A universal iOS app which acts as a remote for Plex is available from the App Store for $4.99. To me, this is quite a high price, considering that the Mac app is free.
However, there are a few benefits of this app. The biggest one for me is the ability to stream movies that are in your Plex library on your Mac to your iPad. This is very handy if you’re watching a movie on your computer, and suddenly somebody else needs the computer. Instantly, the movie is on your iPad for your viewing pleasure.
Aside from native media, Plex also has support for online plug-ins for consuming media. There are a number of plug-ins, including most of your favourites: Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Apple Trailers, YouTube and Vimeo. This is a wonderful addition to Plex, as it offers something which Front Row never had, and the ability to go from watching a movie in Netflix to listening to your favourite song in Pandora without moving off the sofa will undoubtedly appeal to many.
I’ve been searching for a long time for a really straightforward, really useful media center app which won’t make me go through so many hoops that by the time I’ve got to the film, I’m no longer in the mood to watch it. Plex is almost certainly the app for me. It’s incredibly easy to add movies, watching them is equally nice, and added online functionality is the icing on the cake.
It’s blatantly obvious why Plex is so loved in the Mac community. If you haven’t tried it yet, go do it. Right now. You won’t be disappointed.