The Mac Media Centre Guide: Part 2 – Software

Today we’re continuing our series on setting up a Mac Media Centre, taking a look at the different software options available for watching TV shows, movies, music and photos on your television. Applications covered include Plex, Boxee, Hulu, Front Row, iTheater, CenterStage and MediaCentral.

You can also take a look at the other articles in our three part series:

Media Centre vs. OS X

The first question to ask is whether you want to use a dedicated application to act as a media centre, or whether you are happy with simply using the OS X operating system. Using OS X undoubtedly offers more flexibility, and you can exploit the full interfaces of iTunes, VLC and other applications to have a thoroughly functional setup.

However, a dedicated media centre application is generally able to offer a better interface for navigating from the sofa. It will feel more like a “proper” media centre, and is far easy for friends and family to use (who may not be the Mac experts you are!)

The best way to decide is simply through experimentation. Try using OS X for one week (not allowing yourself to open a media centre app), then do the reverse the following week. It should become obvious fairly quickly as to which one you prefer.

Front Row

The best starting point is the media centre application already built into your Mac: Front Row. This integrates with media held in the iLife suite (iTunes, iPhoto etc) to allow easy access from a distance. The interface is simple and stylish, generally being fairly fast and responsive. You may experience slower performance if accessing media from a network hard drive, though that is to be expected.

Front Row

Front Row

You aren’t limited to content in iTunes, and can access video stored in other folders on your hard drive. Front Row will only allow access to the “Movies” folder, but by placing an alias in that directory, you can extend Front Row’s browsing capability to any other location(s) on your hard drive.

Whilst Front Row is fantastic for accessing content stored on your hard drive, limitations become apparent when trying to stream content over the internet. Movie trailers from Apple are readily available, but that’s where internet streaming ends. For accessing the huge volume of entertainment freely available online, we’ll need to look elsewhere…

Plex

Ed: I have no idea how we missed this the first time around. Apologies!

Plex is fast becoming a popular solution for managing media on OS X, with a gorgeous user interface and powerful feature set. It stands head and shoulders above various other competing applications in terms of design and functionality, and is definitely worth trying out.

Plex

Plex

Based on XBMC, Plex is available as freeware

Local Library

As any good piece of media centre software should, Plex starts by offering a place to store and organize all your local video, music and photos. It does so in a versatile way, supporting local and network drives, along with optical media. It will happily play almost any format you choose to throw at it without the need for any additional plug-ins.

Another killer feature is the way in which Plex integrates online information about your media. It can download album artwork and band information for your music, or plot outlines, fan art, and show information for your TV shows. Integration with IMDB is available for movies for improved sorting functionality.

Streaming

Plex also proves to be a good solution for streaming media over the Internet, through use of the built-in Plex Media Server. Not only does this allow you to pull content into Plex from local iLife applications, but through a WebKit based browser/interface. You can easily play video from sources such as YouTube, Hulu, and Joost.

Skinnable Interface

Plex looks gorgeous out of the box, but also comes with the ability to easily switch skins. Two popular themes include MediaStream and , though various others are available by digging around the Plex forums.

Hulu

Hulu Desktop has recently become available for OS X and offers a viable option for streaming content from their online video service. Unfortunately, it’s only available in the United States at present.

Hulu Desktop

Hulu Desktop

We have recently written an extensive review of Hulu so I won’t delve into too much detail here. The main limitation is that it can only be used for streaming Hulu content. If you would like a solution that offers internet streaming in conjunction with local media playback, keep reading!

Boxee

Boxee is the first solution that combines local media with that found online, doing so with elegance and style. It connects to a variety of online streaming services, along with offering support for RSS feeds of media you might find elsewhere.

Boxee

Boxee

Boxee is definitely an application worth considering. Personally, I find it to be slightly too “beta” for my liking. The interface is not as polished as I’d like, and I regularly find myself needing to quit and restart the app – defeating the point of it being controlled remotely.

That said, it is certainly a promising start. As development continues it could quickly turn into a remarkably impressive media centre option – particularly if more networks agree to make their content available through the platform.

If you are an avid Apple TV user, do not despair. Several guides are available to walk you through the process of installing Boxee on an Apple TV and, whilst the process is a little fiddly, people have reported a fairly high success rate. I would recommend this excellent walkthrough.

MediaCentral

The next application to consider is MediaCentral. This is another tool that combines streaming with local content. It also offers a number of more advanced features such as Skype integration, the ability to connect to a TV tuner and watch live television, a range of retro 80s games, and internet radio.

MediaCentral

MediaCentral

This is by far the most responsive application I tested (on a par with Front Row), though has fairly simplistic interface. It’s also a touch expensive at around $40. Certainly give the demo a try, as you may find the responsive controls and extra features are exactly what you’re looking for.

Other Options

Two other options are available and may be worth considering. iTheater is a older project that offers a simple interface and basic media functionality. It hasn’t been developed for a while, and can probably be considered redundant.

Another more full-featured option is CenterStage, which has a fairly polished interface and works surprisingly well. It’s free and open source. Again, development doesn’t seem to be particularly active at the time of writing.

EyeTV

If you have spent any time looking into TV tuners you’ll no doubt have stumbled across Elgato, who may various digital, analogue and satellite TV products for OS X. Each of their devices comes bundled with EyeTV 3, an impressive application for watching live television, recording, and scheduling.

EyeTV

EyeTV

EyeTV is also capable of working side-by-side with Front Row. This can either be done through PyeTV, or by pressing and holding the Apple Remote menu button to enter the EyeTV interface (as supposed to a single press to enter Front Row).

The Next Step: Taking Control

As you can see, an impressive variety of media centre software exists for the Mac. Despite this, I don’t feel that any one application offer the perfect solution. Front Row is likely the best candidate for viewing local media and Boxee stands above the rest of the pack for streaming internet content. Ultimately, you need to try each application for while and determine which is best for you.

After settling upon which software to use the next step is to choose a remote control method. Several are available, and we will be taking a look at the different options available later this week. Stay tuned, and have fun trying out the different media centre apps on offer!