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!


  • Russe

    Don’t forget Plex …
    http://www.plexapp.com/

  • Miles Edgeworth

    Right. Plex is the best of them all, you’ll be amazed!

  • Grayson

    Ya Plex is amazing it should defiantly should be included on this list!

    • Grayson

      I’m sorry for the typo its early, basically it should be included as well!

  • http://dev4stat1on.deviantart.com D3V4

    Plex is a very good software, but it would be even better if it didn’t crash every half hour or so.

  • Ziggy

    Any media centre software review for mac that skips Plex cannot be considered to be a serious test. Plex, which probably is the best media centre software for Mac out there, MUST be included in tests like these.

  • Nick

    Where is Plex ??? Users know what REALLY is a choice!

  • Krenzasaurus

    Can EyeTV pull in digital cable or is just local over the air stuff?

  • Steve

    If you use Front Row (always like using mac native apps cuz they just…ya know…work) I would suggest installing Understudy, http://code.google.com/p/understudy/ . It allows you to integrate Netflix watch instantly, YouTube, and Hulu as well as RSS feeds right into FrontRow. There are two ways to leverage Hulu through Understudy, you can have you queue pushed directly to FrontRow or you can enter FrontRow and then it will send you to the Hulu desktop player. I use the second method because I often want to watch something on Hulu and then something on Netflix in the same session. There are a few bugs, but Google updates often and there is a responsive forum to voice any issues.

    • http://www.moosedesign.com MooseDesign

      +1 Yes!I have my Netflix and Hulu queues set to propagate to Front Row for a proper seamless experience. For that reason, I’m not as much of a fan of having Front Row open other apps, but as Steve said, Understudy lets you have it either way you prefer.

  • Perry Fjellman

    Plex is pretty good, but it doesn’t work on AppleTV. I’m sure that’s why it wasn’t included in this review. That right there is a deal breaker for me. MediaCentral may be well and good, but $40 is a little much considering every other media center option out there is free.

    Boxee is by far the best choice if you have an AppleTV. Been using it for years. I have my AppleTV on 24/7 and Boxee never crashes/needs to quit.

  • Perry Fjellman

    P.S. for comprehensive instructions on getting Boxee working on your AppleTV, you can check out this article from Sarah: http://applesource.us/flow/?p=151

  • Bob Smith

    Is “Plex” and “MultiPlex” (Indy Hall Labs) the same thing?

    • Ed

      No. Plex is a media center that is based on the XMBC media center.

      So am in the process of building my htpc and more then likely I will be going with Plex. I really only have 2 complaints so far. Those are Plex is a resource hog and I sometime get frustrated with how it deals with TV shows. Maybe it is something that I am doing, but it doesn’t sort by the episode number. But it free and definitely worth check out.

  • choise

    Plex ! OMG Appstorm, what a fail.

  • harmlessgoat22

    PLEX!!!

  • http://www.txavi.com Javi

    Hey, and what about XBMC ??

    • Greg

      I am shorta shocked this wasn’t mentioned as well, considering that it is one of the first such solutions of its kind for OS X (other than FrontRow) and upon which Plex is based.

  • Jake Collins

    Once again, the author demonstrates himself to be less than qualified to be writing these reviews. A one minute google search would show you that Plex is easily leading the pack in Media Center software.

    As someone else said, WHAT A FAIL.

  • meme

    meh, found this site last week thinking it could be the next coolosxapps blog. But this article changes my mind.

  • http://davidappleyard.net David Appleyard

    Wow. We really screwed up on the Plex front! I can’t apologize enough for missing this gem, and don’t know how on earth it managed to slip through the net.

    Needless to say, thank you for all the comments. I have added the application to the guide, and hope that all our Plex-loving readers are not too offended!

    • harmlessgoat22

      You will never be forgiven :P

    • http://evanriley.net Evan Riley

      No XBMC?!? WTF Mate?

  • harmlessgoat22

    Last sentence of “Media Centre vs. OS X”

    “It should become obviously fairly quickly as to which one you prefer.”

    “Obviously” should be “obvious”. Just thought you might like to know

  • http://evanriley.net Evan Riley

    No XBMC?!?! WTF Mate?

  • 5h4rk

    Plex! +1

  • http://xbmc.org Scott Davilla

    Humm, interesting. A review of Mac OS Media Center software and no mention of XBMC for Mac which runs on both OSX platforms (Intel and PPC) and the AppleTV. Someone need to learn how to google.

  • http://www.iamlinus.se Linus

    There is also the possibility to install Apple’s Backrow if you’re running Mac OSX Tiger.

  • http://inspiredbywordpress.com Daniel Groves

    You appear to be missing a word form this sentence:

    “include MediaStream and , though various others are available by digging around the Plex forums.”

    Great guide so far though!

  • Kris

    My favourite combination: FrontRow + Miro

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  • http://www.nessviewer.com Reiner

    Thank you very much for your interesting article.

    If you like FrontRow + Miro – I would be pleased if you download nessViewer (http://www.nessviewer.com) and take a look.

    I use Miro for just collecting the video podcast entries – but I never download them.
    Instead I just use the nessViewer MediaCenter to play the videos.
    This way I can collect thousends of videos without filling my volume(s).

    In opposite to some other media centers nessViewer is based on system functions (e.g. QuickTime) which makes it small (5 MB for universal code) and less CPU usage.

    It also contains editing tools (e.g. to join movies) and media shows (something like playlists but with additional functionality) which I use to collect/arrange e.g. music videos from LastFM.

    I would be pleased if you test it and may be even give some feedback!

  • http://www.martinvaresio.com.ar Martin Varesio

    It’s something that I need for completing layouts in some magazines I prepare for our customers.

  • http://www.fuego-liquido.com.ar/autor.html Esmalte sobre metales

    It also contains editing tools (e.g. to join movies) and media shows (something like playlists but with additional function

  • http://www.chrismorton.com chris

    i cant wait to use plex , tx for the post

  • http://www.mac-media-center.com martin

    I have written a review and tutorial about my media center on iMac. Take a look at it for first steps or new ideas…

  • http://www.softelgroup.com/ Chantal Terry

    Whenever I read or hear anything related to Apple, I think success with a big S. It is as though they are touched with the golden hand in business. Even their products that were initially not well received, such as the TV software. This too has taken on a renewed life and is about to become the top of its line for TV viewing on your computer.

  • Thitou

    elle a l’air mignonne la japo

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