Plex: Your Media Library, Turbocharged

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!

Getting Started

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!

Installing Plex

Installing Plex

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.

Getting Started with Plex

Getting Started with Plex

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.

Interface

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.

The Plex Interface

The Plex Interface

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

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.

"The King's Speech" in Plex

"The King's Speech" in Plex

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.

The Plex iPad App

The Plex iPad App

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.

Plex Online

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.

YouTube in Plex

YouTube in Plex

Conclusion

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.


Summary

Plex Media Center bridges the gap between your Mac and your home theater, doing so with a visually appealing user interface that provides instant access to your media. Your media library has never looked this good!

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  • http://www.kmikazu.be kMikaZu

    You can simply look for skins (and install + update them) with the app “Preen”.

    • http://yourhomemediacenter.com kriebe

      As kMikaZu said, use the Preen app to download any and all of the very nice skins that are constantly updated. Here’s a direct link to the forum post about the application and where to download it.
      http://forums.plexapp.com/index.php/topic/15740-preen-skin-manager/

      • http://dribble.com/conor Conor O’Driscoll

        Thanks for the tip, kMikaZu and Kriebe, looks like a great addition to Plex – I’m surprised it didn’t show up in my Google searches though, I thought I had looked everywhere! :D

  • Kurban

    Personally I prefer Boxee. It’s also free and in my experience works a bit better than Plex does. Again though, this is probably just a matter of opinion and any one person may like one or the other.

  • Troy

    $4.99 for the iOS app is “quite a high price”? The Mac and iOS apps are easily worth ten times that. Especially considering you can encode and stream an mkv from your house while you’re waiting in traffic, and pick up where you left off in a very AirPlay-like mode on your tv when you get home, for the one time price of a burger. Personally I’m really glad they found a way to monetize the project, ensuring it’ll be around for a while.

    • http://www.timthing.me Timthing

      You said it man! Pure genius their app is.

  • CT Shop

    Check out Usher. http://manytricks.com/usher/

    I think it is absolutely the best for Videos. It is the iPhoto for Videos on the Mac.

    • http://yourhomemediacenter.com kriebe

      I understand you may have your own preference, but there is no way this is the best for videos when this can’t even do 90% of what Plex can. Oh and it costs $35 compared to Plex which is free.

      If you want to just organize personal home videos as you would photos in iPhoto, sure it’s pretty good. But using it as a media center, which is what Plex is, it’s not really a solution at all.

  • gafstr

    I prefer Squire (Alpha) so has bugs but very nice! http://squireapp.com/

    • http://yourhomemediacenter.com kriebe

      I like Squire. It’s a very pretty and simple media center solution. It’s the media center solution for your grandma though. I’ve been testing it for some time and the main problem is that there is absolutely no control over what goes into it. It just picks up everything on your computer and adds it in and then tells you what it is without hardly any ability to fix any of the mistakes it makes, which tend to be quite a few. Yes, I understand that it’s in it’s alpha stage. But the way it is right now, it needs to decide what it wants to be. The media center for grandma that does everything for you without any input from you or is it going to get a lot more functionality to bring is anywhere near as useful as Plex, XBMC and Boxee.

  • http://www.spotwing.com Mathias

    Plex is truly great. I don’t need an Apple TV anymore. Great “app”

  • Durb

    Can Plex be made to work (somehow) on an Apple TV?

  • Durb

    Never mind, I found the answer: http://wiki.plexapp.com/index.php/Apple_TV_Plex_Client
    There seems to be an alpha version with, in my opinion, severe limitations available. Also, there does not seem to be a Plex plugin to play online videos from pbs.org. Pity.

  • http://dear-apple.com Dear Apple

    God, how do you add movies to PLEX? Decided to try it, but I don’t have this dialogue. And then there seem to be no way to do it. I wonder who was in charge of menus. This is just crazy. Plex, meet Trash.

    • http://yourhomemediacenter.com kriebe

      It’s really too bad you didn’t give this a fair chance. It’s extremely simple to add videos to this program and if you are having any trouble, the plex community is one of the best out there. Just check out http://forums.plexapp.com and you’ll fine a ton of very helpful people to answer any questions you may have about the app.

      • Goober

        I use and love Plex, but I have to agree with the OP. The initial learning curve on how to add/manage media is fairly high. It is not intuitive at all. Then, when I went from Plex 8 to Plex 9, they (IMO) made it worse. Now I cant correct or even update the library from within Plex (I turned off the auto feature, because its a resource pig) instead I have to switch out of the plex ui and launch a separate program from the media server. Its really not well designed.

        That said, once you learn it, its no big deal. But I fear that a lot of people will just trash Plex after 5 minutes of not being able to intuitively figure out how to add their media, in what should be a straight forward way.

  • MacinJosh

    Even though iTunes only supports H.264, it’s still my prefered method of collecting Movies and TV Shows over the last few years. I have about 2TB of the stuff and stream it to my ATV and iOS devices. I don’t watch movies on the Mac itself.

    Every single Movie and TV Episode is ripped, not from iTunes (my internet connection would not allow downloading due to being slow and expensive), and every single one is tagged with cover art and all other details. It’s beautiful.

    • http://yourhomemediacenter.com kriebe

      If you are already comfortable with iTunes and streaming to your ATV, I understand. The one thing that this review kind of misses is that Plex isn’t something that’s made to really just sit and watch on your computer. It’s built to be the center of your home theater. It’s made to be put on a computer, especially one of the Mac Minis and then attached to your LCD or Plasma TV and Receiver to have one of the best home theater setups possible.

      Not to mention that there is also a Plex app that works for ATV also.

  • sheryl

    There’s a roku channel too so you can stream to your roku.

  • http://yourhomemediacenter.com kriebe

    If anybody is interested in seeing a walkthrough of what Plex really looks like and what it can do, here is a screencast I made a few months ago http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yscPRLN4dZs

  • Pingback: Plex – Your Media Library for the Mac | Design Bento!

  • http://www.qvivo.com Liam McCallum

    Hey Conor,

    We’re definitely not as established in the Mac community as Plex but we’ve built something similar for Mac and PC called QVIVO. Our difference is we want users libraries to be available for them anywhere they go via the QVIVO Cloud. Users can visit QVIVO.com and choose which items in their library they’d like uploaded so they can watch them in the browser or on their mobile device.

    Check it out if you have time.

    Cheers,
    Liam

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