Three Media Center Applications
Issue: 8.2 (January/February 2010)
Author: Dave Mancuso
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Article Length (in bytes): 7,018
Starting Page Number: 10
RBD Number: 8202
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IN BRIEF Product Sapphire, Plex,and Boxee Manufacturer Sapphire Developers, Plex Developers, and Boxee, Inc. Price All three applications are free Contact Info http://appletv.nanopi.net/
Pros All three apps help unlock a myriad of cool video content Cons None of the apps are completely easy to set up or use Rating (1.0-5.0): 4.0
DirecTV is about to raise prices. Comcast does the same routinely. TV service can easily reach a hundred dollars a month or more. Yet video content is increasingly available on the Internet. In fact, some content on the Internet, like Youtube, Vimeo, Hulu, and others are not available at all on DirecTV, the Dish Network, or cable providers. You could cost justify a small computer like a Mac Mini just by canceling your television service. We are within reach of the jump from traditional media sources (mostly cable and satellite), to computer-based, online, on demand video and audio content. The big question is: are we there yet? Three applications are front runners in the race to leave satellite and cable behind: Sapphire, Plex, and Boxee. All three applications are free. All three work to bring you video. However, all three have marked differences.
Before you begin with any of these applications, it's a good idea to install Perian and Flip4Mac on your Mac. These are Quicktime components for playing various video file formats. They both install as preference panes in your media center's System Preferences. Also, while you're in System Preferences, go to the Sharing preference pane and check Screen Sharing. Using Screen Sharing to control your media center from your own Mac makes things much easier. The Apple Remote works with all three applications, although Apple does not include one with the Mac Mini. Instead of spending $20.00 on the remote, I tried several iPhone programs as remotes. Rowmote works well after you install the Rowmmote helper application on your media center.
If you have a second TV you can use a second Mac to be a remote media center. I used an old PowerBook to connect to an HDTV in another room and plugged it into my home network. Sapphire, Plex, and Boxee can all access your own videos across the network from your main media center computer. I had a 10/100 wired network between my two computers, and video played smoothly. Using the PowerBook to play video from the Mac Mini's external hard drive provided a good picture at 720p on the HDTV in the other room. Once your hardware and network are set up, you can install one (or more) of the media center applications to test.
Sapphire isn't a full application on its own. It's a plugin that adds functionality to Apple's Front Row software. It's easy to install as long as you have administrator privileges on your Mac. You put the downloaded plugin inside the Front Row application package (the instructions on the website explain where and how). Once this is done and Front Row is restarted (if it was running), you will see a Sapphire menu in Front Row.
The Sapphire interface was the easiest to deal with, and it was the quickest to give me information on the videos I configured it to see. I used OS X Screen Sharing to do most of my configuration work, but used the iPhone Rowmote application after that. Sapphire played videos well, and little things like using arrow keys to jump playback forward or backward ten seconds were appreciated. Unfortunately, Sapphire's usefulness ended there. As well as it worked, it sticks out as an add-on to Front Row, and offers no special content like Plex or Boxee. You must supply all the videos for Sapphire manually. Sapphire's saving grace in my installation is that it's the only media application that works with old PowerPC Macs. My secondary media center, the old PowerBook in another room, can only use Sapphire. It works pretty well, at least until I get a newer PC or Mac to replace it.
Plex began life as the old XBox Media Center, XBMC. In fact, if you have a PC, XBMC is a good option to check out (http://xbmc.org/), since Plex is Mac-only. In fact, Plex is Mac Intel only, with no PowerPC support. Plex has been gaining popularity among media center aficionados, but I found its interface to be confusing. Preferences weren't always in the Preferences section, adding and configuring new media sources in the Watch Your Videos section was confusing, and the Application Store was a bit strange. In addition, when I moved my videos to a new place in my hard drive I couldn't seem to remove the corresponding source settings in Plex. Plex kept crashing. I ended up finding the preference file for Plex and manually editing out the obsolete settings. Plex certainly has everything you need, and you may have a better experience with it than I did, but Plex's interface just didn't click for me.
Boxee was easy to install. It's Mac Intel only, with no PowerPC support, but Boxee is the only solution I tested that has a Windows version (and a Linux version and an AppleTV version--it covers all the bases). One hurdle is that you need to apply for a beta account with Boxee, but once you get one you're all set. Setting up your local video sources was similar to the other two applications, but it was easier than Plex. Boxee played video well, and gave me several options for displaying my information. The real win with Boxee is the Applications section. The App Box shows you a dizzying array of options, from Hulu and Joost video to NPR audio to even ICanHasCheezburger still photos. Plex had many of these options, but they seemed easier to access and use on Boxee.
In the end, Boxee was the winner on my media center. It had so much content, traditional and new, that it was irresistable. My wife and kids were fascinated with the things they could watch (as a side note, make sure to check out parental settings in these applications if you have kids). However, since Plex and Boxee are free, I kept them installed, and I'll continue to work with them. Over time, Boxee may be surpassed and I'll be using a different application. The conclusion right now seems to be that computer television is almost, but not quite, ready to use full time. 2010 will likely be a key year for this technology, and as we enter 2011 this field will likely be mature enough that satellite and cable can be easily left behind.
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