Interested to hear about the Pros and Cons of XBMC and Plex?
Well, I have been messing with Home Theater PCs or HTPCs for short since I bought the xbox in 2005 and loaded XBMC on it. Computers have evolved, becoming much more integrated with our daily lives. The term, HTPC, had been coined years ago but has grown popularity in the recent years with the booming growth of the HDTV market. The phone is also the new age media device, just look at the number of people watching shows on their iPhones and S3s on the buses and trains. TVs have become smarter too, but I still like to use a HTPC for now. Its more customisable, can load more types of streaming content and I can even game through it. But its a matter of time before more efficient devices like the Android miniPCs take over.
XBMC on top, Plex on bottom, don’t they look similar
Well, I digress. The original topic of discussion was XBMC vs Plex. They are both HTPC software. XBMC is a standalone media center that you install onto your device, Windows, Mac, iOS and now even Android. Plex is more complicated. It is divided into two portions, a server where you host local media, as well as to load and share plugins and web-content. Plex Media Center is the front-end media player component and you might realise that it looks very similar to XBMC, that is because Plex had the same developmental roots and forked off in 2008. I would possibly consider XBMC to somewhat like an OS replacement as it is able to launch applications with the plugins and is inherently more customisable wheras Plex strength lies in the fact that the server can support multiple clients.
Installation & Setup: XBMC wins. XBMC as a single piece of software and is way easier to setup and get it off running. Plex requires a bit more attention, due to the uniqueness of the host and server setup. There might be firewall issues to navigate as Plex uses a MyPlex online server setting to broadcast your server. There are some advantages when you start to load it to more devices as basically, only the server needs to be setup. The applications and library are all pulled from the central server. XBMC while easy, requires more effort to duplicate the setup. Due to the initial ease of use, XBMC wins.
Media Support & Playback: Both have no issues supporting streams, MP4s, rmvbs, H264s, avis, etc. Certain reviews do indicate that Plex have issues playing 1080p media files as compared to XBMC but I do not face that problem yet. However, one key area which to me Plex is lacking is the availability of Airplay. The beauty of XBMC is that Airplay is built-in. With XBMC on my HTPC, I can stream media from my phone or video that my friend sent to me over email or Whatsapp directly to the TV. That is something not achievable in Plex. XBMC wins.
Device & Media Distribution: Plex allows small clients to be installed onto devices like Smart Samsung/LG TVs, Android Phones, iPhones etc where they retrieve the media from the server. The advantage here is that Plex supports transcoding and delivery of a format that can be played to these devices. XBMC on the other hand, does not offer the ability to transcode or stream media. With XBMC now available on increasing number of devices, the difference is that the media needs to be duplicated across all or at least shared via a local library. Today, XBMC has made its way to the iPad and Android devices and can play just about every filetype that is available (Android, not so, due to hardware decoding issues). Over the coming years, these devices will, more and more, be cheap enough and simple enough to erase the need for thin clients a thing of the past, to the point that the only value of a server will be in maintaining a consistent library of watched and unwatched material across devices. For now, Plex wins. If you have a Samsung or LG Smart TV, do try out the Plex application to make your Smart TV even smarter.
Database Management: All of us have plenty of data stored in our computers. This ranges from music collection to movie librarys and personal photo albums. A HTPC provides access to all this in a consistent and often elegant interface. It is meant as an entertainment device and provides easy access to your data through your TV or projector, without the requirements of digging deep into our PC folder structure. Both have no problem doing this. Plex has a central database which means all clients get their metadata from a central place. This allows global ‘watched’, ‘resume from’, metadata edits etc. In comparison, XBMC is a distributed model. Each client has it’s own database which means you can’d do things like start watching in the lounge and ‘resume from’ the bedroom. Or watching a show on the bus and continuing where you left off on the living room TV when you return home. If you have multiple device support, all can share the same database so its streamlined across all.
Addons: XBMC has a way larger database and this shows with the number of addons. If you are looking for a specific type of application, there are much better chance to find it on XBMC. However, the popular video channels such as Youtube, Revision3, Hulu etc do make it to both XBMC and Plex. With that being said, Plex offers the Plex It bookmark to easily transfer web content to your Plex Media Center or media devices. The addons also look more polished on Plex, perhaps the API and backend might be better for acquiring content. Draw.
Cost: While both are free, Plex clients for the Android and iOS do cost money. Just today, PlexPass just launched as well at US$3.99 per month and it provides premium features to the subscribers. One of the newest feature is the Plex web client which allows easier management of your media and to play it straight from the browser.
To summarise it all, it is a close call between this two very similar piece of software and it really depends on your usage. I currently am swaying towards Plex due to the multiple client, single setup feature as I do own a couple of devices that i watch on the go, an iPad and an Android phone, and for the ability to synchronise the playlist. Next is because some of my channel plugins just seem to work better on Plex. However, for instances when I want to deploy a standalone media center such as an Android PC connected to a TV, I would greatly prefer XBMC for its standalone features. I still have both software installed, and I do use the XBMC addon PleXBMC which grafts the Plex Media Server access into XBMC. Its not the best implementation and it feels rather clunky to use as a separate addon, but with some dedication to it, it might be the solution that brings the best of XBMC and Plex together.