Whither Next? A Media Center Journey

Four and a half years ago, I built my first HTPC for our Home Cinema setup. It was leading edge technology then, but with the rate of change being what it is, support for many of the software and hardware components very soon became either dying or dead.

The HTPC is currently running Windows 8.1 + Windows Media Center (WMC), which in turn is supplemented with MyMovies to provide the best experience with a library of films and recorded TV series. For Bluray films, I’ve been using Arcsoft’s TotalMedia Theatre to play both the discs themselves and ISO files that I’ve made from my discs.  This setup works well, but the writing is on the wall indicating that it can’t continue this way forever. For one thing, it’s abundantly clear that Microsoft want to wash their hands of Windows Media Center, and for another, Arcsoft suddenly pulled TotalMedia Theatre from its web site last month and it is no longer available.

I need to prepare a contingency plan, so I’ve been looking at alternatives. A couple of years ago, I took a (quick) look at JRiver Media Center. I said at the time:

This is a total solution, replacing Windows Media Center, TMT5 and MyMovies in their entirety. JRiver Media Center is capable of handling Blu-ray. I must admit, on my HTPC it appears to handle them flawlessly, a pleasant change to the current disaster of TMT5. But if I adopted JRiver Media Center, I would also be moving away from WMC and MyMovies, and I do like the user experience of that combination.

JRiver Media Center has been around since 1998, and is currently on version 17 (!). It looks to be a very good product, well-supported, with an extremely enthusiastic user community of more than 26,000 members, some of whom are contributing plug-ins for the main application. However, I’m not sure that I want to move to it. It’s a personal thing, I know, but as I say, I feel very comfortable with WMC and MyMovies.

JMC is now at version 20, but I still have the impression that it has so many bells and whistles that it is overly-complex for what it is. I might take another look at it to see if it strikes me as being more attractive, but I can’t help feeling that it will just have yet more features, knobs and switches bolted on that I would never want to use. Addendum: It does, and I don’t. It’s not for me.

I’ve been looking at a couple of other alternatives over the past few months:  MediaBrowser (now called Emby) and, more recently, Plex. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. A major strength of both of them (as far as I’m concerned) is that they both use a client/server architecture. That is, the core component of both is a media server to which a wide range of clients (TVs, HTPCs, PCs, tablets and smartphones) can connect and play the media. Since I hold all our media on a Windows Home Server 2011 system, that would be the logical place to install and run the media server. For both MediaBrowser and Plex, the media server can be administered on the WHS 2011 system via a web interface.

MBS 01

PMS 01

The weaknesses differ between the two, but both MediaBrowser and Plex are fast evolving systems, so changes, bugs, and bug fixes are very much the order of the day. As far as I’m concerned, neither one offers me a complete replacement for our current WMC + MyMovies setup at the moment. Ideally, I would like a combination of the features of the two, because of their current shortcomings.

For example, take the HTPC component of both: MediaBrowser Theater (MBT) and Plex Home Theater (PHT). MBT is still Alpha software; not even at Beta stage. While it is looking good, it clearly has a long way to go – it is very buggy and feature incomplete at the moment.

MBT 01

PHT, on the other hand, is much further down the development track. It looks good and seems fairly reliable on my HTPC.

PHT 01

Both MBT and PHT are so-called “10 foot interfaces” – they are designed for use on large screens, and to be driven by remote control. It would be really nice if PHT could use the remote I have for Windows Media Center, but for some reason best known to the designers, they have deliberately chosen not to stand upon the shoulders of giants, but to start from scratch with almost entirely a different set of commands.

Both MediaBrowser and Plex have player clients for Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1. Here are the Windows 8.1 clients:

MB W8.1 01

Plex W8.1 01

One major shortcoming of the Plex clients (as far as I’m concerned), is that neither of them have no other way of browsing our Music library other than by an Artist view:

Plex W8.1 02

At least the MediaBrowser Windows 8.1 client offers a choice of being able to browse by Artist, Album or Genre, while the Windows Phone client adds the choice of being able to browse by song as well. However, this is nothing compared to Windows Media Center, which, since 2004 (ten years ago!), has offered a choice of being able to browse by Album, Artist (both per track and per Album), Genre, Song, Playlist, Composer, and Year:

WMC 01

So as far as handling of a Music library is concerned then, both MediaBrowser and Plex have a very long way to go…

[Addendum 30 October 2014: Plex have just released new versions of the client for Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone, and the good news is that at last it is now possible to browse the Music library by Album. Semantic Zoom is also supported when the Album list is sorted by name. However, Semantic Zoom doesn’t work (in Windows 8.1) or is missing altogether (in Windows Phone) when Albums are sorted by Artist. Apparently, this is caused by limitations in the current version of the Server. Hopefully it will get fixed, but at least we are now a little further forward than we were…]

It’s a similar story when it comes to browsing Photo libraries. The MediaBrowser and Plex clients can only browse folders, while Windows Media Center can browse by Folder, Tags, Date taken, Ratings, Slide shows and Shared (browsing other media servers shared on the local network). The lack of support for browsing by Tags, I find particularly disappointing in the MediaBrowser and Plex clients. Still, support for these features may yet come. It’s clear, however, that both the MediaBrowser and the Plex developers view Movies and Video as where the action is. Music and Photo libraries are very much the poor relations.

One area where MediaBrowser and Plex has surpassed Windows Media Center is that of being able to play content on other devices. WMC was designed as an all-in-one solution, whereas both MediaBrowser and Plex have been designed as an ecosystem of interconnected server and client devices. So it is possible to browse my movie library on my Windows Tablet, or my Windows Phone; pick a movie, and then start it playing on the HPTC, and continue controlling playback from the browser device.

Plex can do this with its own player applications and selected Smart TVs. MediaBrowser has possibly a wider reach, because it should be able to work with any DLNA-certified device. However, the theory is not always borne out in practice; I have problems using my Denon AVR to play music sent to it by MediaBrowser.

Another area where MediaBrowser and Plex go beyond Windows Media Center is that of being able to access and share media collections outside of the home network. This raises a lot of questions around security, and indeed, Plex seems to have some architectural issues that need to be addressed in this area, and I would not be surprised if MediaBrowser might have similar questions asked of it. However, as I have no desire to share our media collections outside of our home network, I do not use this capability and have closed off the servers from outside access. (Note: since this section was written, Plex has had a totally redesigned security architecture implemented, which seems to have addressed the security issues)

In summary then, both MediaBrowser and Plex have promise, but I don’t feel that either of them have quite reached the stage where I will commit to one and drop my current Windows Media Center setup. Nonetheless, I’ll be continuing to monitor and try out both.  We are getting ever closer to the release of Windows 10, and Microsoft’s possible removal of Windows Media Center from that operating system. The clock is ticking.

Addendum 6 August 2015: Well, Microsoft has just released Windows 10, and, as expected, Windows Media Center has been dropped from the operating system entirely. Since my last entry on this post, both Plex and Emby have improved. Plex, in particular, has considerably improved handling of Music collections. Still not as good as Windows Media Center, it has to be said, but not bad.

I’m still running both Plex and Emby in parallel, trying to make up my mind between them. Plex is currently in the lead as far as I (and my requirements) am concerned, but I’m waiting to see what the forthcoming version of the Emby Home Theater client will offer before I make my decision.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
This entry was posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Whither Next? A Media Center Journey

  1. Castius says:

    I ran into most of the problems you did in exploring all the options out there.
    I went the other way though. I stuck with JRiver and i’ve never looked back.
    One of the things that won me over. Was the community they have established on there forum.
    It’s one of the best around.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Good for you, Castius. Glad it’s worked out for you. I agree that having a strong community of users is an enormous help to any product. JMC is just not the product for me.

  2. Raldo says:

    Geoff,

    Thanks for the “survey”! It’s always interesting to see what’s out there.

    Here is a list of your main points in comparing MediaBrowser and Plex. I’ve added how I think JMC (JRiver Media Center) compares:
    o Server/Client: check. I have JMC Server installed on a Server Essentials 2012 Machine. I use Remote desktop for configuration issues .
    o MyMovies integration: Check. JMC imports MyMovies metadata files. I don’t use this since JMC has built in metadata retrieval.
    o well developed 10 foot interface: check
    o MCE remote support: Check. My Logitech harmony emulates one.
    o Win8.1 Client Player: Check. That’s what I use.
    o Configurable Views for Audio browsing: Check. That’s a major selling point for JMC but also something that makes it so complex. You can basically set up anything you like, in any kind of tree structure.
    o Windows Phone Client: NoCheck. Android and iPhone only as far as I understand.
    o Configurable views for Photo Browsing. Check. See audio.
    o DLNA Support: Check. The DLNA support of JMC is good. DLNA is complex with suppliers not following standards and adding their own stuff to the protocols. But (believe it or not) some users are actually analyzing the components around and JRiver actively changes SW to support new devices.
    o Share outside home network: Check. JRiver provides security keys and forwards connections.

    And then, to some features you didn’t discuss:
    o Music playback: JMC is probably the best player for offline content wrt. quality.
    o Video Playback: MC video handling is painless for the user. Forget codecs problems, Directshow priorities etc. There is a built in system which auto handles video.
    o Photo Support. MC reads several EXIF/IPTC tags (Places, Date, Lat/Lon,Caption, etc). It reads Picasa people tags and generates people lists which can be used for displaying on the 10 foot display. Changes to a file is detected and the people list is updated, even after import (Btw. I’ve recently diffed the outputs of exiftool before and after Picasa and I cannot see any issues 🙂

    If I feel that there is some support for Photo tags missing it is my opinion that NO OTHER APPLICATION can do what MC does with photos.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Hi Raldo,

      Thanks for the comments (and for driving lots of JMC users along to the blog!). You make some good points, but also I think I’m not making myself clear in what I’m looking for. For example, I don’t think I would classify the JMC design as “true” client/server architecture. It’s an all-in-one design that happens to expose itself as a media server as well.

      I’d prefer not to have to use Remote Desktop for communicating with my headless server – a web interface (or integration with the WHS dashboard) seems to me a better, longer term, way to go. It will only be a matter of time before I will have to withdraw my WHS 2011 system from service (Microsoft will not be supporting it), and then I might well step over to a NAS. The Plex media server is available for NAS systems in addition to Windows, Mac and Linux. I can’t justify the cost of a Windows Server Essentials licence to the Financial Controller…

      I’m not wed to the MyMovies metadata, it’s just that I like the functionality that MyMovies gives. An alternate client that allows browsing/management of movies and recorded TV shows that matches the functionality of MyMovies is fine by me.

      The JMC Home Theater view looks promising, but I need to spend some more time with it. Similarly, I need to make sure that my simple (non-programmable and cheap) MCE Remote will work with the minimum of fuss.

      What do you mean by “Windows 8.1 Client Player”? Do you mean the JMC runs on Windows 8.1? I’m looking for a Modern UI player (touch/keyboard/mouse driven) that integrates with my media server in a way that there is a recognisable “house style” with the Home Theater interface, and which I can use to browse media and then hand off to other player clients (e.g. the Home Theater) for playback, while choosing to retain control. Similarly for the Windows Phone client. With Plex and Media browser, I can use the phone to choose my media and then hand over playing to their respective Home Theaters (or smart TVs), and continue to use the phone as a control point. Similarly for the Modern UI clients running on my tablet.

      “Configurable views for Audio Browsing” – yes I think I know what you mean, but then this is a tree structure displayed in a traditional Windows Desktop, is it not? That’s not what I’m looking for. I want clean and simple. That’s why I like the old WMC interface, they actually got a lot of things right in that 10 foot interface ten years ago. Similarly for Photo browsing (although it’s more limited than I would like).

      I’ll take another look at what the Home Theater view of JMC can do with photos. Someone else wrote the following use case in a private forum:

      “With 50k photos you just can’t browse folders, you’ll go insane before finding the right photos. Browsing by keywords represented by virtual folders is good, but browsing by ONE keyword/tag/metadata just doesn’t cut it.

      What is needed is support of multiple level of keywords, at the very least two levels.

      As far as I’m concerned a dynamic two-level virtual folder structure based on keywords would be far better than one. Let’s say you open the virtual folder for the keyword “Birthday”, then you would be presented with virtual folders for all the keywords that coexist with “Birthday” for any image thus filtering the result further for every step.”

      That’s the sort of functionality I am looking for in both a 10ft interface client and a Modern UI client.

      As an aside, if you’re not seeing any diffs before and after using Picasa, then you’re probably not using Canon cameras. I’m still seeing that Picasa 3.9 will remove Canon Makernotes from my photos.

      Thanks again for your comments. Cheers.

  3. Raldo says:

    My media used to reside on a WHS box back then and I actually considered the NAS route when the WHS OS crashed for the second time.

    There were two reasons I did not choose a NAS: First, raid cards on NAS boxes typically force the disk to have a proprietary file system. So a failed NAS raid card might make your disks useless if the card is out of production. Second, JMC did not run on Linux. But that has recently changed.

    I did get a free Essentials license through my job. Server Essentials (SE) has proven to be a lot easier to use than I feared and I’m less a sysadmin now than when using WHS. WHS had one major disadvantage: It was really hard to recover from system disk failures. I had two of those and I spent a long time recovering my data. SE is significantly more robust in this respect. I even tested system restore from a backup disk before going all the SE way.

    You’re asking: ” then this is a tree structure displayed in a traditional Windows Desktop, is it not?” You can set up your audio, video and photos views anyway you want in JMC’s 10 foot display mode (Theater View). That’s actually what a lot of the “bells and whistles” of MC is about.

    Let me give you an example: Due to your blogpost a long time ago (https://gcoupe.wordpress.com/2007/11/09/managing-photo-libraries-part-5/) I adopted the principle of storing metadata in the file. There were some JMC discussions on this topic at that time: (http://yabb.jriver.com/interact/index.php?topic=53434.0) .

    Now, JMC supports reading/writing iptc/Exif Keywords, People. And reading iptc/exif Date, Lat/lon, caption, places, etc. It even detects changes in Picasa facetags and imports these. So I have the following views on my theater view display:
    o New Media. Two monitored dropbox folders. Implemented by using viewscheme filters on folders
    o Events/Year
    o People/Events/Year
    o Places/Events
    o Year/Events
    o Year/Month/events

    These views mix home videos and photos. For photos, all the above tags are stored in the files. For videos I plan to start using .xml sidecar files since few video formats support metadata. Captions are displayed at the picture within the schemes.

    The “Events” tag is handled as follows: Since the iptc/exif “Events” tag is not universally supported, I chose to implement events using the universally adopted keywords tag. Picasa and WLPG display keywords. WLPG can even display nested keywords in a nice manner. So I use nested keywords to store events. A particular event keyword may look as follows: “!Events\Geocaching on Maccu Piccu” or “!Events\Maynard James Keenan’s birthday”. A “smart tag” called Events then extracts events from keywords (using regular expressions). The events tag can then be used in view schemes.

    I don’t expect anyone but me or Marko (from the JMC forums) to be even remotely interested in spending time setting up their media center in such a convoluted way.

    But I do think that JMC would benefit from implementing a “Smart Workflow” feature which would hide such “bells and whistles”

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Raldo, thanks again for your comments. Interesting stuff, but the thing that jumps out at me is this bit:

      “I don’t expect anyone but me or Marko (from the JMC forums) to be even remotely interested in spending time setting up their media center in such a convoluted way.”

      That’s where the potential Achilles Heel is. It’s all very well having the capability in JMC to do this stuff, but if it’s too complex for the average joe to do it, then very few of us will do it. The one saving grace is that a sufficiently functional and popular platform gets a thriving third-party add-on market, which offers pre-built skins/widgets/whatever to open the functionality to be used by us average joes. That’s what I see in the competitor products, and I suspect that the same is true for JMC, but I’ll be learning more about that over the next few months…

      • Raldo says:

        I agree that for new users, JMC appears “Over Engineered”. But then again, I don’t think any other application can deliver that kind of flexibility with tags. Other apps have hardcoded the tradeoff between flexibility and usability and then one soon hits a brick wall.

        Though, It seems as if the ball has started to roll for JMC wrt. automatic configuration and a more smooth initial experience.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      One additional point of clarification: I take it you were using WHS v1? That did have the issue of not being able to make server backups. I’m using WHS 2011, which does have that capability. It’s limited (automated backups cannot be greater than 2TB, because it doesn’t support VXHD format, only legacy VHD), and Microsoft removed Drive Extender, but other than that I’ve been pretty satisfied with it, despite my occasional rant at some of Microsoft’s design decisions in it. At one point it was possible to pick up a license for $40, which is incredible value for what it gives. Alas, it seems as though Microsoft has now withdrawn WHS 2011 from the market.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Raldo, I was intrigued by your new Views within the theatre home display for photos. So I tried to find out how I could do something similar. First of all, a search for “View scheme” within the JMC “User manual” (I really don’t like Wikis as a User Manual, but that’s another discussion) takes me to a View Scheme page that starts off by declaring “This content has been deprecated as of MC14 and may no longer be valid. Please refer to Interact for additional details”.

      I find this so irritating. It seems every time I try and find out more about the bells and whistles in JMC I run into a dead end of deprecated content or follow a tortuous trail of links in an attempt to achieve clarity, and rarely achieve any understanding of what I’m supposed to be doing.

      Life is too short!

      • Raldo says:

        I agree. But try to post a question in the JRiver forums on what you’re trying to achieve. You’ll get answers really fast. I’m at work right now but I’ll take a look at your post later this evening.

        I’ll encourage you to “test” your views in using “Standard View” first. Just go ahead and play around there: right click the toplevel image view and then “create new” or something. Then you can edit the view by right clicking. Note that “Import” in MC really means “Indexing”. When the views look good, you can import them in Theater View.

      • Raldo says:

        The JMC wiki is, as you pointed out, not very well maintained. I think that JRiver’s intention (hope) was that the community would maintain the Wiki.

        Some areas in the Wiki are good but I tend to use the forum when I’m stuck.

  4. Raldo says:

    Btw: You’re saying: “What is needed is support of multiple level of keywords, at the very least two levels”. Check. Any level of nested keywords is supported.

  5. Pingback: Entertainment 2.0 #315: Niche Within a Niche - The Digital Media Zone | The Digital Media Zone

  6. Pingback: Windows 10 Looms… | Geoff Coupe's Blog

  7. Pingback: Media in the Home – The Journey Continues, and Roon is Discovered | Geoff Coupe's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s