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