XBMC vs Plex vs Boxee: The Battle for Screen Supremacy

By Matthew Braga

We test and compare three media centers that turn your laptop into a powerful HTPC.

Like all things in the tech world, it started where you'd least expect. A group of programmers, using a leaked and illegal development kit, created one of the best media players we've seen to date. It was called Xbox Media Center, it ran on a gaming console, and it launched a new breed of multi-capable media suites that handled everything from YouTube streams to VCDs.

was being retired. Having been nearly a decade since Microsoft's first gaming console was released, XBMC has grown a great deal from its early beginnings. For one, it's not just available on the Xbox anymore, but nearly every major desktop OS, and even the AppleTV. But most importantly, the software has continued to improve, and numerous forks have tried to make that experience even better.  
 
Today we not only have XBMC, but Boxee and Plex as well. All three are available for Mac OS X (Plex is the only one that isn't Windows-compatible), and we're going to compare the performance and features of each to give you an idea of what should best fit your needs. 

XBMC

 The main XBMC home screen, with Jonah Hill's face playing in the background.
VLC, XBMC can handle almost anything you throw at it, from DivX to Matroska video files, but unlike its Xbox-bound branch, it can also do HD content too. You tell XBMC where to look for audio and video sources on your Mac, and the app will comb and catalog all your files accordingly. .  
 


Which brings us to XBMC's other big strength — scripts. Written in python, there's a huge collection of XBMC scripts across the internet to handle everything from YouTube integration to Pandora radio, all of which can greatly extend the software's usefulness. If you don't mind getting your hands dirty, you can even write some code yourself, and those plug-ins are cross-compatible with any of XBMC's supported platforms too.

It's simple. It's functional. It plays music! 


Plex

 Hey look, it's Xbox Medi—I mean, Plex.
Plex and XBMC appear. The skin is largely the same, and even button placement and dialog boxes are often identical. But what's changed under the hood is the real focus here. 

Plex said it was going to scrape my TV folder. How did it know "font-weight: bold;" is actually my favorite show? 
Plex places a far bigger focus on metadata and external information than XBMC. When TV shows, movies and music are added, you're given the ability to scrape a number of different services like IMDB or TheTVDB to add images and episode information to all your content. When the process is completed, you can visualize that information in a number of different ways, from straight-up list format, to cover flow style navigation. It's a great change from XBMC, and makes navigating content more of a visual experience — something that's practically required if you choose to use Plex thing on a TV.

That is, if you can get it to work. Actually getting the software to scrape for TV and Movie data can be troublesome, if not downright impossible. Plex's developers have stated this is a known problem, and should be fixed in later releases, but it remains a frustrating issue for now. Even content that was already added to the library refused to switch to an alternate scrape source, forcing me to re-add my content to the library. It's a shame, because options like "Hide plot for unwatched items" sound cool and unique, and are what give Plex the advantage over XBMC.

The TED Talks app works pretty well. If only the rest of the software was as stable. 
While XBMC relies on manually-installed scripts, Plex rebrands these as plug-ins, and makes the install process slick and automatic. National Geographic, YouTube and Netflix all have Plex apps of their own, and offer a great way to stream online content quickly and easily to your screen or TV. However, there are problems here too. Both the National Geographic and New York Times video apps would begin playing fine, but you couldn't actually see anything — which is kind of the point, after all. While I could hear the narrator talk about sharks and ocean currents, all I actually saw was an "opening stream" dialog. At least YouTube and TED Talks remained functional. That's all you need, right?

In theory, Plex offers some great features that improve upon its XBMC origins, from rich episode metadata to slick streaming apps. But getting all these things to work nicely is another story all together, and a sign that Plex still has some kinks to iron out before it's ready for serious, media-playing use.

Boxee

Boxee. Even though it's another XBMC port, Boxee has greatly matured over the past two years, and turned into a slick and refined product that's almost indistinguishable from the original forked code. The big focus here is on social media — that is, sharing, rating and consuming content, and letting your friends in on the process. It's a lofty goal, and something not everyone may like, but it improves the experience dramatically.

For Boxee's social media features to work, the software requires some heavy indexing of all your content. There's no point in sharing if there's no metadata there, so Boxee makes sure that all your content is given cover art, descriptions and episode listings. And unlike Plex, this process is done almost automatically and without any user input. I wasn't fumbling through menus or scraping databases — everything was just there. It was a nice feeling, and a good example of how today's media centers should act.



OpenSubtitle database. Yet, the software seemed to have a thing for German transcriptions, despite me clearly selecting English, so your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, it's impressive stuff and one of the most streamlined media center experiences you'll find today.

And unlike Plex, Boxee is completely cross-platform (Windows, Mac OS, Apple TV, and Linux are supported). In fact, you've probably heard the developers are even working with D-Link to have a hardware based model, the Boxee Box, released this year. The result is a highly-polished product that's finally fit for the big screen.

Whether you're a Mac, Windows or Linux user, make sure to tell us your experiences, and which of today's media centers you like best.