Media apps compared

Plex_16x9

Online video streaming services may have taken Australia by storm over the last year, but they can still leave a lot of gaps when it comes to creating the perfect home-media experience.

And being a PC site, we unsurprisingly reckon a media PC is the best way to tie all your disparate media threads together.

We’ve discussed hardware and reviewed pre-built PC options elsewhere, but the other key part of the equation is the software. So which apps should you use to power your home theatre box?

The answer to that question depends on your specific needs. There’s a host of different approaches you can take, but this guide should help you sort out which one will work best for you.

This feature will mostly revolve around our two favourites media apps — Kodi and Plex — but there are many, many alternatives, alongside add-ons and other alternatives made to cover a specific need.

As such, getting set up can be a little involved and will often require you to bolt together two or three different applications and/or install extra plugins to get everything perfect.

3 - 10 foot uiThe good news is that, once done, you shouldn’t have to tinker any further; all these apps are pretty much set-and-forget and will even automatically scan and identify new media as its added.

While Kodi and Plex share similar roots — both are based off Xbox Media Centre (XBMC), a decade-old media player application designed to turn an original Xbox into a device you could play downloaded media on — they do have some key differences.

Kodi’s a community-built open source app with a heap of add-ons and customisation options while Plex is a commercial project that’s more focused on polish, ease-of-use and streaming to multiple devices.

There are reasons to like both, although ultimately we’d suggest settling on one or the other, as much of their functionality does overlap.

5 - kodi default skinAt their heart, what both these apps provide is a TV-friendly front-end (also known as a ‘10-foot user interface’ ­— i.e. one that can be easily used from 10 feet away) for watching movies and TV from the comfort of your couch.

That means simplified control schemes with similarly paired-back onscreen elements — at the back end, both Plex and Kodi have what’s known as scrapers that will go online and grab information (technical details, synopses, cast and crew credits, alongside images like covers, custom artwork and thumbnails) for all the media you add, making for a slick and clean front-end that’s visually appealing and easy to navigate.

Kodi: the flexible open-source option

2 - sexy kodiWhen we mentioned in our intro that both Plex and Kodi have their roots in XBMC, we we’re lying. Kodi is actually the new name for XBMC — it officially rebranded back at the end of 2014.

Kodi’s main strengths are that it’s an open-source, all-in-one application that both catalogues your media and plays it back, and it has the strongest community support of any of these media centre apps.

It’s also deliberately extensible, meaning there’s a heap of add-ons that can broaden Kodi’s abilities and many of these can be downloaded and installed from directly within the main interface.

4 - kodi skinsThere’s additional skins that can change the app’s look, video plugins that will let you watch the likes of YouTube, Vimeo and dozens of other services, and while there’s no native support for live-TV, it can act as a front-end for external PVR server apps, and a whole lot more besides.

It’s one of the few media centre apps that has disc playback built-in — DVDs (as well as DVD ISOs or just a disc’s VIDEO_TS folders) work perfectly including being able to browse menus.

Blu-ray support is a little less developed at this point — it works, but only on non-protected discs, which excludes basically anything commercial.

You can rig Kodi up so it passes off Blu-ray playback to a third-party app (like Cyberlink’s excellent PowerDVD) and then returns to the main Kodi interface when you’re done.

The main shortcoming of Kodi is that it’s not really designed to be a media server — it can’t share your media collection with other devices and the associated mobile apps are generally just remotes made to control your main device.

Plex: the multi-device hub

1 - sexy plexPlex is a platform that basically consists of two parts: a server app, which indexes and catalogues all your media files, and client ‘player’ apps that architecture with built-in video-rencoding (AKA transcoding) capabilities that makes it easy to stream (and optionally sync) content to other devices, including Android and iOS smartphones and tablets.

So if you want to watch your videos across multiple devices — something that’s more common in our smartphone age — it’s the simplest and most straightforward option.

And Plex’s creators have made a conscious effort to get players onto as many mainstream platforms as possible, meaning there are native apps not just for PC and Mac (and an unofficial client for Linux), but also on the major mobile platforms, media players and even some big-brand TVs.

Add-ons for Plex are known as Channels. While there aren’t as many available here as there are in Kodi, you can add a lot of functionality to the app such as adding dedicated interfaces for online streaming services like YouTube. (Although sadly, neither Kodi or Plex support Netflix or other commercial services.)

6 - plex web interfacePlex has some other fairly neat and unique tricks it can pull, too, like the ability to stream videos straight in your web browser, so you don’t even need to have a Plex ‘client’ player app installed.

The main caveat with Plex is that it’s subscription based; if you want its more advanced features, you’ll need to cough up a fee (US$5 per month or US$40 per annum), or pay the rather-hefty lifetime subscription price of US$150.

However, you can unlock limited transcoding — although there’s no option to sync — by making a one-off purchase in the iOS and Android apps for the equivalent of US$4.99 (around AU$7–8).

As we’ve mentioned above, setting up Plex actually requires installing it in at least two places.

You’ll need Plex Media Server on the PC that’ll serve as the central hub for sharing your media, as well as Plex Home Theatre (or the platform-specific Plex app) on any of your playback devices.

You can actually have both these programs running on the same device so it’s both the media server and a player, but you will need to set up the server side first.

Get set up faster

After you’ve installed either of the above media centre apps, the next step is to point them at your media files.

You can have your TV shows and movies stored in multiple folders across multiple locations; they can be on local hard drives, USB storage or shared over the network (from a NAS or other PC). Plex and Kodi don’t particularly care where your video files are, just what type of media (i.e. either movies or TV) they represent.

We’d strongly recommend having all your movies in one master ‘Movies’ folder and all your television in one called ’TV’ or ‘TV shows’ or something similar, as this means any new shows or films you add in future will get automatically picked up by Plex and Kodi.

Naming conventions

Kodi and Plex identify your videos based on trying to match their file names against community-built online databases of movies and TV shows, and they both follow the same styles when it comes to preferred file names.

As such getting your file names in order should be the first thing you do, even before installing your selected media centre app.

For movies, the naming convention is fairly simple: Movie Name (Year) — for example, Citizen Kane (1941). If you have any subtitles, they’ll need to match the video file’s name too, so for our example flick, you might have two files Citizen Kane (1941).mkv and Citizen Kane (1941).srt.

For TV shows, the preferred convention is TV Show Name – 1×01 — so for example, Firefly — 1×01. The latter ‘episode number’ part of the file name is a little flexible — so instead of 1×01 it can also be s01e01 or just 101.

You may wish to put specific seasons of shows in their own folders (so something like \Firefly\Season 1\Firefly — 1×01.mkv), but its not actually required by Plex or Kodi as long as your filenames are in order.

Tinymediamanager2If the latter’s sounding like an overly onerous job, there are actually a few software options out there that can sort out identifying and renaming your media collection; if you’ve got a large one that’s not very well organised, then they should be your first port of call before you even think about Kodi or Plex.

These are our three favourite options:

Pointing to your media

8 - kodi adding mediaIn Kodi, all the settings are accessed through the main menu, while in Plex, you’ll need to get to them via the web interface.

In Kodi, adding videos is done via the main Videos menu item — select it and then click ‘Files > Add videos…’.

Next, click Browse and navigate to your first TV or movies folder and click ‘OK’, then click ‘Add’.

You’ll be prompted to select a what type of media is contained in this folder (either TV, movies or music videos) so use the arrow buttons to pick the appropriate type, then click ‘OK’.

Kodi will then scan the folder’s content and download info and images pertaining to what it finds.

While that’s happening, you can feel free to keep adding more sources until you’re satisfied.

9 - plex adding mediaThe process for Plex is very similar. Immediately after installing the server app, you’ll be taken to the web interface (it’s usually found at 127.0.0.1:32400) and the first screen you’ll see has a big ‘Add library’ button; click it and select the type of media you’re adding, then browse to the location and click ‘Add’ and then finally click ‘Add library’ again.

Keep going until you’ve added all your movies and TV shows — if you’re adding folders that are shared from other devices on your network, having them mapped as drives can make it a bit easier to find them.

Now, as long as you drop any new media files into these locations, Plex and Kodi will automatically add them to your library and grab all the associated metadata.

If you want to add more media folders to Plex later, you’ll find a ‘Library’ section on the left-hand side of the web interface; hover over it and click the ‘+’ button, then follow the same steps as before to add additional folders.

Likewise if you need to add more folders to Kodi’s library, just repeat the earlier procedure.

Other settings to change

10 - plex adjust displayThe defaults in both these players are configured for good media compatibility by default, so you shouldn’t really need to change anything — they’ll work fine out of the box.

We often do go in and tweak one specific setting, however — the ‘sync display’ refresh rate setting, which will prevent screen-tearing artefacts and keep your video nice and smooth.

To do this in the Plex Home Theater app, head to ‘Preferences > Playback > Advanced video’ and switch ‘Adjust display refresh rate to match video’ to ‘On start/stop’.

In Kodi, navigate to ‘System > Videos > Playback’ and, as in Plex, set ‘Adjust display refresh rate’ to ‘On start/stop’.

And that should pretty much get you sorted in terms of the basics. Now all there is to do is sit back and enjoy your flicks… Happy watching!


Transcoding with Kodi

EmbyIf you’re keen on Kodi but want Plex-like transcoding capabilities, check out Emby.

Emby is essentially a more open alternative to Plex — it’s an actively maintained and open-source project (which formerly was unimaginatively named ‘MediaBrowser’) with server and client apps on a wide variety of platforms.

It is a commercial program, but it’s one that can be more-affordable than Plex: it largely makes its money by selling commercial iOS and Android apps, although like Plex, its also introduced a subscription option that gets you additional features.

Now, the key element here is that it’s possible to merge Kodi and Emby so that they play nice with one another — basically, you need to disable all of Kodi’s built-in media indexing features and get it to use Emby’s database instead.

The process to do so is a rather long but relatively straightforward one — we don’t have the space to publish a step-by-step guide here, but if the idea appeals, you can head here for the full rundown.

As an aside, Emby itself has a reasonably impressive front-end that covers all the same basics as Kodi when it comes to playback, so you might even want to leave Kodi out of the equation entirely and just try Emby to begin with.

Need TV recording?

MediaportalNeither Plex nor Kodi have PVR features built in, but there are alternatives and methods to add this. Check out these applications for more details.

  • MediaPortal — This Windows standalone app can completely replace Kodi or Plex and has a very active community. It’s the go-to replacement for Windows Media Center now that Microsoft has discontinued the latter.
  • MythTV — This PVR app for Linux has been available for many years now and its surprisingly robust and full-featured. It’s also available as a standalone ‘appliance’-style Linux distribution if you want to create a dedicated device just for running it.
  • NextPVR — A free (but not open-source) application for Windows makes a good alternative to MediaPortal, especially if TV-recording is your highest priority. It can also serve as a TV back-end for Kodi.