Ask LH: Should I Use Plex Or XBMC For My Home Theatre PC?

Dear Lifehacker, I want to make the perfect home media centre but I've come across a very tough decision: should I use Plex or XBMC? I've heard great things about both platforms, and don't know the main differences. Can you help me decide? Sincerely, PerPlexed

Dear PerPlexed,

Both XBMC and Plex offer great unique features and similar ones, which should come as no surprise if you know the history of these two home theatre PC (HTPC) platforms. XBMC is open-source software, and Plex is mostly open-source software based on XBMC (though its mobile apps are closed).

Although Plex didn't differentiate itself much in the beginning, it has grown into a feature-rich, powerful and easy-to-use platform that almost anyone could set up with ease. XBMC, on the other hand, tends to trade ease of use for a high amount of customisation. To sum up the main difference, Plex is easy but limited, and XBMC is hard but almost infinitely customisable. Of course, each platform offers a variety of other advantages and problems. Let's take a look at some common considerations and figure out if you ought to use Plex, XBMC or a combination of both.

Operating System and Device Support

You may not have to decide whether to use XBMC or Plex after all. Depending on the operating systems and devices you want to use with your HTPC, you may only have one choice. Both Plex and XBMC run on almost anything, but some limitations apply for each:

Note: To find downloads for all operating systems, visit either the XBMC or Plex download pages.

Setup and Configuration

Plex takes about five minutes to set up. XBMC can take five minutes too, but it can also take a lot longer if you want to configure additional features and customise your setup. If you're looking for a simple process, you'll probably prefer Plex. All you do is install the server software, tell it where to find your media, and create a Plex account that you can use to log in from the server and any client devices. When running Plex on a client computer, mobile device, television or set top box, it will automatically detect any servers connected to your account. From there, you can just start using Plex whether you're home or thousands of miles away.

That isn't to say you'll have a hard time setting up XBMC. You can simply download XBMC for your platform, tell it where to find your media and call it a day. However, most users want to do more than that. If you have your media in a remote location, you'll need to set up file sharing on that system and tell XBMC how to access it. You'll also spend some time configuring XBMC's settings to work just the way you like, as it contains far more fine-grained controls than Plex. Still, if you're only installing the app on a computer the process doesn't require too much effort. When you get into customisation, however, you can spend hours getting XBMC just the way you like it (which we'll discuss later). For some, this can be a plus or a minus. It really depends on how much effort you want to expend and what you want to accomplish. Finally, XBMC's setup process differs from platform to platform but we have guides to help you through many of them: any Windows, OS X or Linux computer, small, Linux-friendly hardware, Apple TV 2, Raspberry Pi and inexpensive, custom hardware.

The Bottom Line: If you want to get up and running in minutes, including powerful features, Plex will do the trick. If you don't mind spending more time setting things up manually and tweaking settings to get exactly what you want, XBMC's setup process won't deter you (and you might actually like it).

Customisation

XBMC offers a remarkably high level of customisation, from plug-ins to skins to additional features such as watching live television. If you can think of it, chances are XBMC can do it. It may not right out of the box, but because of its customisation options, you can add on almost whatever you want. On top of that, XBMC is filled with little settings and tweaks. If you don't like the way something works, you can most likely change it.

Plex isn't very customisable, but it unofficially works with many plug-ins designed for XBMC. We'll discuss this further in the next section, but if you want to add new features to Plex, you have a means of doing so. That said, it doesn't offer anywhere near the flexibility of XBMC.

The Bottom Line: If you like to have things exactly your way, you'll want to use XBMC. If you only plan to add features via plug-ins, you could get by with Plex.

Internet Video Channels and Plug-ins

XBMC, through plug-ins, supports several internet video sites (on some platforms), like YouTube. Just install the plug-in you want and you're good to go.

Plex also allows you to install plug-ins, which few users actually realise. Plex officially supports a small few that come installed automatically (including Vimeo, Revision3, Funny or Die) but unofficially works with many others. Plex also offers a myPlex Queue featuring, allowing you to save internet videos for later viewing directly from Plex. This feature works well with YouTube and some online video sites.

The Bottom Line: Both XBMC and Plex support a wide variety of channels. XBMC has a better reputation for plug-ins, but Plex unofficially works with most of them and has an excellent internet video queue feature.

Remote Control

XBMC provides several remote control options. To start, you can get a ton of apps for your mobile device. The XBMC team created the Official XBMC Remote (Android), which provides a standard remote and library-browsing functionality so you can easily choose TV and movies to play on your HTPC via your phone. XBMC Remote (iOS, $2.99) does the same thing, and Boxee, Plex & XBMC remote (iOS) offers a simple remote option. If you don't want to control XBMC using a mobile device, you can use several hardware controllers, such as a keyboard, mouse or media centre remote.

Plex's official mobile apps can serve as feature-rich remote controls, but require a $5 purchase. Plex Remote (Android) and Boxee, Plex & XBMC remote (iOS) offer free alternatives. Plex also supports the Apple Remote and Logitech Harmony Remotes out of the box. Other remote options can be configured, such as a Universal Remote Control (URC) and a standard computer keyboard.

The Bottom Line: Both platforms offer great remote control support, but XBMC provides more flexibility and a cheaper (and larger) mobile app selection. If you need help choosing a remote for either, read this.

Remote Streaming

Plex handles remote streaming better than anything. Not only does it stream video reliably and in the original format whenever possible, but it will also convert the video into a different format when necessary. If you want to stream a video from your home to your tablet while on holidays, for example, Plex will convert the video -- in real time -- to account for the slower connection speed. If your tablet doesn't understand the video's format, it will convert it on the fly as well. If your tablet has a fast internet connection and understands the format, Plex will stream the file as-is. Unless you ask Plex to always handle streaming in a very specific way, it will choose intelligently on its own and rarely makes a mistake. Equally admirable is Plex's simple remote streaming configuration. Because everything runs through your Plex account you just need to log in on any device to access your media library. Everything else happens automatically. You can even stream on the web.

XBMC doesn't stream remotely. You need to forward ports on your router in order to access your media outside of your local network via XBMC. Although not a difficult task, XBMC won't convert files for you, so you better have a fast connection if you plan on streaming higher-quality HD content.

The Bottom Line: If remote streaming is important to you, Plex does it best. For all intents and purposes, this just isn't a practical option with XBMC.

So, What Should I Use?

Both Plex and XBMC make great choices for your HTPC, so after reading all of this you may still find it difficult to make a decision. Here are a few more things to consider.

The vast majority of Lifehacker readers prefer XBMC. The Lifehacker staff is pretty much split down the middle. Regardless of what everyone else likes, you don't necessarily have to choose. XBMC and Plex can work in tandem. Plex provides excellent media server software that automatically organises your media library with exceptional accuracy. XBMC understands what Plex's server software does, so you can still run it and use XBMC on some platforms but not others. For example, if you use Plex Server on a computer with all your media, your HTPC can run XBMC and connect to it. You can use either option on your mobile devices, depending on what suits you best. Don't feel as though you have to choose a single platform and stick with it. If you want to use both, you can. So, if you just can't decide -- don't!

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    What about Windows Media Center? Combined with Media Browers has been working great for me for two years.

    The core problem I found with Plex and XBMC was poor or no Free to Air TV implementation. Maybe that's fixed now.

    Typically I have around 2tb of movies and tv to watch with some FTA TV that I schedule record what are my options here?

      XBMC now has PVR functionality built in.

      I've been running it for about 18 months and never looked back. Ever.

    What's wrong with using WMC? It does everything listed above and works out of the box with little configuration. It can even share recorded TV over the network so it's accessible on all devices.

      In terms of plex, transcoding on the go is a massive feature. My Samsung TV doesn't like certain file types and plex converts them to something playable.

    http://team-mediaportal.com

      I love MediaPortal. I love the interface, as I find the menus a bit nicer than XBMC. I have the plex server application installed, and the iPad app. But I can't see myself switching from Mediaportal.

    I prefer Android TV (MK802) + RC11 Flymouse + FTP server on laptop/pc. Way better and more flexible than these two. Buy microSD card for apps/emergency storage, save everything else to a laptop/pc/external hdd

    Benefits:
    - Can take with you anywhere easily
    - Plays any movie or music file type
    - Internet browsing
    - Flash streaming on sites (when rooted)
    - Pretty much anything an android phone can do but on a massive screen with a flymouse

    I use Serviio because I found PLEX ultra slow. I could look at XBMC but Serviio plays everything and streams to everything to easily!

      Pretty much what happened to me when I tried to use plex. It brought my PC to a halt, tried to reorganise my collection and wouldn't leave it alone in the folder structure I had, and had an attack when I tried to remove a folder that I had added. Still using serviio because it just works and isnt resource hungry.

    As far as XBMC remotes go, the free Yatze app on Android is incredible. As well as a remote control, you can browse through your entire library (thumbnails/plot synopsis and all) and with the touch of a button it launches the media on your HTPC. Easily the best thing I've done for my Pi!

      I agree, the Yatze apps is awesome for XBMC, the only thing I wish it did (or any in that Matter) is an auto download of thumb nails to the tablet

    I used to have serviio, but found plex more user friendly. especially seeing there is a plex app for samsung smart tvs. it took a while to do the initial library scan with plex and was a little bit fidly to remove my laptop as a media server once i'd transferred all my data to a primary location, but i love the way it works and automatically goes of and finds all the meta data for my content. have had one minor issue with it not putting some particular files in an already existing listing, but i havnt sat down to look at it properly yet.

    just try a couple of options and work what works for you.

    as a side note, i havnt really found plex to be sluggish. but then ive only compared it to serviio and didnt see a huge difference in performance.

    I'm sure I read somewhere that XBMC could be made to read media which is stored in .rar format without having to extract whereas Plex couldn't (without some crazy virtual PC/Linux setup). Is this still the case? I have oodles of TV shows I'd love to stream, but don't want to extract them all.

      That should work with no extra effort in XMBC, xmbc just presents the .rar file as a folder.
      That feature has been around since around 2003 when it was still an XBox app.

    I'm not sure that it's a completely apples-to-apples comparison. XBMC is a media player. You set it up on a single machine, point it at your media, it indexes it and then you can play it on that machine. Plex is an entire ecosystem - you set up one or more servers with your media, the server indexes it, then you connect one or more client devices to the server and the server sends video out either by streaming or transcoding. And potentially that's over the internet as well. There's even a HTML5 player on the server now so theoretically you could get at your videos from the other side of the world using just a web browser, provided your server is powerful enough and your pipe fat enough.

    I personally used XBMC for a while but found that the customization comes at the cost of usability. You have to be prepared to get your hands dirty all the time when it doesn't work the way you want it to. Tweaking regexes to recognize your file naming conventions and stuff. My Plex setup combined with Flexget is basically a set it and forget it deal. Plus the fact that it's running everything off a central server means it's all in one place, so I can start watching an episode of TV on my PC, stop halfway, then come back the next day on my laptop and it'll know exactly where I was at.

      Couldn't agree more, this comparison does not give the complete picture

      Last edited 05/07/13 9:33 pm

    Plex for me.
    XBMC responsiveness is so slow, and is so fiddly to setup.
    Plex media server on the err... server, with the media on it. Plex for AppleTV and mobile devices. W7MC for PC's. Perfect setup.

    I use Plex. I prefer the client/ server setup it has. It makes life a lot easier for me as my TV has a client on it as well as others in my home only have to install the client and not think about what they're doing.

    Plex, whilst I prefer it, my Samsung Smart TV has a free Plex app, which means I no longer require a Media PC in my lounge room. Soon I hope to have a NAS with the Plex App installed to centralise everything.

    Seriously, as someone whos played around with various media centres over the years (starting with XBMC on the original Xbox) save yourself a lot of hassle and just get a WDTV Live.
    It plays EVERYTHING, has zero issues, scapes movie info and covers, has a whole bunch of services (Tune In, Netflix, Pandora, etc etc) fits in the palm of your hand and is just so damn simple and easy to use.
    HDMI, Optical, Wi-Fi built in. . . seriously, for $120 its a no brainer.

      The trouble I've had with the wdtv live is that it has trouble playing certain .mkv's.
      And it doesn't play .wmv files either.

    Still using PMS v1.5.2 which seems to run all of my files through my PS3. Recently I tried Plex and set everything up.

    I really like the way it organizes all of my media but I still have issues fast forwarding mkv files with it. Apart from that, everything else works great with it and it was very simple to set up and get running.

    Still keeping PMS around for the time being though.

    I have been using with my Raspberry Pi for quite a while now and I must say that I am amazed how both work perfectly well together.

    Anyways, just thought I'd share a great resource that offers great XBMC compatible accessories. For those who are interested, here is the link to the site: http://qavo.com.au/raspberry-pi/.

    Cheers!

    Luz

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