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
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:
- Windows: Both XBMC and Plex run without any caveats. Plex offers a Windows 8 modern-style app as well.
- OS X: Both XBMC and Plex run without any caveats.
- Linux: You can download XBMC via most repositories on most builds of Linux or install XBMCbuntu, which installs Linux and XBMC together. Plex runs on Ubuntu, Fedora, and CentOS.
- iPhone, iPad and iPod touch: Plex runs on iOS and can be purchased from the iTunes App Store for $5.49. XBMC runs on iOS and doesn't cost anything but requires your device to be jailbroken first.
- Android Smartphones and Tablets: XBMC runs on Android and can be downloaded directly from the official XBMC site for free. Plex runs on Android, costs $5 and can be installed via Google Play.
- Windows Phone: Plex runs on Windows Phone. XBMC does not.
- Raspberry Pi: XBMC runs on the Raspberry Pi with multiple builds that offer their own advantages. Plex has an unofficial port.
- Apple TV: XBMC runs on the Apple TV 2. Although Plex can run on the Apple TV 2, it's more work. With both platforms, the Apple TV 2 must be jailbroken.
- Google TV: Plex runs on Google TV, costs $5, and you can download it from Google Play. XBMC does not run on Google TV.
- Set-Top Boxes and Televisions: Plex runs on Samsung TVs for free. XBMC doesn't support any set-top boxes other than the jailbroken Apple TV 2.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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