Who needs Netflix? With home theatre apps like Plex and Kodi, you can roll your own sweet-looking library with all the TV shows and movies you like, with none of the junk. But which software should you use? Here’s how the two biggest solutions stack up against each other.
Plex and Kodi (formerly named XBMC) are home theatre apps that allow you to manage your library of TV shows, movies, music and photos from one place, in a slick interface that’s easy to navigate with your remote or even your phone. Despite having very similar goals, however, they have very different ways of getting there. Here are the basics of each:
Formerly called Xbox Media Center (or XBMC for short), Kodi is an open source project dedicated to building powerful, customisable home theatre software. With years of development behind it, there are a ton of add-ons and skins that can add new functionality beyond what’s already included.
Plex began life as a fork of XBMC, but it’s become so distinct you’d hardly notice. This project aims to make home theatre software dead simple for everyone. It allows you to sync and stream all of your media to any device no matter where you are.
Any time we talk about managing your personal media, there’s going to be an element of personal preference involved. Everyone enjoys their stuff in slightly different ways, so we can’t say what’s perfect for everyone. Even here at Lifehacker, some of us swear by Kodi, while others can’t live without Plex. Keep in mind what you prefer while we break down the key differences between them.
Setting up your home library for the first time is always the most gruelling part of the process. Kodi and Plex handle this step very differently. Which one works best for you will depend on the type of hardware you plan to use. Plex is very useful for streaming your media virtually anywhere, but that feature requires the computer that holds your videos to be turned on and connected to the internet all the time (unless you pay for Plex Pass, which we’ll talk more about later). Kodi, on the other hand, deals mostly with files on the computer it’s running on. Kodi can stream content from other devices, but you can only stream between computers on the same home network, it’s a little more complicated to set up, and it can’t do transcoding (which means you can run into compatibility problems with certain files).
With Plex, you’re prompted to create an account and set your “server” up right off the bat. It will use that account to sync your library and stream between various devices. This means if you have movies on your desktop that you want to watch on your phone, you only have to set up one device. Just log in to Plex on your phone and everything that’s available on your server is ready to go. You can also log in to the web interface for Plex from any device with a web browser, which means you already have access to your content virtually everywhere. Plex even transcodes your videos. That means it will automatically convert your videos to whatever type of file it needs on the fly to play anywhere. It’s the unsung hero feature that lets you play anything on any device and it’s easily the biggest advantage Plex has over Kodi.
Kodi’s initial setup can be simple or complex, depending on what you’re doing. When you install Kodi, you’ll be prompted to add files or folders to your library. If you’re installing Kodi on the same desktop that your files are stored on, the setup is easy. However, if your files are stored on another computer — say, your home server, or the desktop in your office — you’ll need to go through the more complex process of sharing those files with Kodi over the network. If you want to start streaming to other platforms, it gets even more complicated. And even then, if you have multiple devices running Kodi, it won’t sync your library unless you do even more work. If you only need to watch your content on one device, Kodi’s system is perfectly fine, but the more devices you add, the more complex it gets.
In this area, Plex wins out, since it’s incredibly simple to set up multiple devices. Of course, you have to be comfortable creating an account with a third-party just to watch your own stuff, but for most of us, that isn’t a problem. Kodi doesn’t require any external servers, though, so there’s no worry that the company might go out of business down the road or anything. There’s just a lot more effort required on your part in exchange for that independence.
When it comes to platforms, Plex is everywhere. It has dedicated library apps for Windows, OS X, Android, iOS, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Xbox One, and yes, even Windows Phone. There are so many platforms with ready-made Plex apps that no matter what you have, you’re probably covered on at least one or two of your devices. Simply log in and you can access everything that’s available on your Plex server immediately. As we mentioned in the last section, thanks to Plex’s transcoding, you can rest easy knowing that if your videos play in one app, they will play in all of them. Of course, the downside is that you can’t use every Plex app totally for free (see pricing below).
Kodi has downloads available for a few platforms, including Windows, OS X, Android and jailbroken iOS devices. However, there’s a catch: they’re all basically the same app. This can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this gives you the same awesome customisation power no matter what device you’re doing. On the other hand, the default interface isn’t very touch-friendly, and it can still take some tweaking to get everything working correctly. And you won’t have access on popular set-top boxes like the Apple TV or Xbox — just computers, phones and tablets. On the other hand, Kodi is always free.
This is where Kodi shines. If you want to tweak how your home library looks, Kodi offers you a whole lot more flexibility than Plex does. There’s a huge library to choose from, too. We’ve featured several of our favourite Kodi skins, but there are plenty more. If you don’t like how Kodi looks, you can almost certainly find a skin you do like. You can also make smaller tweaks to an interface you do like, organising movies by category, adding custom sections to the main screen, and more. Best of all, you can tweak any version of Kodi. You can swap out skins on the Android version just as easily as you can with the desktop version.
Plex, on the other hand, has very little to offer on this front. To start with, you can only apply custom skins to the Plex Home Theatre app, which isn’t even in development anymore. Currently, the company is focusing all their efforts on the new Plex Media Player, which doesn’t have customisable skins. You can still download Plex Home Theatre from Plex’s site, but understandably, the skinning community has faltered. All of Plex’s other apps — including mobile apps, set top boxes, and the web client — can’t use custom skins either. In short, if you want to use Plex, you better really like orange because you’re gonna be stuck with it. You can create playlists with Plex to help organise some of your stuff, but that’s about it.
Since Kodi is an open source project with a history of community contributions, it’s not surprising that it has a strong add-on community. In fact, arguably, the coolest stuff you can do with Kodi is in the add-ons. You can add custom libraries for shows like South Park or the Daily Show, monitor your torrents, and there are even some slightly sketchy services for things like live sports and new movies. You can even turn Kodi into a killer video game emulator right on your TV or record live TV like a DVR. It’s crazy (krazy?) what you can do with Kodi add-ons.
Like the other customisation options, Plex falls a little short in this area. You can find some extra content in the Channel Directory, but these are usually the same types of things you’d find on a set top box or dedicated apps already. Some of this is a holdover from when Plex was an XBMC variant, and if you’ve hacked together a dedicated Plex box, it’s a little handy, but for the most part it’s not really needed anymore. There may be a few channels that are unique, or that make the interface easier, but in a lot of instances, it feels like an extra step. You can also add unsupported Channels to Plex, but there aren’t nearly as many cool channels as you’ll find on Kodi.
Kodi is free. End of story. If you want to manage your library without spending a dime, Kodi will never ask you for any money, no matter which apps you’re using or how much. That’s pretty nice. Better yet, since the project is open source, you can find some unofficial customised builds that are also free. These are perfect for hacking together your own media centre on things like a Raspberry Pi. For the media mogul on a budget, it’s a pretty sweet deal.
Plex, on the other hand, is mostly free. If you’re streaming your Plex library to a browser, Xbox, Apple TV, or Chromecast, you can do it for free. If you want to stream to iOS, Android, or a few other platforms, though, you’ll need to pay a one-time fee for that platform (the app itself is usually free to try, but there’s an in-app purchase to unlock its full functionality). It’s a little unclear just which apps Plex charges for, and it’s changed over the years. However, if you want to stream your content to every device you own, you’ll probably end up paying for something somewhere along the line.
Alternatively, Plex also offers a service called Plex Pass. This subscription gives you free access to all Plex apps, plus a ton of other experimental or bonus features. Chief among them is Cloud Sync, which allows you to use your own cloud storage (like Dropbox, Google Drive and others) to store media so you don’t have to keep your computer on all the time. Other current Plex Pass features include a song identification tool and music video matching to augment your music library, adding movie trailers to your movie library, and automatic camera upload so you can send your photos directly to your Plex Media Server. Plex Pass users also get early access to new features before they’re released to the general public. You can pay for Plex Pass monthly ($US4.99), yearly ($US39.99), or once for a lifetime subscription ($US149.99).
We can’t flag a clear winner here, but it’s pretty easy to separate which app belongs to which camp of users. If you want an easy way to organise your entire media library, share it to virtually any device you own, and don’t mind possibly paying a little money, Plex is going to be perfect for you. You’ll sacrifice some customisation options, but as a paid service, it tends to work more reliably with less initial effort on your part.
On the other hand, if you’re a die-hard home theatre PC user that wants to tweak your setup until it’s just perfect, and you don’t mind investing some time on research, Kodi is going to be more up your alley. You shouldn’t expect that everything will be super easy, but you can usually make things work exactly the way you like them. Despite its complexity, you can also make it pretty easy for all the normies in your house to use it. This also means you can do a lot more with it, if you put in the effort.