Media Center Face OffPerhaps the most important aspect of a Mac Mini Home Theater is the actual software you use to view your media.  The ease of use, stability, and flexibility of the software program is ultimately going to determine if the Mac is a viable solution for you to use on a regular basis.  In this article, I primarily weight the pros and cons of three apps which evolved from the Xbox Media Center Project as well as Apple’s own Front Row application.  Find out which is my favorite after the break…

Before I begin, I’ll point out that I DO NOT use the Mac as a PVR.  I’ve read some great things about EyeTV for Mac, but for the sports I watch, I really can’t get by without DirecTV.  I would LOVE LOVE LOVE DirecTV to release a cable card that I could throw into the Mac for a fully integrated app, but I just don’t see that happening.  If Elgato would like to send an EyeTV my way, I’d be happy to review its performance with over-the-air broadcasts, but in the US, we just don’t have the same options that are available in other areas.  With that said… here are my top picks for a Mac Media Center.

All apps support playing Quicktime videos as well as browsing your music and photo libraries.  All apps work well with the Apple Remote and have some degree of iPhone remote control.  The subtle differences are what separates each app…

XBMC

XBMC is pretty much where the whole Media Center experience started from.  It is cross-platform, so if you liked it on Windows, you’ll like it just as much on the Mac.  It also has the most basic feature set, but I believe this makes it the most stable as well.

PROS:

  • Very stable
  • Lost of custom skins for unique look and feel
  • Extensible using “python” type scripts

CONS:

  • Does not support “Applications” like Boxee and Plex
  • Not as intuitive to add “python” scripts

Boxee

Boxee is the “social networking” media app which is derived from the XBMC code base.  In addition to being a media player, it also shows what people in your network are watching, and it turn, lets others know what you’re up to… sort of like twitter for your Tivo.  I’m not a huge fan of this “content transparency” so this isn’t a big seller for me.

PROS:

  • Best iPhone remote control app.  Provides easy “touch” control and two way communication between the phone and the app
  • Best Pandora integration
  • Strong “App” support

CONS:

  • Not a huge fan of “social media” element
  • Cannot continue watching a movie from where you last stopped off
  • Navigation isn’t terribly untuitive
  • Cannot change skins (as far as I know).

PLEX

Plex is specifically an enhanced Mac port of XBMC.  It supports several of the latest “App” plugins such as Netflix, Hulu and Pandora.

PROS:

  • Extensive Application support
  • Works great with “Snatch” iPhone app for remote control
  • Clean UI

CONS:

  • Customized skins not as stable
  • Applications not as tightly integrated as Boxee (Pandora and Hulu feel “kludgy”).
  • DVD support is buggy (but you can easily launch Front Row from Plex for DVD playback

FRONT ROW

Front Row has the “cleanest” user interface and very good DVD playback.  For integrating with iTunes, the iTunes Store, and iPhoto, it’s tough to beat Front Row.  Unfortunately, Front Row does support any of the other Online Application plugins and requires some hassle to play non “Quicktime” movies.

PROS:

  • Great UI
  • iTunes Store Purchases
  • DVD Playback

CONS:

  • No online content outside of iTunes Store.
  • Does not play other movie codecs without some tweeking (Dolby Digital h264 files for example)
  • Cannot customize look

And MY Winner Is……  PLEX!

Plex works great for my needs.  If I could have the best of all worlds, I’d love to throw in Boxee’s Pandora integration and the Boxee iPhone remote along with Front Row’s DVD playback.  I really like being able to continue where I left off in a movie in Plex and the interface is very clean and intuitive.  I do get a few lock-ups and crashes, but I’ve so far been very happy with its performance… even with only 1gb of system memory.

If you disagree, please feel free to let me know which apps you prefer and why.