My Mac Mini HTPC saga: Plex or Boxee as the front-end?

After opening my mind to the possibility that I could find in the Mac Mini a worthy replacement for the aging (and rotting) promise of Windows Media Center as an HTPC, it didn’t take long to find out just how far the Mac HTPC community has come.  Between the streaming media front ends like Plex & Boxee, and the first-class support from digital-TV-tuner manufacturers like Hauppauge, and the number of people who’ve blazed the trail ahead of me, it seemed like a no-brainer.

However, unlike an Apple TV (a low-powered CPU ‘appliance’ that was intended merely to download movies and TV from the iTunes store), the Mac Mini isn’t specifically designed as a home theater PC (HTPC), and doesn’t present itself to the uninitiated user as a direct complement to their TV.

That said, with not a whole lot of effort and a few add-on bits of hardware, this Mac Mini is easily the equal of the functionality of my old Windows Media Center system, and has the advantage of being a lot smaller and ridiculously quieter than a clunky monster PC.  [Outside of an extra $grand or two for a custom-designed HTPC, if you’ve got more money than brains.]

Which streaming media front end?

There are plenty of “Plex vs. Boxee” articles/forum chatter for anyone who’s looking (these are just the ones I found in my first couple of pages of Google results: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12).  There’s a lot of active development in both projects, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for both, but there seem to be some common themes to the discussions I’ve read:

  1. Plex is more “fiddly” to setup your library of existing, local content – finding the folders and assigning the metadata.  Boxee seems to have mastered the “point it at folders and it’ll organize it into a library” approach.
  2. Boxee is more socially oriented, as in it lets other members of Boxee find out what you’ve watched (at least among the online sources – presumably it doesn’t advertise what you’re watching of your locally-stored media).
  3. One covers the BBC online media; the other covers integration of the Netflix instant watch streaming. (Or at least that’s what I recall reading.)
  4. Since they’re both based on the XBMC codebase, they’ll both benefit tremendously from future enhancements to the
  5. Boxee seems to have already skewed towards/created a culture of “cut the cable” (i.e. “help me get rid of Comcast/Time Warner stat!”), while Plex (perhaps as a Mac-only product) has a little less of the prickly attitude.
  6. They’re both generally considered inferior to Front Row from a UI/usability perspective, but neither one is ever accused of being “unusuable”.
  7. They both integrate with the Apple Remote (or if you’re a Logitech weenie, with most Harmony remotes – personally, after trying and failing for over a year to get a Harmony to operate as a set-it-and-forget-it, “universal one-touch” remote, I’ll avoid those hack-jobs like the plague).

While my girlfriend is quite adept at her Macbook, our discussions so far have led me to believe that the less fiddly/quirky this setup is on a day-to-day basis, the more comfortable she’ll be at using this (and the less I’ll have to coach her down off the ledge and into the world of computer-based home media.

Thus I’m convinced by what I’ve read to veer towards Plex (and not bother her with it until I’ve got the existing content adequately catalogued in the Plex library).

Next Steps: setting up Plex

Apparently, as one poster indicated, “The key seems to be putting Plex in Library mode. Once done, its scraper will dl the video info.”

There’s also some question whether Plex yet provides integrations with Netflix and Flickr.  I’ll have to dig through the PlexApp plug-in announcement archives.

Then I’ll be interested to dig further into the question of whether, by installing VLC media player, the codecs that it uses will be available to all media players, or just to my Mac.

Finally, I’d like to revisit the question of which desktop resolution is best suited to my 1080p HDTV – I’d tried 1920×1080, but wasn’t able to see the Mac menu bar (so e.g. I couldn’t click on the little Apple menu to reboot), so now I’m at something in the 1300-pixel-width range.

2 thoughts on “My Mac Mini HTPC saga: Plex or Boxee as the front-end?

  1. Mike,

    I congratulate you on taking the plunge into using a Mac mini as an HTPC. I think you will find it to be the ideal setup for your living room entertainment system. Although I don't own one yet, the Elgato tuners look like the tuner of choice to integrate into TV into your setup.

    That being said, I prefer Plex over Boxee as it simply lets you do what you want (play movies, music, etc.) and gets out of the way. Often, you don't want to be bothered with the social media elements which Boxee offers.

    As for your questions – You can use the following Plex plugin (along with MS Silverlight) to integrate Netflix:

    Netflix Plugin for Plex

    Also, the codec installer to “rule them all” is Perian. If you need to play WMV files, you will also need the Flip4Mac plugin.

    Finally, if you want a comparison of the Media Center frontends available for the Mac mini, I have published a PDF which you can download from the link below:

    Regardless, I know you will love your new Apple-based HTPC. Keep us apprised of your new setup as you go along!


  2. Way to go on your Plex decision. I saw that you linked to one of my similar post about make a decision on Plex. Once it is setup it is a breeze to use. You can use the Apple remote for just about everything.

    I don't have any issues with Plex now that they have the flickr plugin. I also recently picked up a Flip UltraHD. With the Vimeo plugin for Plex it plays my HD home videos. I have everything I need on my HTPC at this point. It is a dream.

    Keep us posted on your progress!


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