Home theater: Plex vs. Front Row

Discussion in 'Apple TV and Home Theater' started by Evangelion, Mar 19, 2009.

  1. Evangelion macrumors 68040

    Jan 10, 2005
    It seems to me that most people who use Macs in their home theater setup use something else than Front Row. Plex seems to be one of the most popular Front Row-replacements. I'm currently thinking of buying a Mac mini and use it as the core of my home theater. And the two apps I'm looking at are Plex and Front Row (for the reason that it ships with the Mac).

    My plan is that I will be hosting my (and my wifes. we will probably use just one shared iTunes-library) iTunes-library on the Mac mini. The actual managing of the library will be handled by our MBP, but the actual files will be hosted on the mini.

    I must admit that my experience with both Plex and Front row is limited, but I have done some tests with both. And my gut-feelings are these:

    Plex is more powerful of the two. But it might be that a lot of that power would go wasted on our use. And that power makes it more complicated as well. Also, it's integration with iTunes is less than perfect. All my movies are in iTunes, but Plex can't see that content. The documentation regarding this seems quite confusing, and I read some comments which say that playing back video that is in iTunes does not work yet. Granted, I haven't spent a lot of time working on this issue yet, but point is that it does not work out of the box.

    What about Front Row? the UI seems simpler, which is a good thing. It obviously has top-notch iTunes-integration. But there is one dilemma here. While Front Row integrates with iTunes, does it work in my case? I mean, Front Row would be running on a Mac mini that contains our iTunes-library, but the actual iTunes would be running on another machine. Can I point Front Row to the directory containing the library and tell it "use the content you find in this folder", without having iTunes running on the machine at all? What happens when I add content through our MPB to the library, does Front Row pick that new content automatically?

    Another benefit Front Row has is that it's completely integrated with the DVD-player, whereas Plex is not.

    In the future I might extend the functionality of that mini with DVR-functionality (probably through Elgato EyeTV), how well does that work together with the two apps?

    Like I said, it seems that most people do NOT use Front Row when it comes to home theater-use. Why? What are the downsides of it? Am I missing something obvious here?
  2. Cave Man macrumors 604

    Cave Man

    Feb 12, 2007
    Neander Valley, Germany; just outside Duesseldorf
    For me, I have a lot of 1080p content. Quicktime/Front Row on a Mini has great difficulty playing high bit rate 1080p content, and cannot passthrough DTS. In addition, getting AC3 Dolby Digital from QT/FR is a pain in the rear. If you expect to connect this Mini to a receiver and get 5.1 surround sound, good luck with that. Apple seems to go out of its way to break such abilities. Then there's all that tagging stuff you have to do with iTunes. Pain in the rear.

    But if you don't need any of that, Front Row is good enough.
  3. Evangelion thread starter macrumors 68040

    Jan 10, 2005
    Well, I would be having a 5.1-setup in the future, so Plex has the advantage there.... But does Plex work with iTunes-content? It seems to me that Plex is geared more towards playing back bunch of files that are located in some folders, as opposed to playing back content that you have in your iTunes. Yes, it works with iTunes as far as music is concerned, but at least OOB it does not work with my podcasts or videos.
  4. davwin macrumors regular

    Nov 4, 2008
    Plex cannot currently playback protected iTunes video files so that is really your only major hurdle to using Plex. However, you can launch Front Row from within Plex so you can have the best of both worlds - although this obviously breaks the unified interface of either.

    You can add shortcuts to remote disks in your Movies directory and/or iTunes libraries so that Front Row can see them and playback content. This is easier to do in Plex IMO but it isn't hard to do for FR. Remember though - as mentioned you will likely have issues with 5.1 sound and playback of 1080p and other high bitrate content (nothing purchased through itunes should have any problems though). If this is all you are planning to do with your content you might even think about getting an Apple TV instead of a Mini; If nothing else, its another option.

    Since the main problem for your library is specifically iTunes purchased content you will probably have fewer issues if you just stick to Front Row or an Apple TV for now. Just remember all the features and benefits you are getting/giving up from one of these options to another and make sure the trade off is worth it to you.
  5. spice weasel macrumors 65816

    Jul 25, 2003
    The answer is yes. Launch Front Row, go to Sources, and select your iTunes library from your MBP. It will then stream content to your Mac mini.

    Have you considered just getting an AppleTV? It doesn't have the power of a mini, nor does it have a DVD player, but if you just want to play content off your iTunes library then it is by far the simplest device out there. With Boxee you can also play non-iTunes formats.
  6. Aegelward macrumors 6502a

    Jul 31, 2005
    Once you get things 'right' with plex it can be a lot simpler than metatagging all your video files yourself, so long as you have things named properly it's scrapers can find all your TV shows, there are a few bugs, but nothing is perfect. while it's initially complex the learning curve flattens out. Of course using boxee works too, it automatically scrapes your media with minimal setup, and allows you access to far more web based content.

    Plus I find having local content storage is far easier, and streaming is problematic, especially for certain h264 files, unless things dramatically increase when using 11n, i'm only using standard 11g networking.
  7. Evangelion thread starter macrumors 68040

    Jan 10, 2005
    I have no protected iTunes-content. All my iTunes-videos are self-ripped.

    All my iTunes-purchases are music (movies and tv-shows are not available in Finland), and those are DRM-free these days. Only videos I have are stuff I ripped from my DVD's plus occasional video-podcasts.

    There's no point in streaming. I mean, the libraries would physically be located on the Mac mini. The HD on the mini would appear as a shared network-drive in the MBP, and the iTunes's on the MBP would use that shared drive as their library.

    For Plex/Front Row that is running on the mini, those files would be local. That is, they are physically located on the same machine.

    Ideally, the setup would be like this:

    On the Mac mini, there is a shared folder called "iTunes". That folder has two subfolders that we will call "Library 1" and "Library2". "Library 1" would contain my iTunes-library, while "Library 2" contains my wife's library. Plex (I'm not sure that could Front Row handle this....) would be configured to use the "iTunes"-folder as the source of it's content (and that includes the two subfolders). That is, the content that is available for playback on Plex, would consist of the contents that is in my and the wife's libraries.

    That's the ideal solution. The less than ideal but still usable solution would be that me and my wife would have one shared library between us. That is, we would combine the contents of our now separate libraries in to one and use that. That library would reside on the "iTunes"-folder on the Mac mini, and Plex or Front Row would be configured to use that folder as it's source.

    Now, what worries me in the latter aprroach is that what will happen when I add some content to the library? Will that content be automatically available to my wife when she logs in to the MBP and launches iTunes? Remember: we would be sharing one library.

    Also, one concern I have is that whether Plex/Front Row can automatically notice when we add stuff to the librar.

    In either case, the key here is that the contents me and the wife have in our libraries, should be playable in Plex/Front Row. I don't like the idea of having to switch libraries or something in Plex/Front Row, just because I wanted to listen to some of my songs, and then decided that I want to listen some of her songs. It should all be available right away.

    Well, I thought about it, but Mini is the more sensible option. For starters, AppleTV is more expensive here than in USA (when Apple lowered the price of AppleTV back in the day, they only did it for USA), while having less functionality than the US version (no videos from ITMS for example). And there's the case of AppleTV not having DVD-player, which means that I would have to keep my standalone-player, when I would like to reduce the number of devices, instead of increase them. And I couldn't turn the AppleTV in to a DVR either.
  8. rockstarjoe macrumors 6502a


    Jun 2, 2006
    washington dc
    I have been pondering a similar situation as yours, and I ended up using FrontRow. My setup is as follows - My iTunes library is hosted on a computer in one room, along with all of the music and video files. Then I have an old macbook hooked up via HDMI to my TV in the living room.

    At first I was disappointed with Frontrow on the macbook, because when I opened my shared iTunes library over the network it would not show any of my album artwork. BUT I figured out a pretty good workaround for this... I copy my iTunes.itl library file from my main computer over to my macbook, and set the macbook iTunes library location to the main computer. Now I don't need to open the shared iTunes library through Frontrow. Everything shows up as if it is locally hosted on the Macbook, but in reality it is streaming from the other computer. The only downside is that I have to copy of the the iTunes.itl file to the macbook whenever I add anything to the main computer.

    I could never get Plex to work correctly with my set up... I think eventually it will be an awesome program but right now it is just confusing and hard to get working with a remote folders and files. Plus the inability to playback iTunes DRM is a big weak point.

    EDIT - You posted while I was writing this, and it looks like maybe my info is not so helpful for your situation. But maybe others will find it useful.
  9. spice weasel macrumors 65816

    Jul 25, 2003
    Ok, I didn't fully understand what you were trying to do.

    I've never used Plex, so I don't know how difficult it is to set up, but I would recommend just setting it up on your MBP for a test run. You already have Front Row. Compare the two and see which you like better. Then go out and buy your mini if you still want it and go with the better software solution for your needs.

    Not the answer you were looking for, of course, but a lot of this home media stuff is trial and error. Different people have different wants and needs, and unfortunately there is no truly elegant one-box-does-it-all solution yet. A Mac mini with the ATV's interface, a Blu-ray player, and PVR functionality would be great. Until then, we have to cobble the things together ourselves.
  10. z291977 macrumors newbie

    Apr 23, 2007
    I really, really wanted to like front row. I loved the interface, loved the itunes support, and I always prefer apple apps.
    Everyone on these boards kept talking plex. I downloaded it and hated it. I couldn't figure out how to use it.
    I tried a few other times and it never caught on. I kept ripping, tagging putting in iTunes.
    Then Plex got Hulu. I made myself learn the program. It was the single best thing I have done on my mac. I love it now. I would never use front row for movie playback again. It plays all formats. I got sick of converting .mkvs for itunes. I never have to use metax. I hated that program, it took a while to tag, and ruined a few rips, dropping audio. Now I name my file correctly and put it in the proper folder. Done. Plex pulls the data from IMDB. It adds fan art. It gives the IMDB rating, you can search actors like you would through IMDB, and if you have any more movies they are in. Playback is great. I never could get 5.1 working right in Front Row. Plex it works perfect. All my 1080p mkvs play without a stutter. My Harmony remote works great with it. Another huge plus is load up times. Plex starts within seconds, Front row would take up to a couple of minutes with my large library.
    My wife and kids much prefer using Plex now also.
    The draw backs for me are getting it setup. The wiki never made much sense. It is based on xbmc so it is not the usual mac easy interface setting up. The next is music playback. Plex sucks big time. I will not use it for nothing. Front row is so much better for that. But you can launch front row thru Plex.
    Once you struggle thru set up, Plex is king for video. It is not even close.
  11. whooleytoo macrumors 604


    Aug 2, 2002
    Cork, Ireland.
    I just heard about Plex a couple of days ago; I was going to programme my own library app but that saves me a hell of a lot of time.

    I don't care much for Plex's audio play-back, if you want to just turn shuffle on and start jumping randomly around your library it requires too many button presses to do with Plex.

    After looking at several media extenders, the flexibility (and horsepower) of a Mini is appealing. Being able to get 5.1 with Plex is a big bonus too.
  12. dn325ci macrumors newbie

    Mar 13, 2009
    I tried Plex on my iMac for about an hour, but man it seems ridiculously hard to use. I just couldn't figure out how to control the interface.

    Will Plex play 1080p mkv's on an AppleTV, once ATV is patched?

    Is XMBC the same thing as Plex?

  13. Cave Man macrumors 604

    Cave Man

    Feb 12, 2007
    Neander Valley, Germany; just outside Duesseldorf
    It does have a bit of a learning curve. Make sure you turn on the mouse in the preferences - that can help alleviate things until you get it sorted out. The adding content method is kind of a pain.

    No, the ATV (1) does not have the hardware for 1080p playback at even moderate bit rates and (2) the ATV runs on Tiger and Plex requires Leopard.

    Plex is descendent of XBMC and is Mac-specific.
  14. azdunerat macrumors regular

    Feb 11, 2009
    I will say the newer versions of plex come with video tutorials and that would have made my life much much easier. It took me a couple of days to figure out the interface but now that I have I never use FR for anything.

    And yes the music interface sucks
  15. Evangelion thread starter macrumors 68040

    Jan 10, 2005
    I tested Front Row with a brand-new user-account I created on the MBP. The problem with it is that if the content is not in iTunes, it's not in Front Row. So I would have to share the library between three different people: me, my wife and the mini. What happens when one of us adds content to the library? Will the other libraries pick that new content up automatically? I don't think it quite works that way....

    Plex has the advantage that it can simply use a bunch of files. But the UI just seems a bit too confusing.... But as far as library-management goes, Plex seems like the way to go. But on the UI-front, Front Row seems like the idea choice...
  16. spice weasel macrumors 65816

    Jul 25, 2003
    Is there a particular reason you want to keep separate libraries? Why not just put all your content in one main library? That will simplify things some.

    Do you then want that content, which I presume will be housed on the mini, to be accessible to other computers? If yes and we're only talking about sharing music, then just set iTunes on the mini to share its library and your other computers to look for shared libraries on the network. If you want to also share video, then you'll have to allow file sharing on the mini and then open a connection from your MBP.

    You then have the option of streaming files from the mini to your MBP using Front Row for the occasional viewing whenever you feel like using your laptop instead, or you can add content to your MBP iTunes library by either unchecking the option to copy files to the library or by holding down option when importing files. That way, iTunes on the MBP will just reference the files on the mini.

    The other, and simplest, way to do it would be to get a mini and a NAS, and then have all computers access a central media library on the NAS. All new media content would go on the NAS, with all iTunes libraries referencing those files.
  17. TuckBodi macrumors 6502

    Jan 10, 2007
    That's not necessarily true. You can install Sapphire or ATVFiles into Frontrow Leopard and they can access video files of all types (using Perian of course) off your hard drives. Sapphire also features a built-in scraper which I think works pretty good. More info up on awkwardtv.org..

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