So yesterday i got fed up with the crappy Windows Media Center Netflix app and decided it was time for a change. My first thought was to check on Boxee’s Netflix app and see if they had improved it at all. Nope. It is still shitty as ever. Apparently they have a nice new clean version on the d-link box but aren’t planning to release it to the desktop software for quite a while. Someone on the forum mentioned they had switched to Plex for this very reason. Having never heard of or even used Plex i decided to check it out and see if it was any good. The following is my experience with Plex as well as some of my observations of the product.
Before i begin, here is my HTPC setup:
My HTPC is a Core 2 Duo 6600 w/ 4gb of ram. It has a AMD/ATI Radeon HD 6450 graphix card. The box also has a Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1600 capture card for capturing OTA HDTV. The box is running Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit. I use the builtin Windows Media Center application as my primary HTPC interface. I use WMC mainly for its DVR functionality. From WMC i have several launchers installed that can open Boxee and Hulu. I use Boxee to watch all of my local media as well as media from sites like Crunchyroll and ESPN3. I use Hulu (Rarely) when i’m extremely bored and want to watch low quality commercials. ;)
I should also mention that i’m spoiled when it comes to Netflix apps. I have a PS3 and used that Netflix app for a year before i setup my HTPC. I have yet to see any other Netflix app compare to the awesomeness of the PS3 Netflix app.
With that out of the way, here is the rundown of my Plex experience.
1) Plex doesn’t make it clear what applications you need to download and what these applications actually do.
When you go to their site and click on download (I clicked on the Windows icon) it takes you to a page with three buttons. It doesn’t really say what the three applications do.
At first i downloaded the Media Server app only to realize it was just the server and not a player or client app like Boxee or XBMC. I immediately uninstalled the app and downloaded the Media Center app. Of course about 20 minutes later i realized that you need BOTH the server app AND the Media Center app for anything to work correctly. I actually stared at the following screen for at least 2 or 3 minutes before i realized i need to reinstall the server app. For some reason i was thinking this meant the app was connecting to a Plex server on the web. Not the case.
To top things off, the Media Center app completely locked up and wouldn’t respond after I pressed Cancel. I had to end the task via task manager exit the app so i could install the server.
2) The Channel Directory is completely broken.
Once i had the server app re-installed i launched the Media Center again and went to the Channel Manager to try and install the Netflix plugin/app. I clicked around to all of the different areas (Featured, What’s New, Most Popular, etc) and found the same blank screen everywhere:
The “Check for Updates” button even locked the app up and forced me to end the task and start over.
3) Lack of documentation and helpful information
Finding it hard to believe that this nice looking App could be so terrible, i began searching the wiki for answers. The wiki offered no help what so ever. I couldn’t even find a section for the Windows Desktop client. The only place in the Wiki/FAQ that even mentioned channels or plugins simply said “Access the ‘Channel Directory’ section of the client to find the channel you want and install it from there.” As i said, no help.
I then decided to try the forums. After a bit of searching i finally found a post titled “0.9.5.0 - No Plugins/Channels.” After trying several different user’s suggestions i was finally able to fix the problem by deleting a random XML file from the server app’s Preferences directory.
4) Inconsistent and broken experience
Upon opening the Media Center app i was pleasantly surprised to find that the Channel Directory was now properly listing apps. I quickly located the Netflix plugin and installed it. The only problem was that after installing the plugin i couldn’t figure out how to access or even start the plugin. Nothing showed up on the main page. And when i went to the channel directory and selected the Netflix App all i saw this menu:
None of the listed options really did anything. I restarted both the Media Center app and the server app several times as well as the PC. Finally, after the PC restarted, i opened the Media Center and two new items showed up on the main screen. “Video Channels” and “Music Channels.” However, neither option listed the Netflix plugin. (Even when i selected both options to see more than just the recently used channels) They both just listed iTunes.
At this point i was already 45 minutes into my very first Plex install and was very frustrated. I decided that this software wasn’t ready for public use and promptly uninstalled both the media center and server applications. And that’s where we are today.
My observations as a geek
The idea of Plex is good. The problem is the implementation. The main problem i see is that the website lacks clear information on what the product is and how to use it. The front page has a bunch of unless marketing mumbojumobo and doesn’t even have a “What is Plex” type of page explaining what it does.
Similarly, the website doesn’t tell you what applications you need to download or what the difference is between the various applications. Aside from offering a download button for the Media Center and Media Server, i could find nothing that described what they were used for and which i needed to install. And on top of that they didn’t bundle required software together as one would expect. (E.g. bundling the server with the Media Center) This lead to guessing games on my part and really irritated me. (Install, Uninstall, Install, Re-install, etc)
The other thing that really irritated me were the basic bugs and interface problems as described above. This, to me, signals laziness on the part of the developers. These types of bugs are easily caught and squashed with a simple round of QA. I was able reproduce all of the above errors today on a clean test machine without even trying. (This is where my screenshots came from) It took me all of 10 minutes.
Perhaps i’ll try Plex in the future when they finally leave beta. For now it doesn’t seem to be ready for the public. It feels more like a late alpha or early beta product meant for dedicated users who are willing to help the developers test and locate bugs.