If you’ve read some of my earlier musings you’ve likely noticed I’m a rabid enthusiast of the Plex Media Center software. Apple‘s devices, from handheld iOS gadgets to the entire Mac lineup, excel in the role of media consumption. My gateway Mac was an early 2009 Mac Mini, purchased specifically to act as a media center and server for my ever-expanding library of movies, TV series, and music. Thanks to the addition of Plex it excelled in that role.
The size of the Mac Mini made it perfect for my big screen TV’s entertainment center. It took up minimal space, and fit neatly into one of the media bays normally reserved for a cable box or other device (paired with an large capacity external hard drive). When interacting with Plex all that was needed was Apple’s minimalist remote; the flattened aluminum control worked perfectly and didn’t create too much clutter on the coffee table (unlike the multiple remote controls most seem to collect thanks to devices that don’t seem to want to play well together). The Bluetooth keyboard and magic trackpad were stowed away in a drawer in the coffee table, providing easy access should they be needed.
Sadly, this setup wasn’t a permanent one. After four years and a lot of use (the Mini was set up to never go to sleep or hibernation mode as it was configured to be a remote streaming server via the Plex iOS app), the bearings in the Mini’s fan finally started complaining. The occasional buzzing sound didn’t impact the Mini’s performance, but it was a sign that I’d have to make a decision soon- repair the Mini’s cooling fan (no minor job; swapping components out is doable but a bit labor intensive compared to other small PCs), upgrade to a new Mac Mini (enticing due to the dramatic improvements in power over the past few revisions and my uncontrollable gadget lust), or seek another answer for my media needs.
I was on the verge of choosing the newest generation of Mac Mini; trading the built-in Superdrive for an external USB model paired with a model of Mini that had a true HDMI port (my 2009 model had to use an adaptor and separate audio cable). Then I had the dawning realization that I really didn’t need that level of power; between my iMac and iPad I never used the Mini as a PC, just a means of getting media to a bigger screen. So if I didn’t need that much functionality, what were some other options?
Some of my friends at the dojo owned a version of the Roku and were fairly satisfied with it. I was intrigued; the price for the various models of Roku were much less than a Mini, and the streaming options were fairly robust. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t a viable option as I have purchased several season passes of TV shows on iTunes, and my TiVo already provided access to Hulu Plus and Netflix.
The second option was the Boxee Box, but it was quickly discarded. I had tried the Boxee software about a year ago, and while it’s not bad I didn’t particularly care for the interface compared to Plex (and it had the same lack of iTunes compatibility as the Roku).
Google’s TV box wasn’t really fully considered. I was excited when I first heard of it, but Google hasn’t had much headway with providers after introducing their TV interface (even though it’s being built into some sets now, and Google’s Play store is growing). Were I primarily a Google customer (Android handset, Chrome laptop, etc.) I would likely have chosen this route, but since I’m already heavily invested in Cupertino’s products I opted for their living room solution instead- the Apple TV.
Apple’s favorite ‘hobby’ has fascinated me every time I ventured into my local (and horribly overcrowded) Apple Store. The diminutive device matched it’s competitors well, but afforded a few extra benefits that sealed the deal for me. Not only can it access my iMac’s iTunes library, the media purchased from iTunes need not be present on any local device- I can stream it directly from Apple’s servers. The device’s solid state construction makes it completely silent, and the device is almost the same size as my Bose speaker control module. Were it not for my Tivo I wouldn’t even need a media cabinet; the media hard drive has been relocated to the desk that sports my iMac (and the TiVo may be discarded entirely).
Then there’s Airplay Mirroring; the Apple TV’s ability to render the audio and screen of any iOS device. With a tap and swipe I was able to push audio, video, Safari, even games to my 54″ TV. This was more than just eye candy. Any functionality that the Apple TV lacked natively (like a browser or Pandora) could be used via Airplay; sometimes with better interaction than a native app would have allowed. This afternoon after coming home from work, I had only to turn on my TV and push Pandora to the Apple TV; I was able to advance tracks and switch stations from everywhere my Time Capsule router (and the sound output of my media setup) could reach.
I’ve had the Apple TV for just over a week now, and have been more than pleased with it. Streaming video is surprisingly better than what the TiVo offered- Daily Show episodes via Hulu no longer look pixellated during the busier moments of the intro, and the interface is easier to navigate and control than what Tivo had built into their device. Now the only reason to change my TV’s input was to watch a rare live broadcast; since I don’t have cable or satellite everything we watch in my household is available through iTunes or streaming services: Hulu, Netflix, or dedicated iOS app via Airplay.
Sadly, even the best setup has disadvantages. My old Mac Mini had a Superdrive built in; without it if I want to watch a DVD on the TV I’ll have to push the video from a Mac with an optical drive (while they still exist!) or purchase a dedicated DVD player. I’ve considered shopping for a Blu Ray Player, but watching movies via DVD is so rare I’ve held off for now.
The Apple TV does offer paid sports programming via the NBA, NHL, and MLB apps built in. Sadly, the only major sport that interests me is football- NCAA or pro; there’s nothing else that gets me pumped. While I do have some access thanks to the ESPN and CBS iOS apps, it is a bit limited. I will dance a jig in the front yard the day that Apple negotiates the rights to broadcast NFL Sunday Ticket or develops a dedicated NCAA app, but that’s not going to happen in the forseeable future. Should you prefer one of the other major American sports, you’re all set.
While I do obtain quite a bit of media from iTunes, it’s not my only source. Plex has almost the same level of flexibility as VLC (my go-to video player and ultimate media multitasker); no matter what type of video format I threw at Plex it handled it with ease. iTunes is far pickier; it prefers MP4 files for video. I’ve slowly begun weeding out the AVI and MKV files for conversion to something iTunes-friendly with HandBrake, but the going is slow. In addition, Plex automatically added metadata to media (posters, background info, even theme music to TV shows when browsing your library); iTunes recognized some of my movies but almost a third of my library had to be manually given artwork.
Enjoying local content isn’t without its trifles: to stream content the host computer must be on and running iTunes,meaning my iMac’s power settings had to be altered so that it wouldn’t need to be aroused from sleep mode should I want to browse it’s library from the living room. Easily done, but still something to bear in mind; if I had obtained all of my video from iTunes I could have relied on streaming directly from Apple.
Lastly, I’ve lost my remote media server as iTunes won’t provide the out-of-home-network access that Plex will. I didn’t use my remote connection to the Mini’s Plex library often, but it was nice to have on occasion. While I could configure my iMac to run the Plex server software, I haven’t made the decision to do so yet as there are already plenty of apps running in the background on my primary desktop.
I’m still exploring the intricacies of the Apple TV, but I am fairly enthusiastic about it so far. The benefits have been more numerous that I had anticipated, and the cost savings over a new (or repaired) Mac Mini are considerate. Should I come to the conclusion that I just can’t live outside of the comforting confines of Plex, I may still stick with the Apple TV- it’s possible to hack it and install Plex as an app!