Plex 9 Media Center Rocks Our World

Plex 9

While updates to Plex have slowed during 2010, the developers haven’t been slacking.  On the contrary – they’ve been beavering away, putting in late nights around the world’s time zones from Hawaii, North America, Europe and New Zealand.  The reason?  A project code named ‘Alexandria’, a ground-up rewrite of the library that’s at the heart of the system and that promises to take the Plex Media Center to the next level.

One Library to Rule them All – The Plex team are a tight knit, motivated bunch led by Elan Feingold.  They work hard to continually add features to the Media Centre, whilst maintaining the ‘It Just Works” ethos of the Mac.  We’re privileged to have been the first blog to be invited to the inner sanctum during the development process over the past few months. We’ve taken all the Alpha releases for a test drive, through to the version that will become the first public release of Plex 9 later this week.  Some of the new features that it adds will bring Plex into line with other media centres – for example, media flags for aspect ratio, codec, resolution, frame-rate and audio format etc are all now available to the skins.  But by far the most exciting change in the Plex library is its move to becoming a separate, stand-alone application.

So what are the advantages of splitting it off from the main app like this?  Well, a single centralised library has the ability to feed all the Plex machines on your network.  You no longer have to manage a library for each discrete computer, or deal with the 10 foot interface – which isn’t well suited to a lot of the set-up tasks.  New Movies, TV, Music and Photos only need to be added once to the application.  As the Plex front end reflects a real time representation of what’s in the library app, the new additions will instantly appear on all Plex machines on your LAN without any intervention from users.  This separation also allows you to be working on the back end library app while people are continuing to watch media around the house undisturbed.

Another useful feature of a centralised system enables you to start watching an episode of a TV show say in the living room, then later move to the bedroom and continue watching it there, with Plex remembering exactly where you left off.

Special Agent Plex – Before Alexandria, Library mode seemed to baffle some users and they opted instead for the basic file mode.  With the new system the file mode is no longer required and the ‘Add Source’ menu item that confused so many new users has gone.  You simply point Plex to your Movies, TV and Music on installation with a simple and intuitive guided setup proceedure.

The graphics and meta data that are scraped from sources like the IMDB are what makes the library so useful and so beautiful to look at.  However, until now, updating the library has been a somewhat hit or miss affair.  The auto ‘update library on start-up’ feature in Plex 8 was unreliable and even manually updating your library wasn’t always plain sailing.  If the TVDB was down when adding new shows for example then they wouldn’t appear in your library.  Worse than that they still wouldn’t appear once the TVDB was up again without you having to manually refresh the entire series.

Plex 9's New Scanning Architecture

Enter the Plex ‘Agents’.  The idea of a crude scraper has been banished by the Plex devs and instead replaced with an elegant new multi-step scanning solution.  Lets take Movies as an example.  You may choose the IMDB as your main source of meta data and artwork for your film collection, but in addition you can stack Agents from other information providers too – in this case you may wish to add the MoviePosterDB, TheMovieDB for example.

Plex Media Manager
Access the Plex Media Manager from the Menu Bar

The Plex Media Manager scans your media, analyses it, then matches its meta data from the Agents.  Some of these processes even run concurrently, adding to the speed and efficiency of the entire library set-up (as always, for best result you should still have your files named and held in the recommended structure).  All this is carried out in a beautiful UI complete with effects using core animations and Growl notifications.  You may want to set-up your library all over again just to watch it do its thing!

Plex Agents
Add multiple meta agents and chose the order they are stacked

In addition, Agents benefit from the same live-update technology used by the Plex Plug-ins. Changes made to the IMDB (for example), that used to break scrapers, will now be less likely to upset scans as fixes can be made quickly and Plex will update itself automatically, rather than having to rely on the user to install a patch.  The Plex team have made it trivial to create new Agents and they expect the community will quickly come up with a huge variety of them, pulling in meta data from all across the web.  So if you have an interest in Manga for example and know a site that’s a great source of meta data for it then then you can create an agent and publish it.

Plex 9 – Looking at the Library

The library reflects live changes in your file system.  Drop a new movie in to a folder on your server and a few seconds later it appears on everyone’s Plex.  Likewise a file deleted will just disappear from the viewer’s choice.  Another major addition is the ability to rescan your library without losing viewed status, resume times etc too.  All these improvement, in conjunction with the ‘redundancy’ aspect of the multi-agent system means that orphaned files, missing cover art or meta data are all now virtually things of the past – Good Times!

Lets take another common example – home movies.  Previously these were the ugly step sister in your library, lacking any cover art or description.  Now it will be easy to add your own meta data for home movies right in Alexandria.  The concept is even expanding out to the Plex plug-ins for online services.  Imagine Hulu movies and Vimeo videos having media tags and meta data, just the same as any locally stored video file.

Plex 9Up until now there have been fixed entries in the Plex home menu for Movies and TV – now you can change, delete or add to those as you wish.  Perhaps you’d like an Anime section or one for your Motorsport videos?  Easy.  In addition if you have multiple libraries then each entry shows the name of the source machine above it.  You can change this in the preferences to read whatever you wish or leave it to default to the machine name.

Additional client machines round your home no longer require shares to be mounted locally.  The Plex Media Server communicates with the main Plex app, and streams over HTTP.  It’s also smart enough to choose the fastest route if you do happen to have the drives mounted on the client machine too using its ‘Optimal Media Routing’ feature.  As always though, where there are multiple zones and HD video involved you will want to be running a wired gigabit Ethernet to avoid any performance issues on your LAN.  And speaking of hardware remember that Plex now supports GPU acceleration, giving you all that 1080P goodness without your CPU even breaking a sweat.

Collections – Another cool feature coming in Alexandria is Collections.  Want to have all your James Bond movies in one place?  A 007 ‘Collection’ will present you with a single library icon to access them.  Interestingly they can also be time sensitive, so for example you could set-up a ‘Smart List’ for 18/R rated movies that only appear in the library between certain hours each day.

The architecture of the system allows for many other enhancements in the future too.  The structures are already in place to support multiple client accounts / profiles, allowing you to have a login where only a subset of movies would appear, this could be useful to limit what kids can access from their bedrooms for example.

Other little improvements and attention to detail are evident too.  If you have two instances of the same movie (say an SD and HD version) they can appear in the Plex library as a single icon.  Selecting the movie will then present you with a sub menu from which to choose the version you want to watch.

The Future – Challenges lie ahead for Plex, not least finding a cheaper hardware platform than the Mac mini, to compete with XBMC Live on the sub £200 Ion based NetTops. Perhaps the recenly rumoured $99 Apple TV Streamer will be just the ticket if it really is going to be announced later this week?  Even at double that price it would be a significant leap forward for adding multiple Plex zones around the home.

As Plex has developed over the last couple of years, it’s kept the best of its XBMC roots and moved to even tighter integration on the Mac.  Now with Plex 9 it has added features that mark it apart from any other Media centre out there.  The Plex team say the work they are putting in now is laying the foundations for even more exciting things in the future – and we can’t wait to see what they have in store for us next.

One thing that has struck us watching the development of Plex 9 during 2010 is the huge commitment in time and effort that goes into a project this size. Guys like Elan, James, Scott, Cayce, Ryan and Jay (plus many others) are basically devoting every spare waking moment to coding, designing or just thinking about how to make the software even better.  So if, like us, you use and enjoy Plex everyday, why not hit that donate button and buy those guys a beer!

As with all Plex releases, odd numbers are ‘bleeding edge’ builds so if you are looking for stable, stick with the last even numbered version (currently v0.8). But for all the exciting new stuff run (don’t walk) to and grab the latest Plex release right now. : Plex Forums : Our Interview with Plex Dev Elan Feingold : Mac mini

Plex 9 – Looking at Playback

* Note that while you’ll see most of what we’ve talked about here, some of these features may not make it into the initial public build.

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2 Comments on "Plex 9 Media Center Rocks Our World"

  1. looks great – we don’t have a TV, as such, but we do have an EyeTV (the dual tuner Diversity version) … so good Plex / EyeTV integration would be more than a nice-to-have …

    ie: if you’d also like this, please vote here (in fourth category) :

    (the vote is to help them decide priorities for development)

  2. I hope the final version will have the option to seamlessly integrate multiple libraries. I don’t care which source I’m getting my videos from, I just want to know what’s available.

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