The latest part of my saga in converting to a digital-only lifestyle is being able to have a decent browser with which to browse my film collection. If you have a mac with the Leopard or Snow Leopard operating system you’ll have ‘Front Row’ – an interface that allows you to browse your film, TV and music collection with your keyboard or Apple remote. It’s well presented and it’s almost like browsing an interface on a TV with screenshots from each of your videos given as a preview.
There’s just one problem – it’s rubbish. There are some big issues with the software that prevent it from being a really useful way of presenting your media library. Firstly, there is a bug that ignores the category of the video. This means that even if you assign the correct video type to each of your videos in iTunes, all your videos including TV shows and music videos will displaying under the ‘Movies’ section of Front Row. This means if you have several seasons of ‘Lost’ in your collection for example, your list of content under ‘Movies’ will contain lots of useless names such as ‘Episode 1’, ‘Episode 1’, ‘Episode 2’, ‘Episode 2’, ‘Episode 3’, ‘Episode 3’ etc… This isn’t particularly helpful and makes browsing your film library quite annoying.
The second problem is a lack of genre breakdown for videos. If you have hundreds of videos, ideally you’d like to be able to browse by genre so you don’t spend ages scrolling through your collection to find one movie. This isn’t a problem for me and my modest collection right now, but I can see it being an issue in the future.
So my search began for a suitable alternative to ‘Front Row’. As much as I love Apple products, the fact is that this bit of software has been around for ages now and they’ve not solved these issues. In a way, I’m glad they didn’t as I stumbled across something much much better.
Plex is a completely free piece of software available for Mac’s, LG TV’s, and Apple products such as the iPhone and iPad. They describe it as a ‘Complete media solution’ and it features a beautifully presented browser for your movies, TV shows and music library. It’s customisable with the option of being able to choose background images as well as several presets on how to display the contents of the library. Once you add movies and TV shows to the library, Plex automatically connects to an online film database such as ‘IMDB’ and downloads information including, genre, year, plot, cast and a poster image too. This makes the browsing experience absolutely fantastic by having your own virtual DVD shelf.
Plex 9 also lets your browse by genre, year and other breakdowns making finding a film very fast. The TV shows section is equally impressive downloading data about each show including episode titles. I haven’t yet put any serious testing to importing music but I imagine it functions in much the same way.
There are however a few things you’ll need to get used to. Firstly, learning the keyboard shortcuts or how to use your Apple remote to access additional options such as customising menu displays. You also need to make sure that the filenames of each of your movie files follows Plex’s naming conventions as much as possible. This is so there is a better chance of the file being matched to the film information on IMDB. There are also a few bugs about not all videos showing up in the library or movie information not being downloaded. Luckily, there are many workarounds for this but you’ll need to browse Plex’s Wiki page or forums.
After a few teething issues I’ve found Plex’s software to be excellent and easy to use. It’s definitely going to be a permanent feature of my digital library and I highly recommend it.