Technical Difficulties

Like a normal tech podcast, but broken.

Fed up with their Apple TV, Gabe and Erik talk about Plex and the Roku Media Player. They cover what Plex is, how it works, and the advantages and disadvantages of pairing Plex with the Roku.

Authorizing…

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 0:00

The discussion begins (as so many episodes do) by relating the challenges of the leading solution in the field: in this case the Apple TV.

“The problem is you’re trying to pull a very large file from a very distant place”

“And we’re spoiled”

Choosing Plex

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 2:02

What is Plex?

Plex is a media management application with server and client components. Since its early days as a fork of the XBMC Media Center, it has grown to a cross-plaform service which includes a cloud component.

Serving your Files

The Synology is a terrific NAS but it’s not the only server to provide an easy setup for Plex. On the Synology it takes a couple of clicks to add a Plex server. Once it’s up and running, the Plex server is controlled through the same web interface as from any other Plex server. The Plex server on the Synology runs well enough but large MKV files had a noticeable lag when loading. I think the default RAM configuration on a Synology is too small to run all of the standard file sharing services PLUS a Plex server.

Using a Mac Mini as the Plex server provided a better experience. The files all still lived on the Synology NAS, so that rules out disk performance or network streaming as a bottleneck.

One primary benefit of the Plex server running on the Synology is that it starts at boot and all of the files are available at any time. On the Mac Mini you’ll need to setup some scripts and cron jobs to check and remount the NAS if the Mini reboots. I’ve ordered more memory for my Synology since I really just want the Plex server running on my NAS. I don’t really want a Mac Mini media server.

Let’s Talk about the Roku

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 10:27

Metadata

Several years ago, I was using XBMC on an Xbox (the first one, not the new One–that’s not at all confusing, Microsoft), and I loved the way it displayed so much information about my movies and shows, but its crawler wasn’t as robust as it could be. I dug in a little, and saw that the best crawler (installed as a plugin) used TheTVDB.com as its data source, and I learned to follow the recommended file-naming conventions and manually edit the xml files (gross) when there were errors. This made everything look the way I wanted, and life was good.

Somewhere around this time, I started to run my media center on a Mac Mini, which allowed me to start using MPEG encoded movies (the Xbox hardware had trouble decoding anything other than AVIs). This switch to the MPEG-4 format meant smaller file sizes (storage wasn’t especially cheap then) and the potential to utilize atoms to store the metadata in the video files themselves. The nice thing about this is that I never had to worry about what happened when a file which was renamed by iTunes or whatever, because the file itself held the data, including its “album art”. Initially, I manually set this at the command line using AtomicParsley, but soon enough, I wrote a script to do the heavy lifting for me.

The next sea change for me was when I got an Apple TV and saw how television show purchases made through iTunes had better season and episode data than the DVDs I had ripped and encoded, with a fuller episode summary. This led me back into the atoms and I learned about what Apple was adding to the defaults. Fortunately, some smart people were there first and this fork of the original AtomicParsley project was able to write the Apple additions. It was a little hacky then, but this fork is well-maintained, and the process is much easier now.

At this point, you are probably thinking that the word “easier” shouldn’t be in the discussion at all, but take heart! There’s an app for that now. Actually more than one, but I can personally vouch for iDentify, which works very well. The nice thing about my (crazy) process is that my metadata is right, no matter whether it is on the Apple TV, Plex, iPad, or backed up on my home server. They look the same as anything purchased directly from Apple.

Next time, tales of encoding…

The Remote

The Roku remote is a bit cartoonish but far more functional than the AppleTV remote. It’s big and plastic with purple buttons but it wins when you’re feeling for a button in the dark. It would be even better with backlighting. The other great feature of the Roku remote is the WiFi connection. It doesn’t use traditional IR which means direct line of sight is not required.

The Roku 3 remote also includes a motion sensor for controlling games, if that’s your thing. But the best feature is the headphone port. Plug in a pair of headphones to the Roku remote and watch a movie on the home theater without waking up the kids. Every functional detail was considered (except backlighting) with the Roku remote. It’s a real selling point.

If you’d prefer to use a $600 remote, there are several passable iOS apps. The real benefit with an iOS app is the keyboard support for search. Unlike the iOS app for the AppleTV, the Roku iOS apps only send text after the enter key is pressed. Gabe found this annoying. Honestly, the Roku remote is pretty darn good but the iOS app can be used for more complicated searches.

  • Roku Remote 7
  • Roku Remote 7 is an iOS-7 compatible app to control and manage your Roku device. It automatically scans for Roku devices in your home network, and allows you to use it as a remote control.
  • Price: $0.99

Setup Your Channels

The channel selection on the Roku includes most of the channels I cared about on the AppleTV, plus some that were pleasant surprises. The Disney Channels work well and actually have good content. I also like the Vimeo channel. On the Roku it’s easy to organize the channel lists. With a channel highlighted, hit the “*” key on the remote to move it around. Or just delete it entirely. Roku also provides web access to add and remove channels through a browser.

The Amazon channel is really where the Roku shines. While it’s missing the iTunes store, the Amazon video content is really compelling. Amazon Prime provides a nice bonus (such as the entire Avatar series) for Prime members without spending anything extra, but Amazon offers about as much as iTunes at comparable rental prices.

M-Go is another Roku video rental service. I find that it has more up to date content at higher prices. Whereas Amazon is about $5 for an HD rental, M-Go is generally $6.

Crackle is another channel that I’ve used only through the Roku. The content is of variable and sometimes dubious quality but occasionally there will be a nice surprise like Ghostbusters available for free.

Roku Variants

  • Roku 2 Streaming Player
  • Crank up the volume, and enjoy the show with the Roku 2. Dive into 1,000+ channels of movies, TV shows, sports and more in stunning 1080p HD. Watch without disturbing the house when you plug the included headphones into the remote. Enjoy free features like channel shortcut buttons and much more.
  • MSRP: $69.99

  • Roku 3 Streaming Media Player
  • Faster and more powerful than ever. Enjoy 1,000+ channels of movies, TV shows, sports, and more. Plug headphones into the motion-control remote to play games or watch late-night flicks without disturbing the household. Fully loaded with one-stop search, 1080p, dual-band wireless, Ethernet, USB, plus a free Roku app. The Roku 3—the new streaming standard.
  • MSRP: $89.99

“I ended up just unplugging the Apple TV”

What we miss

AppleTV really owns the market on series subscriptions. With automatic downloads in iTunes and new episode notifications, Apple makes it convenient to subscribe to an entire season of a TV show and keep up.

Watching a TV series through the Roku is possible but it takes planning and research. Sure, you could use something like Sickbeard to do some less than ideal things, but that’s quite a bit more work than purchasing through the AppleTV.

I Miss Music

While I’ve loaded Plex with my music library, I really miss the iTunes Radio and Beats Music for streaming services. There’s Pandora, Spotify and Rdio support through the Roku, but iTunes Radio and Beats are what I prefer. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of audio channels I like on the Plex side of things.

Purchasing through the Amazon service on Roku is pretty easy once it’s configured. There’s a lot of content on the Amazon store. Search and browse on the Roku is good enough to find what you’re looking for. The only advantage to Apple in this area is the convenience of purchasing through the iTunes Store iOS app. If you hear of a good flick or TV show to watch when you’re away from your TV, the iOS app is convenient for making regrettable purchases. Maybe the lack of Amazon video purchases on iOS isn’t such a bad thing.

Using Plex

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 19:10

  • Plex
  • With Plex, you can easily stream your videos, music, photos and home movies to your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch from your home computer running Plex Media Server (available for free at http://plex.tv).
  • Price: $4.99

“I’ve had my Apple TV disconnected for so long I can’t remember”

Plex Pass

The Plex Pass is a good deal for the features. There are three different price points to satisfy most users: $4 per month, $30 per year or $75 for a lifetime subscription. The Plex Pass provides camera upload, cload streaming and syncing with a mobile device. All of the premium features work well and Plex is a totally different experience on iOS with it.

“I don’t have a lot of friends”

The Plex It bookmarklet is fantastic. Find a YouTube or Vimeo video you want to watch later on the TV? Hit the bookmark and it’s added to you Plex queue. I’ve added a whole lot of music videos this way and it’s great.

Other Neat Stuff Plex can Do

Plex serves up the photos and music files on the Roku. Just add a new media index in Plex and point it to a directory with audio files or images. Plex will index the audio and add meta data. Photos are structured according to the file structure they are saved in and the metadata is available for viewing.

The Roku Vimeo channel worked great for the latest Joss Whedon experiment. I rented the movie on Vimeo through a web browser and later watched it on my big screen TV through the Roku Viemo app. It looked and sounded great.

“It’s become the Internet Explorer 6 of Media Managers”

Photo Slideshow

If you enjoy the photo presentation mode on the AppleTV, Plex provides a nice alternative. It lacks some of the polish of the AppleTV like the Ken Burns effects but it works well and it works with photo directories as if they were albums. After a fun day out with the family, I can drop the photos into a folder on the Synology NAS and then browse to the folder on Plex and watch the slideshow. This is a real usecase it’s really great.

Well, that’s it for this week. If you have anything that you’d like to add to or correct in the show notes you can find our infant gofer on Twitter @potatowire, or feel free to email techdiffpodcast at potatowire dot com.

People:

Gabe Weatherhead, Erik Hess

Topics:

plex, roku