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Which Media Center server to use?

The question comes up often in many forums

What is the best Media Center Server?

As I have discovered after many years of playing in this space the answer inevitably is – Depends what you want to use it for.

So in this blog I am going to write about four Media Server solutions which I think are the best options to go with.

Microsoft Media Center (MSMC)

Some people will shoot me down immediately for including MSMC into this. Yes I know they are discontinuing the product. Yes I know that in Windows 8/8.1 it was no longer a free addon you had to buy it.

However there are a lot of people out there still using Windows 7. For those who are using Win 7 and want to turn that old PC into a Media Server then MSMC is not a bad option.


MediaCenter

Pros

  1. Easy to use
  2. A good all round solution that does Music, Photo, Video streaming along with a built in Television Tuner function which can turn your PC into a Personal Video Recorder (PVR)
  3. Can be accessed by other devices on your network.

Cons

  1. Does not automatically pull down cover art or meta data on Movies and Television shows.
  2. Does not play blu-ray content natively (requires third party codecs or software to be installed)
  3. Can’t customize the theme
  4. Requires a licensed copy of Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate editions to run.

Summary

If you are new to the Media Server scene then this might be a good entry level solution. It is also a good solution if you are after something that does a little bit of everything and is easy to use. However if you are looking for a true “Home Theater” experience this is not the product for you.

Media Portal

Media Portal is a really nice mid range Media Server solution. The cool thing about MP is that it gives you proper TV and Movie meta data information (i.e. Information on the plot for a movie or TV show including actors etc) as well as support for Television cards to turn your PC into a TV streaming station and PVR.

MP comes in two installation methods. Client and Server. What this means is that you can install the Server component on your Windows PC with a TV card (or two). Have it sitting in one room, then install the client on another PC or laptop and be able to not only play your favorite digital media but also stream live TV to your remote device!

MP

Pros

  1. Nice media interface
  2. Live TV support including Electronic Program Guide (EPG) to schedule the recording of your favorite shows
  3. Supports Blu-ray and most media format including ISO images.
  4. Meta Data and Cover art auto update from the internet.
  5. Customization supported
  6. Stream Live TV to any Windows PC with the client installed

Cons

  1. Somewhat trickier to configure the Television component
  2. Limited Themes
  3. Does not support tablets or smart phones natively (third party plugins available)

Summary

Over all a nice Media Server Solution but it does require some fiddling around. This is an Open Source solution so it does not cost anything to install. It is good for those who are keen on having live TV as part of their Home Theater. Also handy if you only have one aerial port but want to have a TV in other rooms. You can set the media server where the aerial port is then stream your TV over wired or wireless LAN.

XBMC (AKA Kodi)

Now we get to some seriously cool Media Servers. XBMC started life as a free XBox Media Center extender but quickly grew to be far more. It has a great interface with many downloadable themes. It supports most video formats including ISO disc images. It does not support playing Blu-ray natively however it can launch and external video player like Cyber DVD to play the Blu-ray disc then come back to XBMC when it is finished.

xbmc-1 xbmc_play_to_controller1

Pros

  1. Supports most video formats
  2. Is highly customizable including many different themes to suite suite your mood or home Theater set up.
  3. Allows you to create different profiles with different rating systems (e.g. Family profile that allows up to M rated content, kids profile with G rated content etc.)
  4. Allows you to call on your favourite external video player like VLC or Cyber DVD to play content it does not support
  5. When installed with Media Portal Server it has plugins to allow you to watch and record TV through the console

Cons

  1. Does not support blu-ray natively
  2. Calling on external players requires some understanding of XML
  3. No native support for tablet or smart phone

XBMC is one of my favourite media servers. I have spent a great deal of time setting mine up and it works very well. I have not down loaded the latest release “Kodi” yet but I hope to soon. When I have I will write about it here. This is one of the heavy hitters in the media server genre, and one I thoroughly recommend.

 Plex

Plex is probably the Royals Royce of the Media Server software in my opinion. It is the only one of all of the previous ones that has a native client that can run on the following platforms

  • PC
  • MAC
  • Linux
  • Android devices (phones and tablets)
  • iPad/iPhone/iPod
  • Internet Browser
  • Network Attached Storage Devices (NAS) e.g. QNAP.
  • PS3/PS4
  • Xbox 360/Xbox One

As you can see you can pretty much watch Plex on anything. However it comes at a price. You need to subscribe to Plex so that your Media Server can be registered to be seen by all these devices. That said the price is not unreasonable. $4.99US a month. You can pay a yearly premium of $39.99US or a once of life time fee $149.99US. With this you pretty much have access to your media any where and anytime.

plex-mac Plex24

Pros

  1. Easy to use
  2. Access from anywhere
  3. Support for the largest range of devices
  4. Allow Offline caching of video for when you are not connected to your server
  5. Multi User support with different ratings settings

Cons

  1. Premium services costs money
  2. No Support for discs (i.e. DVD or Blu-Ray)
  3. Does not support ISO format
  4. No Live TV

Despite the fact it does not support the playing of physical media like DVD discs or Blu-Ray disks it is still by far my favourite Media Server. If you are like me and you want to access your media on any device anywhere then Plex is the one for you. I am also in the process of converting all my Blu-Ray and DVD to digital format to make it more available to me. Again if you are like me you will have also (cough couch) downloaded TV and Movie content as well. If I miss a TV show these days I get a copy.

It has a wonderful feature which allows you to synchronise your media to be available offline. This is great for when your at work and you want to catch up on your TV shows during lunch.

Plex also allows you to share your library out with friends and family when you subscribe to the premium service. I originally had the free version but within a couple of days I purchased a 1 month subscription. For $4.99US a month I thought it would be a cheap way to try all the features to see whether I liked it. Within half an hour of buying 1 month access, I had my Plex home server streaming through my Galaxy 4 mobile phone to my Chrome Cast on my TV in the bedroom over Wi-Fi. I was watching HD movied without it stuttering or pausing! There are many other such little cool things that it can do.

So there you have it. My top four. I hope this helps you when it comes to making a decision on the Media Server that is right for you.

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