Plex is a media center application for Mac based on XBMC. The latest version, called Plex/Nine for the Mac was released this week, and in addition to the desktop software there’s also a new iOS app. The mobile app promises to act as a remote control for your desktop as well as a way to watch your videos. Since all the organization is done on the Plex desktop software, the iOS app doesn’t have to do much other than stream content.
First, I ran the Plex/Nine software on a Mac Pro using a library of under 100GB. The Plex Media Manager, when first loaded, goes online to get metadata about your collection so you can find movies or TV shows by director, year, genre, and more. It took about an hour to grab all the data for the library.
While the desktop software for Plex is free, the Plex iPad app costs $4.99. The interface is very basic – there are no left and right panes here. There is just one list that lets you navigate your videos, music, and other plugins. You can connect to multiple Plex libraries – so if you have files on different machines, you can access them all via the Plex app. Unfortunately, the iOS app does not create a master library, but if you can remember where your files are, you ought to be fine. It would also have been nice to see more controls on the iPad’s larger screen, instead of a single pane, but that is a minor quibble.
Let’s get to video playback. Some downloaded HD podcasts from sources like Revision3.com could not be played back on the iPad version of Plex, but a number of file formats were successfully viewed.
Unlike CineXPlayer, Xvid files played consistently. Plenty of other formats and codecs were supported, such as m4v, mp4, Divx files, some MKV files and more. DRM-laden content is not accessible on the Plex app.
Files stream over your Wi-Fi connection, so the quickness of file streaming depends on how large the file is. Streaming is also available using 3G if you set up port forwarding, but I could not test that since my iPad is Wi-Fi only. Smaller files loaded quicker and scrubbing through them took less time than larger ones. DVDs did not play in the iOS application, although they do work fine in the Plex desktop software. Video playback was smooth and there were no instances of stuttering or rebuffering on the iOS version.
Of course, one of the coolest touted features of the Plex set up is that you can start watching a video on your media center, then resume playback on your iOS device. I had limited success with this feature which is bit of a let down. Perhaps it is user error or maybe something else, but we’ll keep an eye out on this feature.
There are additional libraries of video and audio through applications within the Plex iOS app. You can access things like CNET, your iTunes library, and The Sixty One – right from the iOS app.
Music playback was smooth with virtually no delay between selecting a song and actually playing the song in the app. Music playback also continues while you look around for another song or a video to play. If you want, you can opt to use the iTunes plugin for music playback. This allows you to access your playlists. Audio performance was just as quick as the native music player in Plex.
The Plex iOS app also has a remote control so you can control your desktop’s experience. Oddly, the remote only works in the portrait mode — it does not work in the landscape mode and the app does not even show the remote as an option when Plex is in landscape. When you can access the remote, it works well. The iPad real estate is used well with the remote being divided into three parts: a gesture area (with a gesture guide so you know how to use it), dedicated media controls and directional keys.
The iOS app performance was a bit inconsistent. In my first tests, the application was very quick and responsive. A couple of other times, the application became unresponsive. I saw some inconsistencies in the app – when the iPad was turned a certain way, the Plex controls had the right orientation while the iPad’s top bar (with the time and battery indicator) remained upside down on the bottom.
I also saw some messages pop up saying there was some kind of error, but then the same video would play fine a couple of seconds later. These errors, aside from the unresponsiveness, were not that big a deal if all you want to do is watch video or listen to music.
For a first try, this is not a bad application. The Plex iOS app creates a nice bridge between a dedicated Mac media center running Plex and being able to carry your videos with you around the house. Functionally, it does a bang up job, but it needs refinements before the app is really worth the price. There’s an inverse relationship between price and bugginess – a lot of us are willing to put up with bugginess if something is free or cheap. However, when you ask for $4.99 for an app, which is pricey in terms of iOS apps, you should be approaching bug-free.