Passion and Tech and Movies

I like movies. Old ones, new ones, bad ones, and all the rest too. I don’t watch much TV, and for really crappy reasons, I don’t read as much as I’d like to, so I watch a lot of movies.

About five years ago I moved to a new place. The spare room came set up as a media room and since the previous owner couldn’t take his gear with him, he offered it to me at a steal. Long story short: I’ve got a little theater above my office. It’s kind of amazing.

iTunes

Being a longtime Apple nerd I originally played my movies over an Apple TV (gen-2 later replaced by gen-3). I would put movie files on my old Mac Pro and share them via iTunes sharing. This worked OK, but there were a few flaws:

  1. Apple TV and iOS are very finicky about file types. This means re-encoding at lower bit-rates with a specific “container” (no MKV containers allowed).
  2. iTunes isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it server. It requires interaction on the sharing end nearly every movie.
  3. The iOS UX is crappy. Browsing a large library crashes the player, video stutters, and audio is sometimes out of sync.

In the normal Apple way, these problems simply exist. They are not solvable by tweaking or fiddling. A situation that’s great when things work — but maddening when they don’t.

Plex

Recently, I’ve switched to Plex for movies. Plex is a cross platform media server & player. It serves pretty much the same function as iTunes sharing via an Apple TV, but it works on nearly any device. It’s pretty great. Really. You should try it.

I run the Plex server on my old Mac Pro, the same as I did for iTunes. I drop movie files into a folder. And then they can be played via numerous native clients for everything from iOS to Xbox (and even the web too!). It even transcodes video on the fly so no more handbrake settings and I can play movies on my old iPad 1. A feat that even Apple’s own native player can’t compete with. The server is very stable and requires no interaction. It’s all really amazing… until it breaks.

When it breaks you have to get out your propeller beanie cap and nerd-up. I’m split on this… on the one hand iTunes was broken. And nerd-cap or not, there was nothing to be done. On the other hand, digging down into log files and sorting through error messages is not for everyone. Which is better: fixable-for-few or unfixable? I’ll be honest, I hate both of these options. I don’t think I’m alone.

This all reminds me so much of the days of MP3s right before it got great. Right before the iPod.

This situation was laid bare yesterday. I picked up a new Fire TV – a set top box a lot like an Apple TV. It’s a bit cheaper than the new Apple TV due out soon and comes with 4K video support (something my little theater aspires to someday) — but the Plex app for this platform was almost nonfunctional out of the box. It took me hours of digging through the net and carefully eliminating possible problems. At one point I even gave up and packed it back up into the box. I did find a solution in the end – after hours of fiddling. Now I have very nice videos playing – but only after a lot of tears first. Here’s my bug report post to the Plex folks.

Passion

I’m happy to have something that works. iTunes didn’t and it was frustrating. But this is not what I really want either. I hope that someday a new Steve Jobs will create the iPod-like solution that cuts through the noise and chaos, does exactly what I need it to, and makes me feel passionate about tech again. I miss that feeling a lot.