Flirc Media Center Companion

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Today my Boxee set up is officially retired. It served me well, but the item I got in the mail this afternoon made it real simple to move on. A week or two back I was reading on the XMBC forums about a little media center companion that turns your regular remote control into your media center remote.

This device is a usb dongle called Flirc and it enables you to ditch the mouse, the keyboard, or the separate Boxee, MCE, or Windows remote to control your media center and simply use your existing TV/cable remote. How does it work? Well, since you can navigate around any media center application with a keyboard, Flirc will map buttons on your remote to act as keyboard movements. Pretty sweet, huh?

After the recent Plex let down with the Kindle Fire Remote App, I decided to just install XBMC, the platform Boxee and Plex are based on anyways. Once I mapped out my TV and movie folder locations and added some online content extensions, I was back in “media center” business.

The whole set up is dead simple too. You download and install the Flirc app, plug your Flirc USB device into the computer, and then launch the app. From there the program walks you through mapping the basic functions like left, right, up, down, select, and back. That’s called the minimalist controller which is all I have at the moment, but it seems more than enough to get me around right now.

If you want more, there’s a few other pre-configured controllers such as full keyboard, Boxee, XBMC, and Windows Media. Apparently you can store up to 160 keys which allows you to create your own custom configuration too.

Although I haven’t messed around extensively yet, I’m wondering if the full keyboard option will allow you to actually launch your media center in the event you close it after each use. I’ll likely leave XMBC up all the time anyway (unless it acts like Boxee and starts using excessive proc and revving up my fans), but it would be very cool to be able to launch your media center via your regular remote control.

Here’s an image of my regular old remote that came with my Samsung plasma. I paired six keyboard keys to buttons I selected on my remote control during the set up process, and now I’m styling. Ha! Check it out.

Plex Media Center

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What happens when you gush to your parents about your media center set up? They end up wanting the same thing and you get drafted to set it all up for them. Ok, maybe that’s a stretch in my case. It was more about me wanting to set this up for them, but they have been enthusiastic about the idea from the moment I explained my set up to them.

Since I had recently upgraded some hardware in my house, I was going to have some stuff available to get them going, so I set a date to make it happen. I brought up a Dell Studio Hybrid I was no longer using, a used APC SmartUPS home battery backup, and a one terabyte Seagate external drive that started intermittently clicking within a month of ownership, but still keeps on chugging along a year or more later.

My biggest obstacle was ensuring whatever I chose to set up was easy to use for a couple of nontechnical users. If it isn’t, they just won’t use it and it will all be a waste. My Boxee set up would have been perfect for them, but since Boxee is going the hardware route and no longer updating the code, it probably doesn’t make sense to start them off this way. I want something that will likely be around (and work) for awhile so once they become familiar with it, they won’t have to relearn another product a year down the road.

I chose to use the open source Plex media center software which seemed very easy to use. In my few hours of preparation before heading up to my parents, I installed XBMC briefly, but when I realized they wouldn’t have a way to remotely control the application (at least not right away since I don’t get up to their place all that often), I chose Plex instead. Plex is based off the XBMC code, so the visual look and feel is extremely similar, but Plex had one thing that would benefit them that XBMC did not; a Kindle Fire app that could also work as a remote control.

I know there’s plenty of XBMC compatible remotes, but I did not have the time to pick one up and become familiar enough with it to be able to show the oldies how to use it. I might further explore XBMC and a physical remote at my house, but since my parents are both pretty familiar with the Kindle Fire, it was Plex all the way for them.

Unfortunately I can’t say that Plex was extremely intuitive for a first time set up. I was befuddled by what I needed installed if I wanted to play media and found conflicting information from users in the forums. For my test at home, I only had one computer hooked up to my TV, so I only needed to play media from that. I was not trying to view video from my laptop, desktop, phone or tablet…just the TV. I figured out I needed both the Plex Media Server AND the Plex Media Center. Had I wanted to set this up to view video on my laptop or other device, I would only need the “Server” on one computer, and the “Center” on my laptop. (At least that’s how I understand it thus far)

Once it was installed it was just a matter of poking around the menus to map to local media or update server, network, appearance, or skin settings. After an hour or so, I was fairly confident I would set them up with Plex and give them a crash course in how to use it. The only thing I wasn’t able to test was the Kindle Fire app until I got there, and unfortunately that ended up being the Achilles Heel of the entire set up.

The Plex app got some mixed reviews with some complaints about playback on the Kindle, but since I was buying it primarily for the remote control aspect, I went ahead and purchased/installed it. The server was immediately found and I was able to launch the app on my TV connected computer from the Kindle which was great because it’s something I could never do with the Boxee remote. I began using the remote control portion right away to play video on both the TV or the Kindle, so I was initially impressed.

All I can say for everything after that first attempt is it was a combination of bugginess and user ignorance from lack of intuitiveness. After playing around for a short while, things changed without intervention on my part. I could no longer launch the app from the Kindle, and it was not asking me where to play a video and instead playing all files directly on the Kindle. I lost the remote control portion of the app as well. My easy to use and easy to teach media solution was quickly becoming a nightmare.

Then there was the lag. People used to using a remote aren’t as patient when you have to tap a tablet and wait ten seconds for a response. This only happened a couple times in the few hours I was there, but when it did happen, my parents would keep tapping impatiently and eventually the program locked up until the program task had to be killed (yet at no time did it appear to strain the computers resources).

Then after I launched the media center from the computer using an attached mouse, the remote control portion of the app returned, and we could navigate and play media using it. What we could then no longer do was browse the folders to play from there like we initially could, and we still couldn’t “launch” the media center from the app either.

I left there with a mouse and keyboard still connected to the front of the Studio Hybrid feeling rather defeated because I know they won’t be using it. That’s something I could put up with while I tinker, but not them. They need something that just works and clearly this was not the solution for them. I think it’s back to the drawing board to figure out a better solution. In the meantime, I may just temporarily set them up with Boxee if I can find a used remote somewhere. 🙁

Boxee Media Manager

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I’m a little late to the game for recommending Boxee since it’s no longer officially supported, but since I’ve been a dedicated user for these past few years, I figure I can at least talk about it a bit while I decide what to do next. Boxee is a home theater application that allows you to watch various tv shows and movies, online and from local sources, all from one interface. The application is free to install, but as of January 2012 it is no longer being supported because the company has gone into the hardware game.

You can now purchase a Boxee Box that runs their software on it. I’m still running the application on a cheap Dell Hybrid running 64 bit Windows 7 on it and will probably do so for awhile as it serves my purpose just fine. I’ve got my computer under the TV hooked up to a Drobo where I have all of my local tv, movie, and family video files. I just tell Boxee to look for the drive I have mapped to my Drobo media and it not only finds it, but will gather and attach metadata for what it finds. (ex: dvd cover, movie synposis, tv episode summary, etc.) I can even set how often to have it poll my data for new stuff I’ve added.

It’s been an ideal situation for me as I seldom stream shows from the internet. I’m more interested in a neat little way to organize what I’ve got in my personal collection for easy viewing. I can get a little OCD about watching episodes of TBBT over and over again, but hey, Earl’s been cancelled for nearly three years and I had pretty much worn out those files by then anyway.

There are a few things about Boxee that always bothered me, so perhaps whatever I move on to next will be an improvement in these areas.

  • I purchased the D-Link Boxee Remote and it’s great except for one thing. You can’t launch the Boxee application. Every time I want to switch to Boxee, I need to launch it from the desktop with a mouse first.
  • If I leave the application running and not being used, the resources it uses still seems to creep up over time until my computer fan is screaming loudly at me. Perhaps this wouldn’t be an issue if I had a beefier computer, but if my computer doesn’t struggle while i’m using the app, why does it when I’m not?
  • There wasn’t any support for the organization of personal files. You could always drill down to your personal files and view them through Boxee, but there was nothing specific for personal video like there was for tv and movies. It would have been nice for the app to thumbnail your videos, pull a title from the file name, and place them in their own area.

Even with those few things, I’m still going to have a hard time adopting something new. I’ve really become accustomed to using this interface, and I know my girlfriend will be lost trying to learn something new. I fully anticipate getting one of those glazed over looks when I start to teach her how to use our next media manager.

You have to be signed up at to download the software, but I’ll make it available in the downloads section here on the site if anyone is still interested in trying it out. In the meantime, I have to figure out what to try next. I’ve heard Plex is nice, and I’ve heard decent things about XMBC in which Boxee is a fork of, so there doesn’t seem to be any lack of options. If anyone has any others they think are worthy of testing out, I’d be curious to hear what has worked for you.