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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. 🙁