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Plex for Android Is Pretty - but Pixelated, Plodding and Painful to Use

By Patrick Nelson
Jun 29, 2012 5:00 AM PT

Plex for Android Is Pretty - but Pixelated, Plodding and Painful to Use

Plex for Android, an app from Plex, is available for US$4.99 at Google Play. Plex is a good looking media platform for running media files on Google TV, tablets, phones and so on. Online channels include Hulu, Vimeo and more.

plex for android

On looks and apparent tight integration between my existing Android-based devices, I decided to check out Plex's two Android apps. I was interested in particular in how well they integrate Android tablets and Google TV.

How It Works

Plex provides a media server that installs on your regular Windows and other OS computers via a Web-based download.

It then streams your media -- like photos, video and music -- over the network and onto your other devices, say an Android tablet, for example.

Online resources like YouTube are also delivered.

My Quest

I've tried many media servers before -- I wrote about Orb in this column last year -- and I have always found them to be resource hogs, with transcoding and other tricks slowing down the server Windows machine.

I was keen to try Plex on a recent, newish, decently specified machine this time. I chose an 8 GB RAM, 64-bit dual core i3 Dell.

Concept, Look and UI

I've found the media server concept in the past to be bordering on geeky, and too complicated to configure and maintain for average media consumers, so I was interested to see whether slick-looking Plex had improved matters.

First up, Plex is pretty. There's no denying it is superior in looks to Orb and Tversity. With Plex's Germanic white, orange, light and dark grey colors, it's lovely to look at, and doesn't affront like most DVR, TV cable, and media player box UIs do.

However, surprisingly, some large-icon pixelation was apparent on the Google TV app when viewed on a 720p television. Come on Plex -- no excuse.

Was it user-friendly?

Is a button labeled "Add a New Connection" with text description: "Add a connection for each network address this media server is available at" user-friendly? I think not.

Having played around with media servers for eight years, I can safely say I have no idea how to add that connection, or why I should, or shouldn't -- particularly when it starts spouting gobbledygook like "leave the 'port' field blank to listen on the default Plex media server port ... ." Too geeky.

Installing the App

Having gotten nowhere beyond buying Plex for Android and loading it on my Toshiba Thrive tablet; buying Plex for Google TV and loading it on my Logitech Revue box complete with the last-week updated Android 3.2; signing up for a Plex account and downloading the media server to my Dell; choosing a few folders to add to the library; and being presented with never-ending "loading" messages on the tablet and TV -- I went for a coffee.

When I got back I saw that my library had begun to populate on the devices, and media containing folders were showing up, if slowly.

Baffling Instructions

There seems to be a perplexing techies' assumption on the part of Plex, the corporation, that users will instinctively know how to use its apps. It needs to get someone in there to reorganize the setup instructions -- which do exist but are buried in various unintuitive locations.

Crucial steps -- like add folders to the library; index your media before expecting to see it streamed; open an account and sign into it on all of the devices; wait for the media to populate before throwing your hands into the air -- all need to be explained if Plex wants to take this app and concept beyond geekdom.

Operating the Player

I was unable to get the media player to initialize when playing back one of the two online channels I had added, Hulu and YouTube. The Hulu playback failed with a media player time-out error message that appeared within both the Android tablet app and the Google TV app.

The YouTube app played fine on the Google TV install, and I was able to see a tennis player kick a line umpire. However, I got a media player time-out again -- this time with YouTube on the tablet, and I was unable to watch my selected Portugal vs. Holland's 2-1 Euro 2012 soccer victory snippet.

I was continually presented with lethargic "loading..." and "initializing media player" messages that frustrated me.

In Conclusion

I'm currently lucky enough to be using an admittedly expensive Sonos multiple-zone wireless music system to stream online music, which is working flawlessly. That smooth experience has woken me up.

Plex, Google TV and others, please get your act together to compete in this market.

Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.

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