Kath Rella is not thrilled by continual ‘improvements’ to services that were perfectly fine as they were.
Remember the days when a thing used to be just a thing? You could buy a fridge, and it was just a fridge. Or maybe you’d purchased some headphones, and they were just headphones. It’s not impossible to do that these days, of course, but whereas the conventional wisdom was once that spending more bought you better quality or longevity, that’s not so much the case now. Whatever fancy-ass gizmo you purchase for whatever price seems pretty flimsy.
Take OLED TVs, for example. There’s no getting around it, the picture quality of such a television is far superior to anything else on the market, but the longevity of such appliances is questionable. Fifteen years ago, if you dropped £1,500 on a television, not only would you expect the best possible image quality, but you’d also expect to be able to bequeath that to somebody when you died. Not so much now. Even if you do put in the annual hours of maintenance required to keep those things in working order, the chances of waking up one day to find your super-duper-expensive screen permanently scarred by a Sky Sports logo are not insignificant.
Of course, it doesn’t end there. With increasing regularity, it’s getting more and more difficult to buy just a TV. Even for £1,500, you cannot buy a simple television set. Splurge on a fancy OLED, and you must agree to a shitload of terms and conditions that can and will change in the future, which you must continue agreeing to, or your device will stop working. All of this because, like every fancy piece of tech, a lot of the extra cash you’ve spent goes on providing ‘features’.
Some of those additional features aren’t always useless. For example, I have a rather pricy set of Bluetooth headphones that include some of the best noise-cancelling you could ask for. Turn them on without playing any music, and while the world doesn’t quite fall silent, the irritating hum of a desk fan in summer fades into oblivion.
However, these headphones also include smart assistant connectivity, such as Alexa or Google Home, and I can’t help but wonder… why? Is it really that difficult to control your music from the device you’ve paired the headphones with? Are you seriously going to sit on a bus and say out loud, “Back Off Bitch”, to play a Guns N’ Roses track?
Perhaps, you will. Seems a bit weird to me, but ultimately, that is the purpose of technology. No matter what certain MPs believe, humans are a lazy species, and most of our biggest technological advances have come from an innate desire to do less work. Some of these advances have enabled us to harvest an entire field’s yield in a matter of hours, whereas some mean we don’t have to get up to turn the lights on.
For those of us with large physical media collections, I’m sure we’ve all, at one time or another, felt the pain of needing to change the video cassette or disc. How much effort must we have expended to get our fat arses off the sofa to muck about with plastic cases, all so we can watch the second part of our box set? How often have we told ourselves, “There must be a better way than this!”.
For a time, there was. It was called Plex, a simple media server application that could be run on a pretty average system enabling you to stream your own media across a local network and even across the internet if you had the requisite bandwidth available. Simply rip all of your media, which you could do while sitting at your PC engaging in flame wars on IMDb’s now-defunct forums, and let Plex take care of it all. Plex would match each item to external databases such as The Movie DB, download posters, background art, and, when available, even DVD extras such as interviews, featurettes, trailers, etc.
All of this could be played back at your leisure on pretty much any device, thanks to their dedication to providing clients for as many people as possible. Sounds pretty great, huh? They had to go and fuck it all up, didn’t they?
You see, for the average person, the ‘better way’ isn’t copying all of your media to a server. It’s streaming. Now, in all fairness, anybody who knows me knows I am a huge fan of streaming media. Not only is it convenient, but compared to traditional broadcasters, streaming offers a potentially more personalised experience. Us horror fans aren’t exactly well-catered to by the big players of the broadcast TV industry, but that’s less of a concern when there’s a whole bunch of streaming services exclusively dedicated to us.
To be fair, running a server isn’t completely straightforward, either. First, you need a device to run the server on. There are plenty of options, from an old PC to an Nvidia Shield, but it’s still an initial obstacle. Second, you need storage, and as media has progressed from a few gigs for a DVD to 100+ gigabytes for 4K, it can get a bit expensive if you want a carbon copy of your media on the server.
On the flip side, even with streaming, there are many films, and TV shows that you can buy physical copies of but cannot currently stream. That’s the problem with streaming; you’re at the mercy of somebody else’s library, and thanks to licensing rights and all that, an eight-season TV show might be available on Netflix today, but it might not be there in a couple of weeks’ time. If you were a big Neil Young fan back in January but didn’t have any copies of his albums, your Spotify subscription got a little bit worse, didn’t it?
Plex realised that providing a product exclusively for tech-savvy, anal-retentive media hoarders wasn’t necessarily the most profitable course of action in the long term, so they decided to diversify their offering. Unfortunately, the more they’ve diversified their offering, the greater the number of fingers they’ve been flipping at their original user base. So many fingers have been flipped towards those original users that you can’t help but feel they actually want them to all piss off somewhere else so that they no longer have to bother providing a media server application.
It’s fair to say that anyone who works in software or web application development is always looking for that something new they can do. Why be the absolute best of the best in one particular field when you can be fair-to-middling in a whole bunch of them? That certainly seems to be the rationale behind many development decisions, and over time it results in a shift between what a product was and what the developers want it to be. Take Twitter, for example, where Elon has voiced his desire to see Twitter become the most valuable news source on Earth, and yet I would argue that few people use Twitter as their primary news source, and if everyone did, we might as well launch all the nukes now.
In Plex’s case, they wanted some of that sweet streaming moolah, so used the Plex Pass subscription fees not to improve the media server, not to focus on implementing the various feature requests that their users had made, nor to improve the stability of their tech, but to buy a bunch of licensing rights to a heap of different films and TV shows and add them to Plex.
Of course, because they’re doing this on the cheap, even subscribed users would have to sit through adverts – and well, I’m not a fan of those – but moreover, they forcibly added content into people’s libraries. A personal media server is just that—personal. Even though Plex has always primarily focused on films, TV shows, and music, it’s never prevented you from adding home movies, photos, or well, any media you might want to put on it and unsurprisingly, users have found a number of purposes for it over the years.
At one point, Plex supported users making their own plugins for Plex to, as one how-to article put it, “bend Plex to [their] will”. Depositories like Github had any number of plugins and scripts to improve or enhance the various functions of Plex, written by a dedicated core user base that could see the value in users having a fully customisable experience. Alas, around the time Plex decided to start shovelling cheap movies at you, they also deliberately broke the ability for most plugins to work. I can’t help but feel those two decisions are related.
It’s kind of jarring to load up your client application one day and find a whole heap of shit you know you never added to your library. They did allow you to disable it, but they enabled it by default, and this was the very beginning of the gradual shift away from what people originally used it for to the bloated mess of an application that it’s become.
Over time, Plex more aggressively implemented these streaming-focused features. They decided to develop what they call ‘Discover’, which enables users to search on Plex and see results outside of their library available on streaming services—you know, just like Justwatch.com already did.
Because this is the focus now, you couldn’t opt out of this when it was originally launched. Only several months later, following one of the most upvoted posts in the Suggestions section of their forum, did they make this optional. Surprising, really, that a company that claims it doesn’t want to know what’s on your server would mandate that all search requests are sent outside of the library. The server has its own database to perform searches against, so this feature is not remotely necessary. If I was a cynical person, I might argue that it’s fairly easy to determine what people might have in their library from their search history.
Still, they removed it and now it’s back. The next stage of the ‘Discover’ development was to copy IMDb because, evidently, Plex’s idea of innovation is to just steal everybody else’s idea. They decided to enable profiles, filmographies and social media links of actors, directors, etc. Maybe a lot of people do watch films and think, “Hmm, I wonder what Nic Cage’s Instagram is?” and want that information in front of them immediately. It’s possible, I suppose, but I don’t think it’s likely.
Despite having originally conceded to those who did not want to send search requests to a third party and see things that weren’t in their library, once again, if you search for a name on Plex, people who are definitely not in your media library will show up in the results. Ironically, the Suggestion to remove non-library results from search still appears as ‘Implemented’ on the Plex forums. Yeah, it was, for about three months.
Meanwhile, fundamental functions of the Plex server have received little to no attention at all. One of Plex’s original selling points was its transcoder; a means to re-encode a file on-the-fly so it could be played back on a device without native support. For example, you might have media in the Windows WMV format, which has little support outside of Windows.
For Plex, that wasn’t originally an issue. It would simply create a temporary version of the file in a supported format, like MP4, and play it back that way. Depending on your hardware, your results could vary, but even an Nvidia Shield can transcode 1080p WMV to MP4 in real-time. Transcoding 4K is another matter, but there is no reason to have a 4K file in a format that isn’t MP4.
For months, however, the transcoder has been dodgy as all hell. Across Reddit and Plex’s own forums, users have complained of transcodes not having audio or the transcoder crashing entirely. Plex seems to have little interest in fixing this, presumably because it would take precious resources away from whatever website they want to rip off next.
Despite repeated assurances over the years that they would improve the photo library, Plex has done nothing except add the option for a third-party service to scan your photos and tag locations. In fact, pretty much everything Plex does these days seems to involve third parties and your data. You have to start asking, why?
Plex represents a fundamental problem with modern software development. Nobody is content with a thing being a thing anymore, even when that thing was originally close to ideal. Software gets bloated with features people didn’t ask for, and the people funding those features are the gullible idiots that saw something good and tried to support it. The more these unwanted additional features involve third parties getting hold of your data, the less optional they become to the point that the response to any backlash isn’t to remove, make optional and apologise but to delay the rollout and hope that next time, the criticism will be easier to ignore.
The worst part, of course, is that while there are other media server applications available, because Plex was so far ahead of them all for such a long time, many users have invested so much time in their Plex server that it’s hard to give it up now to start over elsewhere. With the energy price shitfuckery of this year, I moved my Plex server from an old, energy-inefficient PC to my Nvidia Shield, which has saved quite a bit of money, but it wasn’t a simple process. It took a long time to get things back to the way they were.
Tech companies know that once they’ve hooked you, it’s very hard to just break away and go elsewhere. For all the talk of Mastodon’s sudden rise, Twitter’s popularity isn’t really waning. Google makes no secret that it’s reading your fucking emails, but Gmail isn’t dying either. Microsoft pisses off their users daily, but Office still decimates even the free competition in terms of market share. LG can sell a £1,500 TV that might end up with a Brazzers logo burned into it if you watch a bit too much porn, but people will buy their next version and hope for the best.
I know that while I may once have been a ‘valued customer’, as much as a company truly values a customer, Plex doesn’t give a shit about me anymore, and I should just pack my bags and sod off to Emby.
But I am a human, and that means I am kinda lazy and doing it all over again… ugh. I think I’ll go and see what’s on Shudder, instead.
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Kodi is an open-source media center application that might be a suitable alternative to Plex.
Incidentally, pre-2010 versions of Plex were actually a fork of the Kodi codebase, according to Wikipedia. (Well, to be totally precise, it was a fork of XBMC, because the XBMC project changed its name to Kodi in 2014.)
Kodi does have some advantages over Plex. Being a media player application, on the device’s it can run on, it doesn’t need to Transcode. Whereas a Plex client’s ability to play media back is based on the device’s own support, Kodi has built-in support for pretty much every file format, codec, etc.
The downside, however, is that Kodi can only be used on devices with their own hardware-decoding capability. If your primary device is an LG WebOS TV, then Kodi doesn’t work. There’s no app for it, and attempts to make one have discovered that even on the highest-end LG TV’s, you’re limited to software-decoding which in turn means that you could only possibly view 1080p content on it because WebOS is effectively a means to run web-applications so expects the source to be doing most of the work.
That aside, the main drawback with Kodi is that to even get it to the same level of capability as Plex, you have to go hunting for plugins, and every time there’s a major update to Kodi it carries the risk of breaking all of your plugins until they too are updated. And that’s if those plugins are, because one of the main problems with relying on plugins is that authors sometimes just move on and cease providing updates. While I miss Plex’s ability to use plugins, the same problem existed there too.
Possibly, you’ll be able to find a fork or a branch for a plugin where a new author has taken something on after the original author has stopped providing updates but it’s not always easy to keep track of which is the live one. A problem I ran into with a Plex plugin that still actually works (because it’s just a media scanner). It broke one day, and it was about six months before I found a working live branch of it.
As I sort of mentioned above, another issue with Kodi is availability/compatibility. Kodi’s reputation for being a pirate’s application keeps it out of a lot of official app stores. It’s not too much of a problem with something like a Fire Stick, because Fire TV runs an Amazon-customised version of Android, so Kodi can be sideloaded, but on a device like a Roku or an LG WebOS TV the only option is to screen mirror another device that is running Kodi. On Playstation, the “work around” is to install Plex instead.
Right now, if you wanted something that does pretty much everything Plex does and has the same level of availability, the main option is Emby. Like Plex, it’s a server-based application, and supports most of the features Plex has without the hassle of finding work arounds like you would with Kodi. However, there are still some limitations that aren’t easily overcome that a user *may* run into, depending on how they’ve been using Plex, but to go into them would make this reply even longer than it already is!
I’ve got a lifetime Plex Pass but have switched to Infuse Pro for a small annual fee on my Apple TV 4K box. Works great for movies stored on a networked drive or the Premiumize.me cloud.
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