Roku Channel Review – Media Browser (A Worthy Plex Contender?)

   I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – one of the most crucial elements in the Cord Cutting lifestyle is a feature-rich, yet easy to set up and navigate media server. Yes, there’s the ever faithful Netflix with its second-to-none library of movies and TV series and original content, as well as the likes of Hulu PlusCrackle, and the ever expanding Vudu. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. For example, my experience with Crackle was lack-luster from day one – commercials I can live with when it comes to free content, but the cut-ins of the commercials were always horrible. I would often get slapped with a commercial while an actor was mid sentence. To me, Vudu is essentially a video rental store. No real harm there if you’re the type that likes to watch everything on an on-demand basis, but that simply isn’t for me. In my opinion, Hulu Plus is the worst of all. Pay a monthly subscription fee to watch commercials that I can’t skip? No thanks.

   But, what of the content you own that these providers don’t have? What of your favorite TV shows for which you’ve set up some form of DVR capability on a designated PC? Again – you’re going to need a media server!

   By now I think it’s obvious that my favorite recommended media server is Plex. It is robust, easy to use, and its configuration requires no coding knowledge on the user end. Plex is “out-of-the-box” ready to use. Like all things, it does have its short-comings, though most are minor in my opinion. For example, fast-forwarding and rewinding could be improved to show real-time views of current media position as Netflix does. The greatest short-coming is the long-overdue, much requested parental control feature. Plex says they are working on this, but as of date, this still does not exist. I touched on this in my January post “Plex Parental Controls….Sort Of”, in which I also provided information regarding an alternative solution known as Plex RARflix that I still use to this day.

   But all this time that I’ve been using Plex, I couldn’t help but wonder, “is Plex all there is?”. I’ve just found it hard to believe that in this day and age, Plex is the only easy to use, robust media server available for multiple platforms. To be clear: I’m not questioning whether or not Plex is the ONLY media server. I know of many media servers. I’m questioning whether or not there are other media servers that are as simple to use and deliver the same punch as Plex. So, I went on a mission – to find a worthy Plex contender. I even went into this mission with the mindset that I was going to replace Plex with ____.

   I started with some criteria (Mission Objectives, if you will) –
 
     1. The media server must be simple to download and install on my hardware. No hosted downloads – the server’s developer should be reputable enough to make the .exe available 1st party.
     2. The media server must have an understandable, fairly easy to use configuration UI for setup and server maintenance.
     3. Since I’m a Roku Cord Cutter, the server must have a Rocku channel.
     4. The Roku channel must have a sensible UI for navigation and viewing.
     5. The server must deliver content to the Roku channel in the best resolution possible.

   Using those 5 points alone, I was able to eliminate many media server offerings without even actually testing them.  I did try out Serviio, which has been around for some time now, but found its configuration and plugin installation process cumbersome and time consuming. Also, I had to access it using Roku Media Player as there is currently no Roku channel as of yet.

   All said and done, the closest contender I could find was Media Browser. Though not new to the media server arena, Media Browser only recently released its official Roku channel from beta (Mission Objective #3 – – met!).

   The directions for downloading and installing the Media Browser server on your hardware are clear and simple, with the install for Windows being the simple, familiar .exe format delivered directly from the Media Browser website (Mission Objective #1 – – met!).

   As for picture quality, Media Browser delivers stunning 1080p viewing with no annoying buffering issues. (Mission Objective #5 – – met!).

   The server configuration UI is fairly simple and easy to navigate. It’s rather minimalist, which I like – no flashy emoji-type icons, 3D effects or otherwise annoying splash screens or pop ups. However, I did find an  odd quirk with the Plugins section – specifically, when attempting to add any plugin from the MB Classic plugins section. Whenever trying to add any of these plugins to Media Browser, I keep receiving a rather uninformative error message that simply states “This plugin must be installed from with in the app you intend to use it in“.

 Now, considering the desktop heavy origins of Media Browser, I kind of get what this error message is referring to. However, in the realm of the Cord Cutting Roku user, this error message is pointless and quite frankly confusing. After all, I am installing it form within the app I intend to use it. Since this error happens with every plugin from this section, I personally find it useless to include the MB Classic section if these plugins cannot in fact be used. Simply put, if these plugins can’t easily be added to Media Browser (and many of them are pretty cool, so I was pretty disappointed), then what’s the point of listing them there?

   The biggest selling point for me on the configuration front has to be where I feel Plex has dropped the ball – as mentioned, Parental Controls. The Media Browser UI makes it plain simple to set up multiple user accounts and assign what content these accounts should have access to. It also makes it very simple to add passwords to these accounts if you so wish. And these are actual passwords. PlexRARflx accomplishes this with direction pad arrow entries, but Media Browser gives you the full qwerty keyboard. I understand that there are those people who hate using this keyboard on Roku because it can be time consuming making entries, but I personally have no issue with it.

   I configured 2 user logins – one main, password-protected Family login that contains all media content, and a Kids login with no password protection that contains only our children’s content as I did with Plex RARflix.

   As mentioned, if The Allen Family (the main, Family login) is selected, the password that I set via the server UI must be entered to have access to its contents.

    So I have to say Mission Objective #2 is pretty much met, with the exception being the rather cryptic MB Classic plugin error.

    This brings us to Mission Objective #4, which I purposefully saved for last. Unfortunately, this is where things begin to fall apart. To quickly recap, Media Browser’s download and set up is great. Media delivery / picture quality is great. Server UI is great, barring the odd plugin error presented when attempting to add those from the MB Classic section. However, the Roku channel itself needs a lot of work. Granted, this channel is fresh out of beta, so hopefully there will be updates to clean things up.

   First and foremost, one of the biggest issues I’ve found is with metadata and content images. Media Browser comes defaulted with The Open Movie Database and TheMovieDb for metadata downloaders. For images, there is TheMovieDb, FanArt, The Open Movie Database, and Screen Grabber. There are a few additional plugins available (I added Last.fm), but it still seems as though Media Server can’t pull in complete data as efficiently as Plex. So, for a lot of the content in my library where Plex has full, complete listing information, Media Browser does not.

   For example – seeing as we are in the Halloween season, I thought I’d add a classic favorite of mine: “Pumpkinhead”.  Plex immediately displays as this –

   While Media Browser gives me this –

    Sadly, this is true of a very large percentage of the content that both servers have access to – from my TV shows to movies – while Plex displays complete art and information, Media Browser often only shows system icons with no titles or any other descriptive information to know what content the icon represents, or a picture from a random scene from the content. While Plex seems to simply “get it”, Media Browser seems to be expecting me to do more – either try to download some other plugin, or create my own – in order to tell it how to “get it”.  Simply put, no matter what content I add to my designated media folders on my hardware, Plex immediately has the correct artwork and content description while Media Browser has unfortunately failed to do so on a large percentage of my content.
 I also find Media Browser’s “Jump In” feature to be not very user friendly. It offers side-scrolling navigation (which I publicly plead for every developer to stop using!) that’s grossly over-sized, and quite frankly childish looking. I really don’t understand the decision to add this as it only helps amplify the need for a drastic UI makeover.

   On the plus side of the Roku channel, Play From Scene option is pretty awesome but it too has an unfortunate drawback. Though it allows you to pick a chapter starting point for any of your content, and it loads almost instantly, there is no picture art representing the channel you are selecting – only system icons. Thus, you pretty much have to peck around to find the chapter you’re looking for when using this feature. Plex does not have this feature – if you want to start from any point besides the beginning, you have to fast forward until you get there (there also is no picture art representing the scenes), and I’ve found that this can sometimes cause Ples to freeze up if you do it too many times on the same title. 
   Overall, I have to report Mission Objective #4 as not met. I do understand that this is the initial release out of beta, so I only hope the short comings I’ve pointed out only continue to improve with time. Because truth be told, if Media Browser can get the wrinkles ironed out that I’ve mentioned here, I could personally see myself replacing Plex with it as my media server. After all, with its tight integration with WMC, Media Browser also offers another huge advantage over Plex – direct server integration of live TV.
   On a final note, I do want to point out that there is a Media Browser app   currently listed in the Google Play Store for $4.59. Considering it’s odd quirks I’ve pointed out, and the fact that I got the Plex app for free, I’ve passed on the Media Browser offering. Not to mention that I get a pretty robust experience simply navigating to the website via my mobile device browser. 
   I know this review may come across somewhat bias and Plex-promoting. However, please don’t forget – out of other media servers I looked at, read about, and tested, Media Browser is the only one that I feel is poised to best Plex in the streaming arena. With a little more time and polish, I don’t think it will have much of a problem doing so.
   Are you using Media Browser? What are your impressions of it? Or, do you know of another media server I should check out? Please feel free to share below!

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