Media PC apps

As physical media continues to decline in popularity, and digital media’s rise to prominence continues to take effect, finding the right software to properly playback, organise and convert media files should be on the top of everyone’s list of priorities.

Having an enormous collection of media files is all well and good, but if you aren’t streaming that content across all of your devices, then you simply aren’t taking full advantage of it.

Likewise, a library of any respectable size needs clear organisation in order to find the files you’re after as soon as you feel like watching or listening to them. And, with so many file formats out there, you’re going to want to make sure that your content will actually play on your chosen devices.

With these things in mind, we’ve put together a roundup of the best media management tools, re-encoding and transcoding software and media server applications to get the best out of all that video and audio content that’s sitting on your computer.


Media centers/servers

Air Playit

Price: Free
Platforms: Mac, iOS, Android
From: Air Playit

Air PlayitThis somewhat dodgy media server solution required an adjustment to our test Mac’s security settings in order to run, which should be an immediate red flag to anyone thinking of using Air Playit to stream their content to their various devices.

While Air Playit’s setup process is remarkably simple, immediately finding our ‘Movies’ folder and linking it to our newly-created media server, we found its live transcoding functionality to be lacking in our tests.

Often pausing throughout playback, Air Playit struggled to get through a single minute of content when played remotely (and even locally) on its accompanying Android and iPhone apps. To make matters worse, the apps themselves lack optimisation for new devices, with the iPhone version in particular clearly having not been optimised since the iPhone 4 days.

It’s a shame, because this media server is just so easy to setup, making it one of the most user friendly options we’ve come across. Pity it performs and looks like an old dog.

Verdict: Simple setup is marred by horrible performance and old device clients.

Score: 2 stars out of 5


Emby

Price: Free
Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Roku
From: Emby

embyOnce known under the vague moniker of Media Browser, the open source media server project has rebranded itself as Emby in an attempt to reach a broader audience, though the average person is likely find it far from user friendly.

Bogged down by frustratingly specific file naming conventions and a server setup process that requires intermediate computer knowledge, Emby is also hit and miss with its apps and playback on certain devices.

Emby’s newly updated Android app is a breeze to setup, simply allowing you to login to the account you’ve linked to your media server, though we had trouble playing certain files. The iOS app however, is another story. Still titled Media Browser on the App store, the iOS version has yet to be updated, sporting an antiquated setup process that involves the entering of IP addresses and port numbers.

Still, other features such as parental control, cloud sync, content sharing and Chromecast support present an impressive package, and you can’t go wrong with ‘free’.

Verdict: Similar in functionality to Plex, though nowhere near as hassle-free.

Score: 3 stars out of 5


JRiver Media Centre

Price: US$50 single platform, US$70 universal
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux
From: JRiver

JRiverSeeing as Microsoft announced the end of its Windows Media Centre and Samsung bought the highly regarded Boxee, we move down the list of active media centers to have a look at JRiver.

Available on Windows and Mac this media centre can rip DVDs, organise media libraries and accept plugins for online media sources. For the most part JRiver is set up like iTunes, allowing you to sync external devices (like a smartphone) to the media centre and transfer the files you want.

If you’re switching between Mac and PC and want your library in the one place then JRiver is an option… it is a little costly, but it is an option. After a 30 day free trial you can either purchase a specific OS licence (US$50) or a master licence (US$70) which will allow you to download the software on Mac, Windows and Linux.

JRiver is more versatile than iTunes allowing you to transcode files and access them through a server but, all-in-all you sacrifice presentation for customisability.

Verdict: Not bad but not exceedingly impressive either.

Score: 3 stars out of 5


Kodi

Price: Free
Platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac, Android, Ubuntu, Raspberry Pi and more
From: Kodi

KodiKodi began as a media centre for the first generation XBox and was known as XBMC until late last year. These days it’s compatible on everything from a micro-PC — like the Rasberry Pi — to a jailbroken Apple TV.

At its core Kodi is a media library that aggregates all the media files you have and allows you to orchestrate quick-access pathways using a remote friendly interface. Various additional plugins allow further customisation for things like streaming services, TV, skins and even games.

Though Kodi Doesn’t have an internal TV tuner code like Windows Media Centre, it does support third party PVR plug-ins with an Electronic Program Guide and HD digital video recording support.

One of the best aspects of Kodi is the automatic collection of information about the titles you have on the system and by organising using certain naming conventions, Kodi will add cover images and synopses to your titles.

Overall an extremely customisable media library with decent plug-ins that give you access to legal (and not so legal) online streaming services. This tried and true media library is hard to bypass.

Verdict: An unparalleled free media centre available on most platforms.

Score: 4.5 stars out of 5


Media Monkey

Price: Free or Gold for US$24.95
Platforms: Windows
From: Media Monkey

Media MonkeyKeeping track of all of your music and video files can be an exhausting task, especially if your media collection is huge. This is when a management tool like Media Monkey proves itself invaluable.

Media Monkey (currently only available for Windows computers) takes your files and organises them, applying tags to MP3s, identifying tracks, renaming files, creating folders, managing playlists and syncing your files to a range of compatible devices, including iOS and Android phones and tablets.

And, if your television or Blu-ray player has a DLNA server, you’ll be able to stream Media Monkey’s library through them with its ability to transcode your content on the fly, though that functionality is only available in the software’s Gold version. You can also use Media Monkey to burn backup copies of your media collection on CD, DVD or Blu-ray.

Easy to use, yet full of extensive customisation options, Media Monkey puts most other media management tools to shame. Now if only there were Mac and Linux versions available…

Verdict: A fantastic media management solution with added streaming features for good measure.

Score: 4.5 stars out of 5


MythTV

Price: Free
Platforms: Linux, Mac
From: MythTV

MythTVIf you have an old computer and are looking to make your own version of the digital-video-recorder Tivo, an option that may not have crossed your path is MythTV.

This free open-source alternative to Serviio and Plex, established its roots on the Linux operating system and has since been ported to Mac. And if you’re really determined you can even build Myth TV on Windows yourself, but a pre-built package is not yet available.

That said, even on a Mac or Linux system, MythTV is more complicated to set up than any of the other media servers or centers we have touched on in this feature.

The back end offers an unparalleled amount of customisability but even though there is a 10-foot-user-interface, (readable from a distance of three meters) the front end isn’t all that appealing and you would probably be better off running it through something like Kodi.

If you don’t mind fiddling in the command line then MythTV will pay dividends, but it’s a long way off being user friendly.

Verdict: A dense but highly customisable media server.

Score: 3 stars out of 5


Plex

Price: Free or Premium for US$4.99 a month
Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Ouya, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Roku
From: Plex

PLEXArguably the world’s most highly-regarded media library solution, Plex allows users to creative a server on their computer that can be accessed from practically anywhere.

This is due to Plex’s huge range of supported platforms, including iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Ouya and Chromecast, as well as other platforms from overseas like Amazon Fire TV and Roku.

Once you’ve spent some time setting up your library (which can be a time-consuming hassle), you’ll be able to login to any one of those devices and start playing your movies and other files (so long as your server computer is running). That said, you’ll need a Plex Pass premium account in order to stream your content to any of the game consoles listed above.

Perhaps the best thing about Plex though, is its interface.. Your content is presented with information and cover art, and show-specific themes pulled straight from the web.

Plex is undeniably at the top of its game.

Verdict: Terrific functionality, a huge range of supported devices and a fantastic interface make Plex a leader in its field.

Score: 4.5 stars out of 5


Serviio

Price: Free or US$25 pro
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, Synology NAS
From: Serviio

ServiioIf you’ve already cut your teeth on a few media servers and are looking for something like Plex that can transcode media from your PC and shoot it to any playback device on-the-fly, then Serviio may just be what you’re after.

Serviio is more complicated than some others on this list, but the base program is free and pretty good at what it does. If you’re just intending on only streaming to your smart TV or Blu-ray player then Serviio works perfectly well and won’t cost you a thing.

There isn’t too much out there in the way of tutorials, but APC has previously done a runthrough and a bit of tinkering will generally lead to a working server.

If you have an Android phone or want to get at your media files through a web-browser you will have to fork out for the Pro edition and unfortunately there aren’t any playback apps for iOS or Windows Phone yet.

The Pro version doesn’t have quite as many features as we would like, but if you’re just trying to get your PC media to your TV the free version of Serviio is an excellent option.

Verdict: A great media server with comprehensive livingroom compatibility.

Score: 4 stars out of 5


Re-encoders

Freemake Video Converter

Price: Free
Platforms: Windows
From: Freemake

FreemakeThis streamlined video converter has a front end that replaces the numerous selection toggles found in Vidcoder with big colourful buttons featuring simple action icons. It’s designed for the entry level video converter, so most of the customisable features have been stripped out.

Adding video, audio, DVDs or pictures, just requires you to click an appropriate button and open the video file you are looking for. A handy drag and drop feature also gives you the option to throw URL’s directly into the lineup. Additionally, it has a really basic video editor that can rotate, crop and cut.

Freemake Video Encoder successfully achieves what it sets out to however, we advise some caution with this one. This program is not open source, yet it’s free.

With, no in-app add popups, there is a question about how this company is making money and there have been some reports online of the app containing hidden web browser adware.

As such, we’d recommend using one of the other re-coders first, just in case.   

Verdict: The app runs well but there are some questions regarding its integrity.

Score: 2 stars out of 5


HandBrake

Price: Free
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux
From: HandBrake

HandbrakeWhile many media server options do a decent job of transcoding your video content on the fly, various factors on your network can affect the quality of your playback. When live transcoding doesn’t quite cut it, a good alternative is to completely convert your files into formats that your devices can process natively.

Open source video transcoder app HandBrake has long been a trusted solution in that regard. Its simple user interface lets you select your source file, choose the format you want to convert it to and hit ‘Start’ to make it happen.

To simplify the process even further, HandBrake offers presets to ensure that your file will play on your desired device and the ability to rip DVDs and Blu-rays. HandBrake’s Output Settings also let you select select specific video codecs, bitrates, framerates, filters and other optimisation options.

Transcoding your files will take time, though. Thankfully, HandBrake lets you create a queue of items, so you can focus on other things… like drinking fruity cocktails.

Verdict: A great, free transcoding solution to take care of all of your media conversion needs.

Score: 4 stars out of 5


Vidcoder

Price: Free
Platforms: Windows
From: Vidcoder

VidcoderIf you want to flick media to any device you’re going to need something to transcode videos on the fly in order for the device to be able to play the media files. Handbrake is a great tool for ripping your DVD collection but it can be a little daunting.

Vidcoder draws from handbrakes features but presents it in a slightly more approachable way. Like Handbrake, Vidcoder can pull media from a dvd and format it for everything from your computer to your smartphone, adding in subtitles, chapters and other peripheral info as it goes.

Unfortunately you will need to be running windows 8 ( or alternatively, install Microsoft’s Net 4.0 framework on windows 7), so if you’re using Mac, linux or something else you’ll have to use Handbrake or DVDfab. If you only plan to rip your DVD collection to your media library then Vidcoder is a streamlined option that works well.

That said the simplicity-to-customisability trade-off doesn’t actually balance out all that well. You’ll still need to read a tutorial or two before using Vidcoder if you’re unfamiliar with re-encoding programs.

Verdict: Not simplified enough to be a decent alternative to handbrake.

Score: 3 stars out of 5

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