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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

Plex on the Apple TV at last

So far a lot of the Apple TV apps I’ve installed have been underwhelming: many of them are warmed-over versions of iOS apps or suitable only for bare-bones streaming. But the app that I’ve been waiting for perhaps longer than any other may actually be the best of the bunch, and that’s Plex.

Plex

If you’re not familiar with Plex, it’s a combination of software and service that lets you stream media from a server—generally your Mac, PC, or Network Attached Storage box—to a client device, including your iPhone, iPad, another Mac or PC, or some set-top boxes like the Fire TV. On the server, Plex catalogs and organizes your content, pulling down metadata where appropriate. You can also build playlists, search, and quickly filter for certain types of content. Plus a whole lot more. Honestly, it’s more or less a wholesale replacement for the media library features of iTunes.

I’ve been using the Plex server for years now. For a long time, I watched via a Mac mini hooked up to my HDTV, but the interface was often cumbersome, requiring the use of an iOS app to navigate the front-end on the Mac.1 When I picked up an Amazon Fire TV last year, support for Plex was the number one reason my Apple TV ended up relegated to second-best.2

But the new Plex app for Apple TV has reversed that trend, possibly once and for all. Perhaps most importantly, the Apple TV version beats the Fire TV’s on interface and aesthetics hands down. Plex has done an admirable job of using the interface conventions laid out by Apple to provide an easy to navigate, very responsive application. Netflix and Hulu? You guys should be taking notes here.

In particular, I’d call out Plex’s Top Shelf option in its Settings. When you put an app on the Apple TV in the top row of the home screen, the top banner displays related media. On many of the other apps I’ve installed—like Hulu or Netflix—those titles seem to be more or less random. By default, Plex just shows a banner, but if you enable the Top Shelf option, it shows actual titles from your On Deck list (Plex’s version of a queue). This is what that space should be used for frankly, and I hope more apps follow suit.

Plex Top Shelf
Plex’s Top Shelf feature shows media I want to watch, not what the app maker wants me to watch.

Plex’s developers have used a mix of two different approaches in creating the app—the simpler TVML markup language that Apple provides along with some native code—and the result is an app that is fast, elegant, and powerful, without sacrificing on functionality. If you’re a longtime Plex user, you’ll want this for sure, and if you’re not, well, it still might be worth checking out.


  1. I struggled to get my Logitech Harmony 700 universal remote to work with Plex on the Mac with intermittent success. ↩

  2. There was a hack to use Plex with earlier Apple TVs, which involved changing DNS settings and hijacking Apple’s Trailers app, but it was always a bit janky.  ↩

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]