Accessing network media with Boxee, Plex, and XBMC

Christopher Breen
6 May, 2009
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I’ve recently covered the Mac mini as media centre and part of that series deals with using the free media center applications, Boxee, Plex, and XBMC to bring local, networked, and Internet media to the mini. These are fine applications but, when it comes to accessing content on networked Macs, they can be confounding. Say what you will about the limitations of Apple’s Front Row, using it to play networked content is a breeze compared to these applications. Because playing networked content can be a head-scratcher I thought I’d run through the steps for configuring each of these applications.

SMB first. Starting with the basics, it’s important to know that these applications are all based on the open-source XBMC project, which runs on multiple platforms. Because it does, XBMC and the applications based on it use networking protocols that are common among all the platforms on which it runs. So, much as Mac users would love to see support for Bonjour, it’s not there. Instead, these applications use SMB (Server Message Block), a sharing protocol commonly used in Windows and supported by the Mac in the last few iterations of OS X.

To make your networked Mac available to these applications, you must switch on SMB support. To do so, open System Preferences, choose Sharing, select File Sharing, and click the Options button. In the sheet that appears, enable the Share Files and Folders Using SMB option. In the list below, enable the user account you want to share media from. For example, if your user name is Bob and you want to share the movies in Bob’s Movies folder, you enable the Bob account.

Start by enabling SMB on your Mac.

Now that your Mac is available as a media source, you configure the applications. Given that they’re based on the same project, the methods are similar, though not exactly the same. They shake out this way.

Boxee. After launching Boxee and logging into your account, choose Settings -> Media Sources. Select Network Sources and in the window that lists your network shares, choose Add New Source. From the screen that appears choose Manually Enter IP/Name. In the three fields that appear enter the networked computer’s IP address (you’ll find that information in the Sharing system preference when you select File Sharing), the user name from the account you want access to, and that account’s password. Select Login and press Return. If everything goes to plan, you’ll be prompted to choose a folder to monitor. If you’d like Boxee to play the audio content of your iTunes library, choose the iTunes Music folder within your user folder (assuming you store iTunes content in it default location). When you’ve navigated to the folder you want, select Add Source.

In the resulting screen you can rename the source—My MacBook’s Music, for example—as well as choose the kind of content that folder holds—video, music, and pictures. Depending on how your media is arranged you might or might not enable both the video and music options for your iTunes Folder.

Once you’ve added the network source, tell Boxee what kind of media it contains.

The advantage of enabling both is you have to perform this setup only once—this source will appear under both the Video and Music headings when you select Browse. The disadvantage is that if you have a lot of music and movies stored in their default location—the Movies folder inside the iTunes Music folder—you have to scroll through a long list of artists before you get to that Movies folder. In such cases you might want to make that Movies folder a separate source so you can navigate to it more easily.

When you’ve made your choices, select Add and press Return to add that folder as a source. If you now return to the Music entry and choose Browse, you should see that source listed. Select it and your music should appear. Same idea for your movies, which will appear when you select the source folder and choose Browse under the Video heading.

Plex. To configure Plex for playing media from networked Macs you separately select the location of your music and video files. For example, to add movies from a networked Mac, launch Plex and choose Watch Your Videos. In the Videos screen choose Add Source and press Return. In the Add Video Source window that appears, highlight Browse and press Return. In the resulting Browse for New Share window scroll down to Add Network Location and press Return.

The Add Network Location window that appears should list Windows Network (SMB) as the Protocol. If it doesn’t, highlight that field and keep pressing Return until it does. Now move to the Server field, press Return, and, using the virtual keyboard that appears, enter the networked Mac’s IP address and press Return. Back in the Add Network Location window, enter your Administrator’s username and password in the appropriate fields. Move to OK and press Return to dismiss the window.

Adding a network location in Plex.

Now that you’re back in the Browse For New Share window, select the share you just created—it will be called something like smb://—and press Return again. You’re back in a Browse For New Share window that should list your user folder on the networked Mac, your public folder, the Mac’s internal hard drive, and any other hard drives attached to that Mac. Navigate to the folder full of movies you want to share and press the Right Arrow key to select OK. Press Return.

An Add Video Source window appears that lists the path to the folder you just selected. Select the Enter a Name For This Media Source field, press Return, and enter an appropriate name for this network location—Remote Mac’s Movies, for example. Select OK and press Return. That location should now appear when you select Watch Your Videos and its contents should be playable via Plex. (Note that the protected movies you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store aren’t playable as none of Apple’s protected iTunes content plays in these media-centre applications.)

Now that you’ve added the share (that smb://, thing), it’s easy to add a networked music library. From Plex’s home screen choose Listen to Music and press Return. Scroll down the resulting list and choose Add Source. Highlight the Browse button and press Return. In the Browse for New Share list that appears, choose your smb share and press Return. Navigate to the folder full of music you want to share, press the Right Arrow key to select OK, and press Return. In the Add Music Source window that appears, give the media source a name, select OK, and press Return. That source is now available to you when you select Listen to Music.

XBMC. XMBC, the one that started it all, works in a similar fashion. To add video from a networked Mac, choose Videos and press Return. In the list that appears choose Add Source. In the Add Video Source window that appears, select Browse and in the Browse For New Share window, select Add Network Location. In the resulting window ensure that the Protocol reads Windows Network (SMB), select the Server Name field, press Return, and enter the IP address for the shared Mac. Now enter a username and password for that Mac and click OK.

Browsing for networked content with XBMC.

When you return to the Browse For New Share window, select the network location you just created and press Return. In the resulting window are your user folder for that Mac, that user’s public folder, and any drives the Mac uses. Navigate through these folders to find the folder that holds the movies you want to access. When you can see the contents of that folder, click OK to add the folder as a video source. Give the folder a name, set its content if you like, select OK, and press Return.

Adding music from a networked Mac works the same way it does with Plex. Select Music from XBMC’s home screen, press Return, and in the resulting list select Add Source and press Return. In the Add Music Source window select Browse, press Return, choose the smb:// entry you just created, and press Return. Navigate to the folder that contains the music you want to play, select OK, and press Return. Give that shared folder a name, select OK and press Return, and you will find that source available to you when you choose Music from the home screen.

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