Dan Taylor

The Plex Media Server for Mac


The Plex Media Server is the absolute best solution to connect your mac with your home theatre system. I’m a proud PlayStation 3 owner, and prior to this project, was using it as my main media server. The drawback of using a PS3 as media server comes down to two things: format and size. Meaning, currently the PS3 will not decode Matroska format files, nor, because of its FAT32 format, accept any files on it’s internal hard drive over 4GB. To get around the file size limitation, I’d been streaming media to the PlayStation via the excellent PS3 Media Server. To skirt the .mkv issue, I’d been using ps3 muxer, converting to .m2ts files, and then watching via a memory stick. Working…but not exactly ideal.

The Plex solution

The day after Christmas, some call it boxing day, I was digging through some bookshelves only to be reminded that I’ve got an old (and I do mean old – circa 2006) MacBook that’s just collecting dust. Hmmm…well, I didn’t get a mac mini for Christmas, but let’s see what the old black beauty can do.

After checking to make sure that I had all the cables and adaptors needed, I blindly started assembling my media chain. First and foremost, just to give everybody the best possible chance, I reformatted and applied all the updates to the MacBook. I then added the fresh Snow Leopard installed machine to my local network. Personally, I use a NetGear WNHDEB111 5Ghz N-wireless bridge from my Netgear WNDR3700 router, so I left airport off. A quick click on the sharing options from my main iMac, and the new MediaCenter (the black MacBook) can now see and access the files that I’ve designated within the sharing properties.

Great. I’ve installed VLC, and should be ready to go. Yes, but let’s be honest, VLC plays just about everything, but isn’t the snazziest of players to look at. I was on the hunt for something a bit nicer. After a short internet search, I stumbled upon Plex, and let me just say…this app has completely changed the way I view media in my living room.

Plex is a stand alone app that functions as a media interface for your mac. Initially, I started out with it only on the MediaCenter, but have quickly added it to all of my Macs, as well as my iOS devices. At it’s core, Plex does the exact same thing that Apple’s FrontRow will do, but does not limit you to the iTunes (read: .mp4 format), and…looks a whole lot better to boot.

Setup of Plex was fairly easy. Since the MediaCenter was already a member of the network, and I could freely trade files back and forth between the two, I only had to tell Plex where to look for my media. A quick setting here and there, and a library refresh, and boom – the best looking media server I’ve ever seen.

Not only will Plex keep your files organized in an easy to find and watch format, but will add value to the entire experience. If you’re familiar with how the Sony PlayStation handles media, you’ll know that it’s extremely basic: a folder and a thumbnail (if you’re lucky). It seems as though the development team behind Plex was just as disappointed in this interface, as they’ve gone in the complete opposite direction. In the Plex Media Server interface, you’ll find the option to update show, film, and music information as pulled from various sources around the internet. So instead of getting a thumbnail and a file name (PS3), I now get an overall synopsis of the show, and if I drill down further, specific information about the episode of Lost I’m about to watch. Pretty snazzy.

But the fun doesn’t end with just your own media. Thanks to the Plex Online feature built into the app, you can search hundreds of streaming media apps to install on your version of Plex. For example, I normally download the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams video podcast. Or, I should say…did download, as Plex has an MSNBC app that will stream Mr. Williams smiling face right to my MacBook – no podcast needed. And better yet…with the Plex MSNBC app, I’ve got episodes on demand. Meaning, if I’d had the podcast, I probably would delete it the minute a new episode arrives, but what if there was something I want to show a friend from last week? I’m outta luck via iTunes, but with Plex…click, click….and streaming. Awesome.

Sadly, because I live in Europe, I’m forced to crumble under the laws of Geolocation, and can’t view everything I’d like. NBC (not MSNBC) for example is a no go, as is Hulu (that was the one I really wanted). During the setup phase there were also streams that I could hear but not see. As it turns out, this is a Flash problem, and not a Plex problem, with a very simple fix to be found here.

The Plex group even goes above and beyond in this highly detailed tutorial (and tool) regarding tuning your DVI-out display to perfectly fit your monitor. If you’ve ever experienced the dreaded Overscan option, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about and how to fix it. With that said, this calibration isn’t 100% necessary, as the app offers it’s own overscan compensation tool. But let’s be honest…if you’re reading this, chances are, you’re a Geek-Like-Me, and are going to tune it anyway.

The Plex media server for mac app is completely free, and available via plexapp.com. Sadly, I couldn’t find a “Donate” button, so I did the next best thing – I bought the iOS app. In addition to supporting an awesome group of developers, I now have the added benefit of being able to keep on watching Lost while I’m on my way downstairs to pick up the post. I know…I know…perhaps a bit “Do you really need that?”, but hey, at a total cost of $4.99, go ahead – live a little.

Plex for Mac – it changed my media viewing experience; what can it do for you?

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Rode NT1-A Microphone Review


Building on the Audio Technica AT2020 and AKG P220 entry level studio condenser microphone reviews, this time up we're taking a look at the Rode NT1-A. Priced just over $200 ($229 - B&H, Adorama, etc.), the Rode NT1-A delivers a high end sheen that I've not yet experienced with the previous two microphones, while at the same time, keeping it's signal to noise ratio remarkably low. The Rode NT1-A is roughly the same size as the AT2020 and P220, and features a large 1-inch gold plated capsule. And just like the other two, the Rode NT1-A is a condenser with a tight cardioid pattern.

As is standard with most of today's condenser microphones, frequency range is from 20hz - 20khz. Now here's where things start to get interesting. According to Rode, the Signal-to-Noise ratio is 88 db. Which is quite odd, as the AKG has an S/N ratio of 78db and the AT2020 74db. However, when viewing the bar graphs inside my recording software, the Rode NT1-A had the closest to 'flat' of all three of the mics. In other words, on paper, it may not be the quietest, but when put to the eyes and ears, you can't hear a thing (which, in this case, is good). The Rode NT1-A features no pad or roll-off switches, but achieves a maximum SPL of 137 db SPL, giving it the lowest range of the three microphones.

And while both the Audio Technica AT2020 and AKG Perception 220 feel like solid, if almost heavy, microphones, the Rode NT1-A goes the completely opposite route. Upon first unboxing of this microphone, I almost dropped it, as I was expecting something much heavier. It has the look and sound of a vintage tube mic, but definitely not the same feel. Likewise, the AKG comes with a solid (if only heavy plastic and foam padding) case, that makes just about anyone feel like a pro. Rode, while they do include a spider mount and pop-filter, there's no case anywhere to be seen. Not even a decent, padded pouch (i.e. the Shure SM58 bank bag). At the end of the day, Rode gives you a fancy dust cover with a draw string. Fair enough, I don't expect to be doing any 'on-location' work with this microphone, but a case would have gone a long way to making me fall 100% in love with this mic.

Overall conclusion

The Rode NT1-A is an outstanding mic for studio, voiceover and podcast work. It's high on tone quality and vintage sound, while being light on the wallet, especially for what it is. It is the most expensive of the three microphones I've tested thus far, but when put head to head with the AKG Perception 220, you're really going to have to dig in with a set of closed-ear headphones to really hear the difference. Conversely, if you're using the Rode NT1-A solely as a spoken word/voiceover/podcast microphone, it's outstanding. Of the three, the AKG seems most suited to functioning as an amped instrument's recording microphone, as it has the highest SPL, while at the same time, requiring the most amount of incoming volume. The Rode does stand head and shoulders above the other two in the sensitivity department though. The AT2020 and P220 are very capable of picking up sounds in the desired sonic pattern, but both require the speaker to sometimes 'swallow' the mic to get an upfront feel, whereas the Rode presents this feeling naturally.

Rode NT1-A specifications:

  • Power - P48 (48V), P24 (24V) phantom supply
  • Acoustic Principle - Pressure gradient
  • Directional Pattern - Cardioid
  • Frequency range - 20 Hz - 20 kHz
  • Output impedance - 100?
  • Signal noise ratio - >88 dB SPL (A - weighted per IEC651)
  • Equivalent noise - 5 dB SPL (A - weighted per IEC651)
  • Maximum SPL - 137dB SPL (@ 1kHz, 1% THD into 1K? load)
  • Maximum output voltage - +13.7dBu (@ 1kHz, 1% THD into 1K? load)
  • Sensitivity - -32 dB re 1 Volt/Pascal (25 mV @ 94 dB SPL) +/- 2 dB @ 1kHz
  • Weight - 326gm
  • Dimensions - 190mmH x 50mmW x 50mmD
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