After the installation you'll be required to run the MediaPortal configuration tool, which helps you select interface preferences, media locations, and so on. Once everything is properly configured, the MediaPortal application will launch and display the home screen, which can be navigated using either a supported remote or a traditional mouse and keyboard, depending on which plug-ins you download and install from the MediaPortal website.
MediaPortal is completely skinnable and offers a number of advanced features, like streaming to mobile devices. It's a bit more resource heavy than XBMC, however, and during my testing it felt somewhat sluggish on my AMD E-350 APU-based HTPC. On a PC with a Core i3 CPU, however, MediaPortal ran as smooth as silk. If you don't mind tinkering a bit and want to take advantage of some of its more advanced features, MediaPortal is worth checking out.
Plex is arguably the most powerful HTPC front end available, but it is also one of the most difficult to set up and configure. Plex is not a stand-alone application, but rather a media player platform that requires its own server and the Plex player app. The Plex server software, which is available for a wide array of operating systems and devices, handles the media playback side, while the Plex server dishes up the media. We discussed the Plex in depth as part of an earlier article and explained some of the intricacies involved in setting it up, so check that out if you're having trouble getting it running.
Once it's up and running, Plex is great. Like MediaPortal, Plex is more resource-hungry than the streamlined XMBC, but its feature set is second to none. Not only can Plex play virtually any type of media, but it offers advanced features like easy sharing, remote access to your media over the Web, and even the ability to queue Web videos and access them from any Plex app, whether it be on a PC or a mobile device.
Plex is definitely the most difficult option to set up and configure, but the end result is a powerful media player and HTPC front end that can function as your own personal media streamer, allowing you access to your files from anywhere you have an Internet connection.
Deciding which HTPC front end is right for you will ultimately depend on your system configuration and the level of control you'd like over your digital media and the front end itself. Users looking for an easy-to-use application that clearly lists their media and plays it back with no muss or fuss would probably do just fine with Windows Media Center, provided that it's bundled with your OS--don't pay for it.
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