Everyone is familiar with the shitty cable box. You get it for a small monthly fee when you sign up for Comcast or some other garbage, and you can't stand it. You don't have much of a choice in the matter. It's slow, limited in space and has the ugliest user interface anyone could have imagined. This is what happens when there's no competition, and it's one of the reasons leaving cable felt so good.
Moving on from that closed world opens up possibilities, almost too many. A few of the boxes you have under your TV may already be able to stream video, and there are a handful of sub-$100 boxes that will put that cable box to shame. For the person content with minimal, these options are great. Get your content however you see fit, and send it over to a Roku or a Playstation 3 to watch all day long. Easy peasy.
What if that's not enough? What if you want something better looking and more robust, with so many features R2D2's top would spin? Lucky for you there's a whole slew of open sources dev's out there making your tube watching experience perfect. The XBMC (Xbox Media Center) community has been around for nearly a decade perfecting what the cable industry hasn't been able to touch, and making it run on anything you can throw it at. They've created a framework for beautifully displaying all of the content you need to watch, in one highly customizable place. It's thanks to these fine folks that a product like Plex can be setup on my Mac Mini, making me the happiest couch potato on the planet.
Plex broke away from XBMC in 2008, creating a "sit back" media player for the Mac. Over the years they've developed apps for smart TVs, the Roku, PCs and even phones. With the media server installed on my Mac Mini, I can watch all of my content just about anywhere my heart desires. How cool is that?
The server side watches over all of my movies and shows, downloading content summaries and fan art to make my media browsing experience bar none. When new content is added, Plex is automatically triggered and all of the stuff is instantly added to my library. If all of this centralized media magic isn't enough to wet your whistle, Plex keeps track of the content you've watched in any location. If I'm out of town and stream a show to my iPad, when I get home that episode is marked as watched; no need to fumble around trying to track down which one you're on.
Seriously, this is the future of TV. While I can clearly see what season and episode of The Wire I'm watching, my cable laden friends have to flip through a DVR's full of garbage before they can figure out which one is next. It seems like common sense, but every DVR queue I've ever seen is a single, hideous list of mixed up shows from everyone in the house. No one knows which ones have been watched or not, leaving the very real possibility of family members deleting the others unwathced show. So sorry.
Over the past two years I've played with a number of media center apps. I've jailbroken an AppleTV to try and stream content. I've bought a Roku, testing out the handful of streaming apps for the little box (including Plex). Before all of these fancy options, streaming to Xbox and then to the PS3 both worked alright. In the end, the unmatched simplicity and beauty in conjunction with features like "On Deck" makes Plex the clear winner. It's so damn simple, I don't even get a call from my girlfriend to set it up when I'm not home. It just works.