Warning: Long Read.
What is Plex?
Plex is a media player system that organises all your media and lets you stream them on any device wirelessly either via your local network (without internet) or over the internet. To achieve this, Plex comprises of two main components a server, which does the indexing, organising and transcoding (all the hard work basically) and a client which connects over a network to the server and gives you access to all your content.
I assure you that it’s not as complex as it sounds.
While I intend to focus on video for this series, you should note that Plex can also sort your photos and music as well.
Asides from the features mentioned above in the general description, if you’re like me, you’ll find that it’s the other little things that make the Plex experience more worthwhile.
Your content everywhere.
One of the coolest things about Plex is the diverse number of clients it’s available for. Imagine a family with dad, mum, three kids and a visiting cousin. In theory all six of them could watch different stuff from your server on their devices, be it multiple tvs, consoles, computers, smartphones or tablets.
The Plex client is available as a web app for desktops, a native app for android, iOS, Windows Phone, XBox, Playstation, Roku, ChromeCast, AppleTv (4th Gen only, though you can hack it to work on older ones), Smart Tvs, Amazon Fire Tv, and android Tv.
Beautifies your media.
I’ll be honest, personally, the biggest reason why I use Plex is it’s ability to organise your media, not only does it display your stuff in a really accessible manner, Plex enriches your media library by adding descriptions, plot summaries, posters, and album covers. This means before watching anything, I can check details like the plot, what actors are in, etc. It’s probably the key reason why my Tv watching has gone up, because it makes it super simple to watch stuff I’m actually in the mood for, as against just jumping in without knowing what to expect.
It also does neat things, like tell you which of your content showed recently on TV, what’s newly added to the server, what’s similar to what you are checking out, and it even goes as far as grouping your movies according to the directors or lead actors! It will also recommend stuff for you to watch, based on what you’ve seen. It’s pretty much your own personal Netflix.
Tracks what you watch
Ever go back to a show and have to start playing the episodes one after the other to find out where you stopped? With Plex, you don’t have to. It keeps track of what you watch and sorts them into watched and unwatched. There’s also a “deck” where everything you’re currently watching is saved, so you can see what episodes or movies you stopped half way and it will let you continue watching from where you stopped on any device. That means, you can start a show on your Tv, stop it and continue from the exact place you stopped on another device. Pretty neat.
Fling Content to a TV
Plex also lets you play the media on your mobile device on a bigger display wirelessly provided that they are on the same local network and the larger screen has access to a Plex companion app, Chromecast or Apple Tv.
In addition to the above, Plex also offers a feature called Channels which provides users with access to a growing number of online content providers, such as YouTube, Vimeo, TED Talks, and CNN, among others. Plex also provides integration for cloud services including Bitcasa, Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive.
Setting Plex up
As mentioned above, Plex requires two components, a Server and a Client. Basically the server is an app that does the organising, transcoding and all the other heavy lifting, while the client is another app, installed on whatever device you want to view on, that connects to the server and lets you access content from the server.
Plex is available on quite a number of platforms, as a result, it’s possible to have many different configurations to match each individual’s current setup, however, regardless of the platforms involved, you have to have a server and client.
Setting up the server
Plex Server is available as an app for Computers on the following platforms: Windows, Mac OS, Linux (Ubuntu, CentOS and Fedora all have dedicated apps) and FreeBSD. That pretty much covers almost everyone who has a computer. Plex Server is also available as a download for Network Attached Storage (NAS) – if you don’t know what that is, you shouldn’t bother, but you may want to read it up, just in case you decide to buy one someday, so you get one that is Plex-ready. If you’re wondering what I use, I currently use an old Macbook, but I intend to get a NAS sometime in the future, regardless of what you use, the experience isn’t noticeably different.
You can download Plex Server for your computers or NAS here.
After downloading, setting it up is pretty easy. Just double click the downloaded file and follow the prompts on your browser (did I mention that the server interface is accessed via your browser?) it’s straightforward stuff (create an account, select the folders where your media is, etc). That simple.
- Considering that the server is the centre of everything, you might want to look into using an old computer, so that even when you’re not around, your Plex is still accessible at home, except you turn on remote access, which will mean streaming over the internet and data costs.
- While for most cases, specs don’t matter, you should know that the more simultaneous connections you have to Plex, the more processing power it uses seeing as each connection starts a new thread on the processor. If the server is transcoding the video on a connection, it means that that connection will use more resources that one that doesn’t need any transcoding. For example, an iPad won’t play an mkv file by default, but will play it on Plex. That’s because the Plex server first checks to see if the client can convert it, if not, it converts it itself real-time and just streams it in a format that the client can play. So if you intend to have many simultaneous connections, use a server with plenty power. That said, as mentioned earlier, I doubt you will notice any issues with regular use.
- To make it easier for the server to get meta data and thumbnails for your content, and for your own sanity, organise your content. For example: Have a folder for movies and dump all your movies there. Do the same for shows, but in the case of shows, at least have each show in its own folder. It helps if seasons are separated into their own folders as well, but this isn’t a necessity. Plex can differentiates between seasons based on how the files themselves are named.
- Speaking of files, for the most part if possible, name your shows like this:
Grey's Anatomy - s01e01.avi
Plex will read other formats as well, but it may miss out some and mess with the organization of that show.
- While you may not use the internet per se for Plex, the WiFi quality of your local network matters. Trying to stream 1080p quality on a 2kbps bandwidth connection will probably not work.
Setting up the client on a Tv
There are several ways to get Plex on the big screen, all of which ultimately depend on your hardware setup. If you have got a Smart Tv, there’s a chance you can install the app for your Tv. (Samsung, Vizio have dedicated Plex apps on their respective TV app stores, while Sony Smart Tvs and other Tvs that run on Opera’s TV platform also have Plex available).
If your Smart Tv doesn’t fall into the above category or if your Tv is not a Smart one, not to worry, there are still a lot of options open to you. If you have got a game console (XBox One, XBox 360, Playstation 3 or 4), you can download the Plex app on your console’s store and use it on your Tv. You can also download the app on your Roku, AmazonFire TV, Apple Tv (Only the 4th gen one has the app, however, you can cast the data to your Tv via AirPlay from your android or iOS device), most android Tv boxes and sticks that allow you install apps will do as well. Lastly, if you have got Chromecast, you can also just download the client app on your smartphone and cast it to the bigger display.
For those who have their computers connected to a TV or have a HTPC, there’s even a dedicated home theatre app that supports a wide variety of formats with high-definition audio, native frame rates, and more.
In most cases, you will only need to sign-in to your account to gain access, but sometimes you might also need to link the Tv client via a 4 alphanumeric code.
Besides watching your stuff on the big screen, the app is also available for mobile devices. iOS, android, Windows Phone, have officials in their respective stores. BlackBerry 10 users will be happy to know that the android app works quite on the Platform. At this point, you should note that while the mobile platforms are free to download and offer some of the features, the full features which include the ability to play stuff on the mobile client, need to be unlocked via a $5 one-time in-app purchase per platform.
Plex Pass is Plex’s premium service that brings a few more features and tricks to the fore. Features include, the ability to sync your content to the cloud and access them from the cloud, ability to sync media from the server to your mobile device for offline viewing – neat if you are watching something and need to dash out of the house, trailers and extras for the content in your library, automatic camera upload and wireless syncing of your photos with Plex server, free use of all Plex’s mobile apps, ability to manage music with song identification via sonic fingerprinting, get world-class album reviews and artist bios, and create automatic Plex Mix playlists based on mood or similar tracks via Gracenote music magic and early access to all the new apps and add-ons from Plex.
If any of these tickle your fancy, it’ll set you back $5 a month, $40 a year or a one-time fee of $149. I personally don’t use Plex Pass, I don’t need it.
Possible Hardware Configurations
Everything described above might seem like much, but it really isn’t. Here are a few different configuration scenarios just to further clarify what you need to setup:
- A Computer or NAS to use as server
- A network connection that both server and client can connect to (you may also need internet for thumbnails and other meta data, but it’s not necessary for remote streaming.
- A client device (e.g Your phone, tablet, console, Tv, etc)
Assume you love the features but only have one computer? Well, just install the Server on your computer, and watch from it, you’ll get all the media organising features.
Now assume you had the computer above and a smartphone, but nothing else. Install the Server on your computer, and the client on your smartphone. Connect the computer to the smartphone’s hotspot, and you’ll be able to stream stuff between both. Same thing if you had a tab. If you have two computers, connect both to the same network and open the web app on the client computer. You’ll find the web app at https://app.plex.tv/web/app (if you’re connected to the internet or http://127.0.0.1:32400/web if you are not connected to the internet).
Note: The web app, does not use your data to stream. Also, the “32400″ part of the local web app address is the default port. If you do manually change it, you should replace it with your new, custom port.
Let’s say you “hammered small” and from the scenario above, you’re also able to get a nice flat screen tv, that isn’t smart. No problem. Just connect your HDMI out from the PC to HDMI in on the Tv with a HDMI Cable and you’re good. If you don’t like wires and the Tv has no wireless capabilities, you can get a Chromecast (they go for around $35), an android Tv Box, a Roku stick, or an Apple TV (You can get old ones for dirt cheap). These will let you fling Plex from the client to the Tv, and in some cases (Apple Tv 4th gen, Android Tv box), have the Plex client on the big screen.
In the example above, if you have a console (xBox or Playstation), you can install the Plex client from your console’s store and launch it from your console to connect to your Server. Remember that in all cases, you have to have both client and server on the same network.
Now let’s look at something a bit more complex, imagine a family of eight, living in a 5-room house with 4 Tvs (one of them smart), an Apple Tv, a Chromecast, a Playstation 4, 8 smartphones across various platforms, three tablets and a couple of Laptops.
On the surface, this might seem daunting, but it really isn’t much different from the setups described above and setting up is just as easy as with the ones above.
- Use one of the Laptops as the server and connect hard drives with the content to it, (or copy the content to it).
- To use all the devices at once, you may need a router to keep all the clients and the server on the same network.
- Use the Plex app on the smart Tv as client, download the clients to the Playstation 4, the tablets and smartphones.
- For the non-smart Tvs, use the Playstation, Apple Tv and Chromecast as clients to stream wirelessly.
Plex is simple to setup and it’s a really awesome way to rediscover the content you have, or play your video stash across all your devices.
I’ve done a short FAQ below, but if you have any other questions, leave them in the comments, I’ll try to answer them.
Next, we’ll look at Kodi.
- The server is free.
- The Home Theatre Computer version is free
- Plex for Smart Tvs is free
- Plex for game consoles is free
- Plex web app is free
- The mobile app is free, but restricted. Playing content on your mobile phone requires a one-time $5 per platform. i.e. If you pay $5 on your android phone to allow you stream stuff, you will be able to stream stuff on any other android device signed into with the same Google ID and Plex account. If you pay $5 for your android device and you want to watch on your iPhone, you'll need to pay another $5. If you pay for Plex Pass though ($5 a month), you can stream across all your apps, and gain the extra features described above.