Plex Media Server
Hello everyone and welcome to my latest review. Before I get into the specifics of the review, I want to give a little bit of backstory to explain what got me to the point where writing this review became possible.
I recently picked up a Chromecast during a black friday sale. I have wanted one for a while, and they became officially available in Canada earlier this spring, but for one reason or another I kept putting it off. However, during this sale Google had a special offer where purchasers of a Chromecast would receive 3 months of Google Music Unlimited for free, plus a $20 Play Store credit. So when you think about it, 3 months of Google Unlimited is about $30 ($29.97 for those of you who like to be very specific), and couple that with the $20 credit that’s basically $50 worth of free stuff for a device that only costs $39. That was a bargain that my cheap-ass brain couldn’t pass up, so I pulled the trigger and bought it.
After getting it all setup and everything, there was only two things that I was disappointed about, and those were:
- The Chromecast has Google’s DNS servers hardcoded into it, making VPN and Geolock-breaking services redundant when using it unless you root the Chromecast, which requires a specialty USB cable and a small development board to do unless you have a fairly decent router that allows for static routing or a router with which you can flash the DD-WRT firmware. However, this is irrelevant to this review! And finally…
- The Chromecast does not natively allow you to stream your own local content for the most part (the chrome browser is capable of natively playing certain video file formats, and with the new Cast Tab beta feature, it’s possible to play the video in browser and cast it to your TV, but performance is not… ideal. At least not on my machine. And as I said, it only supports certain file formats, so there are limitations.)
So, this led me to start Googling for solutions, and Plex was an option that I kept seeing pop up. However, I initially discounted it because it was a commercial project, although it does have a free version with some limitations. Me being the cheap bastard that I am, I kept looking for a solution that was 100% free. To cut the story short, I couldn’t find a suitable one.
So, I started looking into Plex more and the more I read about it, the more I realized not only would this program allow me to cast content to my TV, but it offered a lot of other features like being able to stream to my iPad or Android device on the local network or remotely! These features of course cost money, but it all sounded too good to be true, so I reached out to the people at Plex and they were kind enough to hook me up with a free Plex Pass and a download code for the iOS app so I could put this program fully through it’s paces (I tested on Android as well, but I’ll get to that in a minute as there are two different versions of the app on the app store which I will explain.)
So at the core of all of this media streaming goodness is the Plex Media Server. This comes in a couple of different options spread across a myriad of platforms. The media server is available for computer (Windows Vista+, Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard+, Linux [Ubuntu 10.04+, Fedora 14+ or CentOS 6+], and FreeBSD 9.1) and NAS (Netgear, QNAP, unRAID, Drobo, asustor, Thecus, and Synology.)
Once you have the media server installed, you can access your library of media (music, pictures, videos) on almost any device you can imagine using various apps, some of which require a Plex Pass to use. Allow me to give you a little breakdown of the Free vs. Paid (from the Plex: Free vs Paid support article at plex.tv):
The basic functionality of Plex is available to all users. This includes setting up your media content on your Plex Media Server with rich and beautiful metadata, streaming content to Plex Apps both locally and when away from home, sharing content with other Plex users, using Channels, and adding online content to your Plex It! Queue among other things.
- Plex Media Server – The Plex Media Server application is free to download, install, and use. The Server is the backbone of Plex.
- Plex Apps – The Plex Web App comes with your Plex Media Server and is accessible for free. Plex Home Theater is available for a number of computer platforms for free. Chromecast support is also available for free.
- Plex Pass Subscription -Users with an active Plex Pass subscription have access to additional features and benefits. These include things such as Plex Sync and Cloud Sync as well as Multi-User support. Subscribers also have access to preview releases for Apps as well as other benefits.An active subscription allows the account holder free access to the Android and Roku Plex Apps.
- Plex Apps -Most Plex Apps for mobile or connected platforms are paid apps. These include:
- Amazon Fire TV
- Google TV
- Windows 8.1
- Windows Phone 8
Apps are purchased through the appropriate app store for that platform. When a purchase is made, that app is available for other devices of the same platform that are using the same app store account. (e.g. If the iOS app is purchased, then it is available for both iPhones and iPads that are using the same Apple App Store account.)
Note that the Android and Roku Apps can be accessed for free by active Plex Pass subscribers.
Now, as you see it mentions that the Android and Roku apps can be accessed for fee for people with active Plex Pass subscriptions. I can’t say for sure with the Roku app as I don’t have a Roku device to test it with, but for Android there are two versions of the app on the Play store (well, technically more if you count the ones for Roku, Google TV, Sony Internet TV, etc. but I’m focusing on Android tablets/phones here.) There’s Plex for Android which is available for $2.31 canadian, so I’m assuming it’s probably $1.99 in USD, which allows you to stream content to your android device on your local network for free. I’m not sure if this version allows remote streaming or not. Then there’s the free app called Plex for Plex Pass. Once you install it, you sign in with your Plex.tv account and if you have a valid Plex Pass subscription you can use it. You can stream remotely with this version, as I tested it firsthand.
How much is a Plex Pass?
Now you might be sitting there saying to yourself, “That’s all fine and good with all that technical mumbo jumbo and all those lists. But if I want to get a subscription, how much is it going to cost me?” That’s a fair question. And the good news is that it’s actually quite affordable! You can get a Plex Pass subscription for either $4.99USD/month, $39.99USD/year or get a lifetime Plex Pass for $149.99USD. If you are going to get a lot of use out of the premium features and additional apps, etc. I would recommend going with the lifetime pass as it will definitely save you money in the long run, but $150 is a decent chunk of change and is definitely not going to be affordable to everyone so it’s nice that they have the other options available as well. No matter which option you choose though, it’s definitely a good value for what you get.
How does it work?
Like most other media server programs, you have to add your content to the library. Makes sense, right? Plex has a pretty straightforward way of handling this. When you access the media server from the web app interface, there’s a left hand column that contains your library by category. You click the little + icon and it asks you what type of media you want to add. It’s important that you heed the different categories for media, because even though Plex will work if you ignore it, the program will function much better and will really show off how well it aggregates the metadata for your content if you do. Your choices are Movies, TV Shows, Music, Photos and Home Videos. Once you select the type of media, you specify the directory of where the content can be found and Plex will start indexing everything, including downloading all sorts of metadate including posters, covers, trailers (premium feature), etc.
While Plex does it’s best to detect and download the correct metadata for your files based on the file names, there are official recommendations of how to name your files to ensure Plex can do it’s job properly. It’s really straightforward and there are options for dealing with stacked media, or multi-part media as well. This, however, was the most time consuming part of the whole process for me, as I have a lot of digitial movies and complete series’ of television shows. I probably could have used some sort of batch renamer to make things easier, but I did it all by hand to make sure it was done right. If you have a lot of media content, you can expect this to be the most grueling part of the whole process, but it is so worth it in the end. All the rules for file naming can be found here.
There’s also an option to add “channels” which are essentially plugins that aggregate content from various online video sites. In my own testing, I had mixed experiences with it, but that may be due to the fact that a lot of sites are blocked to me because I’m in Canada. I’m assuming if you’re in the US you won’t encounter any issues with the channels.
Once your content is added and Plex has indexed everything, the interface is just gorgeous on all the devices I’ve accessed my library from. The video playback is smooth, even when I’ve been streaming remotely but as you can probably guess your mileage may vary based on various factors like speed of your home internet connection, mobile connection speed, etc. My home internet is a 50 Mbps down/3 Mbsp up connection and iPad is able to view content just fine over a WiFi connection at the coffee shop, and same with my phone using WiFi or its LTE connection. I had one small issue that has cropped up on the rare occasion with playback though where the video on my chromecast will freeze, but the play timeline on the web interface indicates it is still playing. This was easily fixed by closing down the video and reloading it (did I mention Plex keeps track of where you left off on a video and allows you to resume from that point from any device? Yes, that means you can start a movie before you go to work, stop it, pick up where you left off on your phone on your first 15 minute break, then pick up from there on your lunch break on your iPad, then pick up again on your phone on your last 15 minute break and if it’s still not done, finish the movie when you get home on your Chromecast. I have actually done this. It’s awesome!)
If you’re going to be going somewhere with really crappy signals, or somewhere with no internet access at all, you can also sync content to the device itself for viewing locally. Just sync up the content when you’re on your home network or somewhere you have a good connection beforehand.
CAVEAT: I want to mention that while Plex does support remote access to your library for yourself (and friends as well if you have a Plex Pass) there is some technical hurdles to go through to get this to work, as you will need to grant Plex access on your firewall, and additionally if you’re behind a router, you will need to set up some port forwarding so that the incoming connections can be routed to your computer. This isn’t super difficult, and there are many tutorials on how to do this, but it’s beyond the scope of this review to cover and people who are very uncomfortable messing with router settings might want to get someone who is more familiar with the process to help them out.
Wow. I’m just looking back at this review as I’m writing this and I’m shaking my head because it’s already probably too long, and there’s so much stuff I still haven’t covered. Definieley check out the Plex.tv website as well as their fantastic documentation over at their Support Site which covers literally every aspect of this program and what it can do. All I can say is, this program has single-handedly solved pretty much every media access related issue I’ve ever had, and even in certain cases given me access to options that, since they have been made available, have made me wonder how I managed to get along without them until this point. Ideally, I would like to set up a central NAS with all the content instead of just using an external hard drive connected to my laptop, and that’s probably what I will end up setting up at some point in the future. But for now, I have access to all of my content no matter where I am. I cannot recommend this software enough and I want to thank the kind folks at Plex once again for giving me a free Plex Pass to make this review possible.
Plex is literally the best media server solution I've ever seen. The only 3 things that would make it absolutely perfect were if it could automatically do all of the setup by itself (including router configuration) and if it was 100% free. And since neither of those things are realistic, I can't hold them against it.