Some of you may recall that our own sweet Colton wrote about his Home Theatre PC (HTPC) adventures, and his sadness over the death of Windows Media Center. His was a lovely article, and I encourage you to read it. However, in 2019, for many of us there is a better way. Instead of having an entire computer hooked up to my TV, I started using Plex, and I’m not going back. Plex is an application available basically everywhere—Windows, Microsoft Store, Android, Tizen, FireTV, iOS, macOS, Xbox, PlayStation, Roku, and probably more ecosystems support it.
When we moved some months ago, we needed to downsize. We essentially wanted to bring only what we could fit onto or in our Subaru Impreza. That meant I needed to have fewer computers, since for some reason my wife insisted on bringing all three of our children. So, I arrived in Calgary without an HTPC. What’s a man to do? Obviously, you sob for a while, but you can only cry for so long, even after such a deep loss. Eventually, you must move onto finding solutions, as Colton detailed in his piece. For me, the solution was Plex.
Plex works by running server software on your computer, whether it be Windows, Linux, or macOS, and it sends your media through client applications installed on whatever device you’re using, or through a browser, where you can then enjoy it.
My TV is a Samsung UN43MU6300F, which is a Tizen-based 4K smart TV with low-end HDR support. (Read: Cheap enough that I could buy it without my wife killing me.) Decent smart TVs now come with quite a collection of features, including apps like Plex, and if you switch the region on the TV to the USA (no easy feat), there’s even a built-in official Steam Link app. Here was my solution! Not only could I store my video library far away and still access it, I could also stream games to my TV. My tears of sorrow became streaming tears of joy.
If you lack a smart TV, you can get a dongle to make your TV pretend it’s smart. They’re available from many different companies, such as Amazon and Roku, essentially all of which have support for Plex.
Get started with Plex
To get started with Plex, you need a PC to use as a media server. I use my kids’ computer for media storage. They use it mostly for word processing, so the machine’s resources are generally freed up. It has an Intel Core i3-6100, 8GB of DDR4 RAM, and roughly 12TB of storage.
The first thing you need to do is install the Plex media server software on whatever PC you’re going to use. Pointing it to and managing the different media libraries was simple. Once I signed into Plex on both my TV and my PC, voilà, all my video and music appeared, nicely organized. Plex also collects metadata and presents it attractively, with writeups, actor details, and more, not unlike how Netflix displays the same info. If there’s something that Plex isn’t automatically finding and organizing, you can manually match it to their database.
I did learn that you need to make sure your shows are using one of few different naming styles, such as including S01E01, etc. in the file name to make sure that they’re picked up correctly as individual ordered episodes. Also, having a folder for movies and a folder for shows is necessary for Plex to accurately collect and categorize your media. Well done, Plex, you’ve taken a collection of files and made them simple and easy enough for even my family to navigate and play!
Not only does Plex handle local playback of media, it also allows for legal remote streaming and downloading, and it includes a library-sharing feature. You can send out an email invitation to allow friends and family remote access to your collection, and you can decide which libraries and collections each of them can see. This is huge, because this way, family members aren’t wasting time and energy collecting the same media files. Are you and your sibling both enormous soap opera fans (you know who you are)? Now only one of you needs to set that up, and then you can both stream your stories to your houses and watch together, at a time that’s convenient for both you.
Just make sure you have unlimited data caps if you’re going to be sending and receiving many hours of video. I know some ISPs still think it’s 2001 and have implemented bizarrely low data caps, especially in the U.S.. Also, consider that for remote streaming, you need to have sufficient upload speeds to handle whatever quality video you’re trying to watch.
Plex Pass and transcoding
It’s not all magical sparkles, though. If you’re the sort who likes to DVR things, as our wonderful Colton is, Plex wants you to pony up for a “Plex Pass” subscription. You can pay monthly ($4.99) or yearly ($39.99), or snag a lifetime pass for $119.99. The pass is required if you want to watch and record broadcast TV directly within the Plex app. You can always continue doing it separately, and if you name your shows correctly, Plex will add them to your collection. Given that Colton is paying $35 a year for an annual subscription fee for his tuning software, this Plex price doesn’t seem too unreasonable, especially given the lifetime subscription option.
The Plex Pass also gets you a discount on a Tidal music streaming subscription, a dashboard to see server activity (though configuring the free and open source add-on Tautulli does this for you), and the ability to download media to mobile devices. You’ll also need to have hardware-accelerated transcoding operational. Hardware acceleration is really the feature that is most attractive; without it, your Intel Quick Sync transcoder or discrete GPU sits idle while your CPU tries to do it all in software.
One thing to keep in mind is that when you’re using subtitles, you’re almost always going to be transcoding. That’s how they’re overlaid on the video, and how they’re subsequently sent to the client software. If subtitled video is your thing, make sure you’ve got a setup to handle it. On its website, Plex suggests that you need the following CPU grunt to software-transcode these formats:
- 4K HDR (50Mbps, 10-bit HEVC) file: 17000 PassMark score (being transcoded to 10Mbps 1080p)
- 4K SDR (40Mbps, 8-bit HEVC) file: 12000 PassMark score (being transcoded to 10Mbps 1080p)
- 1080p (10Mbps, H.264) file: 2000 PassMark score
- 720p (4Mbps, H.264) file: 1500 PassMark score
Hardware transcoding can drastically speed up this process, depending on what formats your hardware supports. I paid for a lifetime Plex Pass, so I do use Quick Sync on my machine. So far, it’s handled everything I’ve personally thrown at it, including a little 8-Bit HEVC stuff that’s hardware-supported on Skylake and most Intel CPUs that have come after it (though some Xeon and lower-end chips lack Quick Sync hardware).
Given that you can use the bulk of Plex’s features for free, I can’t really complain. Unless your server owner has Plex Pass, you’re required to pay a one-time $5 fee to stream media on mobile devices. (This includes the Microsoft Store version of the Plex app, but not the superior Win32 version, so just download that on your PC. If you’re running Windows S, you get to pony up five hard earned dollars since additional Win32 apps aren’t a thing on those devices). Essentially, you can likely have Plex do what you want for free, or you can dust off that credit card for a Plex Pass, both of which are a heck of a lot cheaper than building a new computer.
Not perfect, but worth it
Although Plex is among the most popular, it isn’t the only media streaming game in town. As more people have gone this route and created a larger addressable market, others are muscling in. Probably the largest competition comes from Emby. Originally an open source project (whether it’s still open source is apparently somewhat complicated), Emby is functionally similar to Plex. However, when I was setting up my shared collection, I discovered that Emby lacked an app for Tizen. That’s apparently now been rectified, but my people are trained on Plex, and retraining them would be more painful than Emby could possibly be worth. I also find that Plex has better media organization and that the apps both look nicer and function better.
But if, unlike me, you’re not set up with a particular ecosystem yet, Emby is worth checking out to compare with Plex so you can see what suits you best. I hear it also integrates better with Kodi, although I haven’t used Kodi in years, so I can’t confirm firsthand.
Thanks to Plex, I was able to put on Paw Patrol for my three-year-old during a marathon drive we took last month from Calgary to Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back home again. (Some of you Canadians are saying “just watch it on Netflix,” but in the U.S., Paw Patrol isn’t on Netflix, which raises the question as to why Netflix even exists there if it doesn’t have Paw Patrol?!) This marvelous media setup has also been a boon to my father, who lives on the east coast. His health is poor, and being able to login to my server and have a single and familiar place to veg out has made his life easier.
Plex isn’t perfect, and it required a bit of work, but in the end I managed to get everything doing exactly what I want. All my media, music, shows, and movies are available not just in my house, but remotely and shared with my family, for quite a reasonable price. Plex has drastically improved my family’s media experience, and for that I highly recommend giving it a look to see if it’ll help yours, too.