Media – A Fancy Word For News, Leisure, & Entertainment
The Plex Media Server is an amazing product that brings order to all your media – music, photos, and videos. It deserves serious consideration to be included as part of your smart home system and best of all, it is mostly free!
In our modern digital age our collection of books & magazines has been replaced with their electronic equivalent. Many of us no longer subscribe to newspapers or magazines and get most of our information online by reading websites or following newsfeeds on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
If you’re an avid reader, most likely like me you long ago ditched the hardcover or paperback printed book and started using an E-reader like the Amazon Kindle. Now my book collection is just a few electronic files stored in my device and online in a cloud account. (Actually, I mostly listen to audio books from Audible, but that is really the same kind of thing.)
But what about photos, music, and video? What’s the electronic equivalent of those dusty old photo albums; stacks of vinyl records; cd cassettes; or heaven forbid – 8 track tapes; or shelves full of VHS video tapes and DVD discs?
Entertainment is an important part of any smart home system. At home we spend a lot more time consuming media (a fancy term for watching TV & movies, reading, or listening to music) than adjusting our thermostats, unlocking our doors, or playing with our lights – so don’t ignore it.
When you design your smart home or look at upgrading or adding to your system, spend the time to figure out what you need and want from your entertainment systems. There are so many different options because everybody is not the same.
Do you prefer casual background music or are you a serious audiophile listener? Do you watch a movie once or collect your favorites to watch over and over again? Are you the family historian fastidiously documenting every aspect of your life with photos that are carefully indexed, categorized, and filed so you can actually find them again?
Are You A Media Hunter or Gatherer?
Before explaining more abut the Plex Media Server, I have to ask you one question: Are you an entertainment hunter or gatherer? When you want to watch or listen to something, do you go online and search for it or do you have your own curated collection at your beck and call?
Do you only stream music from a popular service such as Apple Music or Spotify? Do you watch videos online from YouTube? Do you watch TV shows and movies from Netflix or Hulu?
If you answered “Yes” to these questions then you are media hunter. You don’t buy or save your media locally, you go online and hunt (search) for it. On the other hand, if you like to have your own media collection locally that is not tied to the Internet and always available, then you are more of a gatherer/collector.
If You Are Not Confused, You’re Not Paying Attention
The Plex Media Server is a comprehensive system for collectors/gatherers. It is a software system that helps you manage a comprehensive collection of your own media – music, photos, and video. Plex provides software that helps index and catalog everything along with viewing software that makes it easy to watch or listen to all your media from different locations.
Plex can be intimidating and overwhelming as it has a lot of features. Some are very simple while advanced features are a bit complicated and a lot of obscure features may only be of interest to very advanced users. Although I’m talking about using Plex to store and view your media, it does have some limited online streaming features called “channels” which I’m going to ignore here.
Plex also has recently added the ability to work with some special add-on hardware to view live TV broadcasts using over-the-air (OTA) antennas and record them like a DVR (digital video recorder), but this feature is a bit complicated and still very buggy so I don’t recommend it at this time.
Plex manages music, photos, and video but I’ll be honest, I only use it for video. I’m perfectly happy with my existing music solution using Apple iTunes and streaming music from Spotify, Pandora, or Apple Music to my Sonos ONE speakers.
In my earlier years, I did a lot of photography including having my own darkroom so I have more advanced systems for managing photos and again I don’t use Plex for that. Not that there is anything wrong with it – you might find Plex a great solution for music and/or photos, but I’m not going to cover that here.
What The Heck Does Plex Really Do?
Plex is a client/server system – that’s fancy computer lingo meaning it has two programs that work together. The Plex server handles cataloging and managing all your video files and the Plex client (or viewer) software provides the user interface for choosing what you want to watch and viewing it.
One person in a household (you) will be the administrator of the Plex system and you’ll be dealing with setup and operation of the server. Everyone else will only be using the Plex clients – they do not need to know anything about the Plex server, and that’s a good thing.
At the most basic level, the Plex client is an app that you install on your smartphone, tablet, or other device. The beauty of Plex is that they have a client app for just about everything. Plex is available for computers, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, smart TVs, set top boxes, blu-ray players, and a web browser version for most computers.
There is a version of Plex in the Apple App Store, the Google Play Store, & the Amazon Appstore. There are versions of Plex specifically for streaming boxes including AppleTV, Roku, FireTV, Tivo, and Nvidia. There are versions of Plex for game consoles including Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation.
The wide availability of Plex clients is one of the key advantages. Just about everyone and every device you might want to use is included. All of these client apps are either free of charge or have a nominal one-time cost (I think most are free, but they have charged in the past so I’m keeping it real mentioning there might be a one-time purchase required.)
Setting Up A Plex Server
To get started you’ll need to setup a Plex server. Just like the client software, the Plex server is free of charge and available for a variety of systems. The most common way to setup a Plex server is to simply install it on a PC or Mac computer. Just keep in mind that you want the computer to have lots of disk storage (tv and movie files are big) and you’ll need to have the computer running when you want to use Plex.
In practical terms, this means a computer with a large external storage drive and one that you can leave running all the time. You don’t truly need to keep it on 24 x 7, you could turn it on when you want to watch movies, but it is much more convenient to have it running all the time – especially if you have multiple people using it and you plan on using remote access.
The Plex server can run on other kinds of equipment including network attached storage (NAS) arrays from Synology and QNAP, along with the popular Raspberry Pi embedded computers so there are a lot of options to choose from. You can even run Plex on a laptop, so don’t let the equipment scare you – try it out first and then you can always move it to a bigger/larger computer later.
The most important part of setting up your Plex server is loading in all your media. Grab your video files and copy them to a folder on the Plex server. Plex understands all the media formats (MP4, H.264, H.265 (HEVC), ASF, AVI, MOV, MKV, & WMV) and will automatically convert them, as needed, when viewing them on difference devices.
That is one of the biggest advantages of Plex! You can take video in any format you have as is – you don’t have to convert everything ahead of time. The ability of Plex to convert the video on-the-fly and stream it to just about any device for viewing is the greatest strength of the Plex Media Server.
You can store your Plex media in one or more folders any way you like. Plex has some recommendations such as creating a separate folder for each TV series and a folder for each year movies were released, but that is not required. Plex will scan each file you add and matches it with several public databases of movies and tv series to build a detailed description of each file.
Plex will add a thumbnail image, movie title, movie description, and additional information including actors and stars. All of this added data is displayed automatically when you browse through your collection using any of the Plex viewing apps.
It’s like having your personal Netflix system but everything is stored on your own computer and running entirely in your local home network!
It may not be obvious, but Plex works great with your personal videos that you have recorded with your camcorder, smartphone, or DSLR. It is not just for commercial movies you purchase or convert from your DVD collection.
Anytime, Anywhere Entertainment
When set up properly (and I’ll admit, this can sometimes be tricky), you can access your Plex Media Server from anywhere – not just when you are home. This is awesome for business travelers or family vacations. Instead of paying extra for overpriced in-room hotel entertainment services, you can simply connect back to your Plex server and watch anything from your own video collection on your computer, smartphone, or tablet.
Plex even figures out the speed of your network and will automatically change the quality of the video to avoid buffering and stuttering during playback. Whether you are on wired Ethernet, fast Wi-Fi, a slow hotel connection, or your cellphone, the Plex viewer app and the Plex server app coordinate between themselves to figure out the best resolution, speed, and bandwidth for you.
If you are a super techie, you can bring along a Roku, or Amazon FireTV stick and plug it into the HDMI connection on the hotel TV and enjoy your video on the big screen instead of your laptop, but that’s totally optional.
Don’t Be A Stranger
Plex can keep track of what you have watched, what is new in your library, and your personal viewing preferences. This works well because with Plex you can create user logins for each member of your household and your friends. You can limit everyone else to be a regular user and only give yourself the “superman” rights to control everything.
With the user logins, you don’t have to worry about anyone else messing around with the server configuration, erasing movies by mistake, or doing anything that might affect the reliability of the server. If each person signs in to Plex with their own id, all their settings will be remembered.
You can create logins for your friends and vice-versa. With Plex remote access, your friends can login and watch movies from your library and you can access theirs. This is especially cool if you are in a different time zone. When you are sleeping your friends can be using your Plex server when it otherwise would be idle.
“Batteries Not Included”
Just kidding! Plex is not a battery operated device, but I do need to mention that although Plex is free – both the server and most of the viewing apps, there are a few advanced features that cost money. These advanced options are included in the PlexPass subscription which you can purchase a la carte monthly or yearly, whichever works for you.
The PlexPass features that I use include a free mobile app (instead of a one-time purchase price), Mobile Sync (being able to download a movie from the Plex server into your smartphone or tablet for local viewing), and Managed Users (advanced user login controls).