Plex – The (Near) Perfect Solution for Personal Media


I have a lot of media.  I own several thousand DVDs and Blu rays.  I have collected a lot of media from the internet.  I prefer to OWN (and store) the media I have.  I don’t like Netflix and I don’t like Hulu.  These aren’t solutions for me.  I am paying a lot of money a month for a fast internet connection and I have a lot of stuff I’m storing on my own – not the cloud.  I don’t want to have to UPLOAD my stuff to the cloud to get it …. I AM my own cloud.

… and I’m not alone.  Millions of others prefer to buy, store, rip and maintain their own private collections – for a variety of reasons (see my article on Digital Distribution for my thoughts).  Unfortunately, the issue with being your own cloud …?  Companies aren’t interested in writing top quality software to let you access it.  Your options tend to rely on some proprietary media friendly NAS (like a Synology Diskstation) which suffers from fairly immature software on mobile devices or some sort of specialized delivery system for ONE component of your media (like Subsonic; great music gateway – poor video gateway).

Worse yet, if you plan to SHARE your content with family and friends?  A whole new can of worms is opened.

Take all of these issues and then try to solve ubiquitous playback from TV, web, phone and tablet?  This has been a pipe dream for some time.

Enter Plex Media Server

Plex bills itself as a “Complete Media Solution”; providing access to your video, pictures and music from one gorgeous well-designed interface.  It promises to do this for you over pretty much any disparate device including TVs, set top boxes (like Roku), smart devices (like some Blu ray players), the web (from anywhere), your phone and your tablet.

That is a pretty tall order when you start looking at the logistics of it.

What exactly is it?

Plex Home Theater - Looks great right?

Plex Home Theater – Looks great right?

At the core, Plex is a piece of software you install on your home server/PC/NAS that serves up your media to you wherever you’re at (via the Internet) to whatever Plex-compatible device you might have.  It intelligently handles video transcoding, on the fly to make sure you get the best experience possible – even across 3G and 4G connections.

But it is much more than just a file browser with a streaming transcoder.  It is a media hub.

By “hub” I mean that it aggregates, indexes, metadatas and displays your content in a very pleasing way.  While the transcoder core is the “engine” of the car, the hub is the dashboard and steering wheel.

Not all hubs are created equally.

How does Plex excel in this department?  Everywhere.

You create areas of content based on one or more file locations on your local drives and network.  This content can be designated as MOVIES, TV SHOWS, PERSONAL VIDEOS, etc.  These are not merely labels – they control how Plex interprets (and displays) this content hub to you via the collection of metadata.

Manual metadata entry sucks

Manual metadata entry sucks

Metadata is the data that describes your media.  Title, year, rating, pictures/boxes, summaries and so much more.   If you know what MP3 ID tags are, you’re on the right track.  This data isn’t typically innate to videos as it is with music – so there is usually a significant amount of work involved with “tagging” your video content manually.  If you have dozens or even hundreds of movies, TV shows and personal videos – you would never go through the effort to manually tag them all.

Various products over the years have tried to make this easier – but rarely have they succeeded.  While MP3 “auto tagging” has matured quickly, media tagging has not.

Thanks to large repositories of metadata like TheTVDB, Freebase, etc. and a “truce” with file naming conventions, media tagging has grown leaps and bounds in the last couple of years.  Plex leverages the best of these aggregate services and makes tagging of metadata nearly 100% transparent to you.  If you aren’t about falling out of your seat in excitement about this, Plex may not be the product for you.

Once your media is properly tagged (99% of the time, anyway) with metadata, Plex uses this information to give you a gorgeous experience.  They have obviously spent tons of time refining and tweaking the user experience; honing it to a bright polish.  Great care has been taken to allow you to consume the content list exactly the way you want; be it pictures, list – filtering by various metadata.  Simply put; any idiot can use this interface and power users can still get exactly what they want.

If you don’t like the aggregate collecting of your videos together, you can fall back to “folder view” like the golden oldie media hubs do.

The Power to Stream

Plex running on Android

Plex running on Android

There are many good, solid media hubs out there with similar features to Plex.  However, content indexed presentations are useless if you can’t actually watch the videos you’re browsing through.

Streaming issues are broken into two parts; performance and device requirements.

What good is streaming a hot new movie off your media server if you HAVE to watch it on your tablet because your TV isn’t hooked up to a computer?  What if you’re on your phone, far away from your home network – stranded in 3G hell in the middle of nowhere?

There are many solutions with web apps, phone apps, tablet apps, TV apps, Roku apps – but by and large, most platforms support only a very small subset of these.  Even if they do exist, there always seem to be “immature” versions on some platforms.  Perhaps iOS has a decent streamer, but your Android tablet doesn’t have an app.  If it does?  Maybe it is lacking in features or is bug-ridden.

Getting to the TV is probably the hardest part of the equation.  Either you hook a PC up to it (and you’re completely covered) or you need a set top box, Blu ray player, Chromecast or SOME device to get to your media.  DLNA has helped this process, but DLNA is merely a means to stream – not really a full hub solution.  At least with DLNA you can stream to your game consoles – but that doesn’t solve the hub problem.

Of course the issue with “solutions” is that it is hard to get market penetration.  Sure sure, you can get TVs with Hulu support.  Netflix support.  maybe a couple of others.  But something that encourages you to play your OWN content your OWN way?

Plex has managed to gain some serious traction.  There are Plex enabled devices everywhere.  Almost all Samsung “smart” devices have Plex apps available.  LG ‘s smart apps have one.  Blu ray players, TVs … Plex is really everywhere.

Chances are likely – you already HAVE a device that can connect to Plex.  Check out the list of connected devices at Plex’s website.

Recently, Plex has come to Chromecast – a seriously low cost solution you can afford-ably put in every room of the house.

What about performance?  Who cares if you can get a device to see your Plex server if it stutters and buffers all the time?

Plex tries to handle this issue for you by transcoding the video; that is recompressing it in real time – to the device of your choice, with bandwidth accessibility in mind. You’re never going to get a 1080p high action movie to stream to your phone in 3G.  But with the magic of transcoding, it can be a reality and give you amazing performance even with the worst of bandwidth scenarios.  Of course, you can always take control over the transcoding parameters and tweak them to your liking.

What else can it do?

Well of course you can access your music and photos.  You can also use Plex technology to “catch” videos you’re watching online and send them to your Plex server for future consumption.  Currently in beta is a cloud option that can use your cloud storage (like Google Drive or Dropbox) to hold pre-transcoded videos without relying on your Plex server.  Once they are in your cloud, you can share them with others, archive and enjoy them – even if for some reason your internet goes down at home or your server takes a dump.  Plus, if you have REALLY crappy internet uploads at home, you may get better performance using a cloud storage.

Naturally this is all easy to use right from the Plex hub.  New features are being added all the time.

What’s the Catch?

Your content - your way

Your content – your way

Sure, I get it.  Nothing so great can be free, right?  Oddly enough, Plex is out of the box free.  The server software is available for various operating systems including Windows and there is even a version for the very popular Synology Diskstation.

For free.  So how does the Plex team eat?

First you have to realize that Plex is merely a conduit.  YOU are providing all the storage.  YOU are providing all the bandwidth.  Team Plex does provide some server DNS type lookup services, but overall, you are carrying the burden that most companies like Hulu and Netflix have to shoulder.

Of course, the team still needs to get paid for development work and there is a lot of it when you start looking closer.  They have the server software to support.  There are mobile and tablet apps to create and support.  Every device has it’s own build – they all have to be updated, submitted to Samsung and Roku, etc.  There is a website, support forums … all in all, there is a lot to do for Team Plex even without the bandwidth and storage costs.

In order to pay the mortgage, the Plex team has come up with a few ways to get paid.  While certainly not out of line, the means of getting paid is a bit convoluted, confusing and sometimes can get to be infuriating.

Getting Paid

Image2

I’ll preface this section with the disclaimer that I believe Team Plex needs to get paid.  Despite anything that may sound negative here, I do not believe in “everything free like beer”; I’m pleased to pay for what I use.  But when chaos and anarchy explode over the means of getting paid – the responsible company may want to rethink a few things.

There are two ways that Team Plex makes money; the Plex Pass and through sales of the mobile app.  Let’s start with the latter.

Paying a premium for mobile apps for “free” services is certainly not a new concept.  Most teams making server software are probably not adept at creating mobile apps – and if they are, there are expenses that revolve around mobile app development (even on the open source Android system).  A one time fee of $5 isn’t out of line.  This buys you mobile access to your Plex server through a native, well-developed app.  If you don’t want to pay, you can use a web browser on your mobile device – but your experiences will vary.  To pay the price of a Starbuck’s coffee for a mobile app that frees you from the web isn’t out of line.  I was happy to pay for the Android app.

So where is the chaos and anarchy?

It starts with the second means of payment; the Plex Pass.

The Plex Pass is a monthly, yearly or lifetime subscription you pay $5, $30 or $75, respectfully for.  I paid $75 for the lifetime subscription.

Unfortunately, the Plex Pass features aren’t super exciting for a large percentage of users.  Let’s take a closer look.  Note: These are at the time of writing and may have been fully implemented and/or replaced with new features.

Cloud Sync. We discussed this earlier.  View your media from your external clouds.  The whole point of Plex is to use your OWN cloud.  I’ve never used this feature.

Off Line Playback.  You can have videos delivered to your Android and iOS devices for a pure offline experience later on.  Going on a trip?  Send a season of Spongebob to the kid’s tablet and you won’t have to worry about dropping internet when you’re driving through the desert on your way to nana’s house.  Handy a couple times a year, but …

Free copy of the Android app.  There is a $5 value.  Shame I paid for it once already.  Still, it covers your first month or a nice chunk of a longer subscription.

Early access to new features. Until the recent Chromecast support, this hasn’t proven to be a huge value to me.  I got early access to Cloud Sync which really doesn’t add any ROI to my subscription.  We’ll talk more about that in a minute.

Enhanced support for multiple users.  Here is an area I have a bone to pick with Team Plex.  You might want to read the linked blog article before continuing.

Multi-user support comes in the way of being able to see what other users logged into your Plex account are watching – and jump right in and watch it with them.  This feature works as expected.  The other promise was that users would get their OWN dashboard and personalized hub.

I figured for $75, my family and friends could all enjoy my Plex server with their own custom dashboard and that seemed like a good deal.

Unfortunately the text describing the feature is a bit unclear (at best) and misleading (at worst).

See, it turns out that if you run a Plex server and you are a Plex Pass subscriber – your users do NOT automatically get the custom dashboard (nor other features); unless they too are Plex Pass subscribers.

Suddenly, that $75 doesn’t seem like a great deal.  As the owner of the Plex server, you always get a custom dashboard.  No value add there.  Yes, I can see what others are watching, as promised.  The “early access” turned out to be a minor bust; with only features being added (so far) I had no use for.

Despite it all, I looked at the $75 as a ‘donation’ for a piece of software that is well worth every penny.

I recommend Team Plex do some overhauls on their B2C side.  Clearer communications, a better web presence and full transparency/clarity on the Plex Pass licensing would be a great start.  I’d be happy to lend my ideas.

Interested? Here is what you need …

Oddly enough, if you go to the Plex website, you might be amazed at how sparse information about the actual product is.  Sure, lots of links telling you what you can do, but not really showing the customer the product.  In fact, you actually have to go to the HELP page to find out anything specific and even that is a hit and miss hunting game looking for pre-sales information.

Let’s just say, I would do things differently.  It doesn’t look like a product page.

So what does one need to do this Plex Media Server?

Obviously, first up is NEED.  If you have a handful of personal videos of your vacations you want to share, maybe some pics; Plex isn’t what you should be looking at.  Plex is for people with a LOT of content they are ALREADY storing themselves.  Or plan to.

Consider a NAS for your storage needs

Consider a NAS for your storage needs

Storage.  A lot of it.  If you plan to rip your DVD/Blu collection and store it – you’re going to need space.  A lot of space.  You can store across multiple PCs, NAS, network drives – whatever – as long as your Plex box can see the drives.  Start shopping deals for NAS and/or large drives of the 2TB to 4TB variety.  Plex gets addictive – plan accordingly.

Ripping software.  If you’re ripping your own content (and you are, right?  No piracy going on here …) you’ll need an excellent tool to do so.  Chances are, you already have this – but it is a cost factor that newbies often forget about.  Sure there are free solutions, but most of the best ones will set you back.

High speed internet.  A cheap DSL line may work – but I would suggest that if you’re going to do this, consider having some excess bandwidth.  Remember, most cable internet providers focus on giving you a ton of DOWNLOAD speed, but not much in the way of UPLOADING.  The more you share with family and friends, the bigger toll it will take on your bandwidth.

A semi-dedicated server.  Could you use a personal workstation or a “second PC” to run Plex server?  Yes.  But I would highly recommend some dedicated hardware since Plex uses media transcoding and needs some horsepower to do so.  You COULD use a Diskstation (they have a Plex server app) but I cannot attest to the robustness of the server; I own a DJ212j and love it – just never considered running Plex from it.

How do you plan to consume?  Where?  You will need Plex ready devices (phone, tablet, TV, set top, etc) to consume the content.  There is always the web version – but that won’t serve everyone’s needs.  Check to see if your device(s) are Plex compatible before you go “all in” and figure in the cost of replacing/upgrading devices that are not.

Installing and configuring the server is child’s play.  They have made it easy and intuitive.

The web app and the Android app (my only experiences; I’m sure set top/iOS/TV app/etc are similar) are brain dead easy to use.  Team Plex has simplified the process so anyone can engage.

Final Words

Plex caters to a very specific audience – but that audience is larger than people know.  In the Millennial Age of Cutting the Cord, the demand and need for something like Plex will only increase.  Team Plex runs a very tight ship and their product reflects their drive and obvious love for their product.  While I may question some of their decisions as of late, you cannot refute the quality of the product.

There will always be an audience for canned, turn-key streaming solutions like Google Play Music, iTunes, Pandora, Netflix, Hulu and all of their ilk; even those that something like Plex would make good sense for.  Apple built a company around restricting freedom in exchange for “it just works”.  For those of us with meticulous collections filled with non-mainstream content that value direct ownership of their content, there isn’t much that can benefit and extend our capabilities better than a fantastic media hub and streaming solution like Plex.

You can get an enjoyable experience with Plex for free (provided you already have the “cloud” of your own) and slowly add dollars to the equation as you have need to do so.  Will you question the pricing model at some point?  Probably.  But for those spending insane amounts of money “renting” content at $5, $10, even $30 a month – the price of Plex (even the strange licensing at times) is still a great value.

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+