Ready for a media management and streaming system without the limits of your old “solution?” Meet Plex, a largely free streaming and management system for all your downloaded media.
What is Plex?
Plex is an organization and management system for streaming your video, music, data and photos around the house. This may sound familiar — in fact, if you already have an Apple TV or other set-top box/smart TV arrangement, you may be wondering why you would even need to use Plex.
Like other streaming services, you can pause media, resume where you left off, keep track of your recent shows or videos, and so on. Plex goes the extra mile, letting you stream your own library of downloaded content. It uses a server configuration to organize and play files from a variety of sources — your laptop, your desktop, or your phone, for instance.
Plex doesn’t care what brand or type of media file you have, and most of the important components are free to download. You can also download it for Apple TV and many other devices you may already have.
As Plex has grown over the years, it has developed not only options for detailed media management via the Plex Media Player (a reincarnation of the old Plex Home Theater) but also extras like Plex Channels, apps across a range of devices, and compatibility with everything from Linux to Google Drive. Chances are good that no matter the streaming manager you are currently using, Plex is bigger. That makes Plex more suitable for those who prefer to tinker with and customize their software.
Plex functions with two central components, the server and the app. Both are required, but it’s the server that does most of the work, including transcoding and organizing (more on this in a bit). This creates a few requirements to get the most out of Plex. You will need:
- A powered computer connected to the Internet: The operating system isn’t important as long as you download the right version of Plex for it.
- A fast CPU: How fast? That depends on what you use Plex for. Lots of transcoding or lots of apps in service will create slowdowns, skips, and other streaming problems if your CPU is too weak to handle it. You can take a look at several popular configurations and the requirements here.
- A good network: Plex recommends an ADSL/Cable/Wi-Fi connection, with a Wi-Fi network that’s based on either 802.11n or 802.11ac.
- The right devices: Plex can stream to nearly anything, so this shouldn’t be a problem. Notable supported devices include Windows 10, Xbox (360 and One) PlayStation (3 and 4), Android, iOS, Roku, Apple TV, Ouya, Linux devices, FreeBSD devices, and Fire TV.
Starting a Plex server
After tallying all your media files and where they are kept, the first big step in adopting Plex is downloading the server client. Choose your most powerful computer to keep the Plex Server on, then head over to the Plex download page.
Plex does a great job of making this easy to understand for newcomers. Click on the top link to download the Plex Media Server for your Computer, and Plex will give you several OS options including Windows, Mac, and Linux (it usually recommends the software for whatever computer you are currently on). Hit Download, and you are ready to begin.
When downloaded, the Plex server file will prompt you to start installing it. Follow the steps, and when it is finished installing you will be able to launch the Plex Media Server from your Start Menu or Applications.
The server is very good at reading information about your media files and pulling in handy data so it can display them. But on its own, it isn’t designed to do the actual streaming. It won’t automatically move media files around for you, and it won’t give you a good interface for playing those files. However, the server does come with something called the Plex Web App, which you can use to test how well the server configuration is working.
Open this Plex Web App by right-clicking on the Server icon and choosing “Media Manager.” This will launch the setup wizard for the Web App. This wizard guides you through several very important steps, including the creation of Plex libraries for your media. Move through these steps carefully. If you want to access content outside of your home, remember to choose “Enable Remote Access” during this setup. When finished, the App will start scanning and organizing all your media, so have those files connected to your computer and available.
Choosing the right apps
The Plex Web App that the server comes with is fine. Really. But to use Plex as the full streaming behemoth that it can be, you need far more than just this one web app – you need apps for all the important devices in your home.
Once again, Plex provides a useful download page for this, dividing its family of apps into Mobile Apps, apps for smart TVs/consoles/streaming devices, and apps for Home Theater. Choose a category, select Download, and move through the supported devices to find one that works for you. In most cases, Plex will then spirit you away to the manufacturer’s site and the proper page to find the Plex download.
Download the right apps and sign in. The Plex apps will all bring up the same libraries that the Web App created with the setup wizard. When it comes to UI configuration and customization, most changes that you make to the Web App will cascade down throughout all the other apps on the network, so alter the Web App first.
Note that these apps do include abilities to manage and launch a number of platforms and services, including YouTube. However, Plex is primarily designed to stream downloaded media. There’s no support for Netflix and similar streamers. This is largely due to the open-source heritage of software, so keep Netflix and other apps handy alongside Plex.
While it’s pretty smart, Plex needs good data to work with. With the right filename it can pull in tracks, posters, subtitles, credits, and much more, but it needs that name, properly referenced by the file name.
Plex provides a whole page of recommendations on how to name your media files, from movies and music media to TV shows, personal video footage, a variety of local media assets, and much more. It’s a very good idea to review these naming standards and apply them to all your media files before downloading the Plex Media Server (example: “Show_Name sXXeYY” for a TV show). This may be time-consuming, but it will make Plex much easier to install.
Alternatively, when you finish with the Web App setup wizard, it will start to scan your media and will return any mismatched or unmatched media results to you for renaming or reorganizing. This may be the easier option if your file names are already mostly acceptable.