Given our current circumstances, you may find yourself at home with some extra time on your hands, and a desire to get the most out of your media.
If that sounds familiar, now is the perfect time to get to know Plex, the free media software that can organize all your collected movies, TV shows, music, and photos and present them to you on any device, with an interface that’s both attractive and easy to navigate.
But that’s just the tip of the Plex iceberg. For a deep dive into its many great features and a step-by-step set of instructions to get you going, here’s everything you need to know.
What is Plex?
All of your own media
Plex is actually two things: It’s free media server software that you run on a PC, Mac, or NAS drive in your home, and it’s also a vast set of free client apps, that let you access the media server’s contents from devices like smart TVs, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, gaming consoles, phones, tablets, and way more. Together, these two pieces create a powerful way to manage and access your media files.
Once installed, the Plex Media Server can automatically augment your collection of movies, TV shows, and music with a huge amount of related content from sources around the web, like movie posters and album art, details on cast and crew members, episode descriptions and original air dates, and much more. In minutes, your media collection goes from being a series of files and folders to a Netflix-like experience that you control.
Unlike iTunes, Plex can read just about every media file format you can think of. So if you’ve gotten into the habit of running your media though a converter like HandBrake (Windows, Mac) to make it compatible with your software, you can do away with that step.
Share the love
Your Plex library can also be shared with other Plex users, making it an ideal way to give friends and family members access to your media without having to upload all of it to a third-party cloud service like Google Drive or iCloud. Though some limitations need to be considered, such as the power of your Plex server and how much bandwidth your internet plan includes, it can be a great way to include others. We’ll discuss this in-depth later.
What once seemed like a gimmick, co-watching content online is now a much-in-demand activity. If you own a compatible Android phone with a Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream headset, or an Oculus Go, you can use the Plex VR app to co-watch movies or TV shows with up to four friends.
It all takes place in your choice of a virtual loft apartment or a drive-in theater. While watching, you can interact with voice and even look over at your friends’ avatars sitting on the couch.
Free streaming content
Plex also operates its own ad-supported free streaming video service that can be accessed alongside your personal media. You’ll find a huge repository of movies and TV shows on-tap, with curated lists to help you find the best ones to watch. Known simply as Plex Movies and TV, you can access the service through the web or any Plex client device — even if you haven’t set-up a Plex Media Server.
Live TV, DVR, and more
With an optional Plex Pass subscription, you can access more features like live TV with DVR, parental controls, syncing of your favorite files to your phone, and wireless syncing of your phone’s photos to the media server.
What are the Plex requirements?
Plex Media Server
For the Plex Media Server, you will need to pick a device on which to install and run it. Your options are:
- A PC, Mac, Linux, or FreeBSD computer
- Nvidia Shield TV Pro (2019) or Shield TV (2017/2015)
- Netgear Nighthawk X10 router
- Or, one of the supported network-attached storage devices (NAS)
Whichever one you choose, a wired network connection for both your server machine and your client device is recommended. A sufficiently fast Wi-Fi network (routers and devices that support 802.11 AC are best) can work too, but you’ll need excellent signal strength to support streaming in 4K/HDR.
Since the Plex Media Server does the lion’s share of the work involved in organizing and playing back your media, a sufficiently powerful device is important for the best experience. Here’s Plex’s support page that discusses the minimum requirements; it’s a good place to start.
If you only plan to watch one video at a time and you’re not planning to share your Plex library with other users, an inexpensive NAS or a Shield TV might do the trick. However the moment your needs become more demanding, you’re probably going to want to run your server on a desktop or laptop machine.
If you’re unsure what you should use, the Plex user forums are a great place to ask questions and get advice.
Plex Client (Player)
You can run the Plex client app on just about any device that’s out there, so the odds are good that you already own a compatible one. But if you’re thinking of buying a new streaming device anyway, we recommend the Roku Streaming Stick+, Apple TV 4K, or Nvidia Shield TV, for the best Plex experience.
Those with Dolby Atmos home theater systems may want to read our How To Know If You’re Getting Dolby Atmos Sound guide as it contains some considerations for Plex users who want to ensure they get Dolby Atmos support.
How do I install and use Plex?
Your Plex adventure starts by installing the Plex Media Server software on your chosen machine. Simply download the appropriate installer and follow the instructions. Once the media server is fully installed, it will open a new browser window, which contains the Plex web app. The web app is your main way of configuring the Plex server, but it also doubles as a way to look at your library and play your files on your computer. It will ask you to create a new Plex account and then takes you through a setup wizard that mostly involves helping the server track down your media files.
What are the file naming rules for Plex?
You can store your movies, music, and other files, anywhere you like, in as many different folders or hard drives (both locally, or on network shares) and Plex will keep everything organized. However, there’s one small catch: Plex has a preference for how different file types are named.
For every kind of file e.g. movies, multipart movies, TV shows that have multiple seasons and episodes, etc, there’s a Plex-preferred naming style. If you have a lot of files, renaming them doesn’t have to be a manual process: MacOS has a great built-in file renaming function as does Windows 10. You can always skip this step — Plex will still let you access and play your files even if they aren’t named using Plex’s conventions, but it may have a hard time identifying what the file is, so you may not get all of the rich data from the web that makes using Plex so enjoyable.
Scan and play
The Plex Media Server will automatically scan all of the directories you identified during the setup process, and you can choose how often it scans those locations for changes. If you’re a frequent downloader of new media, you can set it so that Plex automatically updates its library any time it detects a new file has been added.
To quickly check that everything is as it should be, click the home button in the web app interface. You should see your movies, music, and any other media you added during setup, beginning to populate, along with their respective poster or album art.
If they don’t look quite right at first, wait a few minutes as it can take time for Plex to find all of the relevant info. To play a file, simply mouse over the thumbnail, and click the play button.
Keep in mind, playing a movie this way won’t necessarily show you what it will look like on a device like an Apple TV, or Roku. It’s really just meant as a way to check that the file will indeed play.
How do I play Plex files on my TV or other devices?
As we’ve mentioned, there is a Plex client for just about every device on the market. You will generally find the one for your specific device in the online download store for that platform.
For Apple TV, for instance, it’s in the App Store. For Roku, it’s considered a downloadable “channel.” Many devices, including smart TVs and Android TV boxes, come with the Plex client pre-loaded, so there’s nothing to download. The clients are typically free, but occasionally Plex charges a small amount to download them. A Plex Pass subscription includes free access to all clients (more on Plex Pass below).
When you start the Plex client, it will ask you for the same Plex account you created when you installed the server. As long as your playback device and the Plex server are on the same home network, it should only take a moment for the client to display the same catalog of media files as you saw in the web app.
You’ll find an intuitive set of category links on the left side of the screen, and all of your matching media files organized in the main portion of the interface. Selecting the file you want to play brings up an info screen with descriptions and more links, plus the “play now” button.
No media software would be complete without a search function and Plex’s universal search does a really good job. It can find matches from among all of your connected libraries and services including your movies, music, and TV shows, free content from Plex Movies and TV, web shows and podcasts, and Tidal.
Why won’t some media files play?
Every client device possesses different capabilities, which means each Plex client also possesses different capabilities. When a Plex client connects to the Plex server, it tells the server what those capabilities are. An Apple TV 4K, for instance, only plays video files encoded in H.264, or MPEG-4, using the .m4v, .mp4, and .mov formats.
If the file you’re trying to play doesn’t correspond to one of those file types, the Plex server will need to transcode it into one of the formats that the Apple TV 4K understands. Depending on the file type you’re playing, and the formats supported by your client, this can take a lot of power on the server’s side. If your server machine isn’t powerful enough to handle this conversion process, you may be told that the movie cannot be played.
The obvious way to deal with this problem is to make sure your Plex server is running on a really robust computer. But not everyone wants to keep a powerful PC running continuously.
If you know that you will mostly want to play your files on a single TV at home, buying a more powerful client device that can handle lots of file types on its own — without needing the server to transcode — is a great alternative to a more expensive server machine. The Nvidia Shield TV and Shield TV can play virtually every media file type, effectively eliminating the need for the Plex server to perform transcoding. We’ve been able to play 4K HDR files, with Dolby Atmos, on a Shield TV, from a Plex server running on a WD My Cloud Mirror Gen 2 — a NAS with less computing power than even the cheapest PC.
Plex Free Movies and TV
Similar in many ways to free, ad-supported services like the Roku Channel, Plex Free Movies and TV is both an add-on to your personal Plex experience and a stand-alone service.
As a stand-alone experience, you can stream Plex Free Movies and TV from the web using just your browser and a free Plex account. But if you’re a Plex Media Server user, you can access it through the same interface as your private library of content — there’s no separate app to download or install.
The free, ad-supported service has a growing catalog of content from sources such as Warner Brothers, MGM, and Lionsgate Films, and on May 1, 2020, it added Crackle’s library of content.
You’ll find a constantly changing line-up of movies and shows to watch. And while the selection is nothing like what you’d find on a paid service like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, there are some great B-movies, Hollywood classics, and hidden gems to be discovered.
Web Shows and Podcasts
With Plex, you can also access two other kinds of free streaming media: Web Shows and Podcasts. Web Shows are video episodes of varying length created by publishers like GQ, Popular Science, and others. Podcasts are the same idea, but for audio-only. Many of these web shows and podcasts can be found on other services, like YouTube, but having them accessible within Plex is a little more convenient.
Remote access and library sharing
One of the most powerful features of Plex is the ability to configure the Plex server for remote access. It takes a bit of fiddling to get this set up correctly because you’ll need to adjust your router’s firewall settings, but once it’s configured, you’ll be able to use the Plex client on your phone or tablet to stream your personal media library from anywhere in the world — including live TV and recorded shows if you have that enabled.
Plex has a detailed set of remote access instructions so we won’t repeat them here, but it boils down to two or three steps:
- Configure your modem to send remote access requests to your router if they are not the same device
- Configure your router to send remote access requests to the machine on your network that hosts your Plex Media Server
- Configure your Plex Media Server to respond to those remote access requests
If you want to share your Plex library with friends and family (who don’t live with you), you’ll need to configure remote access first.
One that’s done, tell your friends and family to create a free Plex account(s) and then tell you the email they used to create it.
Inside the settings for your Plex Media Server, you’ll find a section called Users and Sharing. Within that screen, you can add additional users for the people who live with you, as well as giving access to friends via the Shared Libraries option.
For each Plex user you invite, you can choose which server (if you have more than one) and which libraries (movies, TV, etc) they can access. If you have a Plex Pass subscription, you can also let these users download and sync your content to their devices, and upload their photos to your server.
You can see what these users are watching in real-time as well as being able to see a history of what they’ve watched, within the Activity dashboard for your server.
If you have a Tidal subscription, you can add it to Plex. This means that your Tidal music can now be streamed on any device that supports the Plex client. But an even bigger benefit for music fans is the way Plex integrates Tidal with your personal music library. As you browse the music on your server, Plex automatically finds matches from Tidal to show you tracks or albums you might be missing, and related artists and genres.
From a music discovery point of view, it’s a powerful system because it’s based on the music you love — after all, you already own it.
If you own Sonos wireless whole-home speakers, you can add Plex as a music source in the same way as you can add Apple Music or Spotify. Doing so has two big advantages: First, Plex can automatically transcode any music files that Sonos can’t play — like hi-res FLAC files — so you can enjoy your full music library. But secondly, if you have two Sonos systems in different homes, Plex lets you access your personal music library in both locations — something Sonos can’t do on its own.
For more on using Plex with Sonos, see our full explainer.
What is Plex Pass and why should I get it?
Many of Plex’s best features are available for free, but there are some premium features that you can only access if you have a Plex Pass subscription. Plex Pass can be bought on a monthly ($5), annual ($40), or lifetime ($120) basis, and it entitles you to the following features:
- Live TV plus DVR: If you have an HD antenna and a compatible OTA receiver, you can watch and record live TV from within Plex. Your recording capacity is limited only by the hard drive space on your Plex server, and all of your recorded shows will be presented with the same easy-to-use interface as the rest of your library.
- Plex VR co-watching feature: Co-watch movies and TV shows with up to four friends inside a virtual apartment or drive-in movie theater, with voice chat too.
- Parental controls: If you’ve got youngsters in the house, there’s probably only a subset of your media that’s suitable for all-ages viewing. With Plex parental controls (known as Plex Home) you can create additional accounts, password protect your master account, and select by rating or folder, which material is available to each account.
- Mobile sync: A must-have for commuters, this feature lets you wirelessly keep copies of your favorite media on your phone for offline playback. It can automatically add and remove TV episodes as you watch them.
- Premium music and photo libraries: Get extra info added to your music (like lyrics) or photos (location data) for a richer experience.
- Camera upload: Wirelessly sync the photos you take on your mobile device to Plex so that they’re a snap to view on all of your Plex clients.
- Hardware-accelerated streaming: This is a big one for those who want the best transcoding performance. Without a Plex Pass, all server transcoding is handled by the Plex software, but this option lets you use your PC’s additional hardware power to assist in that task, making it much smoother. You may be able to get away with a less powerful PC with this option enabled.
- Free access to Plex client apps: Never pay for another client app again.
What about Kodi? Could I use that instead?
Kodi is a powerful media center software interface that does many of the same things as Plex, but it goes about them in a different way. With Kodi, there’s no server software; all of its functions are self-contained in an app you download and install on a compatible device. One limitation here is that there are only a few types of compatible devices. Kodi doesn’t work on Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV, or Apple TV, without a significant amount of heavy lifting to install and use it.
Without a central server managing your media collection, each instance of Kodi is its own world. There’s no way to easily synchronize settings from one device to another, which means you’ll have to set up each Kodi device as though it were the first time.
As open-source software, there are plenty of third-party extras for Kodi, including a big collection of unofficial add-ons that people use to illegally access copyrighted material. For that reason, you should read our Kodi explainer before you install and use it so that you understanding the possible legal ramifications. Still, Kodi can be a good Plex alternative for those who like to tweak software settings and don’t need the convenience of a centrally managed media library, with multiple streaming clients.
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