Plex Media Server

 

Introduction

 

Plex Media Server is a reliable, feature-rich media server that is used to organize all of your media which can then be streamed to your devices- whether at home or away. From a beautiful interface to solid playback of your favorite movies, TV shows, and music, Plex has you covered. Plex offers their media server for free on a wide variety of platforms, including Windows, Linux, Mac, and various NAS operating systems. They offer client apps for just about any portable device you own- Android, iOS, Samsung Smart TV, etc. Of course, Plex also offers a paid subscription called Plex Pass that enhances some of the features of Plex, but the free version alone is good enough to make this media server worth a look.

The Plex interface is fairly clean, and it’s easy to use. Overall it does a superb job of presenting rich content in a way that is visually pleasing. If you need a media server, no matter how basic or advanced, Plex will meet your needs. I regularly use Plex to stream content to my Samsung TV, which is a lot better than using the built-in DLNA functionality.

For more advanced Plex capabilities, setup can be a bit daunting. The good news is that Plex does an excellent job of explaining each setting on their website, and they have a forum with an active community for when you need more help than the website can provide. For basic streaming on a local area network, Plex pretty much works out of the box.

 

  • Features
  • Reliability
  • Ease-of-use
  • Price
  • Documentation
  • Developer support

Summary

Plex Media Server is a home theater platform with client support for all major portable devices (iOS, Android, Windows, FireTV). It's packed with features that make it marginally complicated to set up and use. Reliability is mostly tied to the platform that you choose to run the server on. Transcoding requires powerful server hardware. For the basic media server, it's free! Plex does offer an optional Plex Pass that unlocks certain features. The software is well-documented on Plex's website, and it has forums supported by the Plex Team and a large user base.

4.1

 

 

Why Plex?

 

I previously used Samsung AllShare to stream to my Samsung Smart TV, but I had way too many problems. In fact, it was a total disaster. Mostly, Samsung AllShare was unreliable. Media that was uploaded would often require a rescan of the entire library to be visible. Or I would end up troubleshooting while promising my wife that we were almost ready to watch the movie. Other times AllShare just wouldn’t work without a server reboot.

This led me on a search that ended at Plex. There are other media servers out there- Twonky and Emby are popular choices. I tried Twonky first but I didn’t like it. Plex was my next choice, and it was so easy to set up I ended up just sticking with it.

Plex automatically organizes the media that you select, and then it harnesses the power of the internet to add metadata, as well as other features, like movie trailers. The result is an awesome, interactive home theater PC.


Plex Web App- rich visuals and metadata make for a nice interface.


Not only does Plex allow you to view or listen to your own media, but it also has the ability to add what Plex calls Channels. Channels are essentially plugins that can provide internet-based media like YouTube and Vimeo, as well as broadcast network apps, like ABC, CBS, and Fox. If you’re planning on cutting the cord, Plex is definitely worth checking out.

Additionally, Plex has partnered with Silicon Dust, makers of the popular HDHomeRun line of products to offer a DVR service. Basically, you use Plex to set up your shows to record to a PC or NAS on your network, then play them back from within the Plex app. This requires a special DVR version of Plex and it’s still in beta testing at the moment. But if you want to try it out, you can download it from here.

Update (2/26/17): Plex DVR is now available in all versions of the software. You will still need to be a Plex Pass subscriber to use this functionality.

Plex is capable of on-the-fly transcoding, but requires a powerful CPU. I use a 4 year old AMD 2.4 Ghz quad-core processor and it does the job nicely. Although Plex can run on various NAS units, they probably won’t be powerful enough to perform this duty (unless you have a really expensive, high-end NAS).

Another great thing about Plex is the ability to create different users. This is particularly useful if you have kids that you want to be able to enjoy your media collection, but don’t want them to have access to adult content. You can specify ratings limits on movies, TV shows, and music! However, this feature is only available to Plex Pass subscribers.

Plex gives you a lot of options to fully customize your HTPC experience. You can choose where to download your metadata from, including from multiple sites, and which order to apply it. This means that you don’t have to rely on a single source for your metadata, which results in more complete content for your library. You can sign up for OpenSubtitles.org and download subtitles for your movies and shows. You even have an option to play theme music in the background while you browse your content looking for shows to watch.

Plex Pass subscribers will have options available to them that free users won’t. These include:

  • Live TV. Watch TV on-the-go with Plex, an HDHomeRun or USB tuner , and a digital antenna.
  • DVR. Record your favorite shows. Requires the same equipment as the Live TV setup.
  • Plex Home. Create a home with multiple users and limit access based on media ratings. Great for sharing a library with your kids while keeping them from playing inappropriate content.
  • Premium Music Library. Artwork, artist information, automatic lyric download and more. If you’re a music lover, this may be for you!
  • Mobile Sync. Sync optimized files directly to your mobile device so you can enjoy your library content wherever you are, even if you’re offline.
  • Camera Upload. Create your own personal media cloud by syncing your phone’s photos and videos to your Plex server. Ensure privacy and keep your photos backed up so you don’t lose them if something happens to your phone. This is also an excellent option if you need to free up space on your phone while preserving your memories.
  • Free Access. Enjoy Plex apps on all of your devices. You won’t be charged for downloading individual apps on Android or iOS.
  • Early Feature Access. Plex Pass subscribers get access to new features before free users. You can also download preview releases to test out new features and provide feedback if you want.
  • Enhanced Media Content. Download exclusive Plex Pass content such as movie trailers that isn’t available to free users.



Installation

 

A quick note- to remotely access your server, you should forward the WAN (internet) port 32400 to a private (internal LAN) port 32400. If you’re running multiple Plex Media Servers, you’ll need to use a different but unique WAN port, but still forward to port 32400. Plex needs  this port in order to work. Also, I tried using port 32401 to get a second server running on my network, but it didn’t work. I read in a forum that Plex may use this port internally for something else.

First things first, you’ll need to download the software from here . Be sure to choose the correct operating system.

Installation instructions are dependent on your OS. The below slides show a simple Windows installation and how to add libraries using the Plex Web App.


Slideshow- Tap or click to view

Select your OS, then click the “Download” button.

When the download has completed, click “Run”.

Setup will now start. Click “Install” to continue. Acknowledge the UAC prompt if one pops up.

Once the installation is complete, click “Launch” to start Plex Media Server.

You’ll see the Plex icon in your taskbar. Right-click on it and choose “Open Plex…”.

If you don’t have a Plex account, click “Sign Up”. Otherwise go ahead and enter your credentials to sign in.

Plex will show you a introductory splash screen. Click “Got It!”.

The next step is to name your server and choose whether or not to allow remote access. If you want to be able to stream your content while on the go, check the box. Click “Next”.

Now it’s time to start automatically adding your content, which are organized into libraries. On Windows, Music and Photos libraries are automatically created and point to the default folders. If you don’t use the default Windows folders, you’ll need to edit the folder paths. To add more content, click “Add Library”.

Select your library type. Plex strongly encourages users to make separate libraries for movies and TV shows. In this example we’ll make a library for home videos. Give your library a name and then click “Next”.

Click “Browse for media folder”.

Navigate to your folder where the content is stored. Click “Add”.

Finally, to add the folder to your Plex library, click “Add Library”.

You’ll now see your library in the list in Plex. Repeat these steps to add as many libraries as you wish. You can always add more later. Once you’re satisfied, click “Next”.

To complete your Plex Media Server setup, click “Done”.



Quick configuring Plex settings

 

Plex Media Server is pretty much ready to use without any additional configuration if all you plan on doing is streaming on your local network. We’ve already covered remote access, which will allow you to access your media from outside your home network. However, if you need or want more out of Plex, you’ll need to dive into the settings menu.


Slideshow- Tap or click to view

Here you’ll probably want to choose to automatically update your library. You can choose one or both check boxes. This will allow Plex to automatically apply metadata, such as movie posters, to your library.

You will need to properly forward port 32400 to your Plex Media Server. If you choose another public (WAN) port, you will still need to forward it to private (LAN) port 32400 on your server!

Select your transcoder quality. The default is “Automatic”, but you can manually specify faster encoding speed or better encoding quality.

Agents are what Plex uses to get metadata for your library (artwork, plot synopsis, etc.). Agents are ordered from top to bottom, and you can drag them to reorder them if you want one to take priority over another. If you plan on using subtitles, you’ll want to check OpenSubtitles.org. You’ll have to create an account, and then log in through Plex by clicking the gear icon.

If you want your media to show subtitles, you can set it here, as well as the subtitle language. You’ll also have to have local subtitle files or sign up for OpenSubtitles.org and check it in the “Agents” section.

You can also enable DLNA so your devices can recognize it on the network, but with the sheer amount of Plex apps available I find it unnecessary.

Under “Extras”, you can set cinema trailers to play before a movie starts. If you’re a Plex Pass subscriber, you also have the option to automatically have Plex download new and upcoming movies in theaters or coming out on Blu-Ray.

One of the most useful features of Plex is the ability to add users. If you have kids, you can easily restrict their ability to watch or listen to inappropriate media. To do this, go to the “Users” tab at the top, then click “Add User”.

Click “Create a Managed User” if they don’t have a Plex sign-in.

Give your user a name and click “Next”.

Choose which libraries to share.

Under “Restrictions”, you can remove their ability to access Channels. More importantly, you can set ratings limits on movies, shows, and music.

Once you’re satisfied with your user settings, click “Add”.

Removing a user is simple. Click the red “X” by their name, then choose “Remove” in the popup.

You can also remove specific devices under the “Devices” tab at the top. Click the red “X” to remove them.

Each library has their own settings. Click the three dots next to a library and you’ll get a menu. This is particularly useful for updating or refreshing your library. Updating a library means that new content will have its metadata applied in Plex. Refreshing a library means that ALL content will have its metadata applied, whether or not it has already been downloaded (this can take a long time for a large collection!).







Other Plex tips

 

One problem I had with my Plex Media Server was duplicate files in my Movie library. After a rather frustrating investigation, I realized what was happening. I was running Plex on a QNAP NAS server with snapshots enabled, and a backup folder was being created within the Movie library that was causing the issue. I didn’t want to disable the snapshot feature, so this is where a .plexignore file comes in handy. This file allows you exclude content so that it won’t be visible in any Plex client. The ignore file uses wildcards using the * character so you can easily exclude all files that match your criteria, or entire subdirectories.

It’s easiest to place the .plexignore file in each top-level folder you want exclusion criteria to apply. For instance, I placed one in my Movies folder, one in my Photos folder, etc. I guess you could do one file and map each directory, but that just seems complicated.

For example, let’s say you have a subfolder you want to exclude called Videos inside of a Movies folder. To exclude all files in the Video folder, you would type in Videos/*. To filter out all .avi files in the Video folder, you would type Video/*.avi. Well what if you wanted to exclude .avi files in the Movies folder? Easy enough, type *.avi. You could also filter out individual files too (such as Charlie Brown.avi).

The short slideshow below gives more detail on how to handle a .plexignore exclusion file.


Slideshow- Tap or click to view

This is what a .plexignore exclusion file looks like. In this example, I excluded subfolders called @Recently-Snapshot/ and @Recycle/. You would simply substitute your file or folder names in lieu of these (the @ sign is part of the folder name in my example, it means nothing as far as the ignore file goes). The # is the start of a comment, and everything on the line after it is ignored.

Once you’re satisfied with your exclusion criteria, click “File”, then “Save As”. If you choose “Save”, it will be saved as a text file, which will NOT work.

In the “Save As” dialog box, name the file exactly .plexignore  (case-sensitive) and set the type as “All Files”. Then click “Save”.



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