Plex is a server-client solution for the delivery of your media. Now don’t let this turn you off this product as I believe it one of the best interfaces I have come across especially with the ability to fit into different ecosystems. They describe it as “a complete media solution” and even go a bit further to say “experience your media on a visually stunning, easy to use interface on your computer or Home Theater PC. Your media has never looked this good!” I agree as far as the visual media goes. While I love my TV and movies I can not for the life of me understand why you need a TV to listen to music. I don’t consider music videos to be music. So, I have never looked at the music side of it and at this time don’t intend to.
The Server Side
Let’s begin with the server side of this equation. It is simply a device running some specialised software that feeds your media out to clients. You can access the server download here. There is no issue with having both the Plex Media Server and the Plex Media Center Client on the one machine, if appropriate. So back to the server side. Plex Server can be installed on Windows, Mac, Linux and various Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices. Each of these devices have their advantages and disadvantages. I personally love the ability to have it running on a low energy consumption, large storage, multiple usage device. In my case a Synology NAS unit. The limitations that come with this choice is the ability to transcode media files (change them to a playable format for your device of choice). Processing power is required for this – something that most NAS devices simply do not have. Creating an effective workflow for your media files will overcome this though. What do I mean by workflow – well knowing what format you need your media in to be able to be played on your range of devices and having it in that format.
I have tried the server component on a Mac Mini running both OSX and Windows 7 and found in both cases it worked great, This device had good processing power, low energy consumption but I was limited by the storage available on this device. Running it on a larger Windows based PC gave me the increased storage options but resulted in increased energy consumption . This is something you will have to look at for your situation. There is an obvious balancing act that needs to be navigated between storage size, power consumption, computer size and processing power. In my case I said why have a NAS and a computer running when I can achieve what I need with a bit of planning regarding the files? The NAS wins out. Also some of these modern NAS boxes are now coming out with enough grunt to do a lot of work and their processing power is increasing.
The backend of your system is controlled via a web based interface. It is simple to use allowing you to group your media together how you want it delivered to your TV. It also has the ability to go out and get the meta-data required for your media. You know all that information and the pretty pictures that go with it. Cost of this software for the backend – Free. I have to point out here you can also use it for your home videos, photos, some internet based video channels and music files as well.
Playing Your Media
Lets start with the least impressive feature. It has a built in DLNA server so at it’s most simple if you have a network TV with DLNA capabilities you can watch you media. The DLNA interface is not what I would call impressive. Simple, text based and usable.
The next step up is running the client side software on a computer. I currently run this on an older Mac Mini using their silver remote control for navigation purposes. Whilst some of the intricate parts of the interface are not obvious it is essentially very simple to use. It is on par with the marvellous interface that the Windows Media Centre brings to you. The backend keeps track of what you have watched and not watched which is very useful for those people with large media collections. It also lets you be able to search for your media by Genre, Year etc etc. It is a very simple and nice interface to watch your media on. Cost – Free. Well it is $2.99 from the Windows 8 App Store and I have yet to pay for that App. I have installed the free downloadable version of Plex on Windows 8 and found it works fine, so the choice appears to be around the App store.
A picture of the default interface can be seen below. Various skins are available but the default one just works for me.
The next step up are apps that are available for various mobile devices. You can get them for IOS devices, Android and Windows mobile devices. I have only had the opportunity to try this system on IOS devices at this stage but I am blown away with it. The ability to sit down with my mobile device to watch anything I would or could watch on my TV. Fantastic. To watch something on my iPad while lying in bed next to the wife (headphones on) is great. Being a Sci-fi nut I tend to watch shows over and over again so being able to take advantage of these devices is great.
The added advantage with IOS devices is the incorporation of airplay into the App. I can navigate my media on my IOS device click to play the show and then have it steam to an Apple TV device connected to the TV. You can then control what you play, pause, fast forward etc from your IOS device. You just need the volume control for the TV in your hand. I am assuming that the quality of the App can only be the same for Android and Windows mobile devices. This App is not free but at $5.49 I thought it was well priced for what it brings to any Digital Home.
Whilst you can use airplay, if you have a Jailbroken Apple TV you can add a free Plex App to it providing your digital home media system with a simple low power usage device. Whilst the interface is not quite as nice as the IOS App for your touch screen devices it is still very user friendly. The hardest part is figuring out what the buttons on the remote do.
Now how do you get so much for so little. Well there is more but it requires a subscription to the Plex Service. All the features I have described so far are limited to your own local network. For many that is sufficient but if you have a desire to access your digital media away from your home network, that is over the internet, you can. I have never found this a necessity for a couple of reasons.
If you know you are going away then why not load the media files up on your laptop, tablet or phone prior to leaving. Also I am not sure I want to eat up all my bandwidth allocation watching media files from home. The reliability of wireless internet connections outside major metropolitan areas also comes into consideration. Unlimited bandwidth on my wireless devices and from home as is available in other countries may well change my mind on this issue. This is not just an issue related to Plex but also to other online media providers such as Apple & Netflix.
Australia is really such a small market I just hope that the rest of the world supports us by purchasing the subscription services so that it keeps the Server and Media Center packages free into the future.
The obvious comparison for Plex is Windows Media Center. I have used it also for many years and find it to be a great program. The interface is possibly still the best out there and I can not understand why it is not pushed more by Microsoft. It also has the added ability to be able to record your TV programs for you. In the end the major issue that moved me towards Plex and away from a large windows based computer was the ability to store and access my media files on small and energy efficient devices. I am waiting to get my hands on an Apple TV 3 that is Jailbroken to see how it goes.