Being a total Movie and TV nerd has had me searching a lot for a media center solution that fits all my needs. “Why don’t you just buy a Blu-ray player and be done with it” you say? Because I really hate changing discs, waiting for load times and i’m tend to misplace a lot of discs. I also want to be able to stream my content to smartphones and tablets as well. The reason i chose Plex in the end is that it has all of these things, and more. This post will be a write up about why i enjoy using Plex so much, but first let me start with a little bit of background.
I first started watching movies and TV in digital format around 2000 when i became a full time student. I didn’t own a TV and the only way for me to watch anything was on my computer. These days i didn’t store anything for long, i just watched a movie and then deleted it after a few weeks. It was simple. Later during my time at college i got a cheap TV and solved everything by just hooking up the computer to it. It was easy since I lived in a small one room apartment.
First media player
I had moved in with my girlfriend and we had bought a nice big plasma TV. We still watched movies by hooking up one of our computers to it. Only problem was that it was in another room and we had to have cables running on the floor, and we had to switch computers a lot when one of us wanted to watch a movies and the other surfing the web. The solution was to buy a proper media player. There was only two brand really sticking out at the time, Tvix and Popcorn Hour. I went for the Tvix 4400SH. It had a built in HDD of 500GB, support for NFS/Samba for streaming over the network and wireless support with an external USB dongle. All it really did was present a file structure on your TV so you could browse your movies and play them. Great at the time but I felt it was missing features to make the user experience enjoyable. It also had a lot of firmware issues and you needed to switch between different versions a lot.
I first found out about Plex at a friends house and was impressed by how slick the menus and navigation was. Then when version 9 of Plex was released and the unibody Mac Minis with HDMI was released i went ahead and bought one. At this time Plex was OSX only.
Compared to most other media center software solutions Plex has a client/server architecture. This means that you have a central library that handles all your metadata and the information is the same on all clients you use. When you install the software for the first time on your Mac you get some questions about where your movies, TV series and music are located. The Plex media server then scans these folders looking for media files and tries to match these online and download metadata. There are metadata agents for covers, plot, score, subtitles etc. And if your movie isn’t matched automatically you can easily do a manual search for it. Suddenly your library looks very well organized.
Plex media server
The media server of Plex is the part that handles your media library and serves content to all your clients. It currently runs on OSX, Windows and most recently on Linux (including ReadyNAS and unRAID). You either use a web interface or if you are running OSX you can also use the native Cocoa application.
Web interface of Plex media library showing a movie section
On left you have your library sections. As a default you’ll probably have one for movies, one for series and maybe one for music. On the right you have the items in your current section, complete with automatically downloaded covers. If you want more information about an item you just double click it. From here you can also do a refresh of metadata either for a single item or for a whole section. If some items didn’t match correctly you can also do a manual match and hopefully find the movie you are looking for. If you can’t even find your movie with a manual match you can always edit all the data manually.
Metadata edit interface
You can run any number of media servers on your home network and all of them will show up on your respective clients. There’s really no reason to run more than one though, it kind of defeats the whole purpose of a central library. The media server also handles transcoding on the fly for you phone and tablet clients so you can watch a 1080P movie on your phone using 3G. The quality (bandwidth) can be set manually in the client. Read more about the transcoding engine in plex here.
Plex for Mac client
This is the client i run on my Mac Mini connected to my TV set via HDMI. It has a really nice and slick interface that is easy to navigate and also skinnable. So if you don’t like the look of the default one you can always check in the Plex forums for a theme more of your liking.
Main menu in plex for mac
Plex for mac series menu
Plex for iOS
There are also clients for the iPhone and for the iPad. They both have the option to either watch content from your library or use it as a remote for navigating Plex for Mac. You can also navigate your library on your phone or tablet and choose to start playing it either on your device or on your TV.
Plex library on iPad
The great thing about having a central library is that if you start watching something on your iPad while commuting and you want to finish watching it on your TV when you get home Plex gives you the option to resume your movie where you left off when starting it at home. There are also indicators informing you if a movie/series has been watched, started or not watched.
- Plex for Android
I have not tried this one my self since i don’t own an Android phone but i presume it has the same look and options as the one for iOS
- Plex for the Roku
If you have a Roku media player at home you can use it for playing media from your Plex library.
- Plex for LG
Do you have a LG Media Link enabled device at home? You can play your Plex library on it.
- Plex for Apple TV
This client isn’t official and you need to have a jailbreaked ATV2 to use it.
- Plex for Samsung TVs
Same here, no official client (yet?) and it’s a bit tricky to get installed but looks promising.
I simply love it. Hope it works out for you as well.