Plex Media Server
Cross-platform; remote access
No Apple TV app
Free server software; $6.49 iOS app
If you’re bumping up against the limitations of Apple’s iTunes ecosystem, Plex Media Server may offer the extra flexibility you’re looking for.
Similar to iTunes, Plex Media Server runs on your computer and lets you access your multimedia library from wired and wireless devices around your home. It runs on Mac, Windows and several flavours of Linux, as well as Network Attached Storage devices from Netgear, Synology, Thecus, QNAP and others. This means you don’t need to leave a computer running to tap into your home entertainment library.
Once you’ve installed Plex Media Server, you can configure it via the web browser on any computer on your home network. It supports music, videos and photos, cataloguing your library to make it easy to find what you’re looking for and pick up where you left off watching. You can specify local or network folders for it to monitor in search of new content and it supports a much wider range of formats than the iTunes ecosystem. It can transcode video on the fly, so you can watch files that otherwise wouldn’t play on iGadgets.
When the Plex software finds new media files in your library it checks with online databases to identify them – adding artist details and artwork as well as dividing TV shows into series and seasons. It even downloads theme music to play in the background as you browse episodes. This kind of flexibility is handy if you tend to source content from beyond the iTunes ecosystem.
Plex can play music purchased from Apple, but not movies and TV shows due to the digital rights management. The upside is that, unlike Apple’s Home Sharing and Family Sharing, there’s no limitation on the number of users that can tap into your Plex ecosystem.
Along with Plex Media Server, you also need a Plex client on your end device. Once again, the Plex ecosystem is far more flexible than iTunes. You’ll find Plex apps for iOS, Android and Windows Phone 8 as well as Mac, Windows and Linux (or you can use a desktop web browser). Plex is also built into Samsung Smart TVs and Roku set-top boxes, plus there are apps for the Xbox One and Xbox 360 (these two require a Plex Pass).
The lack of a Plex app for the Apple TV is the only major omission here, although there are clunky workarounds. Thankfully, there is support for AirPlay video streaming in the iOS app. Meanwhile, the desktop browser interface supports Chromecast streaming.
If this still isn’t enough, you can also enable Plex’s DLNA server, which makes your home entertainment library visible to a lot more devices on your home network, including many games consoles, Blu-ray players and Personal Video Recorders. Of course, the whole point of Plex is to overcome the hit and miss nature of DLNA streaming, but it’s good to have as a fallback.
If you sign up for a Plex Pass subscription (from US$4.99 per month), you can also tap into your home entertainment library when you’re on the road. You can stream content across the internet from home, or you can even stream from a friend’s home Plex server. If you can’t spare the mobile bandwidth, you can also download content to your iGadget for offline access.
If you live a totally iCentric lifestyle, then you may not see the need for Plex, but if you’re catering to a mixed household of devices and/or people on the go, then it could be a godsend. It’s not going to completely replace iTunes, but it could be the perfect addition to make the most of your home entertainment library.