Review – Plex Media Server and Clients

Anthony Caruana
11 November, 2015
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Plex

Plex, www.plex.tv

Pros 

Free, easy set up, lots of client and server options

Cons 

Metadata management a nightmare

Free (in app purchases)

Reviews

When it comes to music, TV shows and movies, many of us live and breathe in Apple’s ecosystem, but lots of us also have content from other sources. While iTunes, through AirPlay and Home Sharing, makes it relatively easy to watch content from different devices, it’s not of much use if you don’t convert your media to iTunes-friendly formats.

This is where a different media serving application can be useful.

Plex is a media distribution system that makes it easy to share content.

The core components

Plex is made up of two parts: a server and a client. Both are free and can be downloaded from the Plex website (https://plex.tv) or from your preferred app store.

Plex can use almost any computer and a number of NAS devices including models from Synology, Western Digital and others. I decided to run the Plex server on a Western Digital Es2100 NAS with clients running on an iPhone, iPad and Apple TV.

Installation

Unlike iTunes, which will organise your content for you, Plex relies on you organising things yourself.

What I’ve learned over the years is that there are two types of people – those who are happy to let software organise all your data for you and those who like to manually do it themselves.

Plex will appeal to the second group.

Fortunately, with my non-iTunes content, I’ve kept things reasonably, but not perfectly, organised. So, I had a little tinkering to do, but not a huge amount to get my media organised.

That meant creating a few folders for specific type of content and moving some files around.

Once that was done, I added the Plex server application to my NAS. Plex supports NAS devices from Synology, Western Digital, Drobo, QNAP, Thecus, Seagate, Netgear, unRAID and Asustor. If you’re planning to buy a NAS in order to use Plex, check if the specific model you’re after is supported.

With NAS support, if the videos you share require transcoding – on the fly conversion from one codec to another – you’ll want a NAS using an Intel, rather than ARM, processor. The NAS I used has an ARM CPU and, as a result, not all of my media could be streamed easily to every device

The process for setting up your NAS will vary depending on what sort of NAS you have. For the Western Digital NAS I am using, I simply went to the Apps section of the configuration menu and added the Plex app.

Plex Server can be easily installed on may different NAS devices

Plex regularly updates its application so it’s worth checking if there’s a new version available regularly. With the Western Digital NAS I’m using, however, the update utility in the Plex software didn’t identify my NAS model correctly. So, in order to apply updates, I needed to download and install the updates manually.

It’s not a big deal and it’s hard to know whether the issue rests with the Plex software or the NAS.

With client devices, it was simply a matter of going to the App Store on each device and installing the free app.

Configuration

Most of the configuration I did was on the server.

All that was needed was to tell Plex which folder or folders held all of the media I wanted to share. Plex then scanned through everything and added metadata to all the media.

This is where I hit my first challenge.

Plex’s automatic metadata completion is less than perfect. Some children’s cartoons I have in my library were identified incorrectly. As a result, some rather adult movie titles and poster images were applied incorrectly.

Metadata blues

This is perhaps the biggest hassle I had with Plex – it’s metadata tagging is not brilliant and editing incorrectly tagged media was challenging.

After some fiddling around, I found there were options for changing which sources Plex used for metadata, the priority in which they were applied and refreshing the metadata. However, the process is not intuitive. It would be far more useful if I could simply select a bunch of files and tell Plex that they were all from a specific TV show.

Plex really had no idea what to do with a folder of Peppa Pig videos

Remote Access and Sharing libraries

If you create a free account with Plex, you can share your library with other Plex members and remotely access your media. It’s worth noting that sharing your library can result in significant bandwidth usage. Given most ISPs meter connections for both downloads and uploads, remotely accessing your media will chew through your data allowance.

I shared my library with a friend. In the Plex server, I simply invited him to my library, using the email address he was using for his Plex account. He opened the email and was able to watch content from my library in a matter of minutes.

Playback

The main reason I wanted to use Plex was so that I could easily stream non-iTunes content to my new Apple TV. One of the first apps to appear in the Apple TV App Store was Plex.

On the Apple TV, Plex works exactly as I expected. All the content in my library was easily accessed and playback worked without incident.

It’s worth noting that I wasn’t able to use Siri to search for content on my Plex server as Apple hasn’t opened access to Siri to all developers just yet.

Playback on my iPhone was a different story. Although I was able to play content back, I needed to make either a $7.99 one-off purchase or go into a $7.99 monthly subscription for access to Plex’s premium service. Without that purchase, I was limited to just one minute of playback.

Using my Mac, a late 2014 Mac mini, for playback proved challenging. As my NAS only runs an ARM processor, I was not able to play all my content back through my browser.

However, Plex also offers, for free, Plex Home Theatre. This application is designed to be run from a home theatre PC connected to a television. I was able to play all of my content back using the Plex Home Theatre.

The only hassle I faced with Plex Home Theatre is that the user interface relies on using a keyboard and not a mouse. So, navigating through my library took a little more effort than I was expecting.

The Takeaway

Plex Server is a competent media streaming server. The biggest issue I hit was with the quality of the metadata that was automatically applied to my content and the lack of an easy way to bulk edit metadata.

Playback through a number of different devices was straightforward although the need to pay for the otherwise crippled ‘free’ iPhone app was an annoyance.

But getting a media streaming server set up for less than $10 and about an hour of my time seems like reasonable value to me.

4 Comments

4 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Chris M says:

    I have been looking at plex for ages, trying to find the best NAS brand and model.Synology apparently, does not have enough oomp, QNAP TVS x71 series appears to be the go. Unfortunately, very expensive.
    I will love to read other people’s experiences with plex and NAS,

  2. Macworld Australia Staff says:

    The trick is find a NAS, if that’s the path you want to go, that uses an Intel, rather than ARM, CPU. That said, I’m pretty happy with the ARM-based NAS I used to test out Plex. Of Just pick up a used Mac mini or small form factor PC and use that.

  3. Jamie says:

    I’m using a dirt cheap mini-ITX motherboard and a couple of hard drives and running Ubuntu Linux with Plex installed on it – works very well.

  4. Graham C says:

    Regarding Plex metadata accuracy, I stumbled on a way to get it right relatively easily through careful file naming.

    Apparently Plex uses FreeBase (http://www.freebase.com/) and The TVDB (http://thetvdb.com/) by default to find metadata for movies and TV shows respectively. So, if you search these sites for the movie or show you are adding, then name the files as per the site’s naming, followed by the year of initial release in brackets and finally the season and episode(e.g. “Peppa Pig (2004) s04e09.mp4″ will get the metadata for the “The Rainy Day Game”), Plex seems to 100% get metadata correct.

    Finally, if metadata is comes up wrong, you can correct the file names as per the above, then “sync” the corresponding library to get the metadata updated. I find this MUCH easier than manually re-configuring the metadata manually within Plex.

    I also really liked turning on the feature that auto-downloads subtitles when grabbing metadata, but that’s another story…

    As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not bothered by the file set up issues with Plex and otherwise find the product to be absolutely brilliant. We use a mini mac connected to a TV as the Plex server for the house and the whole family accesses the content using laptops, tablets, phones and an Apple TV. Too easy!!!

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