Free, easy set up, lots of client and server options
Metadata management a nightmare
Free (in app purchases)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.