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Free Plex Media Server Offers a Streamlined Experience

At a Glance
  • Plex Media Server for Windows

    PCWorld Rating

A few short years ago, a home media server mainly consisted of an old computer hooked up to a nearby set of speakers and an S-video cable that snaked out to a TV set. If you wanted to watch a movie or listen to music, you navigated with a mouse via the Windows desktop and fired up Media Player, or maybe VLC, put the program into full-screen mode, selected your title from a subdirectory and trundled off. While functional, this "office work meets entertainment" paradigm did little to inspire film and music enthusiasts, and it tied viewing to a locally connected set of systems and their installed codecs. It also required a PC to view the content, a somewhat cumbersome and expensive solution. Plex Media Server for Windows (free) changes this situation in a fundamental way, turning a home PC into a streaming media center that's just as slick, appealing, and versatile as commercial services.

rowsing through your media catalog is a pleasure after Plex spices things up.
Setup is as simple as installing the 51MB download and specifying the folders you want Plex to index and share via its browser-based media center control panel. The software automatically recognizes most music and film titles and backfills the media catalog with details, including cover art, cast, rating, and a full synopsis from a variety of online sources that you can specify. This allows you to go from a generic folder full of text file names to a lush database packed with imagery and information about your library without needing to type a single word. Accuracy is excellent as well, with only a few files incorrectly associated with the wrong film or TV show title out of the hundreds in my test database. Plug-ins interface with commercial streaming services like Pandora as well, consolidating all your media through a single unified interface.

Since it transcodes audio and video on the fly, Plex Media Server doesn't require destination devices to use special codecs or other low-level software alterations to function properly, only the Plex client, which is available for PCs, Macs, Android and iOS devices, and even Roku boxes. I tested Plex with a Roku 2 XS, a Galaxy S smartphone, and a Windows PC: All functioned with low latency and with good-to-excellent video/audio quality. Transcoding isn't easy on the server, however, and performing it will eat up a considerable amount of horsepower on even a high-end gaming rig. A dual-core system is a must on the back end, and the more RAM and CPU cycles you can provide, the better.

For the price, Plex Media Server is quite polished--though I did run into a few issues. Access over Internet connections was spotty and the Android client would occasionally cause a server hang-up that required a full reboot to clear. Adding and removing media libraries from the browser-based interface window was a bit clunky as well, with some changes not properly registering until the server software was closed and reopened. Also, not every aspect of Plex is free--the Android client runs about $5, for example. These are fairly minor gripes, however, and given the version number I expected more problems than I found. Overall, Plex is a great way to share media over a home network and spice up the delivery and selection process.

--Jim Norris

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Roll your own Netflix with Plex.

    Pros

    • High-quality output
    • Slick visuals and interface

    Cons

    • Buggy Internet streaming
    • Minor software glitches
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