Streaming media services like Netflix and Hulu are so convenient that you can easily to forget the simple pleasures of digital ownership. Sure, it’s nice to be able to watch movies from anywhere, but you don’t get the comfort of knowing that the file is sitting on your hard drive, ready to play at a moment’s notice.
If you want the best of both worlds, consider Plex, an application that simplifies the tasks of organizing your media content and streaming it to other computers or devices.
Plex is a sophisticated media management program that takes your entire collection of movies, music, and still images and presents it in a slick and navigable package. Plex sifts through your media directories and automatically downloads metadata for each file in your collection; later, when you browse through your library, you’ll see synopses, cast information, and even movie posters and TV theme songs.
Though many media management tools exist, few are as metadata-friendly as Plex. And Plex's server software and transcoding functionality are truly special.
Plex Media Server can stream your media to remote devices, such as other PCs, smartphones, and tablets. The software supports automatic transcoding, so you don’t have to worry about whether your Roku or iPhone can play a particular file format: If it can’t, Plex Media Server will automatically (and invisibly) transcode it to a format that the device can play, as the media streams. Even better, since you'll be storing your media on and streaming it from a central server PC, you can pause a song or show on one device, and then resume from where you left off on a second device, using Plex's On Deck feature.
First, take a minute to make sure that you have the hardware you’ll need to run a Plex Media Server. One requirement is plenty of storage for all of those video files. Second, to use Plex’s incredibly useful (but processor-intensive) transcoding functionality, you need a modern processor with at least two cores. Officially, Plex recommends a 2.0GHz or faster Core 2 Duo CPU for 720p transcoding, and a 2.4GHz or faster Core 2 Duo for 1080p transcoding—though it's probably wise to shoot a little higher than that. The official memory suggestion is 2GB, but 4GB or more certainly wouldn’t hurt. Finally, you'll need a broadband connection—the faster the better. For the best streaming experience on a local network, Plex recommends a wired, gigabit ethernet connection. You can read all of Plex’s system requirements here.
Of course, you’ll also need the Plex software. Click the Windows tab under 'Organize your media with the Plex Media Server', and then click the Download English button. You’ll see a list of clients that can stream from the Plex Media Server—and if you’re planning on streaming media to a different PC, this would be a good time to download Plex Media Server, as well.
Organizing your media
Probably the toughest thing about Plex Media Server is getting it to recognize all of your media. Although its file scanners are fairly sophisticated, they rely on the naming and organization of your files to properly identify them for browsing later. Here’s how you should organize your files to have the best chance that they’ll all be properly recognized:
Plex expects movie filenames to appear in the following format: Full Title (year).extension
For example, an AVI file of The Matrix would be named 'The Matrix (1999).avi'. You can leave these files in the base of your movies directory, or you can put movies in individual folders bearing the same names as the files. The latter option is useful if you have additional data to go with the movie file, such as subtitle files, or if the movie is divided across multiple files. A split file should be named along the following lines:
The Matrix (1999) – pt1.avi
The Matrix (1999) – pt2.avi
Plex handles TV shows a bit differently than it does movies. Each episode should be named as follows: Show Name – sXXeXX.extension, where the s stands for "season" and the e stands for "episode."
So, for example, the fifth episode in the second season of Dexter would be named 'Dexter – s02e05.avi'. Each TV series should have its own folder, which should contain a subfolder for each season of the show—even if the show consists of a single season.
If you use iTunes, Plex will automatically share your iTunes library. If you don’t use iTunes, you can organize your music files in much the same way as your TV shows, with a folder for each artist and a subfolder for each album. For full instructions on setting up your media folders for Plex, see the Media Naming and Organization Guide.
Note that you don’t have to rename all your files unless you want to: Plex will scan your folders and try to display all of your files coherently, even if their filenames are not consistently formatted. If you like, you can let Plex take a shot at scanning the files first, and then fix those that don’t work. But in our experience, Plex’s skill at correctly identifying videos with varied naming conventions isn't especially advanced. We recommend configuring the naming structure on your existing media collection to suit Plex's preferences, and then scanning it into Plex, because changing a file name in Windows Explorer is a lot easier than reclassifying a title that Plex has misidentified.
Install and configure Plex Media Server
To get Plex up and streaming, run the installer for Plex Media Server and walk through the standard installation steps. When it’s finished, the program will launch in the background, and will create an icon in your system tray. To open the configuration menu, right-click the icon for it and choose Media Manager. This will open the Plex Media Server configuration app in your Web browser. Click through the first two steps of the configurator, which should require no input from you.
The third stage of the configurator permits you to set up your media library. You start with a completely empty library, and add individual sections to it by clicking the Add a Section button. In each instance, you’ll select a broad category for the section that you’re adding (Movies, TV Shows, Music, or whatever), and then specify one or more file locations that Plex will scan for media. If you wish, you can create more than one section of the same category (you could have sections for Movies and Foreign Movies, for example).
When you’ve created your sections and added all your associated media file locations to Plex Media Server, click Next. The program will ask you if you'd like to add any channels—Plex slang for online streaming media sources, such as YouTube and Revision3—and if you want to create a free MyPlex account.
Streaming your media
With the Plex Media Server set up, you're ready to use it. You can stream your media to any supported device on the same local network, or across the Internet by connecting to your MyPlex account.
The most full-featured option is to use the free Plex desktop client, running on a PC or Mac. If you didn’t download it previously, you can snag it through Plex’s downloads page, where you’ll also find clients available for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone 7, priced at $5 a pop. Plex is also available for the Roku streaming set-top box, for Google TV, and for select HDTVs from LG and Samsung. There's even a Plex Windows 8 app.
Finally, an exceptional browser client is available for Plex. It lets you browse, search, and stream your media from any client, anywhere, without having to install anything. To check out the Web client (or if you want to play media from any computer running Plex Media Server), return to the system tray Media Manager that you used earlier to configure Plex. Click any media section to browse and play your videos or music.
Unfortunately, the Plex Browser client is a new feature; and if you want to use it on any computer other than the one where your Plex Media Server is installed, you’ll have to sign up for the $4-per-month PlexPass service. PlexPass gives you early access to new Plex features, including the browser client, as well as PlexSync, for saving Plex media to your iOS device for offline viewing. Once you’re signed up with a PlexPass, you can access your media collection from any Internet-connected device using the Plex Browser client.
Getting Plex to work isn’t always easy. The software can be a little finicky during configuration, and problems without obvious sources or solutions occasionally crop up. One catch-all solution that frequently works is to erase your user/AppData/Local/Plex Media folder, and rerun the Media Manager. This amounts to pressing the factory default switch on Plex, so plan accordingly.
Your PC’s hardware, your router, and your media files themselves can cause problems, too. The best resources for solving any problem you may encounter are the Plex FAQ and the very active Plex Forums. Need an answer immediately? A Plex support chat room filled with helpful souls appears to be active at all hours of the day.