During my recent adventures to enhance my home entertainment system and viewing experience, I read about Plex media server and thought I would give it a shot. Plex is a free web-based media server that will scan your movies, TV shows, photos and music and then download metadata and assign it to each file. I had actually looked for such a solution when I first converted my DVD collection to avi files to save on space about five years ago. The best solution I could find at the time was just connecting my external media drive to my network and accessing it through my PS3. But it was a very basic solution, that just listed the file name and it often took a while for the PS3 to load all the file names. I also had to have my desktop on if I wanted to watch anything on the drive.
A few years later I upgraded my router to the Netgear R6300 which has a USB port to which I attached the external media drive. This allowed the sharing of my external media drive across my network without the need of my desktop computer being on. Occasionally I had issues with this though, as the connection would drop and the drive would have to be scanned by the router. This would usually happen in the middle of watching a movie.
Enter Plex. It was a pretty easy setup. Once you download and install the software (which is free), you add your media to the server. It will automatically pickup your iTunes library. The tricky part to the setup is ensuring your movies and TV shows are named properly. Plex recommends that the movies be named with their title and then the year (e.g., The Matrix (1999)). I did not have my movies named this way. I just had the title of the movie as the file name. Before spending all the time looking up the year for each movie and changing the file name, I thought I’d see how well it matched. Turns out Plex was able to figure out the correct name to about 95% of my 305 movies. The trouble spots were when there have been multiple movies of the same name (e.g., “Peter Pan”). In this example, Plex assumed I meant the most recent iteration of “Peter Pan,” when I had the “Disney Peter Pan” from 1965. However, it was very easy to fix and manually assign the correct movie. There was another instance where I just misnamed a file, the movie title was “Happy Endings” and I had the file named “happy ending.” But again, it was easy to manually fix. The end result is a robust and visually enticing display for each movie.
The trickiest part was for TV Shows. I already had each season separated into its own folder, which is recommended as part of the Plex file naming convention. However, what I didn’t know, is that every episode must have two digits. That is, instead of naming a file with “episode 1″ it must say “episode 01.” This didn’t create a huge issue for me as I only have five TV series on my drive. I just had to add a 0 in front of the episode number for all the files for episodes 1-9 for each TV series and season. This was fairly simple and easy, but again I only have five series and only two if those series had more than one or two seasons.
What I didn’t realize was that Plex would not just assign metadata for the overall TV series and each season, but it also downloaded metadata for each episode. So now I would have the episode name and a brief synopsis for each episode, which is awesome. I had one other issue with getting the proper data assigned and again it was a naming issue. I have both “Fawlty Towers” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” However, I did not have them broken down into seasons (or series as the Brits called them). So I had to break them up into seasons and rename the files with the correct episode number. But once I did that, Plex easily rematched the files and all is well. Plex also has the option to add the theme music to a TV series and play it when you highlight it.
In order to watch the files, I downloaded the free Plex app on my Roku 3 (which is what you see displayed in the image and video in this blog post). I can also connect to the Plex media server through my laptop, iPhone and iPad. Plex sells an app for both the iPhone and iPad for $5, you just need to sign in to your myPlex account. You can also invite friends to access your Plex media server. All they have to do is setup a myPlex account (which is free).
The downside to Plex is that I am back to having to keep my desktop on in order to watch anything on the Plex media server. I usually shutdown my desktop when I’m not at home or when I’m sleeping and especially when I go on trips to save on electricity use. So having remote access to the Plex media server isn’t extremely helpful unless I keep the desktop on or find an alternative, less expensive system to run the Plex media server.
So that’s my new addition. So far I am loving it. I have not tried either of the iOS apps yet and not sure I will need or want too. Plex also offers a plexpass which seems to enable syncing your server so you can watch it remotely without the server being online. This service costs about $4/month. I haven’t signed up for it, since I usually don’t have a problem finding something to watch when I’m traveling.
If you’ve tried Plex, what has been your experience? I’m interested in finding an alternative system to run the Plex media server so it can be online 24/7 if anyone has any ideas.