An (Updated) Introduction to Plex

We have written quite a bit about the terrific media center software Plex, but it has changed quite a bit over the past few months.  Support for numerous operating systems have been added, the Player/Server software has been split, and the devs have been working overtime to greatly expand the number of clients available to users, greatly extending the reach of your media.  Given the multitude of changes, we thought we would update our Plex user guide for our faithful readers.

Its the Server Stupid!

Probably the biggest change with the new Laika version 0.9.5.x is the player front end (“Plex Media Center” or “Clients”) and server back end (“Plex Media Server” or “PMS”) have been split into two downloads (they actually always were two separate applications).  The rationale for the split resides in the fact that the PMS is the brains of the operation, and only one version of the PMS is required for any setup, and so requiring users to download the PMS every time was, well redundant and pointless.  Additionally, users never, ever need download the Windows or Mac version of the client, ever.  You read that right, absolutely no Mac/PC/Linux-based client is required.  That’s because with the advent of Roku, ATV, iOS, Android and webOS (and eventual visual cortex) support, using Plex no longer means having to connect a Mac or PC to a TV (more on that later).

The Plex Media Server is what makes Plex so terrific, and unique.  Not only does it give the user a single, centralized database of all his media, put it advertises itself automatically so any client running on the same local area network will automatically see it, and be able to seamlessly, with no setup, stream content from it.  Add a Roku box to your home setup, it will automatically see your PMS.  Open the Plex app on your iPad or iPhone while at home, same deal.  Got an LG TV with MediaLink functionality?  Likely a Plex client is built in and when you fire it up, there’s your PMS.  Furthermore, with the addition of the myPlex service, any device connected to the internet and logged into your myPlex account will also automatically see the PMS and be able to stream from it.

Finally, users have a wide range of options to select from when determining on what type of box they will run their PMS.  Plex now supports Mac, Windows, and various flavors of Linux including Ubuntu, ReadyNas, Lime Tech’s Unraid, and QNAP and Synology Intel-based NAS devices.  Download it once, set it up, and you’re 90% of the way to enjoying your media anywhere on the planet where there’s internet connectivity.

Plex Media Manager - The User Interface to the Plex Media Server

One you download your preferred version of the PMS, setup is a breeze.  Management is done through the PMS GUI, called the Plex Media Manager, the Mac version of which is shown above (the Windows and Linux versions are almost identical, whether accessed in-app or by its built-in web server).

The first step (after downloading) is to set up one’s Library “Sections”, which are listed along the left side.  When you first download the PMS, this area will be blank.  Press the “+” button in the bottom left corner (“-” deletes the highlighted section) to create a section.  When you do, up will pop a dialog box:

Select the type of section from the first drop down box:

and then type in the name of the section, this is up to you.  Let Plex use the defaults for the remainder of the drop down boxes.  Then, still in that dialog box, press the “+” button, and show the PMS where the media files for this section is located, be it on a local drive, NAS, or otherwise.  Click on “Add Section” and watch Plex do its magic.  It will go out to the internet and collect movie posters, metadata, fan art, etc.  You can create as many Library Sections as you like.  You can also come back and upon highlighting a Library Section, click on “Edit Section” and add new media locations, or change where and how metadata is collected.  But to get your PMS up and running, just rinse and repeat, adding as many Library Sections as you like.

My oh myPlex!

Now that your PMS is setup, users literally have to do nothing for local clients to see it, but what about when you aren’t home, what about then?  Well before, you might have read our article on port forwarding and static IP addresses, which admittedly for a lot of folks is just too much hassle.  Well the folks at Plex concur, and so they added in a feature called myPlex.  myPlex automagically makes your server accessible from outside your local network, securely.  No more creating static IP address and messing with opening ports on your router.  The process couldn’t be easier:

1.  Goto my.plexapp.com, create an account (and remember your userid and password).

2.  Open your Plex Media Manager preferences (shown below). Click ‘Sign In” and enter your newly created myPlex credentials.  Then check off “Publish Server to myPlex”.  Assuming your router isn’t from the stone ages, you’re done.

myPlex welcome dialog box

 

myPlex Preferences

Now your content is available on any device that supports myPlex and is connected to the internet, anywhere in the world.  One final myPlex note, it also allows you to share your media (you can selectively choose which Library Sections) with anyone by simply going to my.plexapp.com, and entering someone’s email address (shown below), which will ‘invite’ them to share your media.  Once they create their own myPlex credentials, they can consume your media via any myPlex enabled device.

Sharing your content through my.Plexapp.com

 

ATV, Roku, and Android Oh My!

Once your PMS is setup, you need to determine how you will ‘consume’ your media.  Here is yet another way in which Plex really shines.  Currently, Plex and the myPlex service is supported on the following devices/operating systems:

Users can pick a device, connect it to a TV (or not) and the internet via the local network or otherwise, sign into myPlex on the device and get access to their (or shared) entire media library, and given the breadth of supported devices, absolutely no HTPC is needed to view media.  And if the device is signed into the same local network as the PMS device, servers are seen automatically, without the need to sign into myPlex.  For $50 one can pick up the cheapest Roku box and get a full-fledged Plex Media Client on their big screen TV.   Already own an AppleTV and don’t feel like jailbreaking it?  If you own and iPod, iPad or iPhone, one can buy the Plex app for $5 and use built-in AirPlay functionality for big screen viewing.  Quite simply, no other media center offers the breadth of client support, and with the recent addition of DLNA support in the latest build of the Plex Media Server, the number of media players capable of Plex playback has increased demonstrably.

Holy Channel Store Batman!

Local media is great, but what about all that media goodness out there on the interweb?  Fortunately, the folks at Plex realized this too, and created an architecture that lets third party users create ‘channels’ – plug-ins that allow Plex to retrieve and view media from around the web.  Users access this (irrespective of the client) through the “Channel Directory”.  Currently filled with over 200 ‘supported‘ plugins (video, audio/music and picture/photo), there’s also an unsupported store with another 30+ plugins.  Some of the most popular are:

  • Netflix
  • Pandora
  • Hulu
  • CNET TV
  • MTV Music Videos
  • South Park
  • The Daily Show
  • The Colbert Report
  • Comedy Central
  • CNN News
  • Vimeo
  • TED Talks

Others include Seasame Street, PBS Kids, Nick Jr, ABC, NBC, CBS, CBS Sports, HGTV, FoodTV and a bevy of others.  Additionally, the myPlex service allows users to ‘tag’ videos just about anywhere on the world wide web, which creates a link available in your myPlex ‘queue’, which will then be seen on any device signed into myPlex.  Wanna share that YouTube video of that cat barking like a dog?  Tag it, and watch it later on your myPlex queue.

So Whatcha Waiting For?

In summary, Plex has come a long way from its OSXBMC origins, and in this blogger’s opinion, is the creme-de-la-creme of media center software.  There are of course caveats: its still in ‘beta’, as are all of the clients, and it does require occasional love from the user.  But overall, we are emphatic endorsers of Plex, and at a minimum, folks considering going the media center route should certainly give Plex a shot.  Happy cord cutting….

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