If you stumbled through subsequent generations of Microsoft products like Windows Home Server, Media Center, and Zune as I did, you may be feeling a bit gun-shy about the software giant’s digital media ambitions these days. And it doesn’t help that its current generation solutions—Xbox Music, Xbox Video and so on—are cloud-focused, and thus alienate much of the user base. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how one might efficiently store and access digital media content at home and remotely. And while nothing is certain quite yet, I’m leaning very much towards a solution called Plex.
I’m still learning here, but from what I can see Plex is a complete personal digital media solution with both server and client components. A key benefit of Plex is its promiscuity: The Plex Media Server is freely available on Windows, Mac, Linux and FreeBSD, and on many NAS devices, too (though functionality varies).
And the client is everywhere, including Windows, Windows Phone and Xbox One and Xbox 360. And I mean everywhere: Aside from all the expected mobile support, you can also access Plex on Chromecast, Roku, FireTV, Google TV, and even many smart TVs. This means it probably works with what you already have, and if you buy something new you should be covered.
Plex works with videos, photos and music. But I’m honestly not super-interested in all of that. While I did spend many years ripping (and then re-ripping) a CD-based music collection and then carefully curating and maintaining that collection, my own music needs are well-met by subscription services like Spotify or Xbox Music. Your mileage will of course vary, and for whatever it’s worth the music functionality in Plex does look pretty impressive.
Regardless, photos and videos are quite interesting to me. I have a ton of video content—mostly legally ripped DVD movies and TV shows, but also some personal videos (kids growing up and so on). And I have many, many years’ worth of personal photos. I would love to be able to access all of this content from my many (diverse) devices, and of course most importantly on the HDTV in the living room. I want this to be as simple as possible—i.e. the wife and kids need to be able to use it—and then we can start looking at more advanced features from there.
To get started, I installed the Plex Media Server on my home-based server, which runs Windows Essentials 2012 and is attached to a ridiculous amount of internal and external storage. More to the point, this is where I house my photos and video libraries. (Everything is redundantly stored with Storage Spaces, and backed up, both locally to external drives and to the cloud with
After the server finished, I had to reboot, and since that takes about 17 hours (at least that’s what it feels like) I had time to get Plex installed on my desktop computer and Windows Phone, and on Roku as well. But herein lies the first problem: While the Plex Media Server is free, Plex is not. So you need to pony up $4.99 for each client, though with Windows and Phone you only need to pay once to access it on both types of devices.
Frankly, if you were just going to share media between Windows Server and Windows, you wouldn’t even need special software like this. But I’m thinking about making a change on the server side—perhaps to a NAS solution, though I would like to stick with Windows if possible—and of course the goal on the client is that it works—and works well, and easily—everywhere. Plex seems to fit both needs, but at a cost.
And the cost doesn’t necessarily end with the clients. Plex also offers a subscription service called Plex Pass that provides access to “exclusive premium features” including the ability to access Plex from Xbox One or 360, cloud content sync, device sync, content sharing with other family members, and more. I’ll try to suss out how important those features are over time, but at $4.99 per month or $39.99 per year—or $149.99 for a lifetime—it’s not super-expensive. But it is an additional cost.
After waiting an interminable amount of time for my microserver to reboot—seriously, I really need to replace this thing—I was able to configure Plex Media Server on the server. I used Remote Desktop to access the server from my PC, but the admin console is purely web-based, so I copied the URL and did everything from my desktop PC instead.
Basic configuration is simple enough: Create libraries for your movies, TV shows, photos and other content, and then point each library to the appropriate folders on the server. To get started, I just added my movie folders.
Then I looked to the clients. Each picked up the server (“Micro”) immediately and let me browse through my video collection. Performance is great, I love the album art and associated graphics, and the video quality—given the underlying sub-HD files—is stupendous. I was particularly happy to see that I could pick up where I left off in a video when I accessed it from the “on deck” (kind of a “recently played”) list on a different client. Bravo.
I will need to spend more time playing (ahem) with this, but so far so good. I’m curious about any feedback you may have, and of course I’ll consider competing products like Media Browser, which I’ve also heard is quite good.