Under the current circumstances, you may be at home, have a little more time, and want to get the most out of your media.
If that sounds familiar to you, now is the perfect time to get to know Plex, the free media software that lets you organize all the movies, TV shows, music, and photos you collect and present them on any device. The user interface is attractive and easy to navigate.
But that's just the tip of the Plex iceberg. Here's everything you need to know to get a deep look at the many great features and step-by-step instructions.
What is plex?
All of your own media
Plex actually consists of two things: it is free media server software that you can run on a PC, Mac or NAS drive in your home, and a variety of free client apps that you can use to move from devices like smart to that Media server content can access TVs, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, game consoles, phones, tablets and more. Together, these two parts form a powerful way to manage and access your media files.
After installation, the Plex Media Server can automatically add a large amount of related content from sources on the Internet to your collection of films, TV shows and music, e.g. B. Movie posters and album covers, details about actors and crew members, episode descriptions and original broadcast dates and much more. In a matter of minutes, your media collection transforms from a series of files and folders into a Netflix-like experience that you control.
Unlike iTunes, Plex can read almost any media file format imaginable. If you've got used to running your media through a converter like HandBrake (Windows, Mac) to make it compatible with your software, you can do this step.
Your Plex library can also be shared with other Plex users. This is an ideal way to give friends and family members access to your media without having to upload them to a third-party cloud service like Google Drive or iCloud. Although there are some limitations to consider, e.g. For example, the performance of your Plex server and the bandwidth of your internet plan, this can be a good way to involve others. We will discuss this in detail later.
What used to seem like a gimmick, watching content online is now a popular activity. Plex offers two ways to watch your favorite movies and TV shows together:
On Apple devices (iOS, tvOS) and Android devices (mobile, TV) you can watch content from your library or with friends from all over the world via the Plex-On-Demand service for films and TV (see below). Anyone watching can play, pause or search during the session. This version of Watch Together is free, but may be available exclusively as a Plex Pass in the future.
If you have a compatible Android phone with a Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream headset or an Oculus Go, you can use the Plex VR app to watch movies or TV shows with up to four friends.
Everything takes place in a virtual loft apartment or a drive-in cinema of your choice. As you watch, you can interact with the voice and even look at your friends' avatars sitting on the couch.
The VR version of Watch Together is free for the first week, but then requires a Plex Pass subscription to continue using it.
Free streaming content
Plex also operates its own ad-supported free streaming video service, which you can access in addition to your personal media. You will find a huge repository of films and TV shows with curated lists that you can use to find the best ones to watch. They are simply referred to as Plex Movies and TV and can access the service via the Internet or any Plex Client device – even if you have not set up a Plex Media Server.
Live TV, DVR and more
With an optional Plex Pass subscription, you can access other features like live TV with DVR, parental controls, syncing your favorite files with your phone and wirelessly syncing your phone's photos with the media server.
What are the plex requirements?
Plex media server
For the Plex Media Server, you need to select a device on which to install and run it. Your options are:
Regardless of which you choose, a wired network connection is recommended for both your server and client device. A sufficiently fast Wi-Fi network (routers and devices that support 802.11 AC are best) can also work. However, you need excellent signal strength to support streaming in 4K / HDR.
Since the Plex Media Server does the lion's share of the work for organizing and playing your media, a sufficiently powerful device is important for the best experience. Here is Plex's support page, which explains the minimum requirements. It's a good place to start.
If you just want to watch one video at a time and don't want to share your Plex library with other users, an inexpensive NAS or a shield TV might be enough. The moment your needs become more demanding, you may want to run your server on a desktop or laptop computer.
If you're not sure what to use, the Plex user forums are a great place to ask questions and get advice.
Plex Client (player)
You can run the Plex Client app on just about any device there is. So the chances are good that you already have a compatible device. However, if you still want to buy a new streaming device, we recommend the Roku Streaming Stick +, Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield TV for the best Plex experience.
Dolby Atmos home theater system users should read our guide to getting Dolby Atmos sound, as it includes some considerations for Plex users who want to make sure they get Dolby Atmos support.
How do I install and use Plex?
Your Plex adventure begins by installing the Plex Media Server software on the computer of your choice. Simply download the appropriate installer and follow the instructions. Once the media server is fully installed, a new browser window will open that contains the Plex web application. The web app is your main way of configuring the Plex server, but it also serves as a way to view your library and play your files on your computer. You'll be asked to create a new Plex account, and you'll be guided through a setup wizard, where the server mainly helps to locate your media files.
What are the rules for naming files for Plex?
You can store your movies, music and other files anywhere in any number of folders or hard drives (both locally and on network shares), and Plex keeps things tidy. However, there is a small catch: Plex prefers how different file types are named.
For any type of file, e.g. Movies, multi-part films, multi-season TV shows and episodes, etc. have a name style preferred by Plex. If you have a lot of files, renaming doesn't have to be done manually: MacOS, like Windows 10, has an excellent built-in file renaming feature. You can skip this step at any time. With Plex, you can still access and play your files, even if they are not named according to the Plex convention, but it can be difficult to identify the file, so you may not be able to retrieve all of the large data from the web that use it from Plex so pleasant.
Scan and play
The Plex Media Server will automatically search all the directories you identified during the setup process and you can choose how often these locations should be searched for changes. If you frequently download new media, you can set it up so that Plex will automatically update its library as soon as it is determined that a new file has been added.
To quickly check if everything is as it should be, click the home button in the web app interface. You should see your movies, music, and any other media you added during setup, along with their poster or album art.
If it doesn't look right at first glance, wait a few minutes as it may take some time for Plex to find all the relevant information. To play a file, simply move the mouse over the thumbnail and click the play button.
Keep in mind that playing a movie this way doesn't necessarily show what it will look like on a device like Apple TV or Roku. It is really only meant to check if the file is actually playing.
How do I play Plex files on my TV or other devices?
As already mentioned, there is a Plex client for almost every device on the market. Generally, you can find those for your specific device in the online download store for that platform.
For example, for Apple TV in the App Store. For Roku, it is a downloadable "channel". The Plex client is preinstalled on many devices, including smart TVs and Android TV boxes, so nothing can be downloaded. Clients are usually free, but occasionally Plex charges a small amount to download. A Plex Pass subscription includes free access to all customers (more on Plex Pass below).
When you start the Plex client, you will be asked for the same Plex account that you created when you installed the server. As long as your playback device and the Plex server are in the same home network, it should only take a moment for the client to display the same catalog of media files that you saw in the web app.
On the left side of the screen you will find an intuitive set of category links as well as all matching media files arranged in the main part of the user interface. When you select the file you want to play, an info screen with descriptions and additional links as well as the "Play Now" button is displayed.
No media software would be complete without a search function, and Plex's universal search does a really good job. It can find matches from all of your connected libraries and services, including your films, music and TV shows, free content from Plex Movies and TV, web shows and podcasts, and Tidal.
Why are some media files not playing?
Each client device has different functions, which means that each Plex client also has different functions. When a Plex client connects to the Plex server, it communicates these functions to the server. For example, an Apple TV 4K only plays video files that are encoded in H.264 or MPEG-4 with the formats .m4v, .mp4 and .mov.
If the file you want to play doesn't match any of these file types, the Plex server needs to transcode it into one of the formats that Apple TV 4K understands. Depending on the file type used and the formats supported by your client, this can consume a lot of power on the server side. If your server is not powerful enough to perform this conversion process, you may be told that the movie cannot be played.
The obvious way to solve this problem is to make sure that your Plex server is running on a really robust computer. But not everyone wants a powerful PC to run continuously.
If you know that you mostly want to play your files on a single TV at home, buying a more powerful client device that can handle many types of files on its own – without the server having to transcode – is a great alternative to another expensive server machine. The Nvidia Shield TV and the Shield TV can play virtually any media file type, so the Plex server does not have to transcode. We were able to play 4K HDR files with Dolby Atmos on a Shield TV from a Plex server running on a WD My Cloud Mirror Gen 2 – a NAS with less processing power than even the cheapest PC.
Plex Free Movies and TV
In many ways similar to free, ad-supported services such as the Roku channel, Plex Free Movies and TV, this is both an addition to your personal Plex experience and an independent service.
As a separate experience, you can only stream Plex Free Movies and TV from the Internet with your browser and a free Plex account. However, if you are a Plex Media Server user, you can access it from the same interface as your private content library. There is no separate app to download or install.
The free, ad-supported service has a growing catalog of content from sources such as Warner Brothers, MGM and Lionsgate Films. On May 1, 2020, the Crackle content library was added.
You will find a constantly changing selection of films and shows that you can watch. And while the selection isn't comparable to a paid service like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, there are some great B-movies, Hollywood classics, and hidden gems to discover.
Web shows and podcasts
Plex also gives you access to two other types of free streaming media: web shows and podcasts. Web shows are video episodes of various lengths created by publishers such as GQ, Popular Science and others. Podcasts are the same idea, but only for audio. Many of these web shows and podcasts can be found on other services like YouTube, but it is a little more convenient to make them accessible in Plex.
Remote access and library sharing
One of the most powerful features of Plex is the ability to configure the Plex server for remote access. It is a bit of a hassle to make these settings correctly because you need to adjust your router's firewall settings. Once configured, you can use the Plex client on your phone or tablet to stream your personal media library from anywhere in the world – including live TV and recorded shows if you enable it.
Plex has detailed instructions for remote access, so we won't repeat them here, but limit them to two or three steps:
- Configure your modem to send RAS requests to your router if they are not the same device
- Configure your router to send RAS requests to the computer on your network where your Plex Media Server is located
- Configure your Plex Media Server to respond to these RAS requirements
If you want to share your Plex library with friends and family members (who do not live with you), you must first configure remote access.
When done, tell your friends and family to create a free Plex account, and then tell them the email address they used to create it.
In the settings for your Plex Media Server you will find a section called "User and Sharing". From this screen, you can add additional users to the people you live with and give friends access through the Shared Libraries option.
For each Plex user you invite, you can choose which server (if you have more than one) and which libraries (movies, TV, etc.) to access. If you have a Plex Pass subscription, you can also allow these users to download your content, sync with their devices, and upload their photos to your server.
You can see in real time what these users are seeing, and you can see a history of what they have seen in the activity dashboard for your server.
If you have a Tidal subscription, you can add it to Plex. This means that your tidal music can now be streamed on any device that supports the Plex client. An even greater benefit for music fans, however, is the way Plex Tidal integrates into your personal music library. As you browse the music on your server, Plex automatically finds Tidal matches to show you songs or albums that may be missing, as well as related artists and genres.
From a music discovery perspective, it's a powerful system because it's based on the music you love – after all, you already own it.
If you have Sonos wireless home speakers, you can add Plex as a music source, just as you can add Apple Music or Spotify. This has two major advantages: First, Plex can automatically transcode any music files that Sonos cannot play – like high-definition FLAC files – so you can enjoy your entire music library. However, if you have two Sonos systems in different households, Plex gives you access to your personal music library at both locations – something Sonos can't do alone.
For more information on using Plex with Sonos, see our full statement.
What is Plex Pass and why should I get it?
Many of Plex's best features are available for free. However, there are some premium features that you can only access if you have a Plex Pass subscription. The Plex Pass can be purchased monthly ($ 5), annually ($ 40), or lifetime ($ 120), and entitles you to:
- Live TV plus DVR: If you have an HD antenna and a compatible OTA receiver, you can watch and record live TV in Plex. Your recording capacity is limited only by the hard drive space on your Plex server, and all of your recorded shows are presented with the same user-friendly interface as the rest of your library.
- Plex VR co-watching function: Watch movies and TV shows with up to four friends in a virtual apartment or drive-in cinema, including voice chat.
- Child lock: If you have teenagers in the house, there is likely only part of your media that is suitable for all ages. Plex Parental Control (known as Plex Home) lets you create additional accounts, password-protect your main account, and choose what material is available for each account based on the rating or folder.
- Mobile Sync: With this feature, which is a must for commuters, you can wirelessly save copies of your favorite media to your phone for offline viewing. It can automatically add and remove TV episodes while you watch them.
- Premium music and photo libraries: Get additional information about your music (such as lyrics) or photos (location data) for a richer experience.
- Camera upload: Wirelessly sync the photos you take on your mobile device with Plex so they can be quickly viewed on all Plex clients.
- Hardware accelerated streaming: This is a big deal for those who want the best transcoding performance. Without a Plex pass, the entire server transcoding is managed by the Plex software. With this option, however, you can take advantage of the additional hardware performance of your PC to support this task and make it much smoother. With this option, you may be able to get away with a less powerful PC.
- Free access to Plex Client Apps: Never pay for another client app again.
What about Kodi? Could I use that instead?
Kodi is a powerful media center software interface that does many of the same things as Plex, but does it in a different way. There is no server software at Kodi. All functions are contained in an app that you download and install on a compatible device. One limitation is that there are only a few types of compatible devices. Kodi does not work with Roku, Amazon Fire TV, or Apple TV without requiring a significant amount of installation and use.
Without a central server that manages your media collection, every instance of Kodi is a separate world. There is no way to simply sync settings from one device to another. This means that you have to set up each Kodi device as if it were the first time.
As open source software, Kodi has numerous third-party extras, including a large collection of unofficial add-ons that allow users to illegally access copyrighted material. For this reason, you should read and use our Kodi Explainer before installing to understand the legal implications. Still, Kodi can be a good Plex alternative for those who want to tweak software settings and don't need the convenience of a centrally managed media library with multiple streaming clients.