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The streaming media world grows more and more crowded everyday. Between Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and HBO Now, there’s no shortage of streaming options as long as you’re willing to shell out the cash every month.
But what if – and hang in there with me – you want to stream your own media? What if you don’t want to pay for something you’ve already paid for four years ago? What do you do then?
What you do then, my friend, is download Plex, the all-in-one media sharing server that uses your PC to distribute content to any room in your house. Plex essentially acts as a faux-server, using your computer and the media you already have as a media hub for devices you grant it access to. It’s been around for over seven years now, and is pretty much a staple in any media connoisseur’s arsenal.
Plex is divided into two versions. A free, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink version of the media server software, and a paid version called Plex Pass that gives you everything and the kitchen sink plus everything in the upstairs rooms for $4.99 (£3, about AU$6) a month.
The key differences between the two are the ability for Plex Pass to work with your game systems – the Xbox One, PS4, PS3 and Xbox 360 – as well as the ability to set up viewing restrictions on certain movies. The latter, though not as relevant to one-user households, is useful in stopping younger kids from watching anything they shouldn’t see.
Once you’ve decided which service is right for you and your household, it’s time to run the installer and setup a Plex server.
The installation is quick and painless, but the act of actually adding media to Plex – which requires setting up specifically named folders and subfolders and naming video files in a certain format – is best described as tedious, irritating and at points downright ridiculous. Stick with it, though, and you’ll be rewarded ten-fold once your server goes live for the first time.
There’s nothing quite like the disappointment of buying a new piece of kit, only to learn that your favorite service isn’t compatible with that hardware. But, despite how many times that has happened in the past, that won’t happen with Plex.
Plex is available for mobile devices running iOS, Android, Windows Phone or Windows 8, as well as a stable of set-top boxes that include the Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, Ouya, Roku, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3 and Playstation 4. If you’re out at a friends house and thought to left your PC running back at home, you can even use a browser to login and access your cache of shows, pictures, music, movies and podcasts.
Of course, having the platform to install it on is only half the problem. The other half is having the platforms talk to each other in intelligent ways.
Thankfully, Plex excels at this. If you stop at 20 minutes, 23 seconds while watching a film on your mobile device, Plex will give you the option of starting over or picking up where you left off on whatever device you use next.
The only problem I’ve run into with Plex’s inexhaustible urge to be agnostic is that sometimes the file types don’t play nicely with the platform you’re trying to stream to. When your PC needs to transcode a video to play on a platform it requires a bit of CPU processing to get the job done. Streaming across platforms – or Direct Stream, as Plex calls it – can cause some slow down. This didn’t impact me as much as other users, but it’s worth mentioning.
For its free-ninety nine price tag, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Plex would skimp on its interface. Sometimes our gut reactions are wrong, however, and if you’re ever looking for a shining example of that, this is the place.
Plex looks, more or less, like the bookshelf on Kindle or the iBooks app on iOS. Each title is categorized by genre and given cover art – even if the file you had downloaded didn’t come with any.
Like your standard media player, Plex also comes with playlist, watch later and recommended features that pull data from both your personal library and any number of "channels" you install on your server.
This sounds like a minor detail, I know, but it’s small details like these that make Plex feel like a premium service.
Plex has also recently updated the music section of the service by adding intelligent playlists and music videos from Vevo. Your music will now be more complete thanks to the additional metadata and the overall experience should feel more akin to services like Spotify and Pandora but, you know, without the constant interruption of ads.
Performance, as you might imagine, depends 95% on the connection speed of your own network.
I found relatively clear playback at around 10Mbps speed both on my hardwired PC and wireless 802.11a/b/g/n tablet. The occasional dropped frame didn’t necessarily kill the experience for me, though on the one or two occasions I hit pretty severe blocks of slowdown.
In those moments, I did feel a twinge of frustration. That said, if you’re apt to have days of 3Mbps speeds, consider going another route for your streaming setup.
If you consider yourself a media buff and have the repository of .mkv files to back it up, Plex is everything you’ve been longing for.
Despite some lackluster installation instructions and a convoluted process to get things up and running, I found it to be one of the most gorgeous, easy-to-use and light-weight pieces of software out there. The fact that it’s free just adds icing to an already delicious cake.
As long as you go in with an open mind and a quick, stable connection, Plex will not disappoint.
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