We don’t usually review products that aren’t available to the general public and it’s even rarer that we choose to look at individual features of a service. Today we’re doing both of those. Plex Cloud is a single feature that’s currently only available to a small invite only list of paying customers. It is however something that is unique so worth looking at.
Plex is probably the best known solution for private media streaming. Take a video file and run Plex on your computer and you can stream that video file to anywhere you want to. Over the years it’s expanded to work from a huge range of devices and handle pictures as well as video but the fundamental hasn’t changed – a system you owns shares your content.
Plex Cloud takes your own computer out of the equation. Upload your video to a cloud storage provider and Plex Cloud provides the computing power to transcode and transmit the video. No computer at home required. No running your home PC 24/7 and running out of space. It’s exactly as flexible as Plex is.
Setting it up turned out to be straightforward. Once my account was enabled the process to set up a collection of media which Plex calls a Library proceeded normally. First tell Plex what sort of media it is – Movies, TV or personal then point it to the correct folder in the correct cloud account and give it a few minutes to scan and setup metadata. Open a Plex viewer app and select PlexCloud as the server and there’s all your media ready, waiting and organised.
I tried streaming from a wide variety of devices – phones, TVs, computers, tablets and on a number of types of connections – 4g, wifi and ethernet and with a range of different encoding options. It worked well in every case with the only real difference being the speed of starting and how well you can scrub through a video. Starting video takes around 20 seconds as compared to a second or two with a local Plex server and moving to a different point in the video if you get ahead of the caching also takes significantly longer than normal.
The whole experience is something that some in the Plex community have been experimenting with hacking together. Rent a server online running online and connect it to your own online storage and it is possible but the instructions and setup are somewhat intimidating to the standard user in addition to the cost of renting that extra server.
So then there’s the elephant. Piracy. Plex markets itself as a way to stream your own content but the problem is that there’s no way to identify your own content in many cases. Lets say I buy a Disney DVD of Aladdin. I legally ripped it a couple of years ago (not legal now but it was) so that I could have a backup and could stream it to myself. Using my own Plex server this isn’t a problem as everything is inside my own network but if I upload it to a cloud storage provider theres a chance that it will be fingerprint matched automatically to a fingerprint Disney provided and my account will get closed down for piracy.
There’s no way to encrypt it so the cloud provider can’t see into it and contents holders such as Disney are so zealous that the onus is on you to prove the content is legal and there’s no way to do this simply. Plex Cloud launched into Beta with Amazon Cloud drive but after a month and a half this was removed without a clear explanation. Reading between the lines Plex got a little bit too close to the grey piracy line and Amazon simply withdrew access. As it stands there is support for Google Drive, Dropbox and Onedrive but there have been numerous circumstantial reports on Reddit and Twitter about accounts using Plex Cloud being suspended or closed down without reasons being stated.
Price: To run Plex cloud you need a Plex Pass which is available from £3 a month to a lifetime cost of £91.50 and storage space. There is a small amount of free storage space available with Dropbox, Onedrive and Google Drive but larger amounts will need payment costing anywhere from £60 a year upwards.
Plex started as a hobby project but demand meant that it evolved into a business in 2010 and has slowly grown to around 60 employees worldwide. They are funded by Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers.
The cloud server in Plex is visually and functionally identical to a local server.
Visually Plex has a very distinctive style that is carried across all its server and view apps. This style has black or very dark grey backgrounds with white, orange or very light grey text. It uses very large icons which are usually thumbnails of the media and always adds a label.
The viewers are mainly designed for touch input and have large icons and are usually simple to control. They have a universal design philosophy across platforms and rather than fitting to each individual platforms norms. There are advanced options in the apps to control things such as bitrate and type of transcoding and the media server can be controlled almost entirely via a mouse (or touch screen) but also includes extensive keyboard shortcuts which appear to allow access to all parts of the program.
Environment & People
Plex Cloud is surprisingly a net positive from an environmental perspective. I know a number of people who have Plex servers setup and running 24 hours a day to be able to stream their media whenever they want it. The vast majority of that time the system will be sitting idle and unused. Running Plex Cloud that system does not need to be on and a single online system can serve many people with the obvious power savings.
For a single month Plex Pass costs £3 and if you used only the free tier of cloud storage services its possible to get up and running enough to test the system and possibly host a few episodes of your favorite TV show or a couple of movies. If you’re planning to keep using the regular Plex home server and only use the Plex Cloud on short trips then this might work. You probably would however be better served syncing your content to your device before you leave home.
If you want to get a full setup running a years Plex Pass would cost £32 and the most efficient storage solution comes from Microsoft at £80 a year (or £60 for four years for students). This also includes Office and a range of other software.
I’ve been an avid user of Plex for years and its rightly considered the best possible solution for home media streaming. In the last year they’ve added feature after feature and most have been useful for specific markets. Plex Cloud is another technically impressive product giving you a way to setup what is effectively your own Netflix in the cloud. The problem is that it’s in a legal grey area. The copy of Aladdin I started up the review with was legal to rip when I did but I’ve no way of proving that. All the cloud providers involved scan routinely for what they consider pirated content and then suspend account involved.
I love Plex Cloud from a technical point of view and considered setting up a cloud storage provider that was unrelated to any of my other online accounts but it’s just to fraught and an extra cost that I can’t justify. If Plex can work out a way to keep my content private perhaps with encryption I’d seriously consider Plex Cloud. Until then I’d recommend avoiding it as potentially far more trouble than it is worth.
The review is based on the January beta of Plex Cloud. This article was first published on 16th January 2017.