Have you ever wanted to build your own Netflix? If you’ve ever wanted to have all your photos, music and videos on one central computer there are ways to do this and the industry leader is Plex. Plex is both a program and a system to organise video, music and photos and stream them to TVs, streaming boxes, consoles, phones, tablets, computers and more. Plex has also evolved to organising channels of external content from the BBC to Twit.tv. Setting up Plex in your home consists of getting two parts – Plex Media Server which runs on a media server, often your PC and the apps which let you view the content stored on that and other computers. Plex began as a fork from the venerable XBMC and has evolved into a very stylish slick system with a commercial company behind it. There are free and paid tiers with different levels of service and features but the basic streaming is available to all once you’ve activated an app.
Plex doesn’t just let you view your files and remotely play them but wraps them up in a very pretty UI. Once set up the Plex viewers are very, very simple to use with large buttons and clear descriptions and icons. Once launched the app offers you libraries and channels that it can locate on the local network and if you are set up that way remote or shared libraries. With a little training, it is usable by everyone – my five-year-old can happily navigate in and to her library and pick out her favourite shows.
The Media Server is more complex to setup although if you wish to keep it simple and only watch locally most people who are somewhat comfortable with the ideas behind it would be able to get it running. Beyond the simplest level, there are enough options and possibilities for the most dedicated tinkerer. Sensibly these more complicated options are hidden by default on initial setup and hence are unlikely to be overwhelming.
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Price: ± From £2.99 to £120 depending on how far you invest in the system.
About Plex Inc
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.
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. There are obvious problems here if you have issues reading with such a high contrast but it does hang together very well. The only audio component of Plex is that theme songs of shows play when you navigate to them. They only play for around 30 seconds and this can be switched off in settings. This is switched on by default.
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 touchscreen) but also includes extensive keyboard shortcuts which appear to allow access to all parts of the program.
Getting Plex setup does need a little bit of tech savvy but if you follow the built-in wizard this involves installing the software, deciding what to call a library and then pointing it to the appropriate folders on your PC. If you want to get more involved and watch away from home for example, it does get more complicated to setup, but the Plex website does have clear step by step instructions that will work for most people.
Plex charges at two points. The Media server is free but the receiving apps to watch on are pay on most platforms – although they might offer a reduced usage mode for free that will let you check your setup. This is a one-off cost to buy the apps for streaming and is for example £2.99 on iOS, £2.99 on Windows Phone but is currently £3.99 on Android.
The second point of charging is the Plex Pass. This gives you access to extra features such as syncing video files to the cloud, some advanced parts of sharing with other users (sharing itself is free), syncing of photos and early access to new features. It also gives you access to the apps for free. This costs either £3.99 monthly, £31.99 yearly or has a once off cost of £119.99 for a lifetime subscription. Unless you are a dedicated and heavy Plex user you will not need the Plex Pass.
At no point in Plex are there any ads – the real cost to get started is £3 or £4 to get an app activated.
The Media Server needs to be running for the apps to be able to display video – unless you use cloud or pre-syncing. This means the PC needs to be on which if you are away from your home may be an issue and depending on the transcoding required the Media Server can use a surprising amount of processing power. The Server can be on Windows, Mac, Linux (Ubuntu, Fedora and CentOS), FreeBSD, The Nvidia Shield, Raspberry Pi 3 and a wide range of NAS devices although with a reduced feature set.
Viewers are available for Android (Play Store, and Amazon Appstore), iOS, Windows Phone, Windows and via the web. Streaming devices supported include the Xbox One and 360, the PS4 and PS3, the Wii U, The Raspberry Pi, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, the Roku (including with a little work the NowTV box), AndroidTV, the Shield Tablet and several brands of SmartTV.
Plex is probably the simplest and best way to stream videos, photos and music on your local network and when you’re on the road. It does have a small cost of entry buying apps unlike some of its competitors and the dark theme will be a problem for some with visual issues. Despite these small downsides, it is by far the best of many streaming solutions I have tried over the years both in terms of simplicity for normal users and flexibility and control for power users. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to stream their media.
The review is based on the review posted June 2014 and updated using Plex Server and views on almost every platform with a Plexpass. Read more about Ergohacks’ eco, access and feature icons used in reviews. This article was first published on 20th June 2016.