A few years ago, I agreed with what some streaming doomsayers were predicting, the end of the Golden Age of streaming. There was too much opportunity and not enough competition for the old media titans not to try their hand at streaming. They would come in and recreate cable tv.
And now the party is over, the days of saving money by cutting cable and just having a Netflix subscription are gone. Now you need accounts for Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, and who knows what is going to be next.
You can’t have one service to rule them all anymore… unless that service is Plex.
Plex allows you to easily create and maintain your own streaming service. You won’t wake up to find the show you were in the middle of watching is gone because two billion-dollar companies are arguing over a contract. With Plex, you OWN the media. You take the physical discs you have in the drawer beneath your TV, and you make those available on your TV like a streaming service.
If you have kids, Plex gives you much better control over what they can watch. We have all heard horror stories of kids who sit in front of the YouTube Kids app and end up auto-playing themselves into strange territory.
When my son watches his favorite movies, shows, or Pixar Shorts, he can only access the media that I have set up for him. He can’t end up watching a stupid show I don’t want him to watch (cough * PJ Mask * cough), and he can’t accidentally stumble into older kid movies that he should not be watching yet.
Plex is one of my favorite technology discoveries of the last decade, and it is the answer to streaming service overload.
How to Plex
- Sign Up for a Plex Account
- You need a free account to set up your own server or to access someone else’s server. There are benefits to having the paid account (Plex Pass), but you can add that later if Plex is worth it to you. For now, go with the free plan.
- Set Up Plex Players
- You need to install the Plex app (and sign into it with your Plex account from Step 1) on your Smart TV or Smart TV dongle (Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, etc.)
- You can stop here. If a kind person has shared their Plex library with you, you can access their Plex library from your account and enjoy the permanence and benefits of Plex with virtually no work. If you want to set up your own server, you need to move to the next step.
- Set Up a Plex Server
- Fair warning, if you set up your own server, you will be creating a new hobby for yourself. I don’t think this is a bad thing, I enjoy it, but it is a thing that you will be maintaining and growing over time for as long as you want Plex in your life. Kind of like a beautiful plant.
- Setting up the server is going to require a computing device that is always on, and a large amount of storage. An excellent way to get started here is a Synology NAS. It is a pretty low maintenance, high storage capacity device that can run in your closet 24/7 and always be ready to serve up your media.
- Whatever option you chose will have plenty of documentation on how to set it up if you look through the Plex Support pages or Forums.
- Add Media to Your Plex Server
- Once your server is set up, you will need to feed it media.
- To rip my discs, I use MakeMKV. MakeMKV creates a perfect copy of the video file off of your DVD or Blu-Ray and onto your computer as an MKV file.
- I do the optional step of transcoding the MKV file into a .mp4 file using a preset in Handbrake. You can download my Handbrake preset for Plex movies here. Mp4 is the native video file format for macOS/iOS/tvOS; I transcode my video files to that native format so that my Plex software has to do very little work to start playing the file for me when I want to watch it.
- Once your video files are processed, you store them in the correct place for your Plex install and then Plex will see them, download the metadata for them, and have them ready for you to watch on your TV or device.
Share Your Plex
- Once your Plex server is all set up and has media in it, you could share your media library with other Plex users.
- Not only is this media your movies and tv shows, but it can also be your home movies and photos too. So Plex can genuinely become your one-stop-shop for your entire media collection.
- This is how I share home movies with my family.
Plex is a software company and needs to make money. They operated for a while off of people paying for the premium membership, Plex Pass, but have recently been trying to monetize the free users. Just a few weeks ago, they added ad-supported movies as an option in Plex. Many long-time Plex users lost their minds about this. They saw it as an insult to the nature of Plex but to each their own. Just be aware that, these days, Plex is going to try to up-charge you and put ad content in front of you.
Additionally, running a Plex server requires time and effort. It is not a set it and forget it piece of software, and it is not a managed service. You will have to do some work to make it keep running. Plex has made it pretty simple and easy, but there is still some work and troubleshooting required to keep your Plex server up and running.
To me, it is hands down completely worth it. When I have to use a streaming service’s interface or, god forbid, put a Blu-ray disk into a player, I am rapidly reminded how amazing it is to have a Plex server.