How To Setup A Home Media Center To Stream Videos To Every TV In Your House Using PLEX
Over the last few years there have been a number of ways to stream movies and TV shows into your home and onto your television using services like Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, etc., but what about all those DVDs you've collected over the years... Not all movies/tv shows are available for streaming online, many of which you probably own already, plus why spend money for the right to stream stuff you already own. This is kind of the situation I found myself in. Over the years I have amassed a collection of DVDs that comes in around the 1000 mark, which is a lot of DVDs to find places for. When I lived at my parents, I had an entire wall dedicated to DVD shelves in my bedroom, but when I moved out I didn't have as much space in my apartment so I had to come up with a solution. That solution, which ended up being temporary, was to ditch the DVD cases themselves and just put all the movies into those DVD cases that can hold about 200 discs. The only problem with that is that I didn't have a good system for knowing where certain movies were in the cases, which lead to a lot of wasted time looking for the movie I wanted to watch. And that's when I discovered PLEX.
PLEX is a free software that makes setting up a home media center pretty simple. Basically what it does is allows you to keep all of your movie files on one computer and then stream them to different devices around your home on the same network. Think of it like Netflix streaming, but all of the movies are your movies that are stored in your house.
That's the basic idea, but I'm sure your asking yourself why would you spend the time/money doing this, when you can just pay for Netflix streaming every month... Well, if you want to drop $8/mo to stream movies you already paid for that's up to you, personally, even though I still pay for it, I can't remember the last time I used Netflix streaming to watch something. The other advantage is technically you don't need an internet connection to use it. All your videos are streaming over your home network, so as long as your devices are networked together, it doesn't matter if the internet is working or not (for those that may have intermittent or slow internet service). Other advantages are the slick interface that includes information pulled automatically from imdb and other places, cool cover art for each video, the ability to pause a video on one device and resume it on another, you can stream video to your mobile devices over the internet, the software to get you started is free, and it's not that hard to figure out.... And even though it's not that hard to figure it out if you're tech savvy, I'm going to run down everything you need to get up and running in this post.
Lets Get Started
The first step in getting setup is to install the PLEX software. Like I mentioned before, it's totally free over at http://plexapp.com/getplex/ . When you get over to the PLEX site and click on your preferred operating system (Mac, Windows, Linux are all supported), you'll notice a couple different download links on the right side of your screen.
"Download Plex Media Center" (top link) will download the entire Media Center+Media Server. The Plex Media Center is an application you can use on your computer to play videos. It's got a really fancy interface and there are tons of themes you can download, etc. If you plan on using a computer of any sort to actually play the media files then you'll need the full Media Center, however if all you're going to be doing is using the computer to stream the videos to other devices in other rooms, then you only need to download the 2nd link, "Plex Media Server", which is the software that will scan all of your videos and retrieve information/pictures for each one and then serve that information to the other devices around your house.
For example (and I'll explain these options further down): If you want to use your Roku Box in another room to play the media, you only need the Plex Media Server, but if you plan on hooking your laptop up to the TV or using a Mac Mini (or another MediaPC), you will need the full Plex Media Center.
Once you have the desired application installed you can go ahead and launch it. At this point you can dig around the interface and take a look at things, but without any media scanned, both parts are useless.
Media (Ripping, Storage, Backup)
Obviously in order to stream videos you need to have videos to stream and in order to store those videos you need to have hard drive space. There are plenty of affordable options these days for storage space so you'll have to figure out what works for you, but don't worry, I'll lay out some of the pros and cons of different storage solutions here.
Internal Hard Drive - There's no reason why you can't just serve these videos off of the hard drive in the computer running the Plex Media Server. In fact, when I was first starting off with all of this, that's exactly what I did. Advantages of this is that your internal hard drive won't cost you any more money and if you have enough space, you might as well utilize it. The downsides to this are that you don't have a backup if something goes wrong and once you start ripping DVDs, you're going to start running out of space quickly.
External Hard Drive - This is the next logical step after the internal hard drive option. With external hard drives being extremely cheap for 2TB, I would highly suggest this as your first option. If I were you I wouldn't even bother with using the internal drive unless you're just using this to serve up a couple videos and aren't planning on ripping your whole collection. Or you could always just use the external drive to backup the movies that are on your internal drive. The advantages to the external drive over the internal drive are that you can use the whole thing for videos and don't have to worry about application data and stuff like that, you then have your whole movie collection on an easily transportable device, and lastly they are pretty cheap. The cons about the external hard drive is you'll have to get 2 of them if you want to keep a backup, some of them are bulky, you'll have an external device hanging off your computer.
NAS (Network Attached Storage) - If you're serious about this and want to make sure that your collection is protected from hard drive failure, then this is the setup you're going to want to go with. There are many different options depending on how crazy you want to get. Network Attached Storage is basically a bank of hard drives that plugs directly into your router which allows any computer on your network to access the files. If you work in an office or go to school, I'm sure there is a file server that everyone can access within the network... this is essentially that. I personally use a cheaper model in the Netgear ReadyNAS NV+, but there are plenty of other "out of the box" brand that you can use as well (synology, etc.). There are other options as well, like building your own unRaid box (which my buddy did, so I can have him answer questions if you have them), but essentially it's a box that you will have to build, but it can be more powerful for cheaper, than a pre-built model. I prefer the ReadyNas (and similar models) due to the small size and ease of use. I didn't need a whole lot of control over the workings of it as long as it was redundant and fast enough to stream my media. This is the best option in terms of backing up and protecting your data as you can run these disk arrays in different RAID setups. Without getting too complicated, RAID basically means that if 1 hard drive fails within the array, you won't lose all of your data. There are different types of RAID, but I won't get into that here. If all of this scares you, you're better off going with a pre-built solution like the Netgear or Synology.
Backing Up Your Data - If you plan on spending the time to rip your personal collections of DVDs or Blu-Rays, then you're absolutely going to want to invest in some sort of backup solution. If you go the NAS route and you're running a RAID array, that is a good start. I would still back everything up onto an external hard drive every once and while and store it away some where. I backup everything onto external drives every couple of months even though I'm running the NAS. It's taken hours upon hours to rip all my DVDs and I would hate to lose them due to a hard drive failure. On the same note, if you're just going to use an external hard drive to serve up the media, buy another one and use it as a backup. Hard drives will fail eventually, it's just a law, like dinosaurs, so if you don't want to hate yourself when it happens, make sure you're backing everything up. Don't keep the backup drive running all the time though, back up and then put that drive away until the next time you need to run a backup. I can't stress enough how important it is to back up your data, it's worth the money, believe me.
Ripping Your DVDs - Now the fun part, how do you get your movies and TV shows off of all those discs you own and onto your computer. I'm going to be honest here, I haven't owned a PC in a while now so I don't really know the best options for ripping DVDs on a PC, however the one software I do recommend is on both Mac and PC. The first thing you need to do is determine which format you want to rip your DVDs in. Do you want to compress them slightly or do you want to suck the most quality out of them that you possibly can. DVD movies are only presented in 480P so no matter what, they aren't going to look that great on your HD TV. In lieu of that I chose to compress my DVDs slightly in order to keep the file size down and honestly the quality difference probably isn't going to matter to you. My buddy does his the other way and rips them completely uncompressed. The difference is my video files are on average around 1GB per movie (give or take a hundred megs), his movies can range from 2GB to 5GB depending on the movie, I'm sure some could even be more. So while he may be getting slightly better quality, he's eating up his hard drive space faster than I am, but depending on how many DVDs you plan on ripping, this may not matter. Now that you've figured out if you want to compress them or not, let's talk software.
- Handbrake - This is my ripping software of choice. It's so easy a baby could use it and there are presets that work perfectly so you don't need to mess with any settings. Also, it's free ( http://handbrake.fr/downloads.php ) and on all platforms (Mac, Windows, Linux). Basically I just put in a DVD, fire up Handbrake, select the DVD as the source, it'll scan the DVD really quickly and usually it's pretty good about determining which track is the main feature, then select the Apple TV 2 preset and hit start... that's it. On my machine it's almost real-time, so a 90 minute movie will take 90 minutes to rip, but your machine may be faster (I heard the PC's can do it a bit faster). Feel free to play around with the setting and see what works best for you, but based on ease of use and quality, the Apple TV 2 preset works just fine for me. (And no, that doesn't mean you have to use an AppleTV 2 to stream the videos).
- MakeMKV - This software will rip your DVD/Blu-Ray without compression and just spit out the full video file in MKV format. It won't rip any data out of the DVD/Blu-Ray and it won't compress it. If you're looking for a 1-to-1 dump of your DVD, this is the software you'll want to use. It's also free ( http://www.makemkv.com/download/ ) and available for both Mac and PC.
Those are my two recommendation for ripping your DVDs. They are both easy to use and produce good results. I know there are many more options out there and if you have one that you like using, feel free to use it. PLEX will play almost any file you can throw at it.
All this information is great, but I'm sure you're now wondering how to play all of these newly ripped DVDs on the TVs throughout your home... Guess what... This is the easy part, even though most of the stuff from up above is pretty easy as well... Seriously, this whole setup is pretty easy when you think about it.
When I first ventured into the world of PLEX the only way you could get it onto your TV was to hook a computer up to your TV and run the full Plex Media Center. In this case I bought a used Mac Mini and ran it on that, but don't worry, you no longer have to buy another computer. Since then PLEX has grown exponentially and there are much cheaper ways to stream your media throughout the house, but let's run down all the options.
- Computer/Media PC - As I mentioned above, you can setup a computer and connect it to your TV and run the Plex Media Center that way. Whether it's an old computer you have laying around or a Mac Mini/MediaPC you just purchased, either will work as long as the specs are up to speed. The worst thing in the world is trying to watch a movie as it jutters and jumps around. This is also the most expensive of the options these days. Honestly, with the other options out there I wouldn't even consider doing this anymore, unless you have money to blow and want to build a bad ass computer with top of the line everything to play all your 1080P flicks.
- Samsung Devices - As of a couple weeks ago the PLEX app is an official app on Samsung "internet enabled" devices. This means you can go into the Samsung Smart Hub and download the Plex app right on your TV or Blu-Ray player, point it to your media server and begin streaming. If you have a Samsung device that is compatible with this, then you don't need to run out and buy a new device, however, I have experience with a couple Samsung Blu-Ray players and PLEX and the outcome was less than stellar. I had jittering issues and stoppage, so much so that I opted to go with another solution all together. The obvious pros to this setup are, if you already have a device there's no extra cost, it kills two birds with one stone (blu-ray/Plex or TV/Plex), but the cons of this setup are the fairly weak interface and not so great streaming experience (but it could have just been me).
- Apple TV 2 (Jailbroken) - This is the device that I have running PLEX in my bedroom and it works like a charm, but there are a couple problems that have arose with the Apple TV 2. The current firmware on the Apple TV 2 won't properly run PLEX, or should I say PLEX won't properly run on it. The Apple TV 2 PLEX client is not an official client of the PLEX Development Team, it's more of a side project of some guy on the forums, which means that there aren't very many updates. This has lead to the software not working on the latest firmware of the Apple TV 2. The other issue is that you have to jailbreak your Apple TV 2 in order to even get the software to run, just more tinkering you have to do to even get the software running. And because it needs to be jailbroken, it will not work with the latest 1080P version of the Apple TV 2 as it hasn't been jailbroken yet. So I wouldn't suggest this method anymore, but if you want to give it a shot you can read about my experience/instructions here. Just note, that seas0npass (as mentioned at the link) will upgrade you to the latest firmware, which will in turn break PLEX on the Apple TV, so I would just hold off for now. The price point is good at $99, but with the lack of updates and currently being broken, I would avoid this method.
- RokuHD (and higher models) - This would be my top recommendation. In terms of price and quality, you can't beat this. The PLEX app is officially supported by the legit Plex Development Team so there are regular updates and bug fixes. It's also available right out of the box as a Roku Channel, so there's no need to hack or do anything funky to get it to work. Literally just turn on the box, set it up and download the Channel. The interface also works nicely and everything plays very smooth over wireless (I've only tested up to 720P rips). And with the RokuHD coming in at $59.99 (sometimes cheaper on sale, Wal-Mart just had it on sale for $48), it makes it the cheapest, most reliable option for streaming the media to other rooms of your house. Plus there are tons of other Roku Channels you can add like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, Hulu Plus and more, thus making this box a streaming powerhouse.
- Mobile Device (Android, iOS, Windows Phone) - PLEX wouldn't be complete without mobile options, thankfully the software is available on the 3 major phone operating systems, but not all are free. Personally I only have an iOS device and the software is $4.99 in the App Store, I'm not sure what it costs for Android and Windows Phone. The software allows you to access/stream your library of videos over the internet where ever you are, if you are running the full Plex Media Center on a computer it also allows you to control it from your mobile device within the network. I love the app and stream videos all the time. The quality is pretty good, but it all depends on your internet speed.
So now that you have a general idea of what you'll need in order to get started how do you go about making sure that things come together smoothly. I'm going to give you a general walk through on how to get things up and running, and some best practices that will make the whole process easier. Hopefully by this point you have an idea of how it all comes together and I don't have to completely hold your hand through the process, but if you do have questions feel free to leave them in the comments and I'll make sure I answer them.
Naming Convention - If you want to save yourself some headaches down the line, name your files correctly up front. The Plex Media Server automatically scans your videos and grabs information and pictures based in what it finds, if you didn't name something correctly then it's going to either find nothing or something totally wrong, and it will still pull in all of that information. Make sure to create a separate folder for each section: Movies, TV Shows, and put the respective files within each folder. You need to indicate what are movies and what are tv shows within the Plex Media Server.
- Movies - Name your movies with the full title of the movie and the year of the movie. Ex: The_Lord_of_the_Rings_Return_of_the_King_(2002).xxx . If you want to get fancy with the naming convention you can even put more information in there, but the full title and year is enough to make sure there is a correct match. For my collection I make a folder for each movie and use the naming convention on the folder instead of the actual video file. For example: Folder name - The_Lord_of_the_Rings_Return_of_the_King_(2002)-720P-BDRip-x264 and then the file name would just be the_lord_of_the_rings_return_of_the_king.mkv. The extra information isn't necessary for PLEX, but I like having it there. PLEX will know if a movie is HD or not and display the "HD" logo within the interface.
- TV Shows - You need to be careful when it comes to TV shows, make sure you name things properly. Create a folder for the name of each show, within that folder create folders called "Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, etc" and within each of the season folders you have some options. I just name each video file with the season number and the episode number, that's it, but you can put the episode name and show name if you please, but you must have the season number and episode number in the file name, in a specific format... That format being: s01e01, s01e02, s01e03, s02e04, etc. "s" stands for season, "01" is season 1, "e" stands for episode, "01" is episode 1. In order for the scanner to know what episode in a season you're trying to pull information for, you need to have that tag in the file name.
Wireless vs. Wired Network - The last major thing I want to talk about is your network. If you're playing large High Definition rips of your movies/tv shows then you may want to lean towards wired ethernet for your devices. I haven't had any issues playing 720P video rips over wireless-N on the Apple TV and the RokuHD, but I did have issues on the Samsung Blu-Ray player, but unfortunately I couldn't run ethernet to where the box was. If wired is an option it's always better.
Once you've started ripping your videos and renaming them properly the rest is pretty simple. Just install the Plex Media Server (or Center if you plan on playing the videos on a computer) and point the server to the corresponding folders housing your videos, the software will then scan and load them into the server, once this is done you're ready to start streaming your media on any of the PLEX enabled devices mentioned above.
I know I didn't get into specific details on setting up different devices and things of that nature, but as I said above, the Roku boxes (which is my recommendation), make things extremely simple to set up, so you should have no problem once your media is loaded. If you still have issues or questions, feel free to leave a comment below and we'll do our best to answer them for you.