Over the last few years there has been a boom in the 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 and Blu-Rays you’ve collected over the years… Not all movies/tv shows are available for streaming online, many of which you probably own already, and why would you spend money for the right to stream media you already own. This is kind of the situation I found myself in and wanted a solution so easy that my wife and kid could figure it out.
Over the years I have amassed a collection of DVDs and Blu-Rays that comes in at over 1000, which is a lot of cases 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 cases themselves and just put all the movies into DVD binders that can hold about 200 discs. The only problem is I didn’t have a good system for knowing where certain movies were in the binders, 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. What it does is allows you to keep all of your media files on one computer and then stream them to different devices around your home, mobile devices, or even allow friends to stream from their homes as well. Think of it like your own personal Netflix. And it’s not limited to just movies, you can view TV episodes, home videos, music and pictures as well.
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 $10/mo to stream movies you already paid for that’s up to you, personally, even though I still pay for it, I don’t watch too much on Netflix outside of their original content. The other advantage is technically you don’t need an internet connection to use it (in most cases). 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. Other advantages are the slick interface that includes information pulled automatically from IMDB and other places, cool cover art for each video, trailers and extras, the ability to pause a video on one device and resume it on another, the software to get you started is free, and it’s pretty simple 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
Organize Your Media
The first thing you want to do, before setting up Plex itself, is to make sure that your media files are organized in a way that Plex can understand them. The software is pretty smart in how it can recognize which movie, tv show or artist your media belongs to, but it isn’t a mind reader, so you need to ensure that your media is organized and named properly.
You don’t have to do this right away if you don’t want, but it will save you headaches down the line and it’s a good habit to get into. At the very least I would create a main “Media” folder, and then sub-folders for each different type of media you plan to use with Plex – Movies, TV Shows, Home Movies, Music, etc.
Naming Convention – Name your files correctly up front. The Plex Media Server automatically scans your media 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 will need to indicate what are movies and what are tv shows within the Plex Media Server setup.
- 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 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 your TV Show folder, within the show 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.
Now that you have your media files organized in a way that Plex can understand them, it’s time to install the Plex Media Server and point it at the correct folders.
The Plex Media Server can be downloaded for free over at https://www.plex.tv/downloads/ .
When you get over to the Plex site and click on the button under “Download Plex Media Server” and then select your computer operating system from the dropdown menu. The Plex Media Server is what you will need to run on a computer that has access to the files you wish to stream throughout your home. This can be a Windows PC, a MAC PC, a Linux PC, with any sort of mounted media drive (internal, external, NAS) or any number of various Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices.
In most cases we will assume that you will be running the server off of a Windows PC or MAC, where the files are either contained on the computer’s internal hard drive, or on an external drive hooked directly to said computer.
Once you’ve downloaded the server software, install it on to that computer. Once it is done installing, launch the Server application. The server will start and it will launch your web browser with the next steps.
1. Sign Up for An account (if you already have one, just go ahead and log in). You will then be greeted by an overview screen of how Plex works. Click Got It to move on.
2. Server Setup – Name your server. You can name it whatever you want, but this is the name that will show up on all of your Plex clients throughout your house, and what friends/family will see if you grant them access. I would name it something like “Media Server” or “LastName’s Media”. Check the box below the server name if you want to allow access to the server outside of your home. Some clients, even internally, require that this option be checked, so I would just leave it checked. Then Click Next.
3. Server Setup – Media Library – This is where you will tell Plex where your various media is located. Music and Photos Libraries may be added by default, if so, click the little pencil icon to change where they are looking for those forms of media, or the red X if you don’t want those libraries. If you wish to add a Library, for Movies or TV Shows, click on the “Add Library” button and follow the steps on the screen. You will have to select what type of media it is, what you want to call it, and then you’ll need to browse to the folder on your computer that houses that specific type of media. So if you are setting up the Movies library, make sure you browse to the actual movies folder, not just the media folder. Once you are done setting up libraries, Click Next.
4. On the last screen you can uncheck “Send anonymous usage data to Plex” if you desire, and then Click Done.
At this point Plex will begin scanning those folders that you pointed to and downloading all of the various data for that media. It will download cover art, titles, descriptions and other various information, as well as find various sources for bonus materials related to the media. You should start to see things pop up in your Library on the web browser as this process begins.
All this information is great, but I’m sure you’re now wondering how to play all of this newly ripped media 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 a few of 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 stutters 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 HTPC to handle other things as well.
- Smart TVs – There are a variety of Smart TVs on the market now that offer Plex as part of their app suite. LG, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, and Vizio all offer native Plex apps that you can add right from the app section of your TV. If you’re TV is newer and you know it has Smart capabilities, this would probably be the best way to start watching your media right away.
- Roku & Apple TV 3 – In terms of price and quality, you can’t beat this. The Plex app is officially supported on both the Apple TV 3 and the Roku devices so there are regular updates and bug fixes. It’s also available right out of the box as a Roku Channel or app, so there’s no need to hack or do anything funky (like in the past) to get it to work. Literally just turn on the box, set it up and download the Channel/App. The interface also works nicely and everything plays very smooth over wireless (I’ve only tested up to 720P rips). Plus there are tons of other Roku Channels/Apps you can add like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, Hulu Plus and more, thus making these boxes a streaming powerhouse.
- Video Game Consoles – Have a Playstation 3 or 4, or an Xbox One or 360, then you can use those devices that you already own to stream Plex as well. Just like the other devices above, all you have to do is download the app to your console and link it to your account to gain access to all of your media.
- 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. 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. We love the app and stream videos all the time. The quality is pretty good, but it all depends on your internet speed.
- Amazon Echo – Plex recently released a skill for the Amazon Echo, which will allow you to use your voice to control Plex on certain players. It currently does not work on every app available, so check this documentation before giving it a try.
These are only a few of the ways you can get Plex up and running on the various TVs within your home. There are many more options like Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, and even Tivo, that you can use to play your media. Check out the official Plex site for a rundown on all of the officially supported players available.
Wireless vs. Wired Network – One quick thing we want to touch on, in terms of playback, is the network speed. We highly recommend hard wiring any device associated with Plex, instead of using wireless. It will create less interference, faster speeds, and a better experience overall. We understand that it’s not always possible to have a wired connection, but when possible, we always recommend a wired connection.
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 and up, 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 setup that I built from scratch, but there are plenty of other “out of the box” solutions that you can use as well. Whatever NAS setup you go with, whether an out of the box solution or a custom built one, make sure that your system is setup in some form of raid or parity setup, so that if a hard drive fails, you do not lose all of your data. If you build your own solution, we highly recommend using unRaid as the software that handles the NAS.
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 multiple hard drive failures, or some other issue. 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 inevitable, 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. Any of the external hard drives we mentioned above are suitable backup drives.
Ripping Your DVDs & Blu-Rays
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, launch 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 settings 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.
If you are going to be ripping Blu-Rays, the same logic applies. You can rip them at full, uncompressed, quality and have them be huge files, or you can use handbrake and compress them down. When I rip Blu-Rays I compress them down. I will rip them uncompressed using Make MKV first, then I will load the file that Make MKV creates, into Handbrake, and use the Apple TV 3 setting to re-encode the files, thus compressing them at 1080P. I don’t notice any quality difference on most of my movies, but again, if you’re looking for top quality, go with uncompressed, but be prepared for huge files and possible struggles streaming them over your network (depending on your setup).
One you have ripped and compressed your files, you can copy them into the proper folders in your Media folder, being sure to name them properly, and then go into the Plex server application and re-scan your Libraries. This will cause Plex to go through and pick up any new media you may have added. You can also change your settings so that if Plex notices an addition to your media library folders, it will automatically re-scan to pick up the new additions.
And that about does it for setting up a Plex streaming system in your house. It may seem like a lot to go through, but the whole process is very simple, and once you get it setup, you don’t have to do much else.
If you run into any problems, or have questions about the process, feel free to leave us a comment and we’ll be sure to help you out where we can.