I recently shed my curmudgeonly tendencies to completely reassess our media situation here at home. I imagine our family profile as media consumers and device users is similar to many households. We haven’t “cut the cord” but we’re really to the point where only live sports prevents us (me) from doing so. We have two teenagers with PCs, tablets and phones. On the network side, we might be a little different from the typical household. We have a TV on each level of the house and a WD TV Live (or Live Plus) connected to each via Ethernet. We also have a file server running Win 2008 R2 hosting SMB shares with various movies and TV shows. Lastly we have Netflix which is about as popular as the WD boxes in terms of actual media consumption these days.
The issues with our setup, as I saw them, were twofold: Our media streamers are aging rapidly and the design of our media network is archaic.
Our WD boxes are seven years old, which means the technology under the hood is seven years old and there is a very real likelihood they are going to fail sooner rather than later. They support Netflix but just barely – video often starts to “tear” after running for an hour or so. The WDs do support SMB shares though, which has been great. I could assign them user names and passwords and even a Windows workgroup setting. This was handy when the kids were young because I could control which media folders they could access. We had a “Family” folder and a “Grown-up” folder. The WD boxes are also easy to use, which is a requirement for at least half the residents in my household. You turn them on and you are literally a few clicks away from the media. Unfortunately, there has been no successor to the WD TV Live from Western Digital and the box was discontinued in 2016. Last but not least, our old boxes don’t support h.265 (aka HEVC) which is increasingly becoming a thing.
My first thought was to simply buy new media boxes that would be more powerful, support the latest and greatest codecs / file formats while still being easy to use. That idea and subsequent investigation lead me to issue #2. In my opinion, many of the latest and greatest “media streamers” are either not particularly easy to use, don’t support SMB shares or both.
On one hand, we have the “Android boxes” which seem to be more “micro PC” than “media box”. I’m not saying they don’t have a streamlined interface compared to a desktop OS but compared to the Western Digital, they are definitely more multi-tool than pocket knife. The Android boxes also seem more geared towards streaming online TV and media than they are designed to access a local media library. That said you can still do that through Kodi which seems to be the media app of choice for most. Other than Netflix though, we’re not really interested in streaming online content.
As far as Kodi goes, we have it on our HTPC and it works well but “easy to use” is a pretty relative term. I find it okay but our media shares are definitely still several clicks away and I know it frustrates some of the people in our house. It’s a simplistic assessment but our HTPC really requires a remote with a full keyboard and that puts it in a different class than a device that can be controlled with a true hand held remote.
The next devices I looked at were the Roku media streamers. These seem more aligned to the WD box in terms of ease of use, they have newer chips under the hood and their top end units support h.265 and other features I value like passthru audio. It took a lot of digging on their site to find the answer but unfortunately the Roku boxes don’t support my old faithful SMB shares. In terms of local media, they only support DLNA media servers.
This is a pretty abridged version of the reasoning and research but this all lead me to explore media server software. I had hardware to build a new server courtesy of a recent upgrade (Z87 board, i5-3570K and 8GB of RAM) so I decided to build a test media server, completely separate from our current state server. I installed Win 2008 R2 on it and started looking for media server software. In the interest of brevity, I will share what I was looking for but I didn’t know it at the time. I knew I wanted “free” and easy to use/configure but beyond that, I really didn’t know what I wanted. I wanted to reorganize my media given that “Family” and “Adult” are now irrelevant distinctions. I wanted to set something up that was “scaleable” in terms of adding storage and media and I wanted it to “talk to” all our devices. For context, I dabbled with TVersity many years ago when I wanted to use the Xbox360 as an HTPC. I don’t know if it was me or it but it wasn’t easy and it never really worked properly. It would try to transcode things and I ended up in what I call codec hell. I eventually abandoned it.
This time around I tried Plex because the server package was free, compatible with Win 2008 R2 and as a project, it seemed to have its act together in terms of features and ongoing development. The install and configuration process went smoothly more or less and most of the wrinkles were RTFM stuff rather than Plex itself. I was disappointed that the WD TV Live boxes would see the Plex server and connect to it but the folders were empty. I just attributed this to the age of the boxes but then a few days later, they all just worked! That said, I would have gotten new media boxes (and still plan to) and needing new ones wouldn’t have been a knock on Plex anyway. The good news though is that the timetable for upgrading hardware is more negotiable.
So what is good about Plex? It is easy to use. You create libraries by media type, point them at folders of media on your machine and it does its thing. It recognizes media by file naming convention and downloads metadata and thumbnail images for your media. It organizes everything in a very “Netflix-like” interface that you can search in multiple ways. It refreshes and rescans your folders automatically to detect new and remove anything deleted. I don’t think it’s had to transcode anything yet so I can’t comment on that but so far, it is working quite well.
If there’s lots of good, what is “bad” about Plex? Well I’m using quotes because there is not a lot that’s really bad about it from my point of view. One thing I would share is that it doesn’t seem wise to fight Plex, which is to say, you really need to understand what Plex does and how it does it. I don’t think you can approach Plex stubbornly and say, I don’t want to use it like that. I want to use it like this. By all accounts, Plex does what it does, the way it does it and attempting to use it without RTFMing (so to speak), won’t go well. File naming counts. Putting the right kinds of media in the right kinds of libraries also matters.
The only other “bad” thing about Plex isn’t really bad either – as an initially free but not open source project, Plex developers are attempting to monetize it as best they can and I suspect that is frustrating and/or confusing for long time users. I am running the media server package for free. I have the Plex Media Player installed on my HTPC (Windows 10) for free. I can access the media server from the WD TV boxes for free but when I downloaded the app for iPad, it told me I needed to pay an activation fee or get a Plex Pass. If I want to use the plug-in/app for Kodi, I need a Plex Pass because it’s considered to be in early development. It appears that many of the Plex device apps are not free which I understand. On the ground floor, projects like Plex can’t charge anything because they don’t have anything mature enough to charge for. Now that they do and given the media software is sort of the “cow” that they’ve given away for free, it stands to reason that in this analogy, they are going to charge for the “milk” (the apps and special features). As I said, being totally new to Plex I have no problem with this but I’m sure there are users who have been using it a long time that are struggling with Plex’s attempts to be compensated for their efforts. It’s a common challenge with projects like this. Personally, I don’t know if there is a Plex Pass in my future or even some one-time activation fees. A monthly Plex Pass is about half of what Netflix costs and presumably that would unlock all of our mobile devices, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable but I’m not sure it will be necessary either. Time will tell.
In any event, Plex is pretty much an unqualified success at my house, so much so that the test media server became a “production” server in less than a week. I’ve shuffled files around to free up disks, migrated those disks over to the new media server and now all our TV shows, movies and concerts are combined in three Plex libraries. I will leave the old server in place for applications and other files, which means the newer media server is entirely devoted to Plex. At the beginning of this post I mentioned our “archaic”media system and perhaps the most subtle benefit to Plex is that our media has arrived in 2017. Gone are workgroups, Windows shares and ugly, clunky folders. Arrived has a cohesive media server with all our media in one place, accessible by any and all DLNA compatible devices through a slick, modern interface.
To recap, if you’re looking for a media solution and assuming you’re willing and able to go with the flow as Plex defines it, it’s probably the best solution out there. If you have more specific needs or want to be more “hands on”, you may be best to look elsewhere.