Mac Mini Mediacenter: Plex Client & Media Server
When I started my Mac Mini Mediacenter project, one thing was absolutely clear; I wanted, no, needed Plex as my media front end and server. For the ones who don’t know Plex; it’s a very powerful and easy to use media indexer, streamer and transcoder for images, music, videos and more. It’s free with multi OS and multi platform support.
I’ve been using Plex for some time now and love its multi-device flexibility. How it seamlessly delivers all my media with the exact same experience to either my TV, iPad or laptop over either LAN or WAN. It even allows you to resume watching a video on your iPad you stopped halfway on your TV or the other way round. Installation and configuration is fairly easy, but there are some things to consider.
Installation & Configuration
Installation should be a breeze. Download both the Plex client and Plex Media Server (PMS from now on) and install as normal. PMS will manifest itself in the background. Not much else I can tell about he actual installation.
Configuring PMS is pretty straight forward and is done from within the Media Manager. Except for the setting to start PMS together with Windows, something you definitely want on a mediacenter. That specific setting is found clicking the tray icon. Double clicking the tray icon opens the media manager, PMS’ main interface. The left column allows you to specify folders with your media content and assign a category to them, like movie or TV series. This is used in the client to distinguish between the different media. You can use a category as many times as you like.
I’d like to point out a few settings. Covering them all won’t be necessary.
- Library – Empty trash automatically after every scan: This one is off by default. When you sometimes manually delete media files like me, you also want PMS to remove the item from its index. Otherwise you can still chose a movie in the client but upon play get an error the file can’t be found.
- Library – Allow clients to delete media: Awesome feature. Before Plex, I used AirVideo to watch media on my iOS devices. I don’t retain the files I’ve watched, so the time I sat behind my MacBook, I had to remember e.g. what episodes I watch the previous night and delete them manually. Enabling this setting allows every client to delete an item directly. Both the instance in PMS and the file itself.
- Sharing – iTunes sharing enabled: If you use iTunes on the same system the Plex server is running on (independent of Mac OS X or Windows), Plex can use your iTunes library. This way, iTunes remains the place to manage your music collection. Letting PMS do its own indexing can be very time-consuming, depending on the size of your library. Better to let iTunes handle this on, so enabling this is advised.
Another item within the PMS settings is myPlex. MyPlex requires an account, which is easilly created online at plexapp.com. MyPlex does two things;
1. it makes the PMS discoverable to clients logged in with the same myPlex account. Even over the internet. With other packages, you need to remember your WAN IP address provided by your ISP, which can change without notice. Or you need setup some dynamic DNS account somewhere. MyPlex publishes your WAN IP to a central Plex server, and is automatically updated when necessary. The only thing you have to do is set up port forwarding in your main router. If done correctly, you server is always reachable, hassle free, from any device, anywhere in the world.
2. the website my.plexapp.com is enabled. This online myPlex environment offers a few things:
- It shows a list of connected servers and makes it easy to share them with friends. Allowing (or denying) them access to your server.
- Clicking a server brings up the media manager for remote management
- It gives access to your Media queue. Whenever watching an online video, you can add it to the Media que to watch it some other time. It will pop up in any client to watch at your leisure.
Think of Plex channels as Apps. Independent plugins to extend Plex’s functionality. When enabling iTunes sharing in the PMS settings, the iTunes channel is automatically added. There’s a lot to choose from, mostly online video channels formatted to work in Plex. CNN, Netflix, iPhoto, BBC iPlayer and MTV to name but a few. It’s another fine example how well Plex is integrated between devices. Channels can be added from within any client and will show up in all others. (Tip for dutch readers: uitzendinggemist.nl and RTL XL are also available).
Plex enabled devices (Web TV’s, NAS and mediaplayers)
Both PMS and the Plex client are found on other devices then your average PC. The client is available on LG TV’s, Google TV and a variety of Samsung media equipment (my d8000 TV included), jailbroken Apple TV’s and Roku Mediastreamers. The functionality and stability varies between devices, but the client on my d8000 for example is nowhere near as good as a PC based client. Less flexible and tends to crash from time to time, but it’s still a work in progress.
The Plex Media Server found its way to Linux based NAS stations. Synology being the most widely used. They work as expected, but the raw processing power is what’s letting it down. During the time of writing, the newer NAS stations are equipped with an Intel Atom processor at 2,13 GHz. Perfect for the day to day tasks, direct streaming to a client should be without issue, but transcoding becomes problematic. SD content, and even some 720p can be done, but 1080p transcoding maxes out the little Atom, resulting in stuttering video playback. as a prove of concept it’s very succesful, but it’s better to wait for a more powerful solution. Probably the next generation
Obviously, you want proper remote control over your Plex Media Center. I’ve gone into detail on how to achieve this in this article.
I hope it’s clear by now the Plex environment is very versatile and with the provided add ons should meet most of your media needs. Both the media center and server are being update regularly with fixes and new features. AirPlay support to stream from your iOS device directly into the Plex Media Center is currently being developed. There’s a very active community willing to help and providing new ideas that actually get picked up by the developers. I’ll be using Plex for many years to come.