Plex is Cool

So I know I'm really late to the party on this one, but I was recently on a trip with some friends and they started singing the praises of Plex, a refrain I'd heard before and largely ignored because I've been more than satisfied with my Kodi setup for years. I use Kodi to watch both movies and TV that I rip or download as well as record from my HDHomerun and it's a perfect simple install on basically all the screens in my house, most using a nice tidy distro called LibreELEC.

I'd always viewed Plex as a poor-man's Kodi, albeit a shinier, fancier one. Okay, maybe that's an oxymoron - but I'd seen Kodi as the tool of choice for the power-user set and Plex more for the masses. Call me a media snob, I won't argue.

I still think that's largely true, but what piqued my interest this time was the demonstration of Plex's sharing capabilities. You can add friends and basically stream your content to them and vice-versa, transcoding video on the fly if need be. I was skeptical about the transcoding bit, doubting you could get good quality for on-the-fly video, but we tested it on my laptop and it worked really well.

To be clear, I'm not replacing any of my Kodi machines. In my opinion, Kodi is still superior for maintaining and watching my own library at home. But Plex's sharing and remote features make it compelling for other use cases.

Aside from letting my friends have access to my rather monstrous movie and TV libraries, Plex is also a great solution for sharing photos and home videos with the family. This Thanksgiving, my plan is to download Plex to my parents' Roku or Kindle Fire TV (or both), sign them up for a Plex account (which is free), friend me, and then grant them access to photos and home movies. Since my mom doesn't do Facebook and my dad basically doesn't do technology, they miss out on a lot of pics and video since my wife or I have to explicitly remember to send them things. But with Plex, as long as we put our media on our home fileserver, it will automatically show up on Plex for them.

...but I digress.

Speaking of fileservers, part of what made this Plex experiment so fun was that I had just built a new fileserver. For the past several years, I've had a Windows Server 2008 machine with a software RAID 5 array plus several external drives to house my media. But I finally got sick of my ever-more-complex setup and decided to start over, scrapping everything but the case, which is this beauty:

Here's a pic of it in action, with about half the drives installed:

Anyway, the new machine is running a really nifty Linux-based operating system called unRAID which allows you to create an array of disks in a configuration similar to RAID 5, but instead you can use drives of disparate sizes and expand the array on the fly without rebuilding the whole thing. As long as your one parity disk is at least as big as your biggest data disk, you can lose a disk and not lose any data. I've now got a 23TB array going.

But the newer features of unRAID are what make it extra cool: it can create virtual machines (Linux, Windows, even Kodi!) but even cooler: Docker containers! I'm running Plex in a container which makes it very easy to administer and upgrade.

Because of these features, I got a CPU that was more powerful than I might otherwise have gotten for a simple file server - a quad-core Intel® Xeon® CPU E3-1245 v5 @ 3.50GHz. This allows it to do the heavy lifting of transcoding as well as handling the Ubuntu VM that I also use to remote into to manage my media and downloads.

Rounding out the media-server fun is Emby, which is kind of a competitor to Plex, though it's buggier in my experience. However, while both products have the ability to stream live-TV from my HDHomerun tuner, only Emby will let me do it without a paid subscription. This comes in handy really only for sports, so I can catch MSU football or Cubs games wherever I am, even on my phone.


So this veered a bit away from Plex, but the whole package of unRAID, Plex, and Emby are a pretty compelling home media offering, in my opinion. All of them have free versions, so there's nothing to stop you from experimenting and seeing if it's right for you.

© 2016Ross Johnson