Thursday, December 14, 2017


Plex...  A friend recently told us about a free, open-source program named Plex.  With this program, their family was able to view any movies that anyone in the family owned, whether they were at home or anywhere else with an Internet connection.  They could watch the movies on their iPads, on their phones, or on their TVs.  That seemed like magic to me, so I went and checked it out.

The basic idea behind Plex is that you host a server that has copies of your DVDs and Blu Ray disks, which must be ripped (copied) using other software.  Free ripping software is available on just about every platform under the sun.  The Plex server can run on a Mac, a Windows PC, or a Linux box.  You can also attach tuners and video capture devices, and the Plex server can act as a DVR.  The real magic with the Plex server is that Plex clients can attach to it to view any content held on the server, and those clients are available for PCs, laptops, IOS devices (iPads and iPhones), and Android devices.  Furthermore, there's a relatively simple way to expose your Plex server to the Internet, so mobile devices that are not on your home network can attach to it.  All your content, anywhere you want it, any time you want it.  Pretty good trick!

The biggest challenges the designers of Plex faced, I think, are these:
  1. The user interface had to be easy enough for Grandma to use (it is).
  2. No matter what the source of content is, and no matter what bandwidth the connection to the client is, the content must be streamable.  This requires a technical operation called “transcoding” (converting from one compressed format to another), and this is something the Plex server is very good at. 
One thing the Plex designers didn't do (and wisely, I think) was attempt to make the setup and installation so easy that grandma could do it.  To get Plex running well, you have to have a real server – a computer with a fairly beefy CPU, lots of memory, a DVD/Blu Ray reader, and (most especially) lots of hard disk storage.

After checking it out thoroughly, and seeing what Debbie thought of the idea of “content everywhere” (she loved it), we decided to get Plexed ourselves.  I chose a Mac Mini as the server computer, then added an external 6TB hard disk disk storage subsystem and an external DVD/Blu Ray reader (actually, it's a writer as well).  These three pieces of kit are remarkably small and completely silent, two attributes we prized for something that would be in our TV room.  Also, the choice of a Mac box (versus Linux) brought another benefit: it means I can use BackBlaze as a backup service.  Their service has no limitation on the size of the backups for a single flat rate – perfect for backing up our content library.  Should we ever need a restore, they'll deliver it on a loaner hard disk.

So we ordered the components, and the last of them arrived on Tuesday afternoon.  Yesterday I spent the entire day installing, configuring, and starting to load content into our Plex server.  I've got a client installed on our TV, on our iPads, and on my iPhone – it all works flawlessly.  There's a bit of a learning curve (which I'm still climbing) when it comes to ripping the content, but none of it is really difficult and there's lots of help online.  For a modest outlay, we've got a very interesting new capability.  Not the least of the benefits is one I haven't mentioned yet: the Plex server keeps a searchable database of all your content – no more searching your shelves and boxes for your DVDs or Blu Rays – just type a few characters of a movie's name and poof! – there it is!

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