I've written before about going completely digital for our home entertainment. To recap: I have a big, shared hard drive attached to an iMac that two Apple TVs share to using ATV Flash This was fine for a while, but, frankly, ATV Flash is a little buggy over our network and the Apple TV struggled with any transcoding (converting one file type to another) and streaming – especially in HD. So, we needed something better. In steps a few things: Netflix, Plex and a Mac Mini.
Plex has been on my radar for a few years and up until recently didn't really make much sense for me. But as ATV Flash was becoming more unstable as Apple updated their OS, then Plex started to look like a good alternative.
As you may have read from my older post, I did have shared hard drive with all the media on hooked up to an iMac which the Apple TVs shared into to browse the media. The issue here became network and sharing reliability. Quite often, the shared hard drive was invisible because the iMac was asleep, or the network had dropped. Sometimes this happened in the middle of a movie. Not ideal.
The new setup is almost identical, but instead of using the Apple TVs as hardware to browse the library, they are now being used just as a device to Airplay to. I barely use the Apple TV UI at all. Browsing from my iPad and then air playing to the Apple TV. What's cool here is that the iPad just acts as a remote, the file itself is being transcoded on the server and just pushed to the Apple TV directly.
What about a standalone NAS (Network Attached Storage)?
Plex does run on a NAS , but the issue there is most consumer NAS boxes don't have the hardware grunt to do the on-the-fly transcoding. So, I finally decided to ditch my iMac in favour of a headless Mac Mini to run as a decent media box, running Plex.
Getting started with Plex
Download it. Get the Media Server on your computer or NAS of choice (Plex has huge device support). Also, get hold of the mobile apps. Once you're done there, download Plex for your connected apps: from Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Google TV or native Samsung apps and, now, the Xbox One, too. The app support is really quite incredible.
Plex Pass. Even though the software for Plex is free, there are some additional things that are left for a subscription that you have to buy. The good thing is, you can get a lifetime subscription and the cost is very reasonable at $149.99. For that, you get early access to new builds, syncing content remotely, things like playlists and trailers. But the killer feature of the Plex Pass is the ability to create user accounts for your content. Now this is something I've been after for ages on the Apple TV, and even more important now my eldest daughter regularly watches films on it. I need the ability to filter the content appropriately for her.
Setting up a server is a breeze. Once you've installed the server software, get yourself a user account on the Plex website and set up a server. This launches some web software for you to start adding files to your libraries and fiddle away to your hearts content with all the settings.
If you did get the Plex Pass, I'd recommend creating multiple user accounts and playlists with the features Plex Pass gives you. The way I did this was to have email addresses and user accounts for server-plex, parents-plex and kids-plex. server-plex is for administering the account and has all the libraries shared with it. 'parents' for Emma and I, and 'kids' just has the 'children's' library shared with it. Now, by simply signing in and out of the iPad, I can access the appropriate content for each user group.
Next up: streaming, or 'How do I watch the film on my telly!?'
There are a few options:
Native apps (Samsung, XBox One etc)
These are apps installed directly on your TV or Xbox. To watch your content, simply fire up the app and away you go. Yesterday, I installed the Xbox One app and was up and running in less than three minutes.
iOS and Airplay
This is what I described earlier. Simply download the iOS apps and hook up to your plex server. Once you're done, browse your library, press play and then airplay to your Apple TV.
iOS and Chromecast
Exactly the same as above!
Now, there are some disadvantages and advantages to streaming.
Disadvantages: From what I understand, adding Airplay into the mix does have a slight performance hit. Not that I've seen it, though. I'm only generally streaming 720 rather 1080 resolution, so the file sizes are coming up against network limitations. I do expect this to change in the coming years as resolution increases.
Advantages: It's a breeze. I use my Plex app on my iPad, choose a film or TV show I want to watch and then just stream it via Airplay. When I'm travelling, I take a Chromecast with me to plug into the TV and stream to that (more on that in another post).
'Hacking' the Apple TV
Currently there is no native app for the Apple TV, but there is a way to get around this by 'hacking' the Trailers app to directly browse your content on your plex server using PlexConnect or OpenPlex. Now, there's a lot to read to get up to speed on this, so I'd recommend a good look through the plex forums. I followed the instructions here to install the OSX app, add an IP address to the Apple TV (to point to the plex server) and, so far, so good.
To be honest, though, I tend to just Airplay these days. The iPad remote / Apple TV combination is quite hard to beat. It's fast, flexible and stable.
Is this it for my digital home needs?
For a good few years now I've been looking for the optimum solution to this problem. My home media centre needed the following:
- Multi-user accounts
- Full-featured remote
- Large file format support
- Manage music, photos and movies
- Fast transcoding and streaming (minimum 720)
Both iTunes, ATV Flash, Drobo (in fact, any domestic NAS) fail on all or most of these points. Plex not only ticks every single box (if it's run on a decent machine for transcoding), but provides very broad device support, an active developer community and a really good UX for the interface.
Who knows how long I'll stick with Plex as I do have a habit of switching this around as often as I change my email client (quite often!). But, for now, it's working just fine!