Last week I was called out of town unexpectedly for a work emergency that required my presence at the home office (there are time when telecommuting just doesn’t work). I got the call Monday afternoon and early Tuesday I was on a plane.
Fortunately, I has just that weekend started playing with a media server called Plex. Plex isn’t new – it’s been around for a few years. But I thought I’d give it a go as the server software is free.
Why would I need it? After all, I have been ripping DVDs (at a slow pace, to be sure, but getting there) and storing them in iTunes an a box that I’ve designated as my media server. Thanks to Home Sharing, I can watch any of the videos via AppleTV, on my Macs, or on my iOS devices. That is, as long as I’m on my local LAN I can do that. But what happens when you, oh, get called out of town unexpectedly?
That’s where Plex comes in. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert with it – I’ve only been able to fool with it for a couple of days, and there are plenty of features, like saving off YouTube and Hulu videos to watch later, that I haven’t even tried yet. But I have used it to watch items from my iTunes library remotely.
While running the Plex server installer, I was asked where my different media types were. I pointed Movies at my iTunes movie folder, TV shows at the TV folder; I didn’t bother with music, as I have all that on my iPhone and iPad already. Plex went through and indexed them all, attempting to match up the files with metadata from sources on the Internet. Plex expects a certain naming convention to help it do this, and because I didn’t have that (remember, everything is being managed by iTunes already) it didn’t have much luck. I had hoped it would read the extensive metadata I had added to the files via MetaX (a great free program for tagging video). However, Plex ignored that – even after I went into the server and tried to configure it to use the data.
The metadata, while nice, wasn’t really all that important – it did pick up the show/movie names and, in the case of TV shows, seemed to get the season right, but not the episode numbers. As long as I have the name right, that’s all I really need remotely.
Once you have your media indexed into Plex (it doesn’t copy it, just adds it to its database), you can play it with the Plex program on your computer, via a web player (using Flash) or with a program ($4.99) for your iOS device. It’s also cross-platform, meaning you can watch on an Android device, Windows computer, a Roku, GoogleTV, etc. The server is also available for Windows and Linux (but only Intel Macs). In addition, Plex will transcode the media on the fly to match what the consuming device needs. So if you ripped your DVD and kept it as an MPEG-2, Plex will turn it into an H.264 video for your iPad. (I rip everything to H.264 anyway, so I didn’t get a chance to try this out.)
I had some video on my iPad but it was almost out of space, So I watched that while disconnected on the plane trip, and used Plex to watch in my hotel room. It worked, but stopped frequently, because the hotel WiFi was sooooooo sloooooooow. I was in a bad spot for cell reception, too, so even switching to LTE didn’t help. But once I let it buffer up enough, it worked great on my iPad, iPhone and Mac.
If you sign up for $4 a month ($30/year or $80 lifetime) you can get a “PlexPass.” This allows you to download media to your remote device rather than just stream it. You also get early releases (with new features) and access to a private forum (there are free public forums at the site as well). I haven’t yet tried this as I really don’t have much need for it.
I will say that, thanks to a forum post detailing the inner workings of the Plex database, I was able to change some data and get the server to read the metadata in the files for a lot of my movies and TV shows. However, this is *not* for the faint of heart, and so I will only mention that it requires a good knowledge of SQL to do it properly. I do not advise you to do anything in there manually if you don’t know what you’re doing.
When Plex does recognize a show, it ads a neat feature (that you can turn off) – going to the show’s main page in the program will start it playing the theme song!
Plex will not play any video with DRM, like things bought via iTunes – it will index them, but they just fail to play. But most of my video is from DVDs I bought and then rip, so now I can see them from just about anywhere without having to “fill up” before I leave.