Your smartphone is great for catching up on your favourite TV show on your commute or watching that movie you’d been meaning to get to, but there’s one pesky detail that often gets in the way. You have to remember to do a time-consuming sync beforehand; if you don’t, you’re out of luck. Here’s how to stream any media from your home computer (Windows or Mac) to your smartphone (iOS or Andoird) using media centre application Plex.Plex – an XBMC spinoff that was once Mac only – has come a long way recently. It now has companion apps for Android and iOS, as well as a media server application for Windows systems in addition to its server and media centre apps for Mac. One bonus with the mobile apps: They can stream music and movies from your home anywhere you go, from the next room to the next state.
What is Plex?
Plex, for those unfamiliar, is a fork of XBMC that used to be called XBMC for Mac. We mentioned when the app appeared, and again when the Android app and iOS app appeared, and it’s still a great home theatre and media management application.
Mac users get the benefit of Plex’s beautiful interface and integration with the Apple Remote or your iOS or Android device to control media playback and screen actions. The Mac version also comes with the Plex Media Server (unfortunately abbreviated PMS), which serves up your music and movies to other devices on your home network. Windows users can get the Plex Media Server, but not the media centre side of the app.
We’re going to focus on the Plex Media Server, which works with the mobile apps to stream your media right to your mobile device without a third-party service in the way.
There are certainly other apps that allow you to stream music and video from your home computer to your mobile device. Plex is unique because it also offers a media centre application you can use on your Mac if you have one connected to your TV at home. More importantly, Plex offers media server apps that sit quietly in the background of your computers and lets you connect and stream from them whether they’re in use or you’re away from home.
Perhaps one of Plex’s biggest benefits is that you don’t need a third party, cloud-hosted, or managed solution to manage your music or media for you. You control the app on the computer with the media you want to watch, and then on your phone. The phone streams straight from the computer – no need to upload your music or movies to another service, or pay for storage.
Also, Plex does transcoding on the fly, so you don’t need to worry whether or not the video on your computer at home is the right format to be seen on your Android phone. Plex handles that for you when you press play. (Sort of like Air Video or StreamToMe for iOS, but with a little more open-source and cross-platform friendliness.)
Step One: Install and Configure Plex
Before you get streaming, you’ll need to install Plex on both your home computer (Windows or Mac) and your phone (Android or iOS).
Desktop: Visit Plex’s homepage to download the media centre suite for Mac or the media server for Windows.
When you install Plex on the desktop, the app asks you where you keep your music and movies the first time it starts. You can add as many folder locations or network folders as you choose, and media players like iTunes will be automatically indexed.
If you’re installing the Mac version, you’ll get dropped into the media centre side of the app while Plex indexes your music and movie collections. If you’re installing the Windows version, the app goes to the systray and waits for you to open it and add more media folders.
Mobile: Once you have the media server apps configured and indexing, use that time to installed the mobile apps on your phone. Visit the iTunes App Store ($5.49) or the Android Market ($4.66) to grab the version for your device.
The first time you launch the Plex mobile app, you’ll see the settings page. The app will asks if you want it to look around its local network for Plex Media Servers. If you already have PMS running on your Mac or PC and your phone is connected via Wi-Fi to the same network as you Plex desktop server you set up above, the app will likely find your media server and connect to it. If you don’t see it, you can tap “Add a New Server” to enter its name, network address, and credentials (if any, more on this later.)
You can only connect to one media server at a time, but you can have several in the list of known connections, so you can switch between them by going back to the settings page.
From the Settings screen, you can also configure the video quality displayed on your device when you’re connected via Wi-Fi on the same network as the server, on different Wi-Fi network, or over 3G. Select the server you want, and whether you want to control the server with your phone, or play the media on your phone, and you’re set up.
Step Two: Configuring Remote Access and Streaming
Now you’ve set up Plex so you can stream media from your home computer to your device as long as you’re on the same network. That’s nice, but the goal is to stream your media anywhere. Here’s how to set up remote access and streaming:
Desktop: If you want access to the media indexed by the Plex Media Server when you’re travelling, there isn’t too much you’ll have to do in the desktop app or media server, but you will need to make some changes to your home network from your desktop or laptop before you can leave your home theatre behind and watch everything from your mobile device.
First of all, you’ll need to configure port forwarding on your router to allow your phone to connect to the PMS on your network when you’re using Wi-Fi at the office or coffee shop, or when you’re on the train on commuting home.
Plex Media Server uses both TCP and UDP ports 32400. You can either open it on your router to external connections, or better yet tell your router to route traffic arriving on that port directly to the system on your network running PMS. If you have a dynamic IP address assigned by your ISP, you’ll need to grab it and jot it down.
For extra convenience, use a service like DynDNS to give yourself a hostname that stays put even if your home IP address changes. You can run the DynDNS app on your home system like we suggest, but odds are your router already supports DynDNS, so set that up when you set up port forwarding.
For added security, you can set up a username and password on each Plex Media Server on your home network in the Security tab of the PMS Settings. This way only phones with the right username and password (which you define) can connect successfully and stream your media. We highly recommend you do this.
Mobile: Once you have the IP address or freshly assigned DynDNS hostname for your home network, and the username/password for your PMS, turn off Wi-Fi on your iOS or Android device to make sure you’re using 3G and you’re no longer on the same network as your PMS.
Then open up the Plex settings on your iOS or Android device, and add a new server. Give it a name, and then type in the IP address or hostname you’ll use. Enter the user/pass credentials you set up above, and you should be connected. That’s all there is to it: the next time you’re on the go, the connection will be saved so you can get to it again.
Once you have the Plex Media Server running and your phone is set up to connect, playing media is the easy part. Simply open the Plex app on your iOS or Android device and connect to your remote server. If you’ve connected recently, the app will take you right back to the media menu, and you can choose what you’d like to play. It may take some buffering, especially over 3G, but your media will play.
If you left the video and audio quality controls to their defaults, Plex will automatically adjust the stream based on the strength of your connection. Keep an eye on your data usage when you do this over 3G, though. Streaming media can be a quick drain on any wireless carrier’s bandwidth caps. Besides, once you get yourself set up, you’ll find yourself watching your favourite podcasts, movies and music from your home theatre when you’re on the go.
The real beauty of Plex is how simple the application makes streaming your media over your home network or over the internet without a ton of setup and hassle. The indexing is largely automatic, and you have access to all of the plug-ins and tools from your mobile device that make Plex a powerful tool.
Sure there are other tools or services that can do this for you (feel free to share your preferred setup in the comments), but this method lets you roll your own solution that you have complete control over, no third-parties required.