We might be in the era of cloud streaming and subscription services, but media ownership (both digital and physical) is still alive and well. That said, being able to consolidate and stream your collection of movies, music, and other media from one place is far more convenient than having a fragmented library across multiple hard drives, devices, and stacks of physical copies.
That’s where having a Plex media server comes in handy. Plex has been around for a while, but if you’re unfamiliar, the service can turn just about any device with enough power and storage into a network-connected media server that you can access remotely. You can even share access with friends and family to create your own private media network.
That may sound like a complicated project, but if you have the right tools, it’s actually quite easy. We’ve put together this guide to help with major steps and decisions involved.
We’ll be focusing the three aspects of your media server setup: the server device, your media files, and the various apps and add-ons available to customise your experience.
Picking a server device
There are a surprising number of devices that will work as a Plex media server, but picking the right one for your envisioned setup will require more consideration than simply plugging an external hard drive into your PC and calling it good.
Ideally, your server will be turned on and connected to your home network 24/7, so look for devices/components designed to be always-on (we detail several below). Similarly, you’ll need to think about horsepower.
For those looking to extend access to multiple users, you’ll need beefier equipment since more people accessing the server requires more processing power and network bandwidth. This becomes especially crucial if you plan on streaming 4K UHD and HDR video content or Hi-Fi audio files.
However, more power will require both more expensive devices/parts, but also require more power draw in order to run. On the other hand, you may not want to have a super-powerful device as your server.
As for network demands, we recommend you always connect your server to your home network via Ethernet, when possible. If you’re connecting over WiFi, you’ll need to use at least an 802.11n router, or ideally and 802.11ac router.
For more information on Plex server requirements, refer to Plex’s support page.
Networked-attached storage (NAS) is your simplest option hardware-wise, but also the weakest. The smaller horsepower has its benefits though, since NASs have low power consumption requirements and can stay on 24/7. If you buy a pre-made NAS, there will be minimal setup involved, though you can build your own if you want more control over the process.
The tradeoff is that DIY NAS servers require more complicated software setup since they do not have graphical user interfaces by default, while the off-the-shelf devices often have the software pre-installed.
While more expensive than a NAS, buying or building a mini PC is the next easiest option, and is probably the median “sweet spot” between cost, power, and ease of use for most people. For pre-made options, there are tons of NUC builds available online, while those who are comfortable building their own could look into projects using a Raspberry Pi.
Whether you buy a pre-built PC or build a beefy high-end rig yourself, this is going to be the most expensive option and will require the largest power draw. However, this is going to be best for multi-user support and transcoding large files (like 4K video or Hi-Fi audio).
You also don’t have to build a new PC. It is technically possible to use your current PC, or even an old one you have sitting around. Just remember that the server needs to be on and connected to the network to be accessible, and that system resources will be taken up by media playback. Because of this, we’d only recommend using your everyday PC if you’re the only person who will be accessing the files and can ensure the PC will be on when you want to connect remotely.
Plex supports Windows, macOS, and Linux PCs.
Since Plex’s media server software can be run on a plethora of devices and operating systems, there are a handful of other devices that can be configured to be a PMS despite that not being its primary use case.
For example, in our testing, we used an Nvidia Shield Pro as our server. There are some limitations to using the Shield, but it was the most accessible option for us since the Plex media server software comes pre-installed on the Shield Pro, and its 500GB of internal storage - as well as support for external storage through USB 3.0 - can hold an appreciable portion of any media library on its own.
The Plex download page includes a full list of the supported operating systems and devices.
Picking a hard drive
The second part of the server build is selecting the hard drive you’ll be storing your media on. A few of the options above can use internal HDDs as the media drive, but we recommend using an external, NAS-certified HDD with USB 3.0 support, its own housing, and - if possible - its own power supply.
We used a 500GB external drive coupled with the Nvidia Shield Pro’s internal 500GB storage, for a 1TB server, and had more than enough space for a large music collection and a dozen or so Blu-ray quality movies, but you could easily core a hard drive with four or five times as much storage.
Setting up the server
Prepare your server device. If you’re building your own, be sure to follow the guides linked above, which will take you through any hardware assembly or software installation required, and help you connect your server to your network. If you’re using a pre-built device, set it up like you would any other PC, turn it on, and follow the first-use instructions.
Once you’ve connected your server to your home network, download and Install plex media server for your device from Plex’s downloads page. If you’re using an Android/Android TV device as your media server, you can snag the Plex Media Server Android software from Google.
Make a Plex account if you haven’t already (the Android version of Plex uses your Google account).
Install the Plex app on the device(s) you’ll be accessing the server from. This is a different application from the media server software and is how you’ll connect to your server and watch your media. It’s available on numerous Smart TVs, Roku and other streaming boxes, plus Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Android TV, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and various other devices.
With the server set up, now it’s time to move your music, pictures, videos, and any other media onto the server. If you’re using an external HDD as the media drive and the media you’re looking to move is on a PC, simply plug in the HDD and move the files manually.
You can also move the files wirelessly from one device to another by using an FTP client.
If you’re looking to back up your physical media collections, you can rip audio CDs using virtually any desktop CD or DVD drive, and you can rip movies as long as you have the correct software and a DVD or Blu-ray drive on your PC. MakeMKV is an excellent choice for ripping movies.
Other guides may recommend using applications like BitTorrent clients or similar software to download media, but this can be a legal quagmire if you’re not careful, so be smart, courteous, and legal here. Follow the copyright laws of your region and don’t go pirating or distributing content illegally.
In the next section, we’ll point out several legal (and in some cases free) ways to watch and record content and bolster your server’s library.
Apps, add-ons, and extra Plex features
All Plex users have free access to several cool features that can pad out your library and consolidate other apps/services to make your server an all-in-one streaming solution.
New and Web TV
Plex provides users with free live and curated news streams from various sources, including ABC, AP, Reuters, and more. In addition to this free news content, Plex also includes a free curated library of popular Web series from outlets like Pitchfork and the New Yorker.
Instead of using your smartphone’s storage to download podcasts, you can download, store, and stream podcasts from your Plex server. Users can search for and subscribe to shows directly in the Plex app, and the software will auto-update and download the latest episodes when they’re available.
If you have a compatible VR headset, you can watch or listen to all your media in VR mode.
Plex Pass and free OTA TV
Plex’s basic server functions are free, but the service offers a premium Plex Pass membership that adds tons of perks like metrics tracking and bandwidth stats, better metadata matching for your files, and perks like discounts towards Tidal music subscriptions.
Luckily, the Plex Pass subscription is quite affordable compared to other media services and offers a flexible trio of pricing options: either $6.49 a month, $49.99 yearly and $159.99 for lifetime access. (Plex also offers a free 30-day trial, if you’re curious).
Plex Pass users can also snatch free HDTV signal right from the atmosphere using an HD OTA antenna. You’ll even be able to record shows as they air. Plex’s interface will even auto-fill-in programming information to create a guide/schedule. We used a Mohu ReLeaf and an HD Home Run to create a makeshift multi-user TV service out of our Plex server without needing cable or a web TV service.
You’re not going to get the breadth of channels, on-demand content, or extra features of cable TV or OTT live TV services like Sling TV, but local channels, sports, and even a handful of cable channels will likely be available in your area. You can check out what channels are available using this handy online tool.