Home media servers have been around for years now. Microsoft tried to bring the idea to the mainstream with Windows Media Center. Apple is now currently trying a new approach with its streaming-based Apple TV product and services. However, both platforms place limits on control, expandability, and format support. Thankfully, there are alternatives.
About three years ago, a Mac-based fork of the venerable open-source XBOX Media Center (XMBC) hit the web. Initially called “OSXBMC,” the project promised a customizable interface, limited hardware requirements, and massive format support. The program shortly afterward changed its name to “Plex,” and began to evolve into truly Mac-inspired application, eventually bringing support to iOS devices as well.
To get started, you first needs to properly organize your stored media. Plex makes storing files trivial; there’s just some simple naming conventions they recommend you follow. First, divide your content into separate folders based on type: Movies, TV Shows, Documentaries, Home Videos, etc.
Let’s talk first about movies. Plex will automatically scan the file names of your movies and match them to the proper metadata from a variety of online resources. This matching process works best when the “IMDB” title is used. This is the title and, in parentheses, year, of the film as it is found on the Internet Movie Database. For example, I’m a big Star Trek nerd and so, when I rename the file of my Blu-Ray rip containing the most recent Star Trek movie, I named it “Star Trek (2009),” the same as it is found on IMDB.
You now have a choice: if you’d like to choose your own poster images for use in selecting the movies within the client software, then you’ll want to first create a subfolder with the IMDB name of each movie and then place the movie file and poster image in that folder. Both files should be named the same as the subfolder, with the movie contain the extension of the container it is stored in (i.e., .mkv, .mp4) and the poster file renamed with the extensions “.tbn”. This will allow Plex to see the poster file and display it in the media client interface. If you don’t want to bother with hand-picking poster images, Plex will do it for you, but I’ve found that the quality is not always what I’d like.
Following standard naming conventions for TV Shows and Movies helps Plex find metadata online for your content.
For TV Shows, it’s a little more complicated but still relatively straightforward. Just as we referenced the IMBD for movies, we’ll reference the TVDB, an open database, for TV Show names. First, start with creating the main folder for each TV Show, including the year in parentheses (i.e., “Star Trek (1966)”). Then create subfolders for each season (i.e., “Season 1”). Finally, within that season subfolder, place the individual episode files. Plex will work with a variety of TV episode naming conventions but I’ve found the following to work best: Show (Year) - Season#Episode#.extension (example: “Star Trek (1966) - S01E01.mkv”). Plex will now be able to scan these files and bring in all the corresponding metadata for each episode, including scene thumbnails.
For all other content, such as documentaries and home videos, you can name these however you like, as you’ll be able to edit their metadata manually from the Media Server interface later on.
Now that you have your media files in order, we can move on to the Plex software. Plex has two main components: a media server that scans, manages, and serves up your content, and a client player. The media server requires a computer (either Mac or Windows) and client is currently available on Mac, iOS, and Android. If you choose to use a computer-based client, it can be run on the same machine as the server.
Plex installation is as simple as drag-and-drop.
To get started, download and install the server for your computer. If you download the Mac version, the file includes both the server and the client. The Windows version only includes the server application.
During the installation, Plex will ask you where your media is located. You can further subdivide locations at a later date (explained below) but for now enter the general locations of your movies, TV shows, and music.
Plex also offers a host of content plug-ins, allowing you to tap directly into online video feeds from sources such as CNET, TWiT, and Revision3.
At the end of the setup is an option to install Soundflower, an open-source system extension that allows applications to pass audio between each other. If you’re installing Plex server and you wish to use the iOS clients to view content, make sure to install the plugin.
Once the installation is complete, you’ll find the Plex Media Server running in your Menu Bar. Click on it and choose “Media Manager” to get a look at the content that Plex currently sees.
Plex Options and the Media Manager can be found in the Plex Menu Bar Item.
As you click on the sources to the left, such as TV Shows, you’ll see the content appear on the right. Although Plex does an excellent job of collecting media metadata from online sources, you can view and modify any of the metadata in the Media Manager.
You can fully edit the metadata for any item in your Plex library.
In addition, you can create custom sections beyond just TV Shows and Movies. Using the plus icon at the bottom left you can designate separate sections for your content that will appear in the client software. Here, I’ve created separate sections for “Documentaries” and “Home Movies.” Also, within a section, you can create what Plex calls “Collections” for easily grouping films of a certain type. In my case, I’ve created collections for Christmas films, the Friday the 13th collection, James Bond, and Star Trek.
It’s easy to add custom sections and collections to keep your content organized.
Once your media is organized and described the way you want, the real fun begins. Hop over to the client software or open up the App on your iOS device. As long as the devices are on the same network as your server you’ll be presented with all your custom sections and be able to browse and play your media.
The default theme for Plex is called MediaStream.
To further enhance the experience, Plex has full support for user-created themes that change the look and feel of the client software. The easiest way to view and install these themes is to use the application Preen, created specifically for this purpose. With over a dozen different themes to choose from, you’re bound to find one that fits your style.
Aeon is another freely-available theme for Plex.
Plex is a continually-evolving piece of software that’s completely free. It offers a nice alternative to Apple’s TV product and services and you may find that it changes the way you store and enjoy media. So grab Plex and give it a try!