Streaming media services like Netflix and Hulu are so convenient that you can easily to forget the simple pleasures of digital ownership. Sure, its nice to be able to watch movies from anywhere, but you dont get the comfort of knowing that the file is sitting on your hard drive, ready to play at a moments notice.
If you want the best of both worlds, consider Plex, an application that simplifies the tasks of organizing your media content and streaming it to other computers or devices.
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Plex is a sophisticated media management program that takes your entire collection of movies, music, and still images and presents it in a slick and navigable package. Plex scans through your media directories and automatically downloads metadata for each file in your collection; later, when you browse through your library, youll see synopses, cast information, and even movie posters and TV theme songs.
Though many media management tools exist, few are as metadata-friendly as Plex. And Plex's server software and transcoding functionality are truly special.
Plex Media Server can stream your media to remote devices, such as other PCs, smartphones, and tablets. The software supports automatic transcoding, so you dont have to worry about whether your Roku or iPhone can play a particular file format: If it cant, Plex Media Server will automatically (and invisibly) transcode it to a format that the device can play, as the media streams. Even better, since you'll be storing your media on and streaming it from a central server PC, you can pause a song or show on one device, and then resume from where you left off on a second device, using Plex's On Deck feature.
First, take a minute to make sure that you have the hardware youll need to run a Plex Media Server. One requirement is plenty of storage for all of those video files. Second, to use Plexs incredibly useful (but processor-intensive) transcoding functionality, you need a modern processor with at least two cores. Officially, Plex recommends a 2.0GHz or faster Core 2 Duo CPU for 720p transcoding, and a 2.4GHz or faster Core 2 Duo for 1080p transcodingthough it's probably wise to shoot a little higher than that. The official memory suggestion is 2GB, but 4GB or more certainly wouldnt hurt. Finally, you'll need a broadband connectionthe faster the better. For the best streaming experience on a local network, Plex recommends a wired, gigabit ethernet connection. You can read all of Plexs system requirements here.
Of course, youll also need the Plex software. Click the Windows tab under 'Organize your media with the Plex Media Server', and then click the Download English button. Youll see a list of clients that can stream from the Plex Media Serverand if youre planning on streaming media to a different PC, this would be a good time to download Plex Media Server, as well.
Organizing your media
Probably the toughest thing about Plex Media Server is getting it to recognize all of your media. Although its file scanners are fairly sophisticated, they rely on the naming and organization of your files to properly identify them for browsing later. Heres how you should organize your files to have the best chance that theyll all be properly recognized:
Plex expects movie filenames to appear in the following format: FullTitle (year).extension
For example, an AVI file of The Matrix would be named 'The Matrix (1999).avi'. You can leave these files in the base of your movies directory, or you can put movies in individual folders bearing the same names as the files. The latter option is useful if you have additional data to go with the movie file, such as subtitle files, or if the movie is divided across multiple files. A split file should be named along the following lines:
The Matrix (1999) pt1.avi
The Matrix (1999) pt2.avi
Plex handles TV shows a bit differently than it does movies. Each episode should be named as follows: Show Name sXXeXX.extension, where the s stands for "season" and the e stands for "episode."
So, for example, the fifth episode in the second season of Dexter would be named 'Dexter s02e05.avi'. Each TV series should have its own folder, which should contain a subfolder for each season of the showeven if the show consists of a single season.
If you use iTunes, Plex will automatically share your iTunes library. If you dont use iTunes, you can organize your music files in much the same way as your TV shows, with a folder for each artist and a subfolder for each album. For full instructions on setting up your media folders for Plex, see the Media Naming and Organization Guide.
Note that you dont have to rename all your files unless you want to: Plex will scan your folders and try to display all of your files coherently, even if their filenames are not consistently formatted. If you like, you can let Plex take a shot at scanning the files first, and then fix those that dont work. But in our experience, Plexs skill at correctly identifying videos with varied naming conventions isn't especially advanced. We recommend configuring the naming structure on your existing media collection to suit Plex's preferences, and then scanning it into Plex, because changing a file name in Windows Explorer is a lot easier than reclassifying a title that Plex has misidentified.