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Plex beginner's guide: What it is, how to use it, and why you need it

Plex
Plex (Image credit: Rich Edmonds / Windows Central)

Plex is one of those services that has been around for some time but many of us might have passed over for some reason, be it a lack of understanding of what it actually does, thinking it couldn't possibly be useful to you, or something else entirely. The truth is, Plex could be just what you're looking for to help you manage your media collection.

Setting up a media server sounds daunting, but Plex makes it super simple — and dare we say, enjoyable. You just need to know where to begin, which is where we come in. Read on for our quick Plex beginner's guide.

Updated June 5, 2017: We added fresh information on live TV, DVR and the Plex Media Server for the Netgear X10 router.

What is Plex?

Plex

The official Plex website describes the service quite well:

One window into all your personal media. No matter where you are.

All the media you own, everything you have on your computer is accessible everywhere. It's all on your mobile devices, through the web, and even on some smart TVs and set-top boxes.

Setting up Plex

Plex

Before you can use Plex to access your media on your other devices, you first need to set up your home server. This isn't nearly as daunting as it sounds and involves downloading the Plex Media Server app to your computer. It comes in flavors for Mac, Windows and Linux, as well as in a form designed for NAS drives. So it covers lots of bases.

Once installed, getting set up is a simple matter of following instructions in the web client — all your Plex-ing on your computer will be done in a browser — to tell it where to look for various media content. You'll be hosting the content yourself, so you'll need to make sure you can get to it at all times if you want to be streaming while away from home. That means storing it all on a laptop you take with you probably isn't the best idea.

If you have a supported NAS drive, a standalone desktop computer or even a spare Windows Box, these will be the best options. Ideally, you want something you can leave turned on, connected to the web and most importantly, something you don't throw in a rucksack and take on the road with you.

Plex Media Server has also been built for the Netgear X10 router. This is an expensive bit of kit, but it's also one of the most powerful, fastest Wi-Fi routers on the planet. By installing the special Plex Media Server build on it you can run the very same system as if you had it on a PC. You can hook it up to a network attached drive, and you don't need a PC to be running at all.

When you're telling Plex where to find your media, it's important to make sure the files are named in a way the software will understand, and that they're stored in a folder structure, in the case of TV shows. Plex has some handy hints{.nofollow} on how to best prepare your media for your server.

Download Plex Media Server

Plex channels

Plex

Plex (Image credit: Windows Central)

Beyond just your own content, Plex has a bunch of different built-in content channels for you to use within the various Plex apps across the platforms.

However, those channels are region dependent. So if you can't get BBC iPlayer on the web where you're located, Plex won't be able to help. There's a good selection of stuff from global providers, though. The great thing about channels is that they're all available to watch in the mobile apps, too, for on-the-go enjoyment.

However, you don't want to get too carried away; Plex's selection of channels isn't as large as other services, such as Kodi's offerings. However, if you check out what there is you'll probably find something you like.

More about Plex Channels

Plex Pass

Plex

If you find that you like Plex and want to get the most out of it, Plex Pass is something you should consider. It's an add-on that you can pay for monthly, yearly or as a lifetime subscription.

Here's what it does, direct from the Plex support pages:

  • Early access to new Plex features.
  • Access to preview release versions of the Plex Media Server and other apps before they're released generally.
  • The latest Plex apps for Android and Roku are yours free.
  • Premium features like Plex Sync, Cloud Sync and Camera Upload.
  • Access to dedicated Plex Pass forums where you can ask the Plex Ninjas questions as well as vote up new feature requests.
  • A way to show your direct support for Plex.

We're not short on photo backup services, but with Plex you'll be combining it with the rest of your media collection and as such can access it on any device with a Plex app. It's also worth paying for if you ever want to offline your media and take it with you.

As for pricing, you'll pay $4.99 a month, $39.99 a year or $149.99 for a lifetime subscription.

Subscribe to Plex Pass

Plex DVR

Plex DVR

Some of the more recent features of Plex Pass really take your home media center up a notch, such as live TV and DVR. Initially, you'll only be able to use a limited number of devices with live TV, but the feature will eventually roll out to all apps on all devices, including Xbox One and Windows 10.

Better still, on Xbox One you'll be able to use the Xbox OTA TV Tuner to get the channels inside your Plex app.

DVR actually arrived before the ability to watch live TV, and setting it up in your Plex Media Server means you can record your favorite shows and then watch them in any of the Plex apps.

How to set up Plex DVR

Plex apps

Plex

Fans of Windows 10 aren't left out in the cold when it comes to app support with Plex. Neither are fans of pretty much any other platform. Plex is one of the most widely available applications on mobile, desktop and gaming consoles, with access on the Xbox One and Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, various smart TVs and set-top boxes such as Roku and NVIDIA Shield.

It doesn't end there, either, with Plex branching out into Kodi support, too. If you're looking to create a home theater PC as well as a server, there's the free Plex Media Player app for your home theater, which is available on Mac, Windows, and even Raspberry Pi.

When it comes to your media, the device you choose shouldn't hinder your enjoyment. Plex is one service that eliminates that problem almost entirely.

Download Plex from the Windows Store

Got Plex tips?

If you're a Plex master and have handy hints or general advice for those looking to jump into it for the first time, drop us a line in the comments below and share the wealth of your knowledge.

Richard Devine is an Editor at Windows Central. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently you'll find him covering all manner of PC hardware and gaming, and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

52 Comments
  • Definitely one of the top app I use on a daily basis. I recommend at least an i3 cpu for transcoding. That means if you have a 20gb file for a movie with 5.1 sound, it will automatically convert it for your mobile / tablet to a let's say 1.5 gb with stereo sound. Everything on the fly when playing the video for the first time. No need to play around with codecs or different player
  • This is the strongest feature of Plex, the transcoding for any other device. And there is a Plex app for EVERYTHING! But I also appreciate the centralized nature of it, keeping track of watched items no matter what I watch them on. And it's easy to use, so it scores high on the WAF (wife approval factor).
  • haha at the WAF term, hadn't heard it said that way before
  • Why would we need it, though?  We already have digital copies modern movies in Vudu, no transcoding necessary.  Our music is already on OneDrive.  So, why would I waste my time with something like Plex?
  • To that extent, why bother using a PC when my phone has all the apps I would ever need? Plex is about control of your media and flexibility to play it on any device you own. Streaming services don't always have the media we want, and for some of us, not at the quality we prefer. Additionally, in my case, rural areas have terrible internet options. Streaming is not always reliable with a fast connection. With a slow connection, forget it. I'm sorry that you don't see the value in Plex, it's not for everyone. But personally, I couldn't do well without it. And I'm sure many others prefer it as well, so don't write it off just because it's not a good fit for you.
  • Agree. I build a XPenology with Corei3-6100T and MSI low power motherboard specifically to handle everything + low power. It does even do 4K. A Synology NAS is to expensive in Corei3 config. My Xbox and many Windows clients love it.
  • can you give me recommendation on what parts I should use sever build?
  • It really depends on what you're familiar with. Windows or Linux are both good. Just make sure you have a decent CPU, sufficient RAM, as much drive space as you can get, and wired network.
  • Requirement a strong internet upload! At least 10mb upload to stream good 1080p
  • Hey not true, I have 25MBs download and 5 upload and it's more then enough to stream 1080p movies
  • We are a long time "whole house" Windows Media Center family and enjoy all our media, including photos, movies, live and recorded TV, cable card cable TV, over the air TV, DRM protected TV such as HBO and music throughout the house. Would adding PLEX make all our media also available on our Windows Phones and Windows Surface Pros when we are away from home?
  • Plex is primarily for your own saved/stored media. It won't do streaming for DRM places like HBO, I believe. I think Plex does have iTunes linking, but I can't say much about it since I don't have an iTunes account. The Plex server just needs it to be setup for remote streaming for devices to access your media away from home.
  • Re: aka XT14N,
    Apple tunes linking? It that really necessary for the Plex server needs it to be set up for remote streaming? For remote streaming "Windows" devices to access my media away from home? Sounds unlikely, but if true we won't be trying Plex since we won't be supporting Apple.
    Best Wishes
  • The server has to be online to access media outside the home Wi-Fi. Plex isn't an Apple product, btw. If you have iTunes, you can link it to your server otherwise you don't have to. It's just an option. It'll play you media - music, movies/videos, etc. For Windows devices, they added auto upload for pictures for Windows devices into the server. I'm not sure if videos have been included. You may want to check out their website to see what else their product does.
  • I'm guessing Plex can't be installed on a USB drive and plugged into a port on my router? That's really what I want so I can stream the USB's files to my smart TV instead of plugging in a device to it every time. Does anyone know a way I can do this?
  • No, it can't. There are devices now with Plex built in. There are also routers that have built in servers. Then you can just see your files from the external drive from there. I have used every combination of software and devices ever made for this. So far the best I have found is a device like the My Book Live. It works great for every device except TiVo. I do use Plex and have a killer set-up, but I hate transcoding. I have just a i5 and 8 gig of ram and that gets the usage up near 100% on my PC. No thanks to the extra heat and wear and tear. I know it's a pain, but I got a 128 gig USB stick formatted to FAT32 and I pretty much plug it in to a USB port on the TV and it works amazingly well. I know that is what you are trying to avoid so try one of the other ways. I seem to have come full circle. I have also found that the PS3 is still the KING for media. Drop in a huge drive, and you can dump all your media onto it. After all these years it is still amazing. Of course then you have to turn on yet another device. I mean really TV makers, how hard would it be to have a slot where you could just slap in a drive like the PS3 and put media on it? That's the ultimate solution.
  • Thanks for the info. My TV does have a Plex app, but I don't want a machine constantly running either. I think the TV has a USB port on the back, but I'm not sure if it recognizes it as an input source. I do have a PS3 and PS4 hooked up to it, but as you pointed out it is another devices running. I'm sure eventually manufacturers will add storage to TVs eventually, but I don't think the average consumer is thinking about that yet. I have an Intel ComputeStick, but the power cable is too short and other cables don't seem to supply enough power. I'll figure out something. Maybe contacting Samsung could help. Probably not but it's worth a try.
  • No it won't work thru usb, it's a media server that needs a pc to stream files! But using a USB means you can only watch specifI see files that are supported by ur TV and etc. I prefer Plex over usb because it will transcode ur files to work on whatever you play it on fast and easy! And it's does not take a lot of cpu on ur pc like other media servers out there! Simply the best is the plex ;)
  • I've been using Plex for years now and it's the best Media software we have come across, I use it on pretty much everything portable, but also the TV and Xbox, it's a brilliant app and I love the fact that you can download content to watch later or Stream from anywhere in the world, brilliant app!!
  • RE: FizzySignal, Does it deliver live and recorded TV, cable card cable TV, over the air TV, and DRM protected TV such as HBO? Best Wishes
  • Recorded TV is possible if stored in a suitable format (mp4, avi etc). Otherwise none of those things are what it's designed for.
  • Plex gets a total FAIL with HD audio files (bitrates that are higher than 44000 Hz, 16 bit).  Plex transcodes these files instead of tranferring/playing them natively.  I've had conversations with support, they do not seem to care much about HD audiio.  Hope that changes, but until then, I'll use my NAS's software which works perfectly for everything, without the unwanted transcoding.  Give me choices.
  • So If I set this up in my house to provide streaming to three different devices in my home (Xbox 360's and PS4), do I have to pay a monthly fee?
  • Only if you want the additional features like Plex Pass.
  • No.
  • Nope, you can stream to as many devices as you like for free... your server may fall over if you do too many at once though ;)
  • Guys, feels a little biased as this is the second or third Plex feature (or being a substantial part therein) you've done lately. No qualms with Plex, but personally Emby (which you haven't covered, once) - from experience with others' media centres the auto meta, auto arrange and (for me) live TV/PVR feature in Emby wins the day (of course, their dedication to UWP also helps greatly). No qualm, but I'm just starting to seriously question whether you have someone on the Plex team or are receiving a referral - in either case it should be stated in the piece.
  • I know I can get Plex on all my consoles, can you do the same with Emby?  I'm looking at convenience for the family.  I haven't tried either, but it intrigues me.
  • Xbox One yes, don't have anything else myself, but FireTV, Android, iOS, Windows and many others supported - or, failing that, anything with a browser. See https://emby.media/download.html for details. Sorry just looked - yes, PS3/4 also supported.
  • I prefer the "Ember for Emby" UWP app on WIndows 10 Mobile AND Xbox One.  There is a cost associated, but with 10, you can buy once and run on up to 10 devices, so it's good.
  • I Def would disagree with you on Emby, plex dosnt chew up ur cpu like emby! And plex Def wins in applying meta for your movies, it's gives you choices of covers and background pics. But I hate how Emby is a pig on my cpu unlike plex
  • Interesting, mine runs 24/7 on an Athlon X2 (yes, that old/low spec) with no issues on any transcoding, recording 2 channels through Emby while streaming, WMC also playing media with a further 2 channels recording. At the same time I have apache & mysql dev server running. Wouldn't class that as eating up a cpu, unless you're concerned with 486 and early pentiums or had some serious issues with your config??
  • Just read your post fully: you have clearly never used Emby! For one: I'm taking about auto-fetching of meta, not the basic functionality of showing it, Jese! I'm talking all new files automatically sorted into folders and all titles, descriptions, ratings, age guidance etc. as well as all images automatically done for you. Second: In terms of your big "win", sorry but you get cover art, disc, logo, poster (multiple), background (multiple), chapter (inc. auto extraction, where unavailable) each of which can be manually overwritten, set to random and/or transition.
  • I having trouble trying to build my own server.. I a lot people say different thing of what I should use for the server. I want to at least be able to stream 6 devices at 1080p at the same time. Any one here who has a built and can give me a list of the parts they use.
  • I have an i7 6700k (not OC'd) with 33GB DDR4 RAM.  RAM doesn't make that much of a difference (mine is overkill, but use other applicatons on the server), but processor does because of transcoding. I'm running 9TB in Raid 5 with 250mbps/10mbps internet connection. I've seen 8 people online with no issues.  Not all files will transcode... depends on file format and if you set it up to stream at a lower quality to save bandwith (will some instances require transcode to lower the quality). Some can Directly Play depending on what device you use (chromecast, firestick, xb1, etc.). *EDIT - make sure your drives are at least 7200k rpm drives
  • That's one beefy home server!
  • Thanks.  Just noticed it said 33GB ram. Lol. It's 32gB. 
  • Nice service. Plex builds on XBMC/Kodi.
      One issue that kept me from using it as my multimedia server
    is the fact that they refuse to accept ISO-files.
    (Kodi accepts ISO-files). Too bad. For streaming music I use OneDrive.
    That good enough for me.  
  • I'm surprised. Plex Media Server is also a DLNA server, yet this support hasn't been mentioned. If your device doesn't have the plex app, or you don't want to use it you can opt for DLNA. The Xbox 360 for example, you can use the System media player (via xbox button) and your Plex server will show up there, and you can browse all your Plex content there (bar the channels). Granted it's not as pretty as the paid Plex apps, but works just fine.
    ​Anything else that supports DLNA should work too (and it'snot hard to add custom support also). My Panasonic bluray player (no Plex app) works a treat, as does my Humax PVR (again, no Plex app), Smart TVs, playstations and what ever else you can throw at it with DLNA can be also supported.
  • XBOX360 has a Plex app.
  • My only issue with Plex is that I can't upgrade past 2.6.1 because it's installed on Windows Server 2008.
  • That OS is almost 10 years old; its the server equiovolent of Vista.  Its long overdue to be replaced.  Nobody supports vista/2008 anymore.
  • I still do not understand why I would need Plex apart from being able to watch my stuff outside of my house. I have a kodi box in my living room. If I have all my stuff stored on a NAS that I can access from my kodi box as well as every computer in the house, what would I use Plex for? What would its purpose be?
  • as a kodi/plex user let me answer you.   TRANSCODING is the answer. Kodi is great if your device is able to support the content you are playing otherwise you won't be able to watch it, here is where PLEX shines your TV doesn't support 4K H.265 it will transcode it on the fly at whatever quality you choose. This is especially true for devices like tablets, tv or phones where if there isn't kodi support you could use dlna to access the content, but if unsupported you are left in the dry, not if they have plex.  
  • That makes sense, thanks!
  • Plex was always great, but support for it has gone to he'll in a hand basket. The same.bugs remain, and no matter how much they are brought up in the forums, it all goes unanswered now.
  • Try Emby instead it's open source (unlike Plex) and Microsoft friendly. The developers are very active on their forums.
  • My WD MyCloud Mirror Gen 2 just got an update where you can install apps from the store. One of which being Plex. I was pretty excited because I have issues with DLNA via Twonky, which is what was built in.
  • I don't have the time or desire to go through the nearly 200 movies we have collected over the years and digitize them.  And all the more modern movies we already purchased them with the added digital copy which is easily available via Vudu.  All our music IS already on our server, which has its own Microsoft Account, and the Music folder is shared to each of our accounts.  So, we always have access to our music all the time.  Plex would just be one more thing in the way that we'd have to maintain.
  • Those vudu digital copies though can go away at any time, due to a licening change.  Same is true for any place you buy digital movies.
  • One thing I like is Plex for Kodi. No need to choose one over the other - they can co-exist. I use Kodi myself on all orders devices but if I would have a different structuring with a dedicated media server, then Plex for Kodi would be the obvious solution.
  • Can't wait for plex support on the Nintendo switch