Over the last decade and half I have moved between various platforms to manage the digital media I have. First it was simple folders in an external hard drive to store all the movies, tv shows, music, pictures and home videos I had. The media would be ripped from optical disks I owned using software I described here. Later, I graduated to categorizing and storing all the digital content in my home with Zune, then to Windows Media Server so that I can share it to my XBOX and other devices in the home. After this was moving everything to Apple iTunes so that all the iDevices like iPad, iPhone & Apple TV in the house can access the content and Windows PCs using iTunes for Windows; Photos management and sharing itself was a difficult task by itself. In between these, I bough Logitech Slimbox, Google TV, etc. which were total waste of money.
After many such short lived attempts to tame my ever growing media pile, I have found a solution 2 years back that has been working very well for me and the easiest to use. It is called Plex Media Server, which is free for most usage scenarios with portions of it even made open source by the developers. There is an alternative to Plex and it’s called Kodi (formerly XBMC) which is completely open source and free, but I have not tried it as I got comfortable with Plex.
Plex has two components:
- The first is called Plex Media Server (the host) that you install in a device (typically a PC or Mac but you can install it in many IoT and NAS devices as well). This is where you store the media files you own like the movies, pictures and music. You simply create folders for each and add them to Plex. Plex will automatically crawl the folder for new files, identify them with the help of online directories like TheMovieDB, Rotten Tomatoes and Gracenote. If you spend a bit of effort to name the files properly as per the guidelines for movies, tv shows and music, Plex will download all the meta data and cover image for the files making it visually easier for you to discover content when you are trying to play them.
- The second part is called Plex apps (the client) that you install in the devices you want to play the content on. These apps are available for a wide range of devices including Windows, Mac OS X, Android, iOS, Roku, XBOX, PlayStation and more. Please note apart from using these native apps Plex content can be played from any web browser as well making it super easy to access all the stored media. Plex Media Server takes care of automatically converting the media files to formats that are supported by the device, so no more video/audio encoding conversions. Using the built-in sync features you can keep an offline copy of selected files in the local device for quicker access as well.
As you are accessing content and playing them between the devices Plex Server remembers your last played content and position so that it’s easy to continue watching from whatever device you have on-hand. You can access and configure all settings of Plex Media Server from it’s browser interface by going to Plex.TV/Web and logging with your Plex.TV account or using the local URL of your Plex Server. If enabled, you can access your media library in Plex Server even from outside your home through it’s Remote Access; this won’t work if your ISP is already using a NAT IP. In recent version of Plex they have added supported to get around this using an option called Cloud Sync. A detailed step by step guide for setting up Plex is here.
Two “free” programs (open source) I find useful along with Plex are HandBrake (to rip movies from DVDs to MP4/MKV files) and FileBot to rename files properly. Stay away from hundreds of programs which advertise to do similar tasks but are mostly crap and have adwares included in them.