If you’ve been collecting digital media for any amount of time, you may have found it frustrating to catalog or access in a simple way, especially if your media comes from multiple sources or services. You may have a movie collection of varying file types or codecs and find yourself having to juggle different playback software or hardware options. Plex Media Server is an elegant solution to the problem of easily accessing your digital media. Our Video Editor Greg Burke recently posted a review of his introduction to the Plex Media Server universe and came away very impressed with its powerful features.
If you made it here, you’ve already decided to give the Plex Media Server a spin. While some folks (especially those who have tinkered with home theater PCs for years) will be able to navigate the server setup with little issue, getting started can be daunting for a new user. This guide will cover everything you need to know to get your Plex server up and running as fast as possible and serving media to all your devices.
How To Set Up A Plex Media Server
Installing Plex Media Server
The first step is to grab the Plex Media Server installer for your operating system. For the purposes of this guide, I will be going over the Windows Plex Media Server setup, but the steps are virtually the same across other platforms. Once you’ve downloaded the installer, run it and let it install itself onto your PC. Once you reach the final screen of the installer, you will be presented with a prompt to launch the Plex Media Server (PMS).
Once PMS launches, you will be greeted with a Setup Wizard, but before you start working with the wizard, you will need to make sure your media folders and files are prepared so that Plex can easily find and identify them. Depending on the type of files you want Plex to work with, you need to make sure that everything is in an appropriate folder. Specifically, you want all of your movies to be in a folder that only contains movies. TV shows also need their own folder, as does your music collection.
The filenames that your movies and TV shows have are very important. If the filenames are not formatted properly, Plex may have difficulty properly identifying and cataloging the item. For movies, you always want the filename to start with the title of the movie, followed by the year of release. This helps the server identify between movies that have similar names or between remakes. For example, if you have a copy of House Party 2: The Pajama Jam, the filename should look similar to this:
House Party 2 - The Pajama Jam (1991).avi
If your file has other information after the year of release (like dvdrip,etc), that is fine, as long as the title and year are the first two identifiers. Movies can also be placed into nested folders within the main movie folder directory. These nested folder must also follow the naming conventions required for the files themselves. For example:
/Milo and Otis (1986)
Milo and Otis (1986).mkv
Milo and Otis (1986).eng.srt
For TV shows, the naming requirements vary slightly. For each different TV show in your main folder, there needs to be a nested folder that has the show’s title (and year if it is a remakes or shares a name with another show). Inside the show’s folder, you may have nested folders for individual seasons or simply have all episodes loose in the folder. For shows that follow the Series/Season format, each episode should use the following naming convention: ShowName – sXXeYY - For example:
This lets the server know that this particular file is episode 8 of the third season of Night Court. The Plex scraper will be able to go online and find information about that specific episode, give a screencap from the episode, and properly display it within your Plex library.
If your Plex Media Server has scanned your library and not properly discovered a movie or TV show you know is in the folder, check the filename to make sure it is formatted properly. For more information on media preparation and naming, refer to Plex’s comprehensive guide.
Plex Media Server Setup Wizard
Once you have your media properly named and in appropriate folders, you can go back to the Plex Media Server window and being using the setup wizard. If you haven’t already, you will need to create a free Plex account and login with it in the wizard. You will be prompted to choose a friendly name for your server that will appear when using Plex clients to access your media (Apple TV, Fire Stick, Roku, PS4, Xbox, etc). If you want to access your content outside your home network, make sure to put a check in the box below the friendly name prompt.
Click Next to move on to library creation. On this screen, you want to select the folders on your PC or network where you keep your media. Click the “Add Library” button to bring up the selection prompt for different library types. For movies, select “Movies”. Navigate to the folder where your movies are stored and click the “Add” button. If you have tv shows, music, or photos, click the “Add Library” button again and build the appropriate library type and choose the proper folder.
Once you complete this step, click “Next” and the Plex Media Server will begin scanning your drive(s) and building your library. How long this process takes is dependent on the size of your libraries. If you have 4000 movies, it can take hours to completely build out a database for a library of this size. It will be downloading movie posters, actor photos, director information, Rotten Tomatoes information, subtitles, and making snapshots of the movie file for seeking purposes (so you can see where you are while fast forwarding). While this scan process happens you will be greeted with a screen offering downloads for Plex client apps on various devices. You can click “Done” at this point. The server will continue to scan and catalog your library in the background.
Using The Plex Media Server Dashboard
You will need the Plex Media Server to be running at all times if you want 24x7 access to your media. While it is running your will find a Plex icon in your taskbar. Double-click it to open the server interface in your default web browser. The main Plex Media Server starting page is known as the dashboard. This is where you start when you want to customize, configure, or tinker with your server. By default, you will have a list of recently added media on this landing page and a search bar on the top left of the page for quick access to items in your library. You can search for movie titles, actors, directors, or whatever you’d like. You can also watch or listen to any part of your library from this Plex dashboard.
On the left side of the dashboard, you have quick access to your libraries. By clicking “Movies” you will navigate to your movies library and get a full look at your server’s movie contents. The pulldown menus to the left of your server name let you fine tune which parts of your library are in view. You can sort by date, title, actors, directors, ratings, and more. On the right hand side of this bar, you have play controls, playlist tools, and a sliding bar that lets you alter the size of the posters displayed.
If you hover your mouse over any of the movie posters, you will see a play button that works just how you’d imagine. If you click anywhere else on the poster, the dashboard will take you to the detailed library view for that movie. From here, you can see a detailed synopsis, cast and crew information, and related movies. On the top right, you can toggle the watched/unwatched status or add the movie to a playlist. The pencil icon allows you to edit or fine tune any library listing. You can alter or change titles and dates. You can also decide which poster will be displayed in your server and to client devices.
Access your Media With Plex Clients
All of the previous setup and configuration is neat and looks cool to mess with, but the main reason most folks use Plex Media Server is to easily view their media on a range of devices. To do this, you will need to install the Plex app on any applicable devices you own. Some of these apps are free and some have a small upfront cost, depending on the platform. If you purchase the PlexPass, access to all client applications is included at no charge. Plex clients can be found on the following platforms (but not limited to):
Android, iOS, Windows, MacOS, Roku, AppleTV, FireTV/Stick, Alexa, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Sonos, NVIDIA Shield, Chromecast, Kodi, Tivo, and various Smart TVs
Once you have downloaded and installed the Plex client app on your device of choice, start it up. Log in to your Plex account via the app. If the device you are loading the Plex client from is on the same network as your server, your library should automatically show up. On most clients, you will see the friendly name of your server in the top right along with your username. If you navigate to the username and tap or click, you can access additional settings.
The main setting you should be concerned with is video quality. By default, on most non-mobile clients, the streaming quality will be set to 3 or 4Mbps at 720p resolution. If your TV or screen is 1080p and you have 1080p files, you may want to increase the quality settings to get the best possible picture from your library. Higher quality streams require more bandwidth, so make sure your network is up to the task. It is highly recommended that whatever machine is hosting your Plex Media server be wired directly to your router via ethernet cable for the best results. If your server is hosted wirelessly and is streaming out to other wireless clients, network congestion can possibly affect your playback.
Below the quality settings option is a checkbox to enable the playback of smaller videos at original quality. Enable this setting and the Plex Media Server will directly stream the original file to your device (assuming the device can play back such a file natively). This can reduce the CPU load on the server. Part of the magic of the Plex Media Server is in its transcoding ability. It does not matter what kind of files you have or where they came from, when using Plex, the server will automatically convert the file to a format that the client device can play perfectly.
Another bonus of using Plex is that you can stop or pause movies on one device and resume them at the same spot on any other device that is using the same Plex account. This can be helpful if you have lots of distractions or simply consumer your media all over the place.
Accessing Your Plex Server Outside Your Network
Your Plex libraries will work perfectly at home on your network, but you can also have all the fun on the go as well. From your Plex Media Server Dashboard, click the screwdriver and wrench icon to open server settings. On the top right, click “Server” to navigate to the server options list. Near the top of the options on the top left, you will see a listing for “Remote Access”. Click this listing to enter the settings page.
From here, click “Enable Remote Access”. Your Plex server will run a test and see if it is accessible from an outside network. Most likely, this test will fail (or your network has already been invaded by Russians). Lower on this page you will see your local IP address and your public IP address. Choose to manually specify a public port. You will need to forward said port via your router’s configuration menu. How exactly to do this varies from router to router and is beyond the scope of this guide. Refer to your router manual or ISP for information on your specific equipment.
Once your router is configured to allow outside traffic via the specified Plex port, the Remote Access test should pass and you will get a green dot by this option in your server settings page. Now you library is accessible outside your network as long as you are logged into your Plex account.
Everything's Better With Friends
If you have family and friends you would like to give Plex library access to, you need to invite them to your server. From the Plex Media Dashboard, click the screwdriver and wrench icon, then choose “Users”. From here, you should select the “Friends” option on the left, and finally the “Invite Friends” button. Anyone you invite to use your server must have their own free Plex account. From the invite screen prompt, simply enter the Plex username or registration e-mail address of the person you want to invite.
On the next screen, you can manually select which parts of your server you would like to grant access to. This can be handy if you have an exhaustive anime collection that none of your family know about and you want to share your regular movies without your dad seeing all your tentacle porn. From this screen you can grant or revoke access to your server at any time. Before you invite twenty different people to your server, make sure you have sufficient bandwidth available, as each stream requires a decent amount of upstream bandwidth to ensure smooth playback.
Scratching The Surface
While this guide covers the basics of what you’ll need to get rolling along with your own Plex Media Server, it only scratches the surface of what the software is capable of. To get the most out of your Plex experience, you’ll want to dive deep into the advanced documentation provided by the Plex devs and community. If you have a question about something you think Plex can do, the answer is probably “yes”. It may not be officially supported by the software, but there are loads of open-source scripts and helpful tools to make Plex the ultimate media experience.