Choosing a Plex Media Server

I get customers wanting to store media a lot nowadays, and I tend to steer them towards the Plex Media Server software. It has very good indexing capabilities, and a whole host of transcoding capabilities. There is other software available, but this one seems to be the best (at least in my opinion) that I’ve found thus far.

There are a number of things that need consideration when deciding how you want to store your media. Click More to find out more.

First – storage:
What sort of media are you wanting to store on your Plex Server?
Are you wanting to store movies/TV Shows/Videos/Music/Pictures? What resolution are you wanting to store them in?
In this age of 4K UHD media, knowing what resolution you intend to keep becomes even more important. The amount of storage you’ll need to keep the same amount of media increases as the resolution of the media increases.

Let me explain a little here:
A digital movie from iTunes used to be in a resolution of 480p (or SD – Standard Definition. This is what TV used to broadcast in). Nowadays, it’s in either 720p, or 1080p (or HD – High Definition). This means that for an average hour and a half of footage (a movie), the file would use roughly 500MB (or half a GB) of storage space. With HD movies, and surround sound audio? The file sizes have bumped up a lot, often doubling or tripling in size (sometimes even more). As an example, The Hobbit (Extended Edition) with the Directors Commentary and two language tracks (English and German, 5.1ch surround sound) comes in at a whopping 8GB. That mounts up pretty fast – where 1 TB of space used to store around 500 movie-length files, it can drop down to 100 files or even fewer now.

Second – player:
What are you intending to view the media on?
This defines the amount of transcoding needed for the players to receive the file from the server, which defines how much processing power you need the server to have.

  • A player on the same network that can play media fairly well itself (for example, a computer with the Plex App installed) won’t need much transcoding. Plex can generally just pass the file to the player directly and let it handle the output itself.
  • A player on the same network with average media capabilities (for example, a tablet or smart TV) will usually need a little transcoding. This converts the format the media is stored into an Audio/Video language (or ‘codec’) that the player will understand. Occasionally this will mean lowering the resolution that gets sent to the player.
  • A player accessing Plex remotely (say, streaming from home to your mobile device when you’re out and about) needs more transcoding, partly due to network bandwidth requirements and partly due to client device capabilities.
  • Lastly, a Plex Server that can play media itself (for example, some of the QNAP NAS units, or a PC running Plex Media Server). Network speed isn’t so much of a factor here, as the media doesn’t have to be streamed as such – just decoded. A NAS designed for media works well here, for obvious reasons. A PC can work well if it’s powerful enough to decode media on its own or to play the average game. I have several clients with NAS units connected to their Smart TVs via HDMI, and they play the media from the NAS directly. It works really well.

Third question – target network:
Do you intend to stream on the move?
If so, the internet speed where the Plex Server is located needs to be fast enough to maintain a stable data transmission. Remember the days of YouTube buffering videos? That can happen with Plex if you don’t have a fast enough connection to it.
I stream a lot to my phone – music while I’m out, mostly. It’s convenient. I don’t have to subscribe to Spotify, or a secondary service, nor do I get advertisements interrupting me. I get my own media, and that’s it. It works well. If I find a new song I like, I buy it on iTunes (or similar digital service) and put the audio file into the folder I’ve told Plex to watch for music. Plex scans it, tags it, and voila – I can stream it.

As you can see, there is quite a bit involved with doing media ‘right’ (very subjective term, as everyone accepts different levels of media quality). You need to figure out exactly what you want your Plex Server to handle, and how well you want it to do so. Where are you willing to compromise? Would you prefer to spend money on storing lots of media rather than transcoding capability? Would you rather transcode well and increase storage later? Personally I’d recommend going with the latter, as that will allow you to improve your server easily in future – replacing drives, rather than a full rebuild of hardware. A server that stores a bunch of media but can’t send it anywhere isn’t a media server – that’s just a file server.

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