Your Guide To Plex – The Awesome Media Center

By Lachlan Roy, http://www.makeuseof.com
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Love your digital collection of movies, TV shows and music, but hate using clumsy interfaces to play them on your TV? It’s time to check out Plex, the ultimate media center software. It’s amazing at what it does, but a little complex to use: you need a server and a client for it to work. If you need help figuring all this out, it’s time to read this guide to using Plex.

If you’ve got a lot of media – music, recorded TV shows and DVD rips, all meticulously managed on your computer’s hard drive. You’ve also got a TV and sound system all set up, ready to go. It’s just sitting there, dying to play all your media. But how can you play the content from your computer on your TV?

You could just plug your computer into your TV and use a media player like VLC, but even with a wireless keyboard and mouse this would be a pain if you’re sitting on the other side of the room. Alternatively, you could buy an Apple TV or other media streamer. This isn’t ideal either, though, because they typically have terrible interfaces or awful codec support. Wouldn’t it be great if you could have access to all of your media from pretty much any device on your network, supporting almost every file type and presenting it with a beautiful, easy to use interface? You can. It’s an app called Plex, and it’s free.

Table of Contents

§1 – Introducing Plex

§2 – Installing Plex

§3 – Using Plex

§4 – Customising Plex

§5 – Conclusion

1. Introducing Plex

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a lot of media – music, recorded TV shows and DVD rips, all meticulously managed on your computer’s hard drive.

You’ve also got a TV and sound system all set up, ready to go. It’s just sitting there, dying to play all your media. But how can you play the content from your computer on your TV?

You could just plug your computer into your TV and use a media player like VLC, but even with a wireless keyboard and mouse this would be a pain if you’re sitting on the other side of the room.

Alternatively, you could buy an Apple TV or other media streamer. This isn’t ideal either, though, because they typically have terrible interfaces or awful codec support.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could have access to all of your media from pretty much any device on your network, supporting almost every file type and presenting it with a beautiful, easy to use interface?

You can. It’s an app called Plex, and it’s free.

1.1 What Is Plex?

Plex is a free, cross-platform media center application based on the venerable XBMC. It aggregates your media, matches it to media in its database and downloads extra metadata (such as synopsis and ratings) and media (such as posters and TV themes) to provide you with as much information as possible for your entire library.

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While it started out as an application designed exclusively for the Mac, it has since spread out to cover Windows and partially work on Linux. While installation for most platforms involves only one installer, Plex has two main components: the server and the client.

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The Server

The Plex media server is a program which runs in the background on the host computer, and is responsible for managing the media by searching selected folders called sources. It doesn’t actually move the files around at all – if you want your files organized you’ll have to do it yourself – instead relying on metadata (that is, data about data) to group media based on names and other variables using tags.

The Plex media server is able to send media to other devices (running the Plex client) on the network, too – even if the device wouldn’t normally be able to open the media by itself. In this case, the server transcodes the media into a format that the device is able to interpret.

You can run the Plex server on pretty much any computer running Mac OS X, Windows or Ubuntu (with support for other Linux distributions in the works). There is also server software for Netgear’s (Intel based) ReadyNAS devices and Synology’s (Intel based) NAS devices. However, the server in question will need at least a 2.4GHz dual core processor to transcode 1080p video.

The Client

The Plex client is a program which you run when you want to access your media. It accesses your media from any Plex media server on your network.

Unfortunately there isn’t a client for any Linux distributions (yet), but there are clients for Mac and Windows PCs, as well as iOS and Android devices.

1.2 What Can I Do With It?

Plex is, for the most part, about organizing and playing media stored on your computer (or on your local network) – whether it’s movies, TV shows, home videos, pictures or music, Plex can handle pretty much anything you throw at it. However, Plex is also great for getting content straight from the Internet using external sources called channels.

There are channels for all sorts of content and genres, from inspirational and interesting TED videos to great content from Vimeo to music from SoundCloud and pictures from Lens by the New York Times.

2. Installing Plex

Installing Plex is really easy; in fact, installing Plex on your system is just like installing any other program. Having said that, let’s still run through the installation process for each platform. We’ll explain setting up the server, then the client (when available), so keep reading.

2.1 Mac

Plex Media Server

First, you’ll need to download the Plex Media Server app (contained within a .zip file) by visiting the Mac downloads page on the Plex website and clicking on the button labeled “Download Plex Media Server”.

When the download is finished, just double click on the .zip file to extract the application to the current folder. Then all that’s left to do is drag the application to your Applications folder (or wherever you desire) and open it.

Plex client – Plex Media Center

If you want to use Plex on your computer, you’ll need to go to the Mac downloads page on the Plex website again and click on the button labelled “Download Plex Media Center”.

The process for installing the client is the same as installing the server; double click on the .zip file to extract the application and drag it to the Applications folder.

2.2 Windows

Plex Media Server

The Plex Media Server for Windows runs in the background and uses a Web UI (that is, you configure it through a web browser such as Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox).

Installing Plex Media Server is easy – just go to the Windows downloads page on the Plex website and click on the button labelled “Download Plex Media Server”.

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Once it’s finished downloading and you open the setup file, you may be prompted to install “Bonjour”. This is a network service which makes it much easier for your computer to talk to any Macs in your local network (which is important if you have a Mac that you’re likely to use as a Plex client), so select “Yes” to continue. After that it’s a straightforward setup; just click through like you would for any other Windows application setup.

When setup is complete the Plex Media Server will automatically start up in the background, putting an icon in your tool tray in the bottom right hand corner of your screen. Plex Media Server is now ready to configure via a Web UI; you can access it by either right clicking on the Media Server icon and clicking on “Media Manager…” or by entering “localhost:32400/manage/index.html” into your browser (we’ll run through actually setting it up later).

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By default Plex Media Manager automatically starts when you log in, but this can be turned off by right clicking on the Media Server icon.

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Plex Client – Plex Media Center

Installing the client is a similar process to installing the server; go to the Windows downloads page on the Plex website and click on the button labelled “Download Plex Media Center”.

Again, the setup for Plex Media Center is pretty standard and involves little more than clicking “Next” through to the end.

One thing to watch out for, however, is when you first start up Plex Media Center; a dialog box may come up saying that “Windows Firewall has blocked some features of the program”. If you use a firewall other than Windows Firewall, it too might block Plex by default. Just allow access and everything will be fine.

2.3 Ubuntu

As mentioned above, Plex will only run the media server component of Plex, not the media center. While you can’t use it to play movies from Ubuntu, it’s perfect if you use Ubuntu to power a media server; it allows you to stream media to any Mac, Windows PC, iOS or Android device.

If you’re familiar with the command line, Ubuntu is actually quicker and easier to install than on the other platforms. It simply involves entering a few lines into the terminal (plus one line in a text editor).

Unfortunately, Plex is not in the Ubuntu Software Center by default. Plex maintains their own repository via their website, so you’ll need to add the repository to the list of sources that Ubuntu checks when it searches for packages (or applications) to install.

To do this, start up terminal and enter the following command:

sudo gedit /etc/apt/sources.list

If you’re running Ubuntu Server and don’t have a user interface (or you just prefer to do everything in the terminal) you can substitute gedit with nano.

You’ll be asked to enter your password – this is normal, as the sources list is a read-only file which can only be edited by a superuser (that’s where sudo comes in).

When the sources list opens in your text editor of choice you’ll want to add this line to the end of the document:

deb http://www.plexapp.com/repo lucid main

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You’ll notice that it contains the word lucid, which refers to Ubuntu 10.04, also known as Lucid Lynx. This is the only version in the Plex repository, so you need to use it even if you’re using a later version of Ubuntu (such as 10.10, or Oneiric Ocelot).

Once you’ve added the source to the sources list, you’ll need to save and close the file. Now it’s time to tell apt-get to update its sources, which will make it find the Plex repository we just added to the source list. To do this, enter the following command into the terminal:

sudo apt-get update

It may take a little while for apt-get to update its sources, but when it’s done you’ll be ready to install the Plex Media Server. That’s just one last command away:

sudo apt-get install plexmediaserver

You may receive a warning that plexmediaserver “cannot be authenticated” – that’s fine. Just enter “Y” and press enter.

That’s it! apt-get will download all the files necessary to install the Plex media server and will automatically install it for you.

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Once it’s finished installing Plex will automatically start. You can stop and start the media server by entering the following commands:

sudo stop plexmediaserver

sudo start plexmediaserver

The Plex Media Server on Ubuntu uses a Web UI, so you’ll need to use a web browser to use it. If your Ubuntu installation has a UI (that is, if you’re running Ubuntu Desktop Edition rather than Ubuntu Server), you can use a web browser to go to the default address –

http://localhost:32400/manage/index.html

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You can also access the Web UI from any other computer on the local network by substituting localhost with the computer’s IP address. You can find out the IP address by entering the command ifconfig into the Terminal. The IP address is the series of numbers following inet addr: – in the case of this screenshot the IP address is 10.0.2.15, but typically this will be something like 192.168.1.*.

3. Using Plex

3.1 Using The Server

There are slight differences between the Web UI used by the Plex Media Server on Windows and Ubuntu and the native UI on Mac OS X. We’ll go through them briefly.

Before we get started, there’s also the matter of Flash. Some Plex channels are able to grab video from Flash and Silverlight (Microsoft’s Flash alternative) and transcode them, making them playable on devices which usually can’t handle flash (I’m looking at you, iOS!). However, this isn’t entirely flawless, and each platform has to make some sacrifices.

In the Windows corner, to grab Flash video you’ll need to be running Windows Vista or 7; XP users are out of luck. Mac users can access Flash video out of the box, but may need to install an extra component called Soundflower to access some audio streams. Ubuntu users fare worst of all, because unfortunately there is no Flash support whatsoever in Plex Media Server for Linux.

3.2 Managing Media Sources On The Mac

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The first time you start the media server you will be prompted to add sources to your media server. You’ll be asked where your movies are stored, followed by TV shows, followed by music (although this isn’t really necessary if you manage your music in iTunes; that’s all accessible anyway, as are your photos through iPhoto).

If you have one kind of media stored in multiple locations, you can add all of the different locations to the one Library section. This is also where you’ll be asked if you wish to install Soundflower, which you’ll want if you plan to be accessing any Flash video through channels such as Hulu.

Once you’re out of the wizard you’ll be presented with the main Plex Media Manager window. In the sidebar on the left hand side you’ll see the different Library sections you set up in the wizard, and in the main area you can see the items in the currently selected Library section. You can sort items by name, year or the date it was added to your Library.

If you want to add more Library sections, just click on the “+” symbol in the bottom-left hand corner of the screen. You can then choose the section type, a name for the section, metadata settings (not that you’ll need to change these), and select the directories to search for media. Then you can click “Add Section” and you’re all done.

Plex immediately starts scanning the selected directories for media. Once it identifies the media, it automatically downloads matching artwork. For movies, that’s the movie poster; for TV shows, that’s the box set artwork (and the theme song!); for music, it’s album art and a photo of the artist.

Plex will occasionally scan the directories to check for new media, or you can manually force it to rescan either all sources (by clicking on the arrow at the top of the screen) or just the selected source (by clicking on the arrow in the bottom-right hand corner of the screen).

Once you’ve set all your sections up it’s easy to manage and maintain them, too. If you want to remove a section, just click on the “–” button next to the “+” button you used to add it. If you want to add or remove directories from the section, you can do that by selecting the section then selecting “Edit Section…” in the bottom right hand corner of the window.

Working With Metadata On The Mac

Usually Plex is pretty good at choosing the right metadata for your media, even if the file name is pretty jumbled up and messy. However, every so often Plex will find something that it can’t recognize, or it might mistake it for something else. Thankfully, this is pretty easy to fix.

Just right click on the mismatched item and click “Fix Incorrect Match…” (or press ⌘+F). Plex will then search for the title again to see if it can find the right item. If you still don’t have any luck, you can search for a different string by clicking on “Search”. Or, if you do see what you’re looking for, just click on it before clicking on “Select TV Show”.

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It’s also possible to choose different artwork for each item. To do that, double click on the item, then on “Change Artwork”. There are a few different images that you can change for each media type. When you select one, you can browse through the range of images which are already available. If you don’t like any of them, you can browse for an image on your computer.

Finally, if for some reason you wish to edit the metadata manually (in case you don’t like the description, for example), you can change that by right clicking on the item and then clicking on “Edit Metadata…” (or pressing ⌘+E).

Managing Media Sources On Windows & Ubuntu Via The Web UI

Once the Plex Media Server is up and running in the background and you’ve opened up the Web UI using your browser, the first thing you’ll see is the “Home” screen. This is where you go to add media sources, so getting started is really simple.

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Just choose the media type that you wish to set up, then click on the “Add” button and browse to each directory. Once you’ve selected your directories you can click on “Add Section” to finish setup. Just repeat these steps for each section and you’ll have your Library set up in no time at all.

Managing the sections once they’re set up is also extremely easy. You can edit or remove the section by clicking on the settings button in the bottom-left corner (the button with the gear on it).

Working With Metadata On Windows & Ubuntu Via The Web UI

Working with metadata through the Web UI is just as easy as it is through the native Plex Media Server application. Within any given section you can right click any item to refresh or manually edit the metadata, or fix an incorrect match. You can also double click on an item to see its summary and change its artwork, just like on the native application.

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3.3 Using The Client

Plex is designed to make using the client side as simple as possible; when you start up Plex you want to be consuming media, not messing around trying to get it to work. So, while there might be a little bit of fiddling at the start to get Plex set up just right, actually using Plex is really easy. By this point I’ll assume that you’ve already set up all your sections (and their sources) in Plex Media Server and that it’s running.

If you’ve ever used Front Row on a Mac before, you’ll be right at home with Plex. Using a keyboard is easy – the arrow keys move the selector in their respective directions, Enter selects the currently highlighted item (and drills down into a menu), and “Esc” goes back up a level. If you have an Apple remote (or a similar 3rd party remote for your Windows PC) you can use that to control Plex, too.

There really isn’t a whole lot more to using Plex. You select what you want to play, and you sit back and watch. Plex will keep track of what you’re watching; if you stop a video half way through it will add it to an area in that particular section of the Library called “On Deck”, making it really easy to get back to finishing that movie or TV show.

Filters, Ratings & Queues

While Plex may be simple to use, it can also do some extremely powerful stuff. You can filter your movies or TV shows by any number of things, from the common filters like year or genre to some more interesting things like sorting by rating, starring actor or director. By default, media is automatically rated by pulling in ratings from Rotten Tomatoes (the movie rating website), but you can easily add your own ratings to any item. Just select it with the arrow keys and press “C”. This brings up the menu, where you can navigate to “Rate…” and give the item a rating out of 5 stars.

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This menu also allows you to mark the item as watched or unwatched (in case you only watched the first 5 minutes or so, or you watched it using another video player), or delete a video from the library if you need to.

The other option is to place the selected item in a queue. You can then easily switch between items, or let them play one after the other. It’s great for watching TV shows; you can just queue an entire series and let it play back to back.

Playback Settings

Plex is also very flexible when it comes to actual playback; while a video is playing you can easily change the audio or video settings (ranging from changing audio offset to changing the audio stream completely – think videos with multiple languages – to turning on and off subtitles, changing the aspect ratio of the video or changing the brightness and contrast).

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To access these settings you can just press “M” (or “MENU” on a remote – more on that in a bit) while the video is playing to show the controls, then navigate to the two rightmost icons – the speaker icon for audio and subtitles, and the film reel icon for video settings.

Using A Touchscreen Device As A Remote (Or A Client)

One of the great things about Plex is that you don’t need to keep your keyboard handy, nor do you need to have a special remote (although the Apple Remote and many others do work). Instead you can use an iOS or Android device as the remote.

Unlike the desktop apps, the Plex app for iOS and Android is not free ($4.99), but it makes controlling Plex extremely easy. All you need is the Plex app (from the App Store or Android Marketplace) and to be connected to the same network that the server and client are on. The app does the rest – it automatically detects any available servers and clients, allowing you to select the client you wish to control in the “Settings” section. This area also allows you to choose where media is played by default (always on your device, always on the client, or asking you each time), and the quality of streaming to your device (we’ll get to this a bit later).

When using your device as a remote you can control the client in two ways. The first is to use the device as a simple remote with buttons like you would find on any other remote, which controls the client directly. You use the arrow keys and “OK” buttons in the first section to navigate menus (plus “MENU” to access the ratings/queue menu and “INFO” to access playback settings) and the buttons in the second section to control playback.

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The second way to use the Plex app is less pretty, but much faster and a whole lot more awesome. Since your device is connecting directly to the server as well as the client, it is able to pull down the lists of media available on the server and display them right on the device. What that means is that you are able to quickly browse your library on your device and then “send” it to the main client. The net effect to anybody else looking at the main client is that the media starts playing instantly without having to navigate through any menus.

As well as allowing you to control another client, the Plex app for your device also allows you to stream media directly from your server to the device. Anything which can’t be played natively by the device is transcoded on the fly (that is, transcoded and sent in one process), so pretty much anything in your library can be played on your device even if you wouldn’t normally be able to play it. Depending on the speed of your network (which is dictated largely by the WiFi signal that your device has) and the speed of the server’s processor, you can stream anything from highly compressed to high definition video (or, of course, full-quality pictures and music).

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4. Customising Plex

Although Plex is great out of the box, there are a few things that you can add to it to make it even better.

4.1 Adding Channels

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As well as managing all of your own media, Plex is able to aggregate media from different external sources into channels, making it easy for you to access Internet media from the comfort of your couch.

Adding a channel is a simple process. In the main menu, navigate to “Channel Directory”. The “Featured” category is a good place to start if you’re not sure what you’re looking for. Once you’ve found a channel that you like the look of, select it then select “Install”. You’ll see a message that the channel has been successfully installed.

You can now see your channel in its respective category on the main page (under “Video Channels”, “Picture Channels” or “Music Channels). If you’re using a Mac for your server you’ll have access to its iTunes music and videos and iPhoto or Aperture library through these channels.

When you add a channel through a client it is added to the server for processing. This allows you to access the channels on your iOS or Android device, too. If the server is running on a Mac or on Windows Vista or 7, the server can transcode Flash video from a channel (such as Hulu) to send to the device, allowing you to watch Flash content even if your device does not support it.

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4.2 Changing Client Skins

Plex is extremely flexible when it comes to skinning – a new skin can completely change Plex’s layout and how it acts and feels. This “skinability” stems from Plex’s XBMC roots, and means that Plex can still be an awesome option even if you don’t like how it looks by default.

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Both Mac and Windows versions of Plex Media Center can be skinned. The Mac version of Plex is skinned using an application called “Preen”, whereas the Windows version is somewhat more aptly named “Plex Skin Manager”. Both applications monitor the development repositories of the most popular Plex Skins, ensuring that you always have access to the latest version of the skin.

While there were many skins available for older versions of Plex, the newest version (0.9.5, codenamed “Laika”) currently has only a handful of different skins to choose from, such as “Alaska”, “Aeon” and “Simplex”. Most of these are based on older skins that have been rewritten from the ground up to support the new frameworks used in Laika.

Using Preen For Mac

Installing Preen is as easy as installing pretty much any other application on the Mac – just go to the Preen homepage and download the DMG file. Open the DMG file, and then drag Preen.app to your applications folder. Preen is now ready to use.

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Once you have Preen up and running, installing a skin couldn’t be easier. Make sure that you have “Plex 9.5 and later” selected, and then click on each skin to see what it looks like. If you like the look of a particular skin, tick its box in the “Update” column. When you’re ready to install your skin, click “Install/Update Skins”. It’ll take a little while for Preen to download the necessary files, but once it’s finished you’re all set.

To change the skin, start up Plex Media Center (you’ll need to restart it if it’s already running), navigate to “Preferences”, then “Appearance”. “Skin” is the first option; selecting that will show you a list of the installed skins. Select one, and voilà – you’ve just changed your skin.

Using Plex Skin Manager For Windows

Plex Skin Manager is a bit trickier to install; first, you’ll need to make sure that you have Dot Net 4.0 installed on your computer. Then you’ll need to sign up for an account on the Plex Forums, as the download link for Plex Skin Manager is only available when logged in to forums. Once you’re logged in, you can go to the Plex Skin Manager thread and download it as a .zip file (the link is at the bottom of the first post). Finally, you’ll need to extract the two files from the .zip file, as the application relies on the DLL file it comes with. When you’ve extracted the files you can then run Plex Skin Manager.exe.

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Plex Skin Manager is very similar to Preen. It maintains a list of the skins available for Plex “Laika”, lets you see a preview of the selected skin by clicking on “View Preview” and lets you install it by clicking on “Install / Update”. You can also see which skins you have installed and the development status of each skin. There’s not a whole lot more to it.

Once you’ve installed the skin you want, you can start or restart Plex Media Center, navigate to “Preferences”, choose “Appearance” then select “Skin”. Select the skin you want and you’re done.

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4.3 Other Settings

On top of the visual changes you can make by changing skins, there are a number of different settings that you can tweak to your heart’s content in the Preferences area, ranging from display and audio settings like video resolution and audio output to default subtitle settings to how long the client can be left inactive until Plex puts it to sleep.

Like many other programs, Plex will work just fine without you changing any of these settings. Having said that, you may think of a few tweaks which would make your personal experience that much better, so experiment to find what works for you.

4.4 MyPlex

MyPlex is a relatively new addition to Plex. It’s a free cloud service which, first and foremost, allows you to access any media managed by your Plex Media Server from pretty much anywhere with an Internet connection. It works by making sure that your server can easily be connected to, without you having to go through all the legwork of custom configurations.

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All you need to do is go to myPlex, create an account (or sign in with your Plex Forums account, if you already have one), then use those same credentials to log into MyPlex in Plex Media Server and each of your Plex clients. MyPlex takes care of the rest.

MyPlex also adds a media queue visible from your Plex clients. It allows you to use a bookmarklet in your web browser to add videos and music from across the web to your media queue to watch on your TV, computer or iOS/Android device.

Finally, MyPlex lets you easily share parts of your library with other MyPlex users. In the web interface, just click on “Servers” and then “Share this server with a friend” below the server you’ve hooked up to MyPlex. Then it’s just a case of entering their email address and selecting either your whole library or specific sections for them to view.

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5. Conclusion

After you’ve meticulously archived your DVDs containing your favorite movies and TV shows, your CDs containing your favorite music, and your pictures of your favorite memories, it’s great that there’s finally a solution which allows you to easily access it all using pretty much any device.

While media center applications have been available for years now, very few come as polished out of the box as Plex. With a media server that works on Mac, Windows and Linux, and client software available for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android, Plex is arguably the best media center out there.

Add in MyPlex, which lets you access your media away from home and share your media with other MyPlex users, and Plex becomes pretty much unbeatable.

Additional Reading

Guide Published: March 2012

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