How do you stream movies, music and TV on your Linux PC?
Whether it’s on a dedicated device like a Roku, Apple TV, or Chromecast, a gaming console such as an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, or just a computer, streaming media is an important feature of the media center experience.
There’s a substantial range of streaming tools available for Linux. Each varies in specialty, from server capabilities to local playback, and everything in between. We’re going to look at each of the best tools, from downloading to streaming and key features.
1. VLC Media Player
When it comes to compatibility, VLC Media Player is the go-to. Generally, the powerful but lightweight media player can handle anything thrown at it. Getting VLC is pretty simple. Often it’s in the software center, and on my Ubuntu 16.04 build sure enough it’s just a simple click to install. However, there are several downloads via VideoLAN’s official site with dedicated installers for the likes of Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Gentoo Linux, Fedora, and Arch Linux among others.
VLC may also be installed using the command line.
VLC is more commonly associated with local playback, or playing files from a hard disk or flash drive. However, VLC media player can be used to stream content as well. VLC handles streams from other sources, and can be set up to stream from a host PC as well. When setting up a stream, connecting from another device will vary based on several factors. For instance, using a STRM file with Kodi is the best way to stream from VLC to Kodi, while VLC to VLC streaming is easily set up by entering your IP address and host information under Stream settings.
VLC boasts a small resource footprint and superb functionality with its exceptional ability to tackle an array of file formats. While it can very easily stream, and takes only a few minutes to set up, I usually designate VLC as my standalone file player.
When it comes to streaming your own digital content en masse, there’s really no replacement for Plex. Ultra functional and compatible with pretty much any platform (PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox 360 and One, Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Roku… the list goes on), there’s a reason that it’s renowned among home theater enthusiasts.
So what is Plex? Great question. There’s Plex Media Server and Plex Home Theater. As the names suggest, PMS is the server that streams your content (movies, TV shows, music), while PHT is a client that accesses the server. Basically, Plex Home Theater offers a graphical user interface for navigating and playing content, either local or remote. Then there are dedicated apps for various devices including computers, mobile gadgets, and set-top boxes.
Initial setup is rather easy. The downloads page offers a Linux installer with packages for Ubuntu, Fedora, and CentOS in both 64-bit and 32-bit varieties. Since it is a DEB file, install works via the software center. Adding media is as complex as your current media organization. I keep my DVD and Blu-ray rips separated by content type (movie vs. TV show) and within those categories I’ve got files sorted into folders by individual film and show. Shows are further sorted into season folders.
Streaming With Plex
Streaming may be performed remotely or locally (LAN). I tested streaming from my Plex server (running on an AMD A10-4600m powered laptop) to a Roku, Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition tablet, Playstation 3, and the web player. All worked perfectly, and quality passed the eye test espite my Plex server running over wifi and using an admittedly underpowered CPU. Quality will depend on a number of factors, such as local vs. remote connections, bandwidth, and server hardware.
Plex is perfect for those with large digital media libraries seeking to create essentially their own personal Netflix. Users must provide their own content, as Plex simply makes it available elsewhere. Notably, Plex also supports music streaming, so adding your digital movie, TV, and music collection is basically like a fusion of Netflix and Spotify (sans-ads).
Kodi (formerly XMBC) is an open source media center perfect for playing movies, TV shows, music, and more. It’s available on a smattering of platforms, including Windows, OS X, Android, Raspberry Pi devices, and (you guessed it) Linux.
Obtaining Kodi for Linux is pretty simple. It’s available directly from the website and in some cases it’s in the software center. As a first step, check the software center and if Kodi is available there, that’s probably the easiest install. If not, there’s always the command line.
The main draw of Kodi is its extreme functionality and customization. You’ll find many add-ons for streaming content from a variety of sources. Add-ons — akin to apps on a streaming set-top box such as a Roku or Apple TV — may be installed from the add-on repository or from zip files. With a few clicks, it’s easy to install add-ons for the likes of Crunchyroll, Funimation, ABC Family, and loads of other sources. While it’s entirely possible to provide your own content, when it comes to streaming, Kodi wins at accessing third-party streams.
Third Party Streaming Add-Ons
Kodi shares similarities Plex, not surprisingly, as Plex is a fork of XBMC. With locally stored content like DVD rips, Kodi is more suited to playing local files from a hard disk, rather than streaming them to other devices. The add-ons, however, position Kodi as a must-have for streaming with an abundance of third-party apps. Kodi and Plex have a symbiotic relationship, and there’s even the PleXBMC add-on that helps Kodi to stream content from a Plex server.
Kodi may be installed inside a distro, or standalone. I have mine running in Ubuntu, but there’s also Kodibuntu which is a fusion of Kodi and an operating system. Kodibuntu boots either directly into Kodi, or into desktop mode.
OpenELEC stands for “Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center.” As the name suggests, it is a Linux distro and standalone media center for streaming. Where Kodi is available as the standalone Kodibuntu or an app, OpenELEC is its own distro built from the ground up. It’s akin to running a traditional set-top box like a Roku or Amazon Fire TV, albeit with a much more open (pun fully intended) ecosystem.
Since it’s an operating system of its own, OpenELEC must be downloaded and installed. Head over to the downloads page, select the desired release and locate the installer for your device. There’s everything from x86 generic builds, to legacy builds, and even Raspberry Pi installers (I have OpenELEC running on my Pi 2 and it’s glorious).
If you’re updating, download the TAR file, and if you’re performing a fresh install, snag the disk image. It’s as simple as downloading the disk image, writing it to a bootable flash drive, changing the boot order, and installing from there.
Once you’ve installed OpenELEC, the interface will clearly show that it’s based on Kodi with the same user interface and add-ons. So why opt for OpenELEC? This comes down to usage. If you’re planning to have a computer that doubles as a media center, use the Kodi app or Kodibuntu. But if you seek a pure set-top box, OpenELEC is your distribution of choice.
Stremio is a relative newcomer with loads of potential. While the abundance of streaming software such as Plex and Kodi may make Stremio appear unnecessary, it offers a rather unique service. Where Kodi specializes in streaming apps, and Plex serves as a sort of personally curated Netflix, Stremio is an auto-aggregator. It’s a one-stop shop for finding video content from a variety of sources.
The main dashboard lists a smattering of movies, TV series, and channels. In a few clicks, it’s incredibly easy to locate content to stream directly or via third-party sites. Inspired by the famous (or infamous) Popcorn Time, as well as Plex and Kodi, Stremio combines the search functionality of JustWatch with the ability to actually play videos. For instance, clicking on Captain America: Civil War gave me the options to rent it from Google Play, Amazon, iTunes, or Vudu. Selecting Snatch allowed me to stream it from Crackle.
Featured add-ons include YouTube, Filmon TV, Guidebox, and Vodo. There’s even a Netflix community add-on. Filmon TV boasts over 300 channels, including CBS Drama and iTV. Vodo is a go-to for public domain flicks, and Guidebox is the hub that finds where streams are available from (Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, etc). Community add-ons include Twitch and Netflix, but Stremio’s burgeoning community promises more awesome add-ons in the future.
Overall, Stremio is a bit like Roku’s comprehensive search feature, albeit beefier and with more functionality like torrents. It’s an all-in-one streamer that either allows you to watch videos in Stremio, or redirects to third party sites like Snagfilms.
Which Is the Linux Media Streamer for You?
Wondering which to pick? I have VLC, Kodi, Plex, and Stremio all installed on my Ubuntu PC. Sure, it may seem like overkill, but each has its strengths and weaknesses so there’s little redundancy. VLC can stream, but I use that mainly for playing my music files locally (oh, hey there FLAC support!). Stremio acts as my database for where I can find a film or show to watch online. Kodi lets me stream from sites like Crunchyroll and Funimation.
And Plex I use to stream my own content to my PlayStation 3 and Galaxy Note tablet.
What apps are you using for streaming on Linux? Got a favorite, least favorite, or found something I missed? Let us know in the comments section below!