Dan Taylor

The Plex Media Server for Mac


The Plex Media Server is the absolute best solution to connect your mac with your home theatre system. I’m a proud PlayStation 3 owner, and prior to this project, was using it as my main media server. The drawback of using a PS3 as media server comes down to two things: format and size. Meaning, currently the PS3 will not decode Matroska format files, nor, because of its FAT32 format, accept any files on it’s internal hard drive over 4GB. To get around the file size limitation, I’d been streaming media to the PlayStation via the excellent PS3 Media Server. To skirt the .mkv issue, I’d been using ps3 muxer, converting to .m2ts files, and then watching via a memory stick. Working…but not exactly ideal.

The Plex solution

The day after Christmas, some call it boxing day, I was digging through some bookshelves only to be reminded that I’ve got an old (and I do mean old – circa 2006) MacBook that’s just collecting dust. Hmmm…well, I didn’t get a mac mini for Christmas, but let’s see what the old black beauty can do.

After checking to make sure that I had all the cables and adaptors needed, I blindly started assembling my media chain. First and foremost, just to give everybody the best possible chance, I reformatted and applied all the updates to the MacBook. I then added the fresh Snow Leopard installed machine to my local network. Personally, I use a NetGear WNHDEB111 5Ghz N-wireless bridge from my Netgear WNDR3700 router, so I left airport off. A quick click on the sharing options from my main iMac, and the new MediaCenter (the black MacBook) can now see and access the files that I’ve designated within the sharing properties.

Great. I’ve installed VLC, and should be ready to go. Yes, but let’s be honest, VLC plays just about everything, but isn’t the snazziest of players to look at. I was on the hunt for something a bit nicer. After a short internet search, I stumbled upon Plex, and let me just say…this app has completely changed the way I view media in my living room.

Plex is a stand alone app that functions as a media interface for your mac. Initially, I started out with it only on the MediaCenter, but have quickly added it to all of my Macs, as well as my iOS devices. At it’s core, Plex does the exact same thing that Apple’s FrontRow will do, but does not limit you to the iTunes (read: .mp4 format), and…looks a whole lot better to boot.

Setup of Plex was fairly easy. Since the MediaCenter was already a member of the network, and I could freely trade files back and forth between the two, I only had to tell Plex where to look for my media. A quick setting here and there, and a library refresh, and boom – the best looking media server I’ve ever seen.

Not only will Plex keep your files organized in an easy to find and watch format, but will add value to the entire experience. If you’re familiar with how the Sony PlayStation handles media, you’ll know that it’s extremely basic: a folder and a thumbnail (if you’re lucky). It seems as though the development team behind Plex was just as disappointed in this interface, as they’ve gone in the complete opposite direction. In the Plex Media Server interface, you’ll find the option to update show, film, and music information as pulled from various sources around the internet. So instead of getting a thumbnail and a file name (PS3), I now get an overall synopsis of the show, and if I drill down further, specific information about the episode of Lost I’m about to watch. Pretty snazzy.

But the fun doesn’t end with just your own media. Thanks to the Plex Online feature built into the app, you can search hundreds of streaming media apps to install on your version of Plex. For example, I normally download the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams video podcast. Or, I should say…did download, as Plex has an MSNBC app that will stream Mr. Williams smiling face right to my MacBook – no podcast needed. And better yet…with the Plex MSNBC app, I’ve got episodes on demand. Meaning, if I’d had the podcast, I probably would delete it the minute a new episode arrives, but what if there was something I want to show a friend from last week? I’m outta luck via iTunes, but with Plex…click, click….and streaming. Awesome.

Sadly, because I live in Europe, I’m forced to crumble under the laws of Geolocation, and can’t view everything I’d like. NBC (not MSNBC) for example is a no go, as is Hulu (that was the one I really wanted). During the setup phase there were also streams that I could hear but not see. As it turns out, this is a Flash problem, and not a Plex problem, with a very simple fix to be found here.

The Plex group even goes above and beyond in this highly detailed tutorial (and tool) regarding tuning your DVI-out display to perfectly fit your monitor. If you’ve ever experienced the dreaded Overscan option, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about and how to fix it. With that said, this calibration isn’t 100% necessary, as the app offers it’s own overscan compensation tool. But let’s be honest…if you’re reading this, chances are, you’re a Geek-Like-Me, and are going to tune it anyway.

The Plex media server for mac app is completely free, and available via plexapp.com. Sadly, I couldn’t find a “Donate” button, so I did the next best thing – I bought the iOS app. In addition to supporting an awesome group of developers, I now have the added benefit of being able to keep on watching Lost while I’m on my way downstairs to pick up the post. I know…I know…perhaps a bit “Do you really need that?”, but hey, at a total cost of $4.99, go ahead – live a little.

Plex for Mac – it changed my media viewing experience; what can it do for you?

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