How to Set Up a Plex Media Server
We break down what you’ll need to build your own Plex media center.
Tired of hooking up adapters or HDMI cables every time you want to play content from a computer onto your TV? Plex is a free media server service that lets you wirelessly watch home videos, stream music, or view photos on any compatible device.
Whether you’re tech-savvy enough to know what RAID arrays are or think Raspberry Pi is just a great dessert choice, there are Plex options for every level of user. Read on to learn more about how to set up your own Plex server.
How Plex works
Media server systems like Plex allow you to access your personal collection of videos, photos, and albums on any TV, computer, or mobile device. You can keep the Plex server within your household or grant server access to outside friends or family.
To use Plex, you’ll need to install two applications: the Plex app and Plex Media Server.
Plex Media Server is the engine that makes your Plex setup hum. The application scans your computer’s media library and does all the backend work to send it from your hard drive to the Plex app of your choice. Plex Media Server also needs to be running on your home computer or a dedicated Plex device in order for users to use the Plex app.
A dedicated Plex server could be anything from an old laptop to a custom-built computer that’s used only for running Plex. We’ll get into the details later on, but generally, you’ll want a dedicated Plex server if more than a few users will regularly access your Plex library at once.
The Plex client works just like your typical streaming video app. On the home page, you’ll see your media library along with Plex’s catalog of free and ad-supported content.
One of Plex’s niftiest features is its ability to automatically add information like TV show art and movie descriptions to your personal content. This makes it easier to find the show or movie you’re looking for without having to scroll through endless files.
Plex is also available on devices ranging from the Apple TV to an Xbox, so it’s easy to view Plex content anywhere and any time you’d like.
What to look for
For most users, the best Plex Media Server option will either be an NVIDIA SHIELD TV Pro or using your existing computer. But if you want to give remote access to others and you’re ready to build a custom Plex server, crack open an energy drink and let’s get into the weeds.
In the most layman of layman’s terms, transcoding refers to when Plex has to convert a video to play on a new streaming device. For instance, Plex will have to transcode a video if you’re remotely playing a 4K video on a 720p smartphone. Transcoding will rarely be a problem when you’re accessing Plex at home.
But the biggest challenge with transcoding is the CPU horsepower it’ll require from your Plex server. As Plex’s support page notes, a single transcoded stream requires a CPU with the following minimum scores from benchmark program PassMark (PassMark scores measure CPU performance and higher scores are better):
- One 720p transcode: 1,500 PassMark score
- One 1080p transcode: 2,000 PassMark score
- One 4K SDR transcode: 12,000 PassMark score
(And we haven’t even gotten to hardware acceleration, which can improve transcoding performance for Plex Pass subscribers, but that’s another article for another day—learning about video encoding is a real “crossing the Rubicon” moment.)
In plain English, what all this means is that you’ll want a processor that can support the number of remote users you’ll have on the server. Mobile or low-powered processors will work fine for a local Plex setup, but you’ll need a desktop-grade processor if your Plex server will have remote users.
For example, the Intel Core i5-12600K has a PassMark score of 24,254, so it’ll comfortably support around 12 viewers watching transcoded 1080p content. But the Raspberry Pi 4’s 1,657 score means that your streaming experience will stutter and buckle if more than one person needs transcoding.
Plex also offers Plex Pass, a premium subscription service ($4.99 per month, $39.99 per year, or $119.99 for a lifetime subscription) that adds features like a live TV DVR and file downloads to your Plex setup. The standard Plex client is free, but Plex Pass can be worthwhile if you’re considering adding Plex to a home theater PC setup.
Outside of Plex Media Server’s transcoding and CPU needs, the Plex client doesn’t have the most demanding requirements.
If you have a sizable media library, we’d suggest at least a 1 TB to 2 TB hard drive to avoid having to string USB hard drives off your computer for extra storage. Ideal Plex upload speeds depend on your exact server needs, but we’d generally recommend upload speeds of at least 15 Mbps to ensure that you’ll have enough bandwidth for your server and household.
Best Plex server options
Plex Media Server can run on numerous devices, but to find the best platform for your Plex server, figure out if your server will be used only locally or by people outside of your home.
Your regular laptop or desktop computer will be the easiest option for a Plex server if you’re just using Plex for occasional movie or TV nights. We’d also recommend the NVIDIA Shield TV Pro for its ease of use and wide availability. But if you want to watch TV shows on your way to work or share soap operas with your parents, you’ll need to get a dedicated Plex server.
Easiest: Your computer
If you’re reading this on something that’s not a phone or tablet, congratulations! You have a computer that’ll likely run Plex Media Server.
Once you download the Plex Media Server client for Mac OS X or Windows and use our tutorial, you’ll quickly have your Plex server up and running.
But using your personal computer as a Plex server comes with some downsides. To use the Plex app, your computer will always need to be turned on and running Plex Media Server. Plus, your computer will bog down if more than a few remote users are connected to your Plex server and need transcoded content.
Best for streaming: NVIDIA Shield TV Pro
For $199.99, the NVIDIA Shield TV Pro is a bit pricier than other set-top boxes, but you’ll get added features like out-of-the-box Plex Media Server support.
Under the hood, you’ll also have enough processing horsepower for transcodes and you can easily add an external hard drive for extra storage.
With its Android TV and 4K support, the NVIDIA can be a great option if you’re looking for a device that can handle all your streaming and Plex needs.
Cheapest: Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi is a mini computer brand that’s popular among DIY hardware fans and it’s possible to install Plex Media Server on the Pi.
A Raspberry Pi isn’t the most powerful computer setup, but if you’re tech-fluent enough to tinker with Linux and command line prompts, it’s also an affordable and compact way to build a basic Plex server.
Best for big media libraries: network-attached storage (NAS)
NASs are typically used to add a hard drive to your home network, but you can also install Plex Media Server on certain models.
As with Raspberry Pis, we wouldn’t necessarily recommend a NAS if you’re not comfortable with tasks like network troubleshooting. But if you’re trying to manage a huge media library and you can live with NAS transcoding limitations, a NAS could handle all your Plex server needs.
Although the QNAP TS-230 doesn’t include hard drives, it’s relatively affordable for a higher-end NAS enclosure. With two disk bays, you’ll also have room for growth if you want to update your NAS setup down the road.
Best for power users: getting a computer for Plex
If your Plex server is going to be used by multiple people outside of your house and regularly transcoding media files, you’ll want to consider buying or building a dedicated Plex computer.
Trying to recommend the best Plex server can be like a Russian nesting doll of opening a can of worms and finding increasingly smaller worm cans inside (eww).
But as a starting point, we’d recommend looking at Intel’s NUC mini PCs. The mini PCs are tiny enough to fit next to your home TV, but they’re also easy to upgrade and come with fast Intel processors. If you need a faster processor, consider upgrading to a faster NUC model or full-sized desktop PC.
How to set up a Plex server
Whether you’re commandeering an old laptop or building a customized home theater PC, it’s easy to install your Plex server. For brevity’s sake, this tutorial focuses on installing Plex Media Server on a computer, but the process is largely the same on an NVIDIA Shield.
1. Download and install Plex Media Server
On Plex’s website, click the pull-down menu and choose the platform of your choice. Once you’ve installed the Plex client, go through the prompts to set up your Plex account.
2. Create a media folder for Plex
To add media files to your Plex library, you’ll assign a folder on your computer that’ll be scanned by Plex. Plex is a little particular about organization, so if your movies, music, and photos are all shoved into a single folder, we’d recommend taking a second to tidy up your library and sort them into separate folders by file type.
For this walkthrough, we’ve created a folder called Plex Videos and put a video called Test Video (creative, we know) into the folder.
3. Add your media folder to Plex
Open Plex Media Server and click the wrench icon on the top right to get to Settings. Under Manage on the left-hand side of the screen, click Libraries and Add Library.
Select the content type that matches the content in the folder you’re adding to Plex. Once you’re set, click Next.
Click Browse for Media Folder to open the file explorer. Using the left-hand navigation bar and the home icon, manually locate the folder you’re adding to Plex. Once you’ve located the folder, click Add and Add Library to finish the setup process.
4. Kick back and relax
On the Plex home page, click More on the left-hand navigation bar and open your Plex Media Server device. Click the media folder you just added to start watching your content.
If you’re tired of managing TV shows, movies, and albums across all your devices, Plex can be a convenient way to consolidate your computer’s media library and make it more accessible. With its no-cost app and wide availability, it’s easy to set up a home Plex server and make your personal media library a regular part of your streaming habits.
How to set up a Plex Server FAQ
What is the best setup for a Plex server?
The best Plex server setup depends on your exact streaming needs. If you’re building a local server, we’d recommend a compact computer or device with decent storage and processing performance. But if you’re remotely sharing your Plex server with other people, we’d recommend running Plex on a computer with a desktop-grade processor.
What specs do you need for a Plex server?
For a basic Plex server, you can get by with a lower-powered Intel Atom or Celeron-grade processor. But if you’re planning on hosting more than a few users on your server, we’d recommend a CPU like an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor. Your storage needs depend on the size of your media library, but we’d recommend at least a 1 TB to 2 TB hard drive.
How do I set up a Plex server?
To set up a Plex server, you need to install the Plex Media Server client on a compatible computer or device.
How much does a Plex server cost?
Plex is free to download and use. Plex Pass is a subscriber program ($4.99 per month, $39.99 per year, or $119.99 for a lifetime subscription) that offers exclusive Plex server features to members like offline Plex library viewing and live TV DVR support.
Plex Pass will be beneficial if you’re building a Plex server that’ll power your home entertainment center or if you’re going to share your Plex server with people outside of your home.
How can I make a cheap Plex server?
Free Plex server options include running Plex Media Server on your own desktop or laptop computer. For a cheap Plex server, you can also purchase a device like a mini PC and connect it to an external hard drive.
Your best cheap Plex server option will depend on how many people will access your server from outside your home network and how much content you want to store in your Plex library.
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