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HTPC for Plex with Windows Storage Spaces - Part 2

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HTPC build for Plex three part series:

  1. Hardware build and Storage Spaces
  2. Plex server and clients (You are Here)
  3. Performance

I’ve had a single disk Home Theater PC (HTPC) running Plex for a while now but with my ReadyNas nearing the end of its useful life, I decided to kill two birds with one stone: build an updated HTPC with drive redundancy to also take over the functions of my aging NAS. My HTPC stays on 24/7 anyway so this makes perfect sense. My design goals for this were to build a small, quiet, low power, data redundant and sufficiently performing box that I can stuff into my TV cabinet. The extent of the duties for this HTPC will be video streaming and file sharing/ backup, no gaming. This series details my build, Plex server, Plex clients, Windows Storage Spaces, as well as the performance of the storage subsystem.

Plex

So what is Plex and why do we need it? Plex is a very simple, very powerful media center server that can stream videos, music and photos to almost any device…most importantly TVs. Plex can be installed on many NAS devices as well as Windows/Mac/Linux based PCs. Without Plex, DLNA is available to watch supported content from network accessible locations and works fairly well most of the time, but this is simply a list of content. Plex can also talk DLNA but the media server greatly enhances the overall experience by providing art, posters, synopsis, which media has been watched/ which hasn’t, the ability to resume where you left off, remote streaming and transcoding. Plex also supports many file containers (AVI, MKV, MP4, etc), codecs and subtitles. I personally used the DLNA method for years before seeing the light on Plex and no way would I go back. I love Plex and you will too!!

First, create an account on http://plex.tv, you’ll need this later for remote access and it will make management much simpler. Setup is simple: install the Plex media server on the supported platform of your choosing, open the Plex console in a web browser and point Plex at the locations of your media by adding libraries. Media is best categorized by type which will make browsing, searching and updating content much easier. Plex makes this process very easy for you:

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I use the following categories and will add one for photos soon:

image28_thumbPlex will then automatically connect to a variety of online sources, such as Freebase or The Movie Database, to download media information and art.  Once complete all of you media will be organized and accessible in the Plex console with full posters and even background music, if you want it.

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Plex content can be browsed via normal folder structures if you like or you can use the Plex Dashboard where you will find “On Deck” and “Recently Added”. The latter should be self explanatory, On Deck is where you will find movies that you started and stopped or the next episode of a TV show in a series. This is Plex helping to keep your place in your media universe and it is incredibly useful. 

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Plex provides three primary methods for playing content: Direct Play, Direct Stream and Transcoding. Bottom line is that Plex will play your media one way or another, you don’t have to worry about it, but this is how it does it.

  • Direct Play is the best and exists in the ideal scenario. 100% file compatibility with very little resources consumed on the media server itself. The file is sent to the Plex client as-is, easy breezy.
  • Direct Stream is used when a media file is mostly compatible but some element within is not and requires transcoding. The example Plex uses is a media file where compatible audio/video codecs are streamed direct and the non-compatible container is transcoded.
  • Transcoding is used when either the audio or video format isn’t compatible and has to be converted into a compatible format. Audio transcoding is not very CPU intensive but video transcoding is.

Recommended Tweaks

Overall, you could change almost nothing post install and Plex will work fine right out of the box. Here are a few tweaks that I recommend to enhance your experience.

In the server settings, click Connect on the left, make sure to log into Plex (your online account) as this will allow you to connect to and stream media to any device anywhere you are. This is honestly one of the coolest features of Plex and you do not need a Plex Pass to do this! Once signed in on your server, you can now connect to your Plex environment from any smart phone, tablet or PC anywhere you have internet connectivity by using the IOS/ Android Plex app or by logging into Plex.tv. Traveling? As long as you have internet connectivity, you can browse and watch anything from your library. No USB thumb drives required!

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To maximize ease of use when you add content, make sure the following settings are enabled. This will ensure that Plex will automatically scan your library when files are added vs having to run a manual or timed scan. Plex will see that you’ve added a file and will automatically add it to the library for playback and download related art.

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Under the Web settings, click Player on the left, you can control the streaming quality based on where you will be streaming to. 1080p for local streaming and a lower setting for remote streaming, for example. I have found that setting the local quality to 4Mbps/ 720p greatly increases local streaming responsiveness and makes it easier to skip around in a given media file.

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Further customization at this point is highly preferential and you’ll figure it out by clicking through the available options. Plex has made this all VERY easy. In Windows, Plex runs as a process launched by an interactive user so does require that a user account is logged into the desktop. There is no Windows service offering yet but there are ways to work around this. I have an account set to login automatically after a reboot then the screen locks after 1 minute for security. In lieu of a Windows service starting with the OS, this works fine.

Plex Clients

With the HTPC built and Plex installed, let’s talk about client connectivity. There are a number of ways to go here which is another benefit of Plex: extreme flexibility. The methods below are my top 3 in order by preference.

Smart TV app

If you own an internet connected Samsung Smart TV then you already have access to the best free Plex client available. Nothing is required externally, just install the Plex app from the Samsung app store on your TV, launch and it should find your Plex server on the network. Your TV remote will navigate the Plex menus and this will provide the richest experience you can get while navigating Plex on your TV screen. Sadly, if you own a Panasonic TV you will have to use an external client. There is no and will be no native Plex app in the foreseeable future.

Google Chromecast

Chromecast is a very simple and very cheap option that I personally use on my Panasonic plasma. $35 gets you an HDMI-connected dongle that simply casts or displays content on your TV via wifi. This is an important distinction to make when considering the Chromecast. There are no on-screen menus to navigate and there is no integration with your all-in-one remote. Your PC, tablet, or phone is your remote and where you select the content you want to display on your TV. This does require that you purchase the Plex app for IOS/ Android ($5) or if you choose to pay for PlexPass, you’ll get the app for free. Chromecast for Plex works great, the downside is the other services currently supported are a bit limited compared to Roku and the like (if you care). Chromecast is powered via a USB port on your TV or from a wall adapter.

Chromecast setup is very simple and pretty neat in what they do. Initially the Chromecast turns itself into a wifi Access Point (AP) by broadcasting a SSID that you connect to for configuration using the Chromecast app on your device. Once the local wifi network SSID and password are selected, Chromecast will disable its own AP and connect to yours.

Once Chromecast is configured, launch the Plex app on the device of your choosing and navigate to the content you want to watch. Connect Plex to the Chromecast by pushing the “Cast” button in the top right corner and select the Chromecast, this will also automatically change the input on your TV to the correct HDMI slot. Press play on the chosen content. This method is definitely different than the more traditional on-screen navigation approach but having used it for going on a year now, I really like the experience this solution provides. Your more technically challenged family members may not like or fully understand this method without some training.

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Roku Streamstick

Roku is a favorite of many home theater aficionados and provides several client options with varying price points. The Roku Streamstick is the Roku answer to the minimalist HDMI dongle but with the majority of the value that Roku provides. I use this client on my older Samsung plasma that doesn’t have built-in wifi support. Roku Streamstick is powered via a USB port on your TV or from a wall adapter. Setup is simple and handled via the specialized Roku remote included. Connect Roku to your home wifi and you are good to go.

Roku uses the more traditional on-screen navigation approach and has an impressive catalog of connectable services you can use. One of the neat things Roku provides is an impressive search function that gives you multiple options as to where you can find/ buy/ play the content you’re looking for. Roku works using a concept of “channels” which are really apps that you add to your client. Plex, Netflix, Amazon, etc. Plex is one of those channels and costs $5 just like the IOS/ Android version. PlexPass members get this app for free as well. Unlike the Smart TV or Chromecast methods, Plex on Roku is a very minimalist affair that provides a very basic visual experience.

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While Roku does ultimately provide the essentials for Plex, it is my least preferred method and comes with the following caveats:

  • Separate non-IR Roku remote required to control on-screen navigation. No integration into traditional IR all-in-one remotes possible.
  • Very slow boot up compared to Chromecast and takes a very long time to get to a point you can actually use it.
  • $50 vs $35 for the Chromecast
  • Least rich experience of the 3 options with a very basic user interface.

Please also see part one of this series which details the hardware build and part three which discusses performance.

References:

https://plex.tv/

Converting ISO, Video_TS and other disk image formats

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