Venturing Into Plexland

2015-02-11
Venturing into Plexland

One of the motivations I had for buying the NAS was to centralize the media we had accumulated over a mountain of CDs, DVDs. They were never where you wanted to access them, if you could find them. While my strategy was fine, what I hadn’t appreciated was the time and effort required to convert all of the physical media into files playable on a media server, and then keep populating the library with more content.

I had used XMBC (now KODI)  under Ubuntu and found it pretty capable, but it was limited in that I couldn’t access my media outside my home. Through discovering the Plex app on my Android phone (a friend had shared their media library with me), I decided to try out the server  on my own. The app (either Apple or Android) isn’t worth anything without media to watch, and you need a server for that. The server program itself is free, though if you want to watch on a mobile device (phone, tablet), there’s an app you can buy to get the full features. You can also connect your Plex directly to your TV, stream it to a TV through a built in Plex app (my TV is too old for this), game console (PS3, XBox, etc.) or through a Chromecast (my solution).

Plex allows you to organize your media into some predefined categories–TV Shows, Movies, Photos, etc. And you can define other types (like home movies, music videos, etc.). This is important because the sources you use, or don’t use, to get the metadata for the media is dictated/selected in the server program. Having a usable media library means you need some way of categorizing the media. Getting thumbnails, brief descriptions of the TV show, for example, make it hugely more usable when deciding what to watch.

So, just convert your CDs and DVDs and it’s all digitized and ready to watch, eh?

Not really so easy…

Converting CDs should be simple–rip them into MP3 or FLAC or whatever your media server/transcoding allows (something I had to discover). Some fair amount of my music collection was already in MP3 format, though in varying degrees of  bit rates and I wasn’t going to go back and reconvert what I already had. I only had one PC with a CD/DVD/BluRay drive, so conversion was going to be one disc at a time. I batched up my CDs. I experimented with using iTunes at 320kbps and a program under Ubuntu to rip into FLAC.  FLAC takes hugely more space, so though I wasn’t cramped for space, the prospect of tripling (or more) the file sizes by using FLAC didn’t seem (for me) to be worth the disk space, since my hearing and computer speaker system isn’t able to allow me  to discern the differences. Now mostly finished, I have about 22,000 music tracks.

Photos- My photo library is still a bit of a mess because it’s an accumulation of digital photos from 1998 forward and I have about 50,000 photos. Organizing this will definitely be a challenge due just to the sheer number of photos and the multiple ways you might want to organize them.

DVDs and Blu Rays- Could be complex to convert because they are (usually) copy protected and not just a single file as a music track or photo, and there can be features segments (directors cuts and the like) on the disc, along with the main video. For my personal library’s use, I converted them using a variety of tools, with Blu Ray being the most time consuming. Due to their enormous digital content (which is what makes the quality what it is), they also produce a huge file size. One Blu Ray produced a 12+ gig file. So I had to do a second conversion using Handbrake to compress the file size down to something more reasonable (usually  4-6 gig for Blu Ray and ~600 meg to 1.5 gig or so for DVDs). The process starts by ripping the Blu Ray, which isn’t something Handbrake does. So there’s another tool. Then there’s the decision about the file ‘container’ type- should they be mp4, mkv , or something else? What file types would the media server program support? Is there a file type that optimizes picture quality and file size? Nothing’s simple.  I don’t know the answer. I do know that due to the enormous amount of data on a Blu Ray, it takes a lot of time per disc to rip and re-encode the file.

For the most part, I decided to stick with Matroska (mkv) as it is an open standard container format for video/audio).  Sometimes the conversion didn’t go well and I ended up re-ripping and using mp4 instead.  Nonetheless, I’ve found that Plex seems to support avi, mp4, mkv with transparency (as to format) when viewing it on the device. Whether the file requires transcoding seems to depend on the client used (PC, game console, phone, tablet, etc.) rather than the file type on the server.

Then to organize your media within Plex and have the proper metadata applied, so that the thumbnail artwork and descriptions align with the media, you need to follow their naming conventions, which (mostly) work. But sometimes it doesn’t.  If you do everything according to the guidelines and your media fits within those, great.  I had questioned whether audiobooks would be supported, but they seem to be.

The support community within Plex is active and, I’ve personally found to be, very good, though you obviously need a certain level of technical knowledge to perform some of the things to get your Plex server up and accessible.  To their credit, the team at Plex have made it generally pretty easy. I bought a PlexPass to show my support for the project. Following the threads on the forums though, reveal that not everyone is up to some of the basics of Plexdom. In order for your content to be accessible outside your home, you may have to dig under the covers in your router to do some port forwarding and fixing some IP addresses. My router doesn’t do UPnP, so both for my Synology server as well as the Plex server, port forwarding was a manual process.

I initially set up my Plex server on a Windows7 laptop (quad core i7, 8 gig RAM, 1tb hard drive), but due to it’s consistent instability (none of which was due to Plex, it was unstable before all this). Then as my library started to expand, I realized I had to go with something more substantial. I could have added external USB hard drives, and had a number of those already. But the jumble of hard drives that would have ensued wasn’t appealing. So when I bought the Synology, it was also intended to serve this purpose. But I wasn’t sure the Synology NAS was up to transcoding, as it’s real purpose is a file server and doesn’t have a heavy duty processor and lots of memory (I upgraded my Synology to 4 gig RAM, from 2 gig). So I decided to move to a Mac Mini. This brought it’s own set of challenges (mostly my learning, moving from a largely Windows background),and naturally, more money.

It all works now! But, how well it works depends on your download speed, the server’s upload speed, whether it’s on your local network, and then whether it’s a wired or wireless connection, the client (what you are watching on), and whether (and how many) others are watching at the same time (if you’ve shared your library).

The move to the Mac Mini is the next part of the story.

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