What Is Plex?
Plex is a software hub that can pull together all the DVDs and burned movies that you own in a single menu like a personal Netflix.
Or Plex can be used to watch live TV and record anything on your TV antenna. But you can’t really sum up everything Plex does in a concise way. So here’s a handy bullet list of its best features.
- Watch and Record Live TV
- Remove commercials from recordings
- Hub for Music CDs and DVD collection
- Organize digital photo collections
- Streaming for Tidal
- Search/Listen to Podcasts
- Regional and National News
- Discover web shows
By adding Plex to a Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV or NVIDIA Shield, you are essentially turning your streaming device into a customizable entertainment center. There are Plex apps for iOS and Android smart phones, but you’ll need to get a Plex Pass subscription to enjoy all of the above features.
I’ve been using Plex for a couple of years now as part of my cord cutting setup. So I’ll break down some of the ways that I’ve used Plex for watching and recording live TV, and my own music, photos and DVDs.
How Much Does Plex Cost?
If you want a channel guide and DVR functionality for live TV, a Plex Pass costs $4.99 per month. You may also want to consider getting a lifetime Plex Pass for $149.
Plex has a number of free options, including the News and Podcast section. I’m going to make a wild assumption that if you’re like me (a Gen X’er). You might have a big stash of CDs and DVDs. The problem with physical media is that it’s tempting to stuff it in a closet, cellar or basement if you don’t have a dedicated shelf for it.
You might love to have all your favorite movies and music that you’ve collected over the years in one place.
Plex can help you put all of those old CDs and DVDs under one virtual roof, and won’t charge you a dime for using its software. I’m currently using a WD MyBook 4TB external hard drive to store most of my movies and music.
How to Set up a Plex Media Server
There are a couple of terms you should know if you’re not familiar with servers and clients.
Your Plex Media Server can be created by assigning an external hard drive or just some space on your current desktop. It’s essentially a place where you’ll store your movies or music files.
A basic Plex Media Server can be a desktop PC with a WD MyBook external hard drive.
A Plex client can be an Apple TV, Fire TV, Roku or even a smartphone – essentially anything you would use to watch a movie or listen to music. I have a few servers set up in my home because I tinker a lot with different setups.
I have a NVIDIA Shield that functions as both a Plex Media Server and a Plex client.
So let’s set things up in your home.
Download the Plex app to your streaming device, and to whatever you’re going to use as a Plex Media Server.
The Plex Setup Wizard should jog you through the rest. You’ll have to create a profile. Essentially, you just want to make sure the Plex app on the streaming device knows where to draw movies, music and photos from.
Other Plex Media Server setups
Some people prefer to buy a used PC with a decent processor for a dedicated server. They will hunt around for specific models on eBay or Newegg.
There is also a growing market for mini-PCs which are used specifically as a Plex server.
You may have heard of people using an Intel NUC as a Plex Media Server. A mini PC is generally more energy efficient and can cut down the wear and tear on your PC that you have for daily use. The price point on an Intel NUC is driven by what’s inside. You could certainly use a NUC with an i3 processor for a single stream, but chances are you would want at least an i5 or i7 for transcoding more than once stream at a time.
Intel chips found in a mini PC like a Voyo V1 with Intel Apollo Lake will now have a much better, but not perfect, performance as a Plex Media Server.
Transcoding and hardware will be two aspects that you will want to think about as you assemble your setup.
You should also check out Plex forums for all kinds of answers and advice.
Plex Live TV and DVR
Once you get your media server set up, you can add the Plex live TV and DVR features if you have a Plex Pass.
The Live TV/DVR feature on Plex was game changer because it opened up a new avenue for cord cutters wanting to shed their hefty cable bill.
This feature adds a channel guide and DVR capabilities to over-the-air channels that you get with an indoor or outdoor TV antenna.
You will need to invest in some equipment to get your live TV/DVR setup going. A TV tuner, some hard drive space and an antenna will be required.
The channel guide is Plex’s biggest asset because you will get a much better idea of what exactly your TV antenna is pulling in for sports, TV shows and movies.
In my case, I knew I had a lot to watch with roughly 50 over-the-air channels, but I didn’t appreciate the quality of programs until I started using the channel guide. As I’m writing this, it’s March Madness. And I can see all the games being aired by CBS under the sports section of the guide. There’s also pro golf, NASCAR and soccer on NBC.
Likewise, there’s a breakdown for movies, news and shows. You’ll find all kinds of prime time shows on NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS and FOX. I won’t even get into sub-channels.
Best TV Tuners for Plex Live TV
I have tested most of the TV tuners compatible with Plex. There are two TV tuners that I like the best out of the 8 models that are compatible. I use a HDHomeRun Quatro, which lets me record up to four programs at once. You can use the HDHomeRun Duo, or HDHomeRun Extend.
And I’ve been impressed with the Hauppauge WinTV-dualHD, too.
If you’re an Xbox One user, then you’ll need the Hauppauge Digital TV for Xbox One. Plug the tuner into the Plex Media Server (e.g. PC or laptop), and not the Xbox One game console.
Setting up a Hauppauge tuner is pretty straightforward. Your TV antenna plugs into one end of the tuner, the other end plugs into your PC, laptop or NVIDIA Shield.
How to set up a Plex Server with HDHomeRun
A HDHomeRun tuner can be used with a Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, any Windows 10 device, Android TV and a bunch of other devices.
HDHomeRun tuners have to be plugged into a WiFi router with an Ethernet cord. Your TV antenna is also plugged into the the HDHomeRun tuner.
Plex software operates as a web-app so it will appear in a window of your web browser. Once it’s up and running, go to server in the settings menu. Choose DVR settings. That setting is located in the bottom left corner of your screen.
Add your HDHomeRun tuner that appears on the screen. Type in your zip code in the postal code bar and Plex will scan for channels.
Soon, you will see a menu full of shows and movies and sporting events.
Be sure to download the Plex app to your streaming device as well, and follow the steps to sign in to your profile.
Plex has been experimenting with removing commercials from OTA recordings. There are a few things to keep in mind if you enable this feature.
The process of removing the commercials happens after the recording is complete and before it is added to your library. So don’t expect your recorded TV show to be available immediately.
As the folks at Plex explain, “The process is CPU-intensive and can take several minutes to complete, depending on the recording duration. On a reasonably fast CPU, we typically see a 30-minute recording take 2-4 minutes to process.”
Plex shows you how to set up removing commercials under DVR settings.
Plex on the Web
Regardless of what you choose as a media server, putting the Plex app on your PC or laptop is very useful. You can control your settings a lot easier, schedule recordings, add and remove content.
I have my NVIDIA Shield set up as the server that I use the most, but I also have my laptop and desktop PC set up to be servers as well. From my laptop, I can choose the NVIDIA Shield interface by going to the upper left hand corner. Now I can control just any Plex setting with the Shield.
Using Tidal on Plex
When you subscribe to Tidal, Plex will merge your personal music collection with the service. You’re basically getting a universal search between the music you own and what you’re getting through Tidal. So you don’t have to hunt down a certain band, song or album that you burned on your hard drive to listen to it.
Tidal on Plex also recommends music the service thinks you’ll be interested in. That will likely turn up new music from bands or solo artists that you like, but don’t own.
Podcasts, News, and Web Shows
You don’t need a Plex Pass subscription to use the Podcasts, News or Web Shows sections. You don’t need to download anything to enjoy podcasts. From the Podcast menu, you can build and curate your own lists of what you want to listen to.
And it’s an especially nice feature if you have a sound bar already set up on your TV.
The News section is pretty handy on a couple of fronts. Let’s say you don’t get your local ABC station, but you’d really love to check out the local news.
Chances are you’ll find it on Plex News. And you may get some other local networks from a neighboring state that you wouldn’t pick up on your TV antenna or cable package. So there’s some huge value there if you’re interested in regional news. There are national outlets as well such as the Associated Press, and categories for entertainment news and science. But I think the local stuff is the most unique and valuable.
I’m not so keen on Plex’s web shows. The content is aggregated from a variety of YouTube channels from big name publications like Vanity Fair, Conde Nast and GQ. I’m not entirely sure how these publications got selected. But honestly, after spending a lot of time searching, I struggled to find something that looked entertaining, especially when Plex is already helping me curate so much other good stuff.
In summary: Plex’s news and podcast sections are simply great. If Plex Web shows suddenly disappeared, I’m not sure anyone would miss it. Plex Web Shows might be more appealing if users could build their own channel list from scratch.
Is Plex Pass worth it?
As an alternative to cable, Plex is definitely worth trying – even if you just check out the free features.
If you have any movies burned to a hard drive or computer, tapping into the free parts of Plex is a no brainer. You will be able to access that movie library on a number of over-the-top streaming devices, including Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and NVIDIA Shield.
If you’re serious about setting up a DVR option for OTA channels, I would suggest trying Plex Pass with the $4.99 plan. The HDHomeRun Connect tuners are my favorite to use, but for something portable, a Hauppauge WinTV dualHD tuner is great.
You can always opt for a lifetime subscription to Plex Pass later if you think it is software that you will use long term.
When deciding how much to spend on your own equipment, I have a simple rule of thumb. If you’re spending between $100 and $200 per month for cable TV or satellite service, take that money and invest in some equipment that’s going to last for years.
With Plex, I have discovered long lost content on my hard drives, including some prized vacation photos and music collections. I’ve become a fan of streaming services for channels that were once exclusive to cable. But the Plex Live TV and DVR feature is making me question if I’m spending too much on my live TV streaming subscriptions.
I hope this review and how-to guide was helpful to you. Do you use Plex? What’s your favorite setup? Share it with readers in the comments below.
This article was originally published May 25, 2017, and has been updated.