Would you like to be able to access all those DVDs or Blu-rays from anywhere? Set up a Plex media server and you can. Fair warning: converting discs to digital requires some work, and a bit of cash if you want a decent amount of storage. That being said, setting up Plex itself isn’t hard.
Hardware and software requirements
Prepare to plunk down some cash. You technically can run a Plex media server on any always-on machine, but my recommendation is to invest in a network attached storage (NAS) device. It’s an expensive route, but there are a few reasons I prefer a NAS:
- NAS devices are very flexible; besides a media server for movies and music you can back up mobile phone photos as you take them
- You can back up all household PCs to the NAS and mount a network drive so you don’t have to even store photos or documents on the PC
- Most NAS devices are multiple bay and house several hard drives in a RAID configuration that provides a duplicate copy of your data in case one drive fails
So, what do you need to make this work?
- An always on device with at least 4TB storage (more is better if you have a large video library)
- A PC with a DVD-ROM or BD-ROM drive
- DVD/Blu-ray ripping software (I use MakeMKV with HandBrake)
Set up the Plex media server
Setting up the Plex media server is going to be the first step. If you purchased a NAS go to the package center (or app center) for your device. Most major brands (Synology, Qnap, WD, Asus) will have a Plex media server app available. Simply add the package to your NAS, open the app, and follow the set up instructions.
If you are going to use a Windows PC to run Plex, go to the Plex website and download the server. Like the NAS, simply follow the install instructions. Of note, you will use the PC to handle all the computing, so if you share the library with friends and they start streaming it can impact performance of some resource intensive games.
Once installed you will actually deal with your media library through the Plex web interface. Having a NAS has a distinct advantage here: most NAS Plex packages will work with or without internet after initial setup. The PC app requires an always on internet connection to share your library.
Rip in your library
This part is awesome. You will spend weeks, if not months, changing disks out every 40 minutes to an hour as your PC rips them in to your storage. Okay, maybe not so much fun.
First up, a few tips to get things flowing smoothly:
- If using a NAS, mount the NAS video folder (or make one to mount) as a network drive so you can rip the video files straight to the NAS
- Organize your library into separate folders by media type (i.e. Movies, TV shows, etc.)
- Make a new folder for each TV show. Likewise, for each TV show make a new folder for each season and name the file by season and episode. As an example, House Season 1 Episode 1 should be named House_s01e01.
- If you haven’t already done so, go to the Plex web app and point the server to those folders so it can scan for new files. For helpful hints and another robust community, see the Plex support page.
- The should be obvious, but make sure your device running the Plex server has a static IP address!
Following those naming conventions and organization makes matching media to its Metadata easier (that gives you the nice media artwork and info).
Launch your ripping software of choice. To do it for free, download MakeMKV. Its freeware for Blu-Rays while in Beta. I usually rip in the MKV file to a temporary storage device (your gonna want a large volume, as MKV files are uncompressed and huge). You can, if you want, use this file directly in Plex. However, due to the size it’s better to add one additional step and compress the file to something a little more manageable. For that, I use Handbrake to convert the MKV files into a high-quality MP4 file. The catch: it takes a while. Like 2 hours for a full-length title. That being said, I’ll rip in discs with MakeMKV, fire up Handbrake to start converting, and add ripped discs to the queue and let it run.
Verify file Metadata
Metadata is what allows Plex to show the media artwork and information. Most of the time naming the file is enough for Plex to match it to the information in movies databases on the Web. Occasionally, though, you will need to fix a match. You’ll notice a mismatch occurs more often on movies that are part of a series, or movies with multiple release dates (live action versus animated release).
To fix a match click the small edit pencil at the bottom left of the media picture in the web app. Correct any items in the information or erase erroneous data. To help ensure a good match, search for the release date and enter it. Save the changes and close. Hit the 3 dot menu on the right side of the media tile and select fix match. Instead of auto match, I find using the movie database almost always fixes the issue. Likewise, using the search function instead of auto match can also provide better matches.
Set up the Plex media server streaming clients
Once you have a few items ripped in, go ahead and get a streaming client or two set up. Most smart TVs will have the Plex app available for download, while mobile devices will charge a one-time fee to download the app. Visit your platforms version of the app/channel store and search for Plex. Once installed, follow the setup instructions on-screen to link and login. Once set up, you should see your personal media library. I personally run Plex on Roku, Xbox One, a Vizio Smart TV, a Toshiba Amazon Fire TV, and Android mobile.
Before really jumping in, make sure you can play your media and it is up to your standards for video quality and sound. You don’t want to spend days and days ripping in discs just to find the quality is awful.
Odds and ends
Since we’re dealing with technology something is bound to go wrong somewhere. Setting up a Plex media server is not hard by itself, but a few items may pop up:
Remote Access Issues
Remote access is not a huge issue. Unless you want to play your library on the go. If you are only streaming to devices in-home on your local network you can leave remote access disabled. Once you set up the Plex media server, remote access usually enables without a hitch. In case it doesn’t you can try the following:
- Manually port forward your router. Do not use UPnP. UPnP is a security risk (as the device setting those open ports has full control of the router) and should not be used in most cases. Manual port forwarding is specific for each router, but in general it is in the LAN advanced settings. Set the external port to whatever you want (but be sure it matches what you put in the web app), and forward it to the IP address of the server and port 32400 (i.e. 192.168.1.13:32400).
- Use a VPN. Most NAS systems will have the ability to host a VPN server. Using a VPN allows local access to your network on any device authorized. I personally use a VPN from a security standpoint, and because I can remotely manage my servers from anywhere.
Transcoding the video files can take up a bit of memory, especially if streaming to multiple clients at the same time. If you run the server on a PC that is not likely going to be an issue, but NAS units typically only come with 2GB RAM pre-installed. If you run into stuttering or poor playback, you may need to consider upgrading the RAM in the server. The other possibility to check is your network connection. I prefer a wired connection on all permanent clients (home theaters, TVs), but wireless is okay for tablets and mobile devices.
MP4 versus MKV?
If you search for which format is the best you’ll find many answers. Plex apparently prefers MP4 according the the support forums, but I’ve found it will play MKV just fine if the RAM in the server is up to the task. I hit this above, but if you’re using MakeMKV the files are huge. While yes, the quality is just fine, the file size is a little bit of a problem (like 24Gb per movie). You’ll burn up some storage space in a hurry with that. I’m not an audio/video-phile. I’m just fine with compressing it down to a 4-6Gb MP4.
Is it legal to rip in my discs?
Technically…it depends on where you live. You can do a Web search and find many different answers, but the consensus is that as long as you don’t run a mass streaming service from your basement, you’re good. If you do, I don’t know you.
Grab the popcorn, you’re set up! Enjoy your digital library wherever you go!
*Edited 2/15/22 Updated preferred ripping software to MakeMKV with Handbrake due to some stability issues with other software.