Tips on setting up a Plex server

TV remote

The recent changes in HBO Max have been a reminder of the downsides of streaming services: namely, not actually owning the media in question.

For me, HBO Max yanking half of Looney Tunes was something of a “last straw.” As such, it’s led me to take a renewed interest in physical media for some of my favorite TV shows or movies, particularly for anything with a Warner Bros. logo on it. It’s also led me to decide to set up a Plex server on my desktop computer, so I can stream my videos to my TV set/iPad.

Below I’ve outlined my process for all this.

Ripping DVDs/Blu-Rays into digital copies

Row of DVDs
“DVDs” by blmurch is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Flickr / cropped from original)

The following part about ripping DVDs is mostly taken from a post I wrote a few years ago.

Ripping DVDs/Blu-Rays is still an option that exists, just not one that’s as popular as it was a decade ago.

The advantages include gaining a digital rights management (DRM)-free digital copy that, like the physical disc, is yours to own indefinitely. The file can also be played on any device that supports the format (usually an MP4 file, though MKV is also sometimes seen). The files can also be played without any interference from or bizarre/consumer-unfriendly terms by media or tech companies. It also might be the only way to obtain a non-streaming digital copy of a program (as is the current case with the “Peanuts” specials). Finally, one already paid for the DVD in question, so the creators of the material (and their conglomerates) aren’t out of any money.

One downside is that, like buying MP3s from iTunes/Amazon, you’ll have to maintain said video files on your own, including backups, etc. Also, there’s more work (and technical skills required) involved versus redeeming a digital code, firing up an app, or popping a disc into a player. Finally, it’s still debatable how much of a legal grey area it is to rip one’s own DVDs. Though I’d argue it’s for personal use, and the content’s creators were compensated when buying the DVD/Blu-ray (unlike piracy).

For ripping discs, I use two programs, MakeMKV and Handbrake. My process:

  1. Use MakeMKV to rip the DVD/Blu-Ray to a digital MKV copy. If one’s OK with the resulting file, then that’s all that needs to be done. However, MKV files are often large, especially for Blu-ray content; additionally, the MKV format isn’t as widely supported as MP4. So…
  2. Use Handbrake to convert and compress the MKV file into an MP4 file. The current version of Handbrake offers easy-to-use presets if you don’t want to mess with settings. The default, “Fast 1080p30” is fine, though it’s probably worth bumping it up to the better (but slower) “HQ” or “Super HQ” general presets, especially if you ripped a DVD (given its lower picture quality versus Blu-ray). After Handbrake’s done, you’ll have an MP4 file.

Using Plex to set up a video library

Plex server displaying SpongeBob SquarePants
A Plex server, displaying “SpongeBob SquarePants.” (Screenshot by author)

Plex is a popular media server program that allows one to easily set such up on a personal computer. While it has more technical uses, Plex offers a user-friendly experience, displaying media files similar to the front end in commercial streaming services like Netflix or iTunes. Plex has grown more commercial over the years; along with extra features for a monthly fee, it also now offers ad-supported free streaming channels. However, it’s still the easiest way to get set up. I’m speaking from experience; I’ve tried other software, from Jellyfin to Universal Media Server, but Plex is by far the easiest to use and most polished.

To use Plex, download and install the Plex Media Server, as well as the Plex app on your Roku/streaming device, game console, or mobile device (though the iOS/Android apps require paying $5 to unlock). You’ll also need to create a Plex account, and make sure your video files are properly organized (follow Plex’s file naming tips here). After that, you should be ready to go.

For me, I just want to stream to my TV set and iPad, so I don’t need Plex Pass, Plex’s $5/month service that offers extra features, including streaming away from home, downloading files to devices to use offline, etc.

Plex also can be used as a generic DLNA server, so you can stream (or even save) files to a tablet or phone with apps such as the VLC app, without paying for Plex’s app or Plex Pass. However, you don’t get Plex’s features or user-friendly interface; in VLC, you’re stuck navigating a generic file directory for files.

My setup

2020 M1 Mac Mini
2020 M1 Mac Mini. Photo by Anthony Dean.

For my setup, I have Plex installed on my 2020 model M1 Mac Mini, with my video files stored on an external hard drive. My TV has a Roku device attached, with the Plex app installed; my iPad has the VLC app installed (to use via DLNA). I turned off almost all of the Plex extras, such as the third-party live-streaming channels (I already use Tubi, Peacock, and a few others separately). For DVDs/Blu-rays, I have an external Blu-ray drive I’ll attach to my Mac when needed.

While I don’t have the Mac on 24 hours a day as a fully dedicated server (it’s my main home computer), Plex does work fine running in the background. The only real obstacle so far: some of my video files had trouble being organized within Plex. However, it’s more the nature of the DVDs I used (older DVDs or hard-to-organize TV shows). They ended up working OK (though without Plex’s useful on-screen show information pulled from online) when importing into their own library category as generic media files, in either the “Movies” category or the “Other Videos” category. The latter’s used for things like home videos.

Conclusion

Physical media can still be a valuable part of home video, even if you’re a streaming service enthusiast. DVDs and Blu-rays ensure you own your own videos, don’t have to grapple with DRM (versus streaming services or digital videos bought on iTunes/Amazon/Vudu), and aren’t beholden to large conglomerates deciding to delete digital content on a whim. Unfortunately, not everything made for streaming services has physical media releases.

Regardless, no matter what Warner Bros. does, since I bought (for cheap) the first season DVD set of “The Scooby-Doo Show” (aka “The Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour”), I’ll always own Scooby-Doo tangling with the 10,000 Volt Ghost—to use an example of a show recently and suddenly removed from HBO Max without warning.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Anthony Dean

Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.

View all posts by Anthony Dean →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *