Cord cutting has come a very long way. It wasn't that long ago that cord cutters had to hunt around for solutions to very basic cord cutting problems. Now, the opposite is true: we have so many options for streaming, organizing, and casting content that the difficult part is actually deciding which one to use.
Witness the crowded field of media server programs, for example: you have Plex, Emby, PlayOn, and many more. There are ways to rig up Kodi as a server or to integrate these other servers into a Kodi environment. In short, if you want to make your local content available on multiple devices, you have a lot of options – too many, in fact.
On this list, we're cutting through the confusion and naming the best media server applications. Use it as your guide – or take us to task in the comments if you disagree.
The Winner: Plex
As far as stand-alone media server applications go, Plex is the clear winner. It's the most polished and user-friendly of the media server applications, which is a big advantage in a space that's crowded by clunky options that are only a few steps removed from their DIY origins.
Plex is easy to set up and easy to use, and it's quite effective. It's pushing the idea of a media server beyond the concept's power-user origins, and making media servers attractive to more casual cord cutters. But Plex is still quite powerful, and it offers the essential media server combination of local content streaming and “channels” full of streaming content from major networks. Like many of its competitors, it has a free version and a paid “premium” version, which is priced fairly and includes some solid features (like access to your content outside your local network).
Plex isn't perfect, of course – it still has too many channels that don't work on certain platforms, and idealists will note that it's not open source. It doesn't play that well with Kodi (Kodi fanatics, we have your best choice ranked at #2). But overall, the sum of Plex's advantages is greater than the sum of its disadvantages. It's leading the pack in the media server space.
Second Place: Emby
Emby splits the difference between Plex and the less polished media servers that make up the rest of our list. It offers more customization and – importantly – superb integration with Kodi, the best media center (but not the best media server) on the market.
Emby manages to offer all this customization and functionality without asking quite as much of its users as its DIY-leaning brethren. It's not quite as elegant as Plex, but it's much more user-friendly than Universal Media Center and the like. It has an awful lot in common with Plex, but it tweaks the formula to position itself as a bit more appealing to the DIY crowd.
Third Place: Serviio
Serviio is one of several media servers that takes advantage of DLNA interoperability to stream to a wide variety of platforms. It's a little less intuitive than Emby or Plex, but (unlike DLNA competitor PlayOn) can run servers on both Windows and Mac. If this one isn't for you, you could consider Universal Media Server (formerly PS3 Media Server), which is another DLNA media server with a loyal following.
The downside to Serviio is that it's far less user-friendly than Emby or Plex. It's still a good choice for the tech-savvy among us, but be prepared to get your hands dirty.
Fourth Place: Universal Media Server
Speak of the devil! We ranked Universal Media Server below Serviio because we thought its setup process was a little more of a hassle (to be honest, both are far more difficult to set up than Plex or Emby are). But really, Serviio and Universal Media Server are very similar, and they run neck-and-neck for the affections of the DLNA server crowd. Universal Media Server is the old PS3 Media Server, so fans of that product will want to continue on with this one.