Cord Cutting Guides, News, and Reviews
Last modified: February 14, 2019
By Stephen Lovely
We talk about Plex a lot here at Cordcutting.com, but it's been a long time since we last subjected it to our savvy critical eye. In fact, when I was digging through our archives ahead of writing this piece, I found that we'd actually never reviewed Plex before! I'm not sure how that happened, but fear not: I am here to REMEDY THE SITUATION. Here's our long-awaited Plex review.
Plex is a media server application. The idea is pretty simple: you grab a device with a bunch of local files — you know, all of those movie and music files that you ripped from CDs and DVDs back in the day or acquired through, ahem, more extralegal means — and you install a server on that device. Then you grab a bunch of other devices and fire up the Plex app, and voila: you can stream all of those files.
Of course, not everyone has a bunch of old movie files that they need to share with their other devices (I mean, I do, but I am sure that some people do not). So Plex offers other stuff, too, including support for OTA TV that can turn an antenna and TV tuner into an OTA DVR setup.
Our review will cover both sides of Plex. By the end, we'll let you know if Plex is still the best choice for your media server needs and if its other perks make it worthwhile to folks who don't have those local files to worry about.
Getting started with Plex is pretty straightforward. Users have to download the Plex Media Server software (Plex's website abbreviates the Plex Media Server to “PMS” — yes, really — but I will not be doing so in this review, so help me God). The server software goes on whatever device will be used to host the server, of course. If that device is a computer, getting the server as simple as heading to Plex's website on that computer and downloading the file. Setting Plex up on another device, such as a network-attached storage (NAS) device, make take an extra step or two as you transfer the Plex Media Server program to the device in question.
Once your server is up and running, you can manage it from Plex's web app using your Plex account (free, unless you want to opt for a paid version — more on that later on, especially in our Pricing section).
Adding files to Plex was pretty easy. I found the menus pretty intuitive as I added folders to my server. You can, of course, decide what to share and what not to.
Once the server is set up, you can stream content from it. That part is a breeze: just download the Plex app (which is different from the Plex Media Server software, and is available in lots of app stores — see the Platform support section of this review for more), log in, select your server, and start streaming.
Streaming your local content on your home network is something that you can do for free with Plex. But you'll unlock more stuff if you opt for a Plex Pass (see our Pricing section). Among those perks Plex's over-the-air TV capabilities, which include the streaming OTA TV over the server and acting as an OTA DVR.
Setting up live TV was a bit tougher. To do that, I needed my own TV tuner (I used the Hauppauge WinTV-dualHD tuner that I reviewed here on Cordcutting.com back in 2016) and my own antenna (I used the NoCable 50-mile antenna that I reviewed earlier this year). Plex requires you to software and drivers to use your tuner before you ask Plex to recognize that tuner. I hadn't used my WinTV-dualHD In a while, so I had to go download the WinTV software and get it working.
With that out of the way, I was able to get Plex to see the tuner. Plex scanned for channels itself (even though I'd already done so in WinTV — oops, guess I didn't have to do that), and I was off. Once that was set up, it was easy to access live TV on the Plex app.
None of this was too arduous, but it took a bit longer to set up than a pricier OTA DVR, like Tablo, might. Of course, it's hard to beat the price of the alternative Plex is offering here.
The live TV and OTA DVR interfaces on the Plex app are a little bare-bones. I couldn't find a TV guide, which was a shame. It wasn't clear to me how or if I could choose to record every episode of a show, either. I wish that the interface had focused a bit more on the channels and a bit less on what was playing on that particular moment. It looked like an on-demand menu rather than a live TV browser. I definitely preferred Tablo's look — though, again, there's a big price difference to consider there.
Update: Whoops! I missed the TV guide, which is accessible through a link on the “Live TV & DVR” tab of the mobile app and — a bit more intuitively — on the sidebar in the web app. The TV guide menu looks great and works well, so Plex is off the hook in this department.
That about does it for the big stuff on Plex, but there are lots of little features, including some in Beta. I didn't test Plex's virtual reality features, for instance.
Plex's original purpose was to let you access your own content, but the service has also dabbled in online content from time to time. Originally, outside content on Plex took the form of “channels,” things that were somewhere between Kodi's add-ons and Roku's channels. But Plex has called it quits with channels — you can still get them, but they're unofficial and unsupported, Plex's representatives told me. That's kind of a shame, in my view. When I first checked out Plex years ago, I added channels that made it easy for me to watch free on-demand content from around the web or listen to music streaming services.
The phasing out of channels doesn't mean that online content hasn't totally disappeared from Plex, though. Some of the functionality that used to be added through Channels has shifted to Plex-approved options under the “Web Shows,” “News,” and “Podcasts” tabs in the Plex app.
Plex's “online content,” as these things are collectively referred to, includes stuff from the likes of AP, The New Yorker, and The Verge. And Plex has taken steps to add support for specific services: as of this writing, it is pushing a special deal on subscriptions to the music streaming service Tidal. But I don't use Tidal, and, from the look of these numbers, neither do you.
I wasn't too impressed with the online content and integration with other apps. In my view, Plex's appeal is driven by your own local content and the great stuff on free over-the-air TV, not by the online stuff.
When you use the Plex app to watch videos or listen to music that is stored on you PC — or when you use it to watch live TV through your antenna and TV tuner — then you're streaming that content in a way that's pretty similar to how things work when you stream Netflix or Hulu. It's just that you're streaming from your own server instead of from a streaming service's server. So how does the streaming quality stack up?
Let's tackle the server files (as opposed to the live TV) first. When on my home network, I found the streaming quality for these to be excellent. My movies looked great on my Roku TV, and they streamed in uninterrupted HD following a brief loading time. I got the same results with my iPhone. Your streaming quality is going to top out at 1080p, which is respectable but a bit short of the 4K resolution that is increasingly typical in modern TVs and streaming services.
What about Plex's live TV streaming? I found that it worked pretty well on my home network. Performance varied by channel, of course. Antenna strength and location matter, too — Plex and your network speed aren't the only factors here, not by a long shot. Live TV loading times weren't egregiously long, but they were still a bit longer than I'd prefer. You won't be inclined to do much channel surfing, especially since, as far as I can tell, you have to back your way out to the programming menu before you can select a new channel.
Streaming live TV over the internet wasn't as seamless as doing so on my own network. At times, it worked pretty well, but I also had stretches where things got so choppy that I would have turned it off had I not been obligated to review it. Wi-Fi is a big factor here, of course: I had bad results using the Wi-Fi on an Amtrak train and better ones using the Wi-Fi at a relative's house. Using mobile data turned out to be a bridge too far, as my streams broke down pretty badly under those conditions. Your mileage may vary, of course.
To get much use out of Plex, you'll need to be running some form of it on at least two devices: you'll need a device running the Plex Media Server software, and then at least one other device with the Plex app on it. As explained earlier in this review, the server is what makes the local files available on other devices, and the Plex app is the means of accessing those files.
The Plex Media Server will run on Windows, Mac, and Linux computers. It can also run on the Nvidia Shield, network-attached storage (NAS) devices, and even some routers. Really, since you download the Plex Media Server file directly, you can try to get it to work on all sorts of things — just keep in mind that it takes some juice to run this program and that you'll want it on a device that has access to the local files you want to share and that can remain on and running the server as often as you want to have access. In the past, I've managed to get the Plex Media Server to run on a Raspberry Pi.
The Plex app doesn't require nearly as much firepower to run, and is available on a whole lot more devices. You can snag the Plex app for these platforms:
That's an impressive list! Again, that's for the Plex app, which is the app you'll use to watch the content you've made available over the server.
Plex is free to download and use, but you can opt for the service's premium subscription service, “Plex Pass,” to unlock more features.
The most noteworthy of those features is probably the live TV and DVR features outlined above (those also require an antenna and a TV tuner, as we've already explained). Other features include the ability to download files from your server to devices running the Plex app, so that you can watch them later even without a network connection. Plex Pass will also give you access to discounts and special offers on related products and services, such as VPN subscriptions and external hard disc drives.
A Plex pass will cost you $4.99 per month, $39.99 per year, or $119.99 for a lifetime subscription. Plex offers its users a 30-day free trial of Plex Pass, so you can find out how the other half lives risk-free.
Plex's competitors come in at around the same price point. Media server app Emby is also free with a premium tier, and that premium tier costs $4.99 per month or $119.99 for a lifetime, just like Plex's. OTA DVR device Tablo can be enhanced with a premium subscription service that costs $4.99 per month.
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Plex wears a few different hats. It's a media server first and foremost, but it also now works as an OTA DVR (albeit one that needs additional hardware). And it still serves as a sort of media center or media platform, playing host to other services.
I wasn't overly impressed by Plex's online content. But as an OTA DVR alternative, I think that Plex has something to offer. I think it lags behind Tablo in a lot of ways, but there's a clear difference in startup costs. Plex is a pretty affordable way to stream and record OTA TV.
As for Plex's main hustle — its media server role — I was as impressed with that as ever. Plex is still the best media server solution on the market. It's great when it's free, and even better with a Plex Pass.
For those who need a media server, Plex is the clear choice. Those who don't may want to consider Plex's OTA DVR capabilities as a budget option with a hint of DIY flavor.