plex fills an important gap: streaming services are transient, while physical media requires a lot of hardware. For videophiles who embrace the digital age but don’t want to tie their cart to a proprietary movie store, options are limited.
You can view all the media on your computer, load an external hard drive, or use a media server. and for our money the best media server you can get right now is plex. In fact, “for our money” is not entirely accurate, since the best parts of plex are absolutely free. And its latest new feature, which makes plex one of the best streaming apps, is actually about working with some of the best streaming services.
And not only are plex apps available on the best streaming devices, but the plex domain will complement the best shows on netflix and the best movies on hulu.
I’ve talked about plex several times in the past, either to praise its generous free tier or to explain how to set up its ambitious live TV stream. But until now, Tom’s Guide hasn’t had a simple guide for those just getting their feet wet in the surprisingly deep waters of the Plex.
Whether you’re a video hoarder with hundreds of movies crying out for a media server, or a casual streamer looking for a different approach, plex is well worth at least a few hours of your time. read on to find out exactly what it is and how you can make it work for you.
plex tv explained
I often refer to plex as a streaming service, and this is technically true: plex takes video stored in a remote location and streams it to a receiver, usually connected to a TV. However, Plex is not a streaming service in the same way as a subscription show like Netflix, or even an a la carte store like Voodoo.
instead, plex is a media server. this means you’ll be providing your own content instead of relying on a large company’s library, which typically changes from month to month.
While plex itself can guide you through the process of setting up a media server, it works like this: You provide your own video content and put it in a special folder somewhere on your computer. you point the plex software to this folder, and plex then makes your computer available as a server. By using the plex app on another computer, mobile device, or streaming device connected to your TV, you can stream content from your computer to another platform of your choice.
This is precisely how streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video deliver videos to you, just with a few extra steps in between. “the cloud” is really just “a computer somewhere else that’s always on.” I’m sorry to be the one to give this news.
Granted, media servers cost pennies a dozen. Streaming players from the PS4 (but not the PS5) to Roku devices have built-in media server apps; even windows media player works as a pretty decent media server in a pinch. what sets plex apart is how well it organizes media and how beautiful the entire interface looks.
While most media servers leave you scrolling through an endless list of misnamed files, plex automatically organizes your shows into seasons, complete with title cards and episode descriptions. it tells you who starred in your movies and can even find lyrics for your music. makes your own library look as nice as anything on netflix or disney plus.
While plex is primarily a media server, it offers a number of other features in both its free and paid tiers. has an ad-supported streaming service that offers free movies and TV. (Movies are great, TV isn’t.)
can also show you popular movies and shows on other free streaming services. Current offerings include some of the Spider-Man movies directed by Sam Raimi. you can use it to watch news or listen to podcasts. plug in an hd antenna and tuner, and plex will let you watch live tv; add a hard drive and plex works as a dvr platform.
plex can even find bonus content for your movies (such as interviews and deleted scenes) and stream them. In recent years, plex has quietly become one of the best streaming platforms on the market.
the latest plex news (updated September 2022)
- plexamp continues to grow, now it has a full mobile app.
- discovery and watchlist functionality is now in beta on plex
- plex bugs on nvidia shield tv have been fixed in a new update
In October 2022, plex will add many new ad-free titles. of its assortment, we recommend I’m not your black and let the right one in.
plex is available as a media server and as an application that receives streamed media. you can download both versions from the plex website (opens in a new tab).
plex is available both as a free service and as a premium level called plex pass. While the free tier doesn’t bill you monthly, there is a $5 activation fee per platform if you want to use the Plex apps for Android and iOS. the premium level costs $5 per month, $40 per year, or $120 for a lifetime pass. if you use a lot of plex, the lifetime pass is paid for only after two years; otherwise, use your best judgment.
Recently, plex offered a 20% discount on their lifetime subscription to celebrate plex professional week (September 19-23, 2022). so if you missed it, hopefully you can get the same discount a year from now.
It’s also worth pointing out what you can get for free and what you can’t. On Plex’s free plan, you can host a media server, stream content to any non-mobile Plex app (computer, streaming player, game console, and smart TV), and watch Plex ad-supported TV and movies. As stated above, the mobile apps aren’t really free, but even if you don’t get a plex pass premium subscription, activating one of them costs $5, just one time.
It’s entirely conceivable that the free tier will suffice for most users, especially since plex doesn’t hide any of its auto-browsing or sorting features behind a paywall. however, the premium subscription offers a handful of cool features.
plex’s new features
In April 2022, plex introduced two new features via a beta update. discovery helps you find new content no matter what streaming service you’re on, and shows trends across all your streaming services.
So, the new Watch List feature helps you keep track of what you want to watch, no matter what device you’re using. it also links directly to the services those shows and movies are on.
plex live tv
live tv & DVR functionality is a superior Plex pass-through feature, allowing you to connect an antenna, tuner, and hard drive at home and then remotely stream it to your Plex account. plex will even offer a comprehensive guide based on their local listings.
It’s incredibly useful, if you’re into network TV and can’t watch the shows while they’re streaming anyway. A premium subscription also gives you access to mobile apps (assuming you haven’t already paid to activate them separately), trailers and extras for movies you own, and lyrics for your song library. it’s also the only way to get parental controls on plex.
In my opinion, the premium subscription benefits are relatively modest, unless you specifically want to record live TV. but the subscription is not that expensive either.
plex server to host your own content
here we come to the crux of the matter. plex is a wonderful service, as long as you can bring your own movies, TV, and music to the party. the only question is, where can you get these things? Most of our TV shows and movies are streaming these days, and even those that aren’t often downloaded in proprietary formats can only be viewed in the app you bought them from.
First of all, music is pretty easy to get. you can buy and rip cd’s, if you want to go old school, or you can download mp3, wav or flac files from the digital provider of your choice. (itunes is the obvious exception, but apple isn’t the only game in town anymore).
Movies and TV are a bit more thorny. Many Plex users build their libraries by ripping DVDs they already own. this is not technically legal, especially if your dvd comes with encryption. At the same time, at least one state court has ruled that copying DVDs, as long as the content is not shared, counts as fair use. At the very least, we can say that, from a practical point of view, copying DVDs exclusively for your own use is unlikely to bother you. According to my research, no private person has ever gotten into legal trouble for this.
You can also record your own TV shows, using features like Plex’s Live TV DVR or similar services that allow you to record cable shows. Programs like PlayOn allow you to record shows from streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. doing so usually violates the terms of service, but it’s not illegal, and again, to my knowledge, no one ever had an account terminated for it, as long as they kept the recordings private.
Of course, by far the most common way to create a plex library is to simply download content via torrents. it’s not legal, and the ethics are highly questionable, but I’d wager that most people reading this article have downloaded something at least once, perhaps just because there was absolutely nowhere else to find the content. anything beyond that, you may search at your own risk.
Since plex’s best features are free, there’s no barrier to trying it out for yourself. If you need stuff to fill your media server, try downloading some public domain movies and give it a try. installing and running a plex server usually takes less than half an hour, and setting up an application takes even less time than that.
plex has been one of my favorite streaming services in recent years, but I’ve also been able to acquire a lot of my own content during that time. If you don’t have a media library of your own, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about, but if you do, you might be wondering what you did without plex.