Hopefully, you’ve already read my article on how to ditch cable! As I explained there, you need hardware (I recommend a Roku device), you might need an HD antenna, of course you need streaming subscriptions (Hulu, Netflix and/or Sling) and you should have a media server like Plex.
To boil it down into simple terms, a media server can organize movies, music and TV show seasons on your computer, then make that content available on any device, whenever and wherever you want it. Sounds great, right? There are other media servers available, like Kodi and Emby, but they don’t provide the same beautiful user-friendly interface as Plex, nor the premium features available with Plex Pass.
Here’s a promotional video that gives an overview of the Plex Media Server. To summarize, the media server is installed on a computer, ideally your home computer – the same computer that houses all your digital files. The media is organized in a clean attractive manner and accessible from any device. When you switch devices, it let’s you pick up right where you left off. So, you can start watching The Martian in your living room, then continue watching on the toilet and finish it up while cruising down the interstate at 80 mph (just kidding).
There are Plex apps for virtually every device: Android, Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV and even a gaming devices. These apps simply allow you to access your media server. One caveat is that the main computer must always be running. If the computer with the media server is turned off, your media is no longer accessible (with some pretty cool exceptions I’ll get into later).
Maybe you don’t have a computer full of media, but don’t fret! Plex can support content saved legally or illegally (hush hush). Then, once you’ve built up a library (and named all the files correctly), Plex enriches your media by automatically adding metadata such as descriptions, plot summaries, posters, and album covers. Plex Pass subscribers also get movie trailers and other extras added to the experience.
If you prefer to amass a “legal” media library from your existing collection of DVDs, there are a few options. Freemake DVD ripper is one of the best free programs available, but it will struggle with highly-encrypted discs, especially Disney DVDs which can’t be ripped by any free software as far as I know. In that case, save yourself the hassle and just buy WinX DVD Ripper Platinum. It’ll set you back a couple of Tubmans, but it can rip any DVD effortlessly. Pop in a new disc every time you walk past the computer, and a week later you’ll have a full media library!
Speaking of Disney movies, a lot of the best ones – Frozen, Aladdin, Lion King – aren’t available for streaming on Netflix. So, a media server is your best option to avoid a portable DVD player or buying digital copies that are restricted to a single platform/device. Just buy the movies, rip them with WinX and they’re ready to be watched anywhere and anytime. If you don’t already have the songs cemented in your head, you will soon!
If you consider yourself a more advanced user, the possibility exists to save live TV as files that can be stored on your Plex Media Server. Boom, the latest episodes of your favorite TV shows! This process is more complicated than the DVD-ripping process and it requires a more significant investment. A DVR device that can export files (such as a Tablo or an HDHomeRun) will set you back around $200.
For the most part, everything discussed so far is available for free with the basic media server. However, things get really interesting when we introduce a few of the Plex Pass premium features that make it such a worthwhile product.
A great premium feature for dads is the user restriction controls. This allows you to set up user profiles, and restrict the permissions of those users. So, your children can watch all their age-appropriate movies and shows without having access to awesome “grown-up” stuff like Pulp Fiction, Fight Club or Breaking Bad.
With Plex Pass you have multiple options for sourcing your content. Of course there’s the basic option to stream from your media server (home computer). Additionally, you can stream from the cloud of a 3rd-party provider (Google, Dropbox, etc.). The main benefit of cloud streaming is that your home computer doesn’t have to be running all the time. Google Drive provides 15 complimentary GBs (good for a few movies) but beyond that you have to pay. Expect to spend anywhere from $2 to $15 per month if you want to maintain a large cloud library. Personally, I just keep a few movies on Google Drive, occasionally cycle in fresh content and stay below the free 15GB cap.
Your third option with Plex Pass is to sync a couple of movies on-board your actual device. Once sync’d, this option doesn’t require wifi and is terrific for flights, camping trips or extended stays aboard nuclear submarines. My main gripe is that the server access is spotty if your main computer is a laptop (as mine is). It’s a manageable problem, but it just makes the Plex Pass’ cloud sync and local sync that much more important!
Finally, Plex attempts to emulate devices like the Roku and Fire TV by offering “channels.” Their channel selection isn’t as robust as the streaming boxes, but there are gems to be found. Here are some of the best channels Plex has to offer.
The basic Plex Media Server is free, so you really have nothing to lose. Then, if you love it as much as I do, you’ll consider upgrading. Plex Pass subscriptions can be paid for monthly ($5), annually ($3.33/month) or, if you truly see the value in Plex as a pillar of cord-cutting, you can plop down $149 for a lifetime subscription. The lifetime subscription pays for itself in just a few years.