Although music and video streaming services are great for consuming huge amounts of content, you never own any of it, regardless of how long you subscribe. Plex offers an alternative for those who like to maintain local collections of music, photos, and videos. The media management software helps you construct an always-accessible media server and offers playback apps on many platforms. Plex has expanded its library of free streaming content, too, with preprogrammed channels, movies, shows, and podcasts that you don’t even need to store on your server. Although those with home theater PC (HTPC) setups need to look elsewhere (such as to the more customizable Kodi), Plex earns a top rating for its easy setup, reliable performance, and excellent organizational tools.
What Is Plex?
Plex is a media management platform with two parts: the media server software (Plex Media Server) and the new playback application (Plex), which replaces the Plex Media Player. The benefit of this setup is that you only need to worry about maintaining your file collection on your server. Your media library follows you to every device with the Plex app.
To get started, Plex users set up a server on a device using the Plex Media Server application and add local media libraries to it. Plex is best for people with large repositories of local media files but not necessarily a lot of space on the devices to which they’ll be streaming the content. It’s also for people who oppose popular video and music streaming services. Although we don’t condone the practice, content pirates may be drawn to Plex as well.
Once the media server is configured, Plex users can stream and download that server content on other devices as well as share their libraries with other people via the new cross-platform Plex app. As for specific changes, the updated media playback app replaces the older Sync capability with the simpler Download function for accessing your files offline. However, some functionality and platform support is going away. For instance, Plex is dropping support for Plex Media Player’s TV mode and thus HTPC setups. Plex has also unpublished its Microsoft Store version and does not have currently have plans to release the new app for Linux.
For those looking for information about Plex Cloud, know that Plex shut down the service in 2018. Plex Cloud was a premium feature that allowed users to host media in the cloud independently of local storage, but it was plagued by technical issues.
Platforms and File Support
Plex Media Server is available on macOS, Windows, Linux, and FreeBSD computers. Alternatively, you can install the software on network-attached storage (NAS) drives from popular manufacturers such as QNAP, Seagate, Synology, and Western Digital. The virtualization software, Docker, is another option.
On the playback side, the new Plex app is available for Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows devices. Supported streaming devices include Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, and Roku. You can also find Plex for gaming consoles (PlayStation 4 and Xbox One), select smart TVs, a few VR platforms, as well as for Alexa and the Sonos app. I tested Plex on multiple devices, including several Windows 10 machines, a Fire TV Stick, and a Google Pixel 3.
Plex can play nearly any media file you throw at it. In terms of audio, Plex supports MP3, M4A, FLAC, and WMA files. For videos, the list includes MP4, MKV, HEVC, AVI, MOV, and DIVX. Plex can also display JPG, PNG, RAW, and TBN image files. Plex includes built-in tools that convert non-natively supported files, such as DTS, to a usable format. You can also stream 4K content. Plex’s playback flexibility is similar to that of VLC Player.
How Much Does Plex Cost?
For users who want to try hosting files or who don’t need high-level features, Plex offers a free account. With this tier, you get all the basic media organization and streaming capabilities, the ability to cast to other devices, and support for tons of media formats, including 4K. This account level also lets you share your server with others, use Plex’s VR app, and control playback with voice controls on supported hardware.
More advanced users should consider a premium Plex Pass account instead, which costs either $4.99 per month, $39.99 per year, or $119.99 for a lifetime subscription. A Plex Pass includes everything in the free account, plus a host of other usability features. For example, Plex Pass subscribers get Premium Photos and Music options, including auto-tagging and automatic lyrics, support for Live TV via an antenna and tuner, and offline mobile syncing. Plex Pass also features multiuser support, a Timeline organizational view, and early access to new Plex features. I used a Plex Pass account to test the service.
Plex’s partnership with Tidal means that you can subscribe to both services as a bundle for a discounted monthly price. The $9.99-per-month plan combines the Tidal Premium service with exclusive Plex audio features, such as artist recommendations, customized playlists, and universal search tools. Plex will even use Tidal’s music library to fill in missing albums for artists in your music collection. Plex also offers a $19.99-per-month Tidal Hi-Fi + Plex Pass option which unlocks Tidal’s highest quality streams (lossless and CD) and all the benefits of the Plex Pass.
For comparison, Kodi is completely free and includes most of the same features. Emby, another media server option, offers both a free and premium tier. Roughly In line with Plex, Emby Premiere costs $4.99 per month, $54 per year, or $119 for a permanent license.
What’s the Difference Between Plex and Kodi?
Plex and Kodi are similar, and you shouldn’t feel bad for not understanding the difference straightaway. In fact, Plex’s previous generation Home Theater app was based on an XBMC (a precursor to Kodi) release. However, Plex and Kodi do not share any code and as such there are some notable differences. To begin with, Plex is not fully open source. Developers can contribute or review much of Plex’s code, but some parts are not publicly available. That’s probably fine if you don’t plan to dive into customizations at the code level.
Still, some users may prefer the truly open-source Kodi, which implements no such restrictions. Plex is easier to install on more platforms than Kodi, with dedicated apps for iOS and Amazon Fire TV devices, for example. Also, Plex seems to escape the wide-ranging condemnation of Kodi, despite the fact that using the latter, when used as intended, is completely legal. On the other hand, Kodi doesn’t require the same server setup step as Plex does.
Plex and Kodi are still very similar, though, as both aim to provide robust and customizable media streaming solutions. For example, users add local or networked media libraries to each program, though Plex offers an on-demand library of content, while Kodi does not. Plex did recently kill off official plugin support, so Kodi wins out from a flexibility standpoint. Both support Live TV and DVR options too, assuming you either already subscribe to cable or purchase the necessary antenna and receiver hardware. Give both apps a try with a few media files before adding your entire collection to see which one you prefer. Check out our full guide on how to download, use, and customize Kodi.
As mentioned, Plex and Kodi are not the only services competing in this space. Emby is likely the most comparable. You can download a dedicated Emby app on the majority of devices that Plex supports. Depending on the platform you intend to stream content on, OSMC and Open Media Server are options as well, especially for DIY platforms like the Raspberry Pi (RPi). Of course, most of these alternatives are not as popular or established as Plex or Kodi.
How to Set Up and Use a Plex Server
To get started with Plex, the first step is to download the server application onto the device where you store your media libraries. If you are a Plex Pass subscriber, you can set up and maintain multiple servers under the same account. Know that whatever device you install the server software on needs to remain powered up in order to access the media. If you are worried about electricity costs (monetary or environmental), consider using a NAS device as your server instead of a full-blown desktop, which requires more power.
Plex’s installation process is pretty simple. Just follow all the prompts and at the end, the application will launch a browser window with a prompt to connect to your web login. The next step is to name your server and add your media folders. Users have the option to either use preselected folders or create their own. To add a folder, hit the Add Library button, select a content type (Movies, TV Shows, Music, Photos, or Other Videos), and browse for media files on your local hard drive. Depending on the media type, Plex gives you extra contextual organizational options. For example, with my test Photos library, Plex offered to automatically identify objects and tag them accordingly. For further optimization, read our guide on how to organize your Plex library as well as our expert-level tips on how to manage it.
After you add all the media libraries and complete the setup, Plex takes you to the web application from which you can access and edit the contents of your server. If you intend to open access to your server from points outside your network, you need to enable Remote Management in the Settings > Server > Remote Access section.
Plex on the Web
Plex’s web application is sleek and modern, with tons of user options at your disposal. I particularly appreciate the dark default theme. Speaking of themes and customization, however, Kodi has the upper hand. Users can’t change Plex’s theme as of the time of this review, but this feature is baked right into Kodi.
Starting at the top, you get a search bar and navigation tools on the left. Account settings and interface preferences live on the right-hand side of the screen. Along the left sidebar, Plex organizes media library categories and other content sections, such as podcasts, news videos, and plug-ins. The center of the console is where you can browse the latest files on your server and play them directly. You can also filter by content type and make changes to individual file details.
Power users will appreciate the depth of options in the settings panel. In the Web and Server sections, the first thing you should do is enable the advanced options. The Web section allows you to adjust streaming quality and player settings to fit your preferences.
The Server section understandably goes much more in-depth, since the server is the main component of any Plex setup. At the top level, you can check for updates to the server software, enable remote access, and set up network encryption. Plex also provides a host of media-related options for your library as well as the option to set up Plex’s DVR functionality.
The next tab over, Users, lets you give other people access to your Plex server. Under the My Home tab, Plex lets you add two types of accounts: existing Plex users and managed users. If you add someone with an existing Plex account, both accounts will have equal access to your server. Managed users are a subset of regular Plex accounts; this setting is useful for managing restrictions to content access. Plex also allows you to invite friends to your Plex Server. You control what libraries are accessible to your Friends.
Plex Pass subscribers also get a new dashboard for monitoring usage and user activity on their server. These visualizations and charts are useful for diving into the data on how different users consumed server content over time. In addition to these tools just being cool to have, these stats could help you decide what content to delete off your server if you are pressed for space.
Movies, Live TV, Podcasts, and News
Plex bundles a free collection of movies and TV shows to stream for all users. It recently gained Crackle’s entire library, which significantly boosts the size and quality of the Plex catalog. Plex organizes titles in horizontally scrolling categories, such as Most Popular, Top Movies on Crackle, Plex Picks, Only on Plex For A Limited Time, TV Shows, and several genre-related ones.
At the time of this writing, some of Plex’s movie offerings include 10 Cloverfield Lane, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Capote, Cube, El Mariachi, Friday the 13th (1980), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Ghost in the Shell 2.0, I Am Not Your Negro, Keanu, Lord of War, Night of the Living Dead, Patriot Games, Silent Hill, St. Vincent, The Founder, and The Glass Castle. Both the movie and TV show sections have improved due to the partnership with Crackle. Plex’s on-demand library is substantial enough for it to be a consideration for anyone looking for a free video streaming service. Note that you can’t claim any titles for your personal server, and that this library is not permanent. That said, many of the movies I browsed are available to stream in 1080p.
New to the service is a collection of preprogrammed live TV channels that are similar to those you get with Pluto TV or Xumo (though those offer far more channels). In total, Plex includes 86 channels, with 57 of them available in HD. Some of the available channels are Docurama, Fubo Sports Network, RetroCrush, Reuters, Revry, Tastemade, The Film Detective, The Pet Collective, Toon Goggles, Yahoo Finance, and several music-focused entries. All Plex users can access this live content. Parental controls apply to both these channels and the on-demand library.
Plex also includes a Podcasts section. To get started, click the Podcasts menu item on the left-hand menu. In the center console, you can browse through recommended or featured categories of podcasts, such as Popular, News & Politics, or Society & Culture. In addition, you can click the Categories button to see the whole list. Of course, if you already know what podcast you want to listen to, you can just search for it in the top bar or, in the case that it’s not there, add the show directly via its URL. Plex lets you organize your favorites into a collection called My Podcasts for easy access.
Plex has all of the expected podcast playback controls. Hovering over a podcast’s cover art and clicking the expand icon brings up Queue and Mark Played options directly. For individual podcasts, you can adjust playback speed, skip or rewind, and manage the current playlist. If you are looking for podcast recommendations, check out PCMag’s collection of the best podcasts you can currently download.
Another recent feature is called News, a collection of recent and newsworthy video content. On the main screen, Plex organizes content in a series of featured categories, but you can view all categories at once via the left-hand menu. They include Business, Lifestyle, Politics & Government, Science & Technology, Sports, and World News. You can also browse by specific channels, including the Associated Press, The Guardian, and Reuters. In the Personalize section, you can set your location and specify the categories that most interest you.
Plex also includes Web Shows, a feature currently in beta. The Web Shows section highlights episodic series of videos across a range of categories, such as Arts & Entertainment, Autos & Vehicles, Computers & Electronics, Health, Science, Sports, and Travel. If you find a show you like, you can add it to the My Shows list.
Note that you don’t need to host any of those movies, TV shows, podcasts, news videos, or Web Shows on your own; that content is available via the Plex app.
Plug-ins and Webhooks
One way to extend the functionality of Plex is by installing plug-ins. Plug-ins are similar to Kodi’s add-ons, but Plex’s extensions are primarily content channels. Some of Kodi’s add-ons are specifically for adding extra utilities or functions to the software. Plex includes a decent selection of fully supported plug-ins, including BBC iPlayer, Twitch, and Vimeo. In terms of selection, Plex may support a few more first-party developer apps than Kodi, but you likely can get the same content, in one way or another.
Plex no longer supports Plugins and no new versions for the Unsupported Appstore (UAS), a previous repository for unofficial plugins, will be released. Still, you may be able to manually install Plugins with the help of the UAS community, which is still active.
Another way to extend Plex’s functionality is via Webhooks. In short, Webhooks are used to relay user actions in Plex to external applications and services. For instance, Plex gives the home-automation example of dimming smart light bulbs when commencing file playback. Note that building a Webhook from scratch requires coding, so be sure to check out Plex’s full explanation and samples. Thankfully, Webhooks integrate with Zapier, so people who don’t want to mess with a compiler have an alternative.
Plex Labs and Community Software
Plex launches apps from its Plex Labs division from time to time, including Plexamp, an application solely dedicated to music playback. This software was originally only available on Windows, macOS, and Linux platforms, but recently Plexamp arrived on mobile devices. The playback-focused design looks elegant, but performance was mixed in testing. Of course, the main benefit of this app is that you can download all of your music files from your Plex server to local storage. Check out Plex’s dedicated Plexamp FAQs if you run into any issues or interface questions. Plex Labs also recently launched the Plex Dash app for Android and iOS. This app gives you a modern interface for administering your media server from mobile platforms. You must be a Plex pass subscriber to use both the Plexamp and Plex Dash apps.
The latest project out of Plex Labs is Plex Arcade, which adds a game streaming component to your Plex server. Regular Plex users need to pay $4.99 per month for the privilege, but Plex Pass users can get it for $2.99 per month. You can sign up for a free seven-day trial of Plex Arcade, but I would prefer if the service was at least included for Plex Pass subscribers. Despite being close to the same price as products in our roundup of the best game streaming services, Plex Arcade is far more limited.
To use Plex Arcade, you need to set up a media server on a Windows or macOS machine, link a free Parsec account, and then add a new Games library to your server. At the time of testing, Plex Arcade had about two dozen classic Atari games available to stream and play, such as Asteroids, Lunar Lander, Missile Command, and Super Breakout. You can also add any custom ROMs to your game library. Plex Arcade is available on mobile platforms (Android or iOS), media streaming device (Android TV or Apple TV), or Chromium browsers; it supports USB controllers and keyboard inputs.
I tried Plex Arcade on an Android device and via a web browser. The project is clearly in the early stages and I don’t yet recommend you jump into a subscription. For instance, I had some trouble launching games consistently and some of the controls simply did not work.
Tautulli, SyncLounge, and Sub-Zero (For Plex) are other community add-ons that extend functionality. Tautulli, for example, gives you powerful analytics and monitoring tools. You can even dive into the details of who watched what on what platform and send out newsletters about new media uploads. SyncLounge is innovative in that it lets you watch content in sync with other users. If you wanted to watch a movie with a friend across the country, this is likely the best way to do so. Sub-Zero (For Plex) can help you get the best subtitles for your content.
Plex on Android
For testing, I installed Plex on my Google Pixel 3 running Android 10. I had no trouble signing in to my account, and all my media showed up without too much of a delay. From the left-hand menu, you can access most of the same settings as you can on the web application. On the bottom, bar you can switch between media types including Podcasts, News, Photos, and Music. As with most modern streaming apps, a Cast icon sits in the upper right corner of the interface.
Unfortunately, disabling personal data collection isn’t straightforward, nor does it seem possible to completely opt out. From your main account page, you can scroll down to the Privacy > Privacy Preferences page, but this only gives you the option to disable playback data collection. Plex needs to do a much better job at giving users, especially Plex Pass subscribers, options to easily disable data collection.
If you install Plex on a system with a VPN, you may have connection issues. Plex recommends you disable the VPN during the connection phase and then enable it again directly afterward. Antivirus software may cause similar connection issues. Check out Plex’s list of potential fixes for sign-in issues.
Common sense goes a long way to protecting your media server as well. For example, if you intend to share your Plex server with another user, you should verify that you have the correct account information before sending out the invite. Otherwise, someone with sufficient privileges could remove content from your server or change your server settings without your approval. In any case, you could back up your Plex server data or, alternatively, your entire media library using an online backup service.
Plex Is a Media Powerhouse
If you’re looking for a way to access your local content on a wide range of platforms, Plex is likely the slickest solution. With great interfaces across devices and an intuitive setup, you won’t feel overwhelmed by the prospect of hosting your own media server. To top it all off, Plex’s free version covers much of the functionality that most users need. Plex also lets you stream movies and podcasts without hosting them. However, users who want more customization options and HTPC capabilities should look at Kodi instead.