You can still load discs into a dedicated player like a caveman if you want, but we live in the age of streaming. Almost any media you could want is at your fingertips…as long as you know what streaming service it’s currently on. If you care about control, you can manage your own media library with Plex, and the first step in that journey is deciding what kind of hardware your Plex server will run on. You can just use your PC, but dedicated hardware like a NAS box is more efficient. What’s a movie buff to do?
The PC you already have
As long as you have a Windows, macOS, or Linux PC, you already have the necessary hardware for a Plex server. It even works on FreeBSD, but let’s be honest, you’re not using FreeBSD right now. To get started, just download Plex Media Server from the official website and install it on your PC. Plex will ask for your media directory and begin downloading metadata. You might want to plug in a new hard drive or at least create a directory specifically for Plex content to keep your library clean.
Using your PC has several advantages, including that your computer probably has enough power to transcode the video to format it for different devices and network conditions (for example, transform 4K video to compressed 1080p in real time). It’s also easy to add more storage to your computer for Plex: add external drives, load more drives into a desktop tower, plug in flash drives, and more. The world is your shell! However, your computer needs to stay on all the time if you want to access your media on other devices. Some people get dedicated PCs to run Plex because of the extra power, but that’s going to increase your electric bill.
Nvidia TV Shield Pro
If you want to invest some money in your Plex experience, the Nvidia Shield TV Pro (not the cheapest “tube”) is a good way to do it. This device has built-in Plex server functionality, allowing you to connect storage and serve it with powerful transcoding capabilities. As a bonus, the Shield is also one of the best media streaming boxes money can buy.
The biggest downside is that you will have to deposit $200 on the shield, and that can be a lot if you alone want it as a Plex server. It also has very little internal storage, so you’ll have to get external drives for that. In my experience, the Shield version of Plex is also a little buggier than average. Keeping the package updated in the Play Store will help, but that didn’t stop Nvidia from temporarily breaking it in a recent update. On the plus side, the Shield doesn’t use too much power and it can still act as a Plex server when idle.
Buy Nvidia Shield TV Pro
$200 at Amazon
If you like to tinker and save money, a Raspberry Pi is a great way to get started with Plex. These single board computers cost less than $100 and you can install various Linux distributions that support Plex. The official Raspberry Pi imager will allow you to choose between several software suites. You’ll need a microSD card for the operating system, but media storage will require the addition of external storage. Still, you save a ton of money on the computer.
Setting up Plex on a Raspberry Pi involves a few extra steps, but you can have a lot of fun playing with a RasPi outside of your Plex adventure. Keep in mind that these devices have very little power, which can make it difficult to stream large files and forget about transcoding your media on the fly.
Buy CanaKit Raspberry Pi 4 Extreme Kit – 128 GB Edition
$140 on Amazon
If you’re serious about your media library and need lots of storage, a network attached storage (NAS) enclosure might be your best bet. A NAS like those made by Synology and QNAP is designed to create RAID arrays from multiple hard drives. This redundancy means that your library will be intact even if one of the disks in your array fails. With enough disks, you can create storage pools measured in tens of terabytes. NAS enclosures are also designed to be always online, so your Plex library will be too.
The main downside here is the cost. Small two-bay enclosures can add up to a few hundred, but larger systems can cost upwards of $1,000 before you even add hard drives. You also need to buy more expensive NAS-specific drives for these systems, because regular hard drives won’t withstand the temperature and constant data churning of a NAS environment. Once set up, however, a NAS can store a ton of media very efficiently, and the more powerful models can even do hardware video transcoding. The Synology platform is also optimized for Android users, which is a nice bonus.
Buy Synology DS220+
$300 on Amazon
What should you choose?
The Plex server you choose depends on how serious you are. My library largely consists of uncompressed Blu-ray rips, so I need plenty of space and sturdy hardware. So a NAS enclosure is the only choice – a Synology DS1520+, in my case. If your needs are more modest, a small 2-bay NAS like the DS220+ costs just $300. Add a pair of 4TB drives and you’re still under $500.
If you’re just starting out, installing on your PC or Raspberry Pi is a good idea. If you don’t mind turning it on every time you want to access Plex, you’ll have a good experience. The Shield is a good compromise, but only if you’re using it as a media streamer. Otherwise, you might as well invest that money in a NAS enclosure, which is useful for more than just running Plex. They are also great for backing up your personal files locally.
Being cute with the $700 MSRP doesn’t help
About the Author