After over a year of using Plex, I checked my website and found no mention of it! Man, am I just not updating this site, or what!?! Again, apologies. Nuff said. So, Plex. Plex is a home media server. You’ll find all the details (and the download for it) at http://plexapp.com/. Jay and I tried using several applications to handle our movie collections as well as our music collections, and just to stick to the topic at hand, I’ll just say that we kept coming back to Plex for various reasons. It seems to handle the most formats of music and video out of all of the options we looked at, and handles them all better than the others as far as transcoding for the various platforms and for whatever streaming bandwidths we need.
We settled on the following solution for extracting (“ripping”) our DVD and Blu-Ray collections to standard video files: AnyDVD HD (Slysoft) and Handbrake (PC version). AnyDVD is a commercial product, so it will cost some money, but it does a fine job at enabling you to successfully rip your entire collection to regular video files for streaming. AnyDVD doesn’t actually do the extraction of the video, it simply ENABLES the ability to do it by removing any encryption that may be on the DVD or Blu-Ray disc you’re ripping. The app runs in your system tray and goes to work any time you insert a Blu-Ray or DVD into your DVD drive. Handbrake is the app we actually use to do the ripping. It has tons of options, and we settled on a few solid settings that work nicely across both Blu-Ray and DVD movies to provide a nice, consistent quality for all of our movies. Most, I must admit, are not “HD Quality” (1080p). Going with this quality for every movie would just fill up our drives way too quickly. And since standard DVDs aren’t 1080p anyway, it was pointless to go that route when we extracted our entire collections. We settled on a very good quality resolution that results in each standard movie taking about 1GB of space, more or less, depending on the actual length of the movie. Handbrake will also let us extract full HD 1080p videos if we want to, from Blu-Ray discs, but the resulting files are pretty enourmous, so they’re also that much harder to work with.
Finding those two solutions that work together so well–AnyDVD HD and Handbrake–was no small task either. We tested a lot of different applications before settling on these options, so trust me, they do work, and AnyDVD HD is updated very frequently to keep up with the latest protections added to new DVDs and Blu-Rays. Many solutions for doing the same things these two applications do have come and gone over the years too, but most have been eliminated due to lawsuits or the inability to stay updated. AnyDVD HD is the only one we’ve found to be consistently updated and just always works. How they can do it and stay in business, I don’t have a clue. I do know that it’s located in a foreign country though, which may have something to do with how they avoid being shut down, and another big factor is that the application doesn’t actually do the ripping of the data itself. In legal terms, “enabling” the ability to copy a movie and actually “performing” the act of copying a movie are two distinctly different things, so only enabling the ability for a user to copy content that they legally purchased (a DVD-based movie) apparently isn’t as bad as products that provided the “whole package”–something that “DVD-X Copy” and others did.
When you have AnyDVD HD installed, you can then use just about any “video extraction” application to copy your movies, since the disc is now unprotected and the movie is available to be copied using standard methods. We settled on Handbrake because it’s free, and, much like Plex, it just consistently works right. It does have a TON of options and settings, but once set properly, it does a fine job with both Blu-Ray movies as well as standard DVDs.
So once those options were settled upon, our movie collections began to build. When you configure Plex, you simply set it up with “Sections” for your media. For example, you could have a “Movies” section, “TV Shows” section, a “Music” section, etc., or anything you like. I even have a “Kids” section with just animated and children’s movies, which Kevin uses quite a bit. For each Section you add one of more folders from your computer. I have a “Movies” folder on my PC as well as a “Kids” folder for Kevin’s movies, so I pointed those Plex sections to their respective folders.
That’s pretty much all that’s required for setup! Seriously. Plex automatically goes out to the web and finds the cover art (called “posters” in Plex) and even adds several optional covers for every movie it finds. It also adds all of the movie’s details to its database, and all of this info is displayed whenever you browse your Plex movies or their details. It ends up looking pretty much like Netflix or Hulu, and it’s just as easy to use. Of course, if a cover poster isn’t right, was incorrectly matched, or the movie wasn’t found at all, you can manually edit it to your liking and/or add your own cover art to make it appear exactly as you like.
As I mentioned earlier, Plex is available on pretty much every device you might have with a screen. On the PC, smartphone, or tablet you can use the “PlexWeb” interface to do movie database editing or just for watching movies. Or, on your smartphone or tablet you can use the Plex app for that platform to stream movies ever easier and smoother. Plex on a “real” TV is awesome though. I researched streaming TV devices shortly after starting to use Plex, and found, to my delight, that most of them have a natvie Plex app! After some careful consideration, I ended up purchasing a “Roku” box. This is a hockey puck-sized black box that connects to your TV via HDMI. It can connect to your home network via wireless or wired network (the particular model I got offered a wired option, but some of them only offer wireless). Either way, I use mine wirelessly, even though it’s a little slower that what a wired connection would offer, and it still performs very nicely.
Roku boxes offer hundreds of free (and some paid) “channels”, which are the apps that control whatever streaming service you’d like to do. For example, Hulu and Netflix are optional channels on Roku, as well as Plex and other media streaming apps. Most are free (even Hulu and Netflix, though once you open them you have to sign into your paid account to actually USE them) so don’t be fooled. There are plenty of REALLY FREE streaming apps too though. The content can get pretty obscure, but I guess it’s pretty easy for almost anyone to create an app for these systems and offer streaming content. I love my TWiT Network app now too–This is the “This Week in Tech” network that Leo LaPorte (formerly of TechTV fame) built and it offers some great web-only streaming tech shows.
So the Plex app on Roku is excellent and I use it almost daily to watch my ripped movies and TV shows now. I can’t even remember the last time I had to take a DVD or Blu-Ray out of its box to watch a movie! It’s been many months. Whenever I buy a new movie, it gets opened once, inserted into the PC, and ripped to my server, then it goes back in the box. I only go back to the disc if I want to watch a “behind the scenes” feature or special feature other than the movie that was included on another disc or on the original DVD or Blu-Ray. These smaller videos can also be ripped from the discs as well, and you can even have them added to the end of the movie in Plex if you want, but I leave them on the disc normally, and use Plex just for the movies. It’s fairly rare that I want to view special features, so I don’t mind pulling out the discs for just these times.
Plex is free, and is technically still in “beta”, which means it’s not quite “done” yet. It’s quite complete compared to a lot of other options we’ve tried though, so don’t hesitate to start using it! Handbrake, as I mentioned earlier, is free as well, and is in about the same state–neither of these applications have reached version “1.0” yet, but they’re both still top-notch at what they do. You’d only have to shell out a little money for AnyDVD HD, but it’s well worth it. Oh, and you’d probably have to also purchase a large external hard drive to hold all of your movies and music, depending on how large your collection is. But hard drive prices are always dropping these days, so even that isn’t bad any more.
So that’s basically it, in a nutshell. It’s a great solution to make watching all of your home DVDs, Blu-Rays, Music CDs, and even Home Movies as simple as possible, to the point where you never have to get out of your chair to put in another disc! Of course, some of us could actually USE this little bit of extra exercise these days though… I make up for it by walking during lunchtime at work and taking the dog for extra walks at home.