Hey everyone, this is going to be a post about how I went about setting up a multi room deployment of Plex, including the software and hardware clients I used to achieve HTPC (Home Theatre PC) nirvana. First let’s talk a little about the problem that prompted this in the first place.
For the longest time, I’ve been a fan of a company called Boxee which began as a fork of the great XBMC project. The premise for them was pretty great; create a home media center solution that has a slick interface, is fairly customizable and introduce some cloud sharing features. After a year or so they had quite the dedicated following, but being a company they needed to try and make some money and this is where things start to take a downward trend unfortunately. Numerous people including myself began to notice the delay in feature requests being worked on, the lack of fixes for outstanding issues, and just a general disconnection with the developers of the software.
That’s when they announced the Boxee Box and additionally announced they were discontinuing continued development of the standalone cross platform Boxee server they had made people fall in love with. Well as a supporter of Boxee and because it really did play everything under the sun from a codec / format perspective I pre-ordered one of the $200 boxes and was once again happy that I had exactly what I needed. A box that I could point at media shares and it would index, manage, and play all of this without a problem, which was also easy enough for any non-technical person to operate.
I was happy with this for the most part up until around October 2012. While I could see the same pattern happening with my Boxee Box as I could with the standalone Boxee software some years prior, I figured it was just them prepping some big new software update. Boy was I ever wrong! Instead they fooled me again by announcing they were stopping support for the Boxee Box, and instead releasing a new Cloud DVR device called Boxee TV. WAIT WHAT!? I’m not an unreasonable person, I know you’re not going to support a $200 device that I bought about 2 years ago forever, BUT when you’ve had only about half a dozen software releases in that time frame and then can it? Yea I’m going to be a little pissed.
So now it’s to the point that I have sworn off Boxee, and because my media collection is only growing larger and larger, I need to have a solution that has the same requirements as my original solution. Simple, powerful, and easy enough your Mom could operate it.
Researching your options
Which leads us to our research. Typically most people will look for solutions their friends have used, and this is a great way to see if that will work for you. Luckily for me I have my best friend living right next door to me, unluckily for me he’s a Mac fan-boy, so getting any real constructive criticism out of him would be like trying to pull teeth from a newborn. So after digging around I came up with the following options.
Now these are the options I’m evaluating because I have more than a single TV that I want to watch my content on, so my old model of a dedicated media streamer with it’s own built in indexing service, etc isn’t ideal. The options above have media servers that index the content, and clients that can connect to that server to retrieve all of the information from, in addition to centrally managing watched status which is nice. After looking at the communities and the features that ultimately mattered most to me, I’ve decided to deploy Plex throughout the house.
If you’re still up in the air about deploying a software based solution and want to just have an appliance similar to the boxee box that just works out of the box, there are a couple of different options for you. Western Digital has made a couple of pretty nice media streamers.
The nice thing about both of these streamers is the ability to play nearly any file format, similar to the way the Boxee Box did. The Hub Media Center player has the added benefit of an integrated 1TB hard drive that you can transfer media to without the need for a network connection. But again, I’ve decided to go with a centralized solution so that’s what we’ll be focusing on for the rest of this article.
Some assembly required…
While this is a requirement for any installation, I’ve elected to install the server component of Plex on my desktop at home. One of the reasons I did this was to provide transcoding ability to any device I want if I’m away from the house at a hotel or something like that. When you install the Plex Server you also install the Plex Web client and transcoding engine which allows you to send content to remote devices by having the server transcode the content in real time down to something you can send over a cellular connection or other bandwidth limited connection. The bandwidth speed limit is configurable from the Plex web client and can be found under the Settings -> Plex/Web menu. Note that you’ll need at LEAST a Core 2 Duo or similar processor to handle real-time transcoding, otherwise you’ll get choppy performance during playback.
On the other side of the coin, if you don’t need the real-time transcoding of media and you happen to have a compatible NAS device you can install the Plex Server on your NAS device and not have to worry about your computer being on all the time. You can download these packages from the Plex App website (http://plexapp.com).
Once you have the server component installed, you’ll need to setup Plex to find media that’s available on your network. We accomplish this by logging into the web client by visiting http://IP_OF_SERVER:32400/web/ and clicking the + sign under the “My Library” section. Browse to a location where you have movies / television / music files stored and select the correct media scraper. Selecting the correct media scraper will allow Plex to index and pull the relevant metadata for your media files automatically.
Once you have media locations entered, give Plex some time to index your media and pull the metadata automatically, then you should be able to browse your library and play media from the web interface. Once this is working it’s time to move on to your client installations.
Now that we have Plex installed and it’s indexing our media, we want to be able to play that media on the TV’s around the house. For this purpose you’re probably not going to want a full blown PC running just the client software unless you have another reason to do so. So what I did was pick up a couple of small systems from a company called Zotac. There’s a caveat to choosing a client that I want to make you aware of, make sure when selecting a client computer that it supports DirectX Video Hardware Acceleration. This is important because without this supported and enabled on the client, the CPU will be the device processing the media, and typically small Atom and AMD systems don’t have the horsepower to play back 1080p media correctly.
So after quite a bit of searching around for the perfect Plex client hardware device, I found some people that have had success with the Zotac AD10 barebones computer which has the following specs.
|Assembly Configuration||Barebone (no RAM, HDD, and OS)|
|CPU Integrated||AMD E-350 APU 1.6 GHz Dual-Core|
|Cooler Type||Fan (Single Slot)|
|Onboard Video||AMD Radeon™ HD 6310|
|Onboard Audio||Onboard analog stereo high-definition audio/7.1-Channel LPCM digital audio (HDMI)|
|Onboard LAN||10/100/1000Mbps, Wifi 802.11n/g/b (300Mbps)|
|Memory Size||Up to 4GB|
|Memory Slots||1 x 204-pin SO-DIMM|
|Memory Type||DDR3 1066 SO-DIMM|
|SATA||1 SATA (6.0 Gbps), 1 eSATA|
|Video Ports||HDMI, DisplayPort|
There are a couple really great things about this machine that caught my attention.
- Supports the required DirectX Hardware Video Acceleration to offload playback of HD content to the integrated GPU
- It’s dimensions are down right tiny @ 5″ x 5″ x 1.77″ (127mm x 127mm x 45mm)
- It comes with an infrared remote with an extender already that is compatible with Plex
- Low power and quiet – Seriously you can’t hear the fan running from 4 feet away
So here’s the shopping list you’ll need to get one of these tiny little computers up and running, remember it’s shipped as a bare-bones box so we need to add RAM and a hard drive.
- ZOTAC AMD Dual-Core E-350 1.6 GHz
- Crucial 4GB DDR3 (PC3-8500) SODIMM 204-Pin Memory Module
- WD Blue 320 GB Mobile Hard Drive: 2.5 Inch, 5400 RPM
- Windows 7 Home SP1 64bit
Once you have the following items in hand you’re ready to install the components into the Zotac and begin installation of Windows 7. The Zotac box has 4 rubber pads on the bottom which are also the screws that hold the case together. Simply unscrew these to gain access to the internals and install the ram first, then the hard drive. Once complete reassemble the case and install Windows. Now that we have Windows installed and the drivers from http://www.zotac.com/support/download.html installed go ahead and visit http://plexapp.com/download/plex-media-center.php to download the Plex Media Center for Windows. Install the Plex Media Center on your client, Run Plex (it should find your Plex server automatically), navigate to the following location, Preferences -> Video -> Player and click DXVA2 to enable hardware accelerated playback of media on your client. You can browse around the preferences some more if you like, or browse to the main screen and simply begin watching your networked content!
I’ve been running the above configuration for about 2 weeks as of this writing and I have had absolutely zero issues adding new media, playing back media, and best of all I didn’t have to re-train anyone on how to use the system. For as powerful as Plex is it’s simplicity is something that really can’t be written off either.
I really want to hear from you if you’ve followed this guide to get a media center system running in your house or if you’ve decided to go another path please post a comment describing your solution or any issues you’ve come across!