Nik's Technology Blog

Travels through programming, networks, and computers

Plex Media Server Hardware - A NAS, Old PC or Custom PC?

Even though some NAS providers advertise their products as "having" Plex Media Server apps, all but the most expensive and powerful cannot actually perform video transcoding, all they can do is direct play and direct stream content. This is fine if all your devices support the media you have, but it is very restrictive and misleading.

Video transcoding is very CPU intensive task and consumer NAS boxes have low powered CPUs, they aren't designed for CPU intensive tasks.

You can store your media on a NAS and use a PC to run Plex Media Server to do all the heavy lifting, however when you factor in the cost of a NAS and the hard disks, to me it made more sense to either use an existing PC or a new custom built PC and add the hard disks directly to the PC. This also reduces the latency of accessing the content from the NAS over the network.

After deciding against using a NAS for Plex, I went about checking what the requirements are to run Plex Media Server on a PC.

My current PC is old and in need of replacement, but perhaps I could upgrade the storage and when I buy a new PC at a later date, the old one can become a dedicated media streaming box?

The Plex website has some guidance on how much CPU power you need for running Plex Server. Based on the benchmark score of 3057 PassMark for my old CPU I was able to confirm it is capable of streaming at least one 1080p stream.

The alternative would have been to build a new custom PC especially for Plex, but I don't have that sort of spare cash at the moment.

Storage for Plex Movies

I had already installed Plex Media Server on my PC and had been pleasantly surprised by how good the software was, so much so that I now wanted to rip all my DVDs to hard disk. After a few calculations I figured out I would need quite a bit more storage to hold all my ripped DVDs for use with Plex Media Server.

Originally I thought that a NAS device might be the way forward. I could get a four bay device for future expandability, and upon first glance it appeared that PMS would run on selected NAS boxes too. I almost bought a four bay Netgear ReadyNAS, until I read that the CPU in most NAS boxes just isn't up to the task of transcoding video.

That would mean the NAS would just store the content and the PC would need to be switched on to act as the Plex Server. This to me, just didn't seem worth it.

Why not just add some extra hard disks to my PC I thought? But what about the added benefit of RAID you get from a NAS?...

I ended up buying some 4TB WD Red NAS hard disk drives and using Storage Spaces in Windows 10 to set up resiliency, mimicking the RAID you get from a NAS box.

Ripping a DVD Collection to Plex

It was probably around 2002 or 2003 that I ripped all my CD collection to MP3 so I could listen on the move, which I recall was a painful process. So the thought so doing the same with my DVD collection wasn't too appealing.

As this was going to be a painful process I only wanted to do this once, so I spent some time deciding on the video codec and container to use.

Plex works with most codecs and containers (except ISO disc images). This is one of the best things about Plex Media Server. It transcodes the video on-the-fly depending what hardware the Plex client is able to play. This enables you to watch video on phones, tablets, smart TVs etc and not have to care whether they play AVI, MP4, MKV etc...

I also don't want to recode all the DVDs during the process as this would take too long and potentially degrade the video quality.

The final solution was a two stage process.

  1. Rip each DVD using DVD Fab into VOB files.
  2. Use MakeMKV Batch Converter to merge the VOB files into the MKV container.

All that was needed then was a load more hard disk space!

Plex via a NOW TV box

After reading how to sideload a Plex client on a NOW TV box I decided to pick one up during the Black Friday sale for £14.99. 

They are basically Roku 3 boxes rebranded as NOW TV (Owned by Sky TV) and feature a limited app store with competing apps such as NetFlix and LoveFilm removed.

I am thinking of using Plex Media Server as a way of ditching my Blu Ray player and ripping all my DVDs to stop my kids scratching them to pieces. Plex indexes the movies and downloads the covers and descriptions from internet movie databases.

Because the NOW TV box has a limited app store, Plex is not available to download directly, so it needs to be sideloaded onto the box.

Sideloading the Roku Plex client onto the NOW TV box basically involves accessing the developer part of the box and installing a package file, which takes 5 minutes.

The box is very stable via WiFi and wired Ethernet and is a very good Plex client especially considering the price.

I'll write another post when I get around to ripping my DVD collection to hard disk.