Everything You Need to Set Up a Plex Server

The Plex logo over an Intel NUC computer.
Plex, Intel

A Plex Media Server makes it easy to stream or share your movie and music collection the same way that you stream Netflix or Hulu. No hassle, no fuss, just dump all your media in the server and stream it to any device. But setting up a Plex server is easier said than done, especially when there are so many different devices that can function as a Plex server.

We’re going to go through all the products that you need to set up a Plex server, including a lot of the optional stuff. But this is only a product guide. Those who need help setting up the Plex software should check out the Plex support page or read the detailed Plex installation guide at our sister site, How-To Geek.

A Computer to Run the Plex Media Server

A photo of the Intel NUC and NVIDIA Shield TV Pro.
Intel, NVIDIA

The most important component of your Plex server is the computer that manages your media files and runs the Plex software. This computer should be small and power efficient, as it requires a wired internet connection and will run 24/7. Of course, you can save a lot of money turning any old PC or laptop into a Plex server, but such a machine will take up a lot of space and use a lot of power.

Which OS Should You Use?

Plex works on Windows, Linux, macOS, and dedicated NAS systems like the Synology Diskstation. Windows and macOS-based servers offer similar performance to Linux-based servers, so if you aren’t comfortable with Linux, don’t bother using it. That said, Linux is ideal because it requires little maintenance and is very power efficient. If you’re familiar with Linux, try using a distro without a GUI to save computer resources and maximize performance.

NAS solutions are a bit tricky. Some people use a NAS device to hold and manage media alongside their Plex server, while others run the entire operation, server and all, on a single NAS device. Consolidating everything into a NAS device makes your Plex server smaller and easier to manage, but NAS devices that are powerful enough to keep up with Plex’s demands are a little expensive.

What Are the Plex Hardware Requirements?

You don’t need much horsepower to run a Plex server. Any machine made in the last few years should fit the Plex hardware requirements, which call for an i3 processor and 2GB of RAM. Of course, you’ll enjoy better performance on a more powerful system, and most Plex enthustiasts suggest using an i5 processor and 4GB of RAM (or better). A beefier system is ideal for 4K streaming, simultaneous multi-device streaming, or remote streaming outside of your home.

These hardware requirements get a little fuzzy when you build a Plex server from a NAS device, a Raspberry Pi, or any other non-traditional solution. If you plan to run your Plex server on a NAS device, check the detailed Plex NAS compatibility spreadsheet to find one that’s powerful enough for your needs. Both the Raspberry Pi 4 and NVIDIA Shield TV Pro can stream Plex in 4K, so stick to those products if you want a small, cheap, non-PC Plex server.

Which Device Should You Use for Plex?

If you’re totally new to Plex, I suggest starting your journey with a small and cheap device like the Raspberry Pi 4 or NVIDIA Shield TV Pro. These devices are 4K-capable and extremely popular, so there are plenty of resources to help you set everything up. Plus, the Pi 4 and NVIDIA Shield TV Pro are very easy to repurpose or resell if you lose interest in Plex.

A PC-based Plex server offers more flexibility and power than a Rasberry Pi, NVIDIA Shield, or NAS device, especially if said PC has upgradeable components. Again, you can use any PC that fits the Plex hardware requirements, but mini PCs like the Intel NUC are the gold standard thanks to their small footprint, power efficiency, and low price.

Intel NUC devices don’t come with RAM or an OS, which most enthusiasts prefer, as aftermarket RAM isn’t that expensive and Linux operating systems are free. But if you aren’t comfortable using Linux or shoving components into a motherboard, then pre-built Windows 10 devices like the Lenovo ThinkCentre or HP Prodesk are probably your best bet.

But what if you want to run everything off of a NAS device? While NAS devices don’t have the horsepower or reusability of PCs, they’re incredibly power efficient and can help you achieve a clean setup. Also, a NAS device makes it easy to back up multiple copies of your Plex library—that’s kinda what they’re made for.

If Plex endorses a NAS device in its compatibility spreadsheet, then it should fulfill all your needs. I just have one quick tip—don’t buy a NAS device with only one or two drive bays. A NAS device with four or more drive bays, like the Synology DiskStation DS920+, can hold multiple copies of your media library, increasing security and maximizing the available space in your drives. Check out Synology’s RAID calculator to see how a few extra drive bays can make your NAS-based Plex server a lot more useful.

Intel NUC

The Intel NUC is a barebones mini-PC that's perfect for Plex. Add some RAM, throw on your favorite Linux distro, and enjoy the ride.

NVIDIA Shield TV Pro

NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV Pro 4K HDR Streaming Media Player; High Performance, Dolby Vision, 3GB RAM, 2x USB, Works with Alexa

The NVIDIA Shield TV Pro is a small, simple, cost-effective Plex server solution. It's perfect for beginners who are unfamiliar with Plex.

Synology DiskStation DS920+

The four-bay Synology DiskStation DS920+ has enough horsepower to run a reliable Plex server, and can accommodate four drives for maximum storage and security.

Storage for Your Media Library

A photo of the WD Red Plus 3.5-inch NAS HDD.
WD

Unless your chosen Plex server has a ton of onboard storage, you’re gonna need an external drive to house your movies, shows, music, and other media files. Thankfully, you don’t need an expensive SSD to handle this task. A cheaper HDD is fine for storing Plex media and won’t impact the quality of your streaming.

Which HDD Should You Use for Media?

I suggest using a NAS hard drive like the WD Red Plus for your Plex setup (or any other server setup) because NAS HDDs run slower and therefore have a longer lifespan than regular HDDs. The reduced speed will not affect streaming quality, as the drive’s only job is to retrieve media files for your Plex server.

Unfortunately, you’ll also need an external drive enclosure to connect this kind of HDD to your Plex server via USB (unless your server is a PC with open drive bays or a NAS device).

If you don’t want to pay extra for a NAS HDD and external drive enclosure, you could use a consumer-grade external HDD like the WD Passport instead. Just keep in mind that it’ll die sooner and consume more power than a NAS HDD.

Should You Use an SSD as a Boot Drive?

While there’s no reason to store your media on an SSD, there are benefits to using an SSD as your Plex Media Server system drive. Like any other computer, your Plex server will boot faster with an SSD system drive, and you should notice less lag while navigating its library. If you’re using an old PC to power your Plex server, consider replacing its boot drive with a cheap, low-capacity SSD, such as the Kingston A400. (If you’re using a Raspberry Pi or NVIDIA Shield device, don’t worry about it, your device boots from flash storage).

What About Backups?

Remember, hard drives and SSDs don’t last forever. If you can spare some cash, you might want to grab a backup drive for all your media files. You can set Windows to automatically back up content to this spare drive with the operating system’s built-in backup tool, or achieve the same results on Linux with rsync.

NAS devices are purpose-built for RAID backups, and as I mentioned earlier, a NAS device with four drive bays is much more secure and provides more usable storage space than a device with just two drive bays. You should play with the Synology RAID calculator to find a setup that’s right for you.

WD Red Plus Internal HDD

Western Digital 1TB WD Red Plus NAS Internal Hard Drive - 5400 RPM Class, SATA 6 Gb/s, CMR, 64 MB Cache, 3.5" - WD10EFRX

The WD Red Plus HDD is durable and cost-effective. It's the best storage solution for any kind of Plex server---just don't forget the external drive enclosure if your server doesn't have a spare drive bay.

Video Files to Populate Your Library

An MP4 file icon.
Rank Sol/Shutterstock

A Plex server is useless without a media library. In a perfect world, you could buy movies and shows from the Plex app and download them directly to your Plex media server. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so you have to source your video files from a couple of DRM-free distributors, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs.

Plex servers are a popular solution for streaming music, but because downloading and ripping music is such an easy task , we aren’t going to cover it here.

Sourcing Video Files

You can’t buy digital copies of movies for Plex. At least, not from major distributors like Apple and Vudu. These distributors lock their content behind DRM, making it impossible to play said files without permission from the distributor’s network or playback software. You can remove the DRM from most media files, but it’s a pain in the butt. Plus, paying a company for DRM-protected files is frustrating, as the company clearly doesn’t respect your right to own the things you pay for.

The only notable platforms that sell DRM-free movies are Vimeo on Demand, Drafthouse Films, and some small VHX-powered sites. But these distributors mostly sell indie films, so you’re gonna have to rip mainstream movies from DVDs and Blu-Rays. If you’re looking for something that’s in the public domain, you can probably download it for free on the Internet Archive. Good luck finding DRM-free movie downloads anywhere else.

Ripping DVDs and Blu-Ray Discs

Ripping discs is the best way to legally fill your Plex library. DVDs and Blu-Ray discs are easy to find for cheap, especially if you hunt for sales on Facebook Marketplace or dig through the dusty shelves of your local Goodwill. And while sitting down to pull the movie from the disc is an annoying extra step, it’s better than nothing.

Unless your PC has a built-in disc drive, you’ll need to buy an external DVD drive or Blu-Ray drive that plugs into your computer’s USB port. Once that’s plugged in, you need software to rip the movie from your discs. I suggest using HandBrake to preserve the quality of your ripped files. Ripping DVDs with Handbrake is pretty easy, but the process for ripping Blu-Rays can be a little complicated, so be sure to read our detailed guide on ripping Blu-Ray discs over at How-To Geek.

What Is Transcoding?

Media files are not universal, and some of the devices in your home are unable to play certain file formats. For this reason, Plex can transcode media on the fly, converting video files to a format that’s suitable for their destination device. If your server has a CPU that fits the Plex hardware requirements, then you shouldn’t run into lag or transcoding buffer during normal use. That said, problems may arise if you stream to multiple devices that require video transcoding at the same time.

If your Plex server doesn’t have a lot of horsepower, you can avoid video transcoding entirely by converting all of your media files to MP4, which is the “universal” file format reccomended by Plex. Bear in mind that transcoding issues are rare during regular streaming, and for what it’s worth, Plex enthusiasts suggest using the MKV file format to retain the quality of movies ripped from Blu-Ray.

I should point out that the Plex Pass subscription unlocks an exclusive hardware transcoding setting, which utilizes your computer’s GPU (as opposed to the CPU) to transcode video. Those who plan to do a ton of remote streaming, which requires video transcoding to reduce the stream’s bandwidth, should consider using this hardware transcoding setting to take a load off their server’s CPU. Integrated graphics in Intel chips is fine for this task, as are cheap graphics cards like the GTX 1030.

MthsTec External Blu-Ray Drive

External Bluray DVD Drive, MthsTec USB 3.0 and Type-C Blu-Ray Burner DVD Burner 3D Slim Optical Bluray CD DVD Drive Compatible with Windows XP/7/8/10, MacOS for MacBook, Laptop, Desktop

MthsTec's external Blu-Ray drive sure ain't cheap, but it's a lot less expensive than Blu-Ray drives from other brands. Buy it now and rip those high-quality Blu-Ray discs.

Should I Pay for Plex Pass?

An illustration of Plex Pass streaming media to three smartphones.
Plex

Plex is free to download, but it isn’t free to use. You either have to pay a one-time fee for each device registered with Plex, or pay a monthly fee for the premium Plex Pass service. But the benefit of Plex Pass isn’t that you get to skip the device registration fee, it’s that you unlock exclusive features like live TV and DVR, offline downloads for mobile devices, hardware transcoding, and optional content restrictions to keep your kids from seeing R-rated content on their Plex account.

So, should you pay for Plex Pass? If you plan to stream to just one or two devices, the answer is probably no. But if you want to share your library with family and friends, then Plex Pass is essential. Hardware transcoding can take a huge load off your server, and Plex Pass’ expanded functionality for families makes the service feel like a serious streaming platform.

A month of Plex Pass is just $5, which is the same price that you usually pay to register a device with Plex. I think that it’s worth giving the service a test run, even if you don’t expect to use it all that much.

Plex Pass

Plex Pass unlocks premium features like offline downloads, hardware transcoding, and content restrictions for families. It also allows you to skip the usual $5 device registration fee, which is helpful if you plan on streaming to a bunch of different devices.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is a writer for Review Geek and its sister site, How-To Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers. Read Full Bio »

The above article may contain affiliate links, which help support Review Geek.


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