A Guide to Using Plex to Manage Your Media

by Milind Alvares

A Guide to Using Plex to Manage Your Media

by Milind Alvares on June 23, 2009

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plexEver since I read about Plex in Phil’s review, I’ve been working on setting it up just right so I can enjoy my media from the couch. I don’t have a fancy media center like Phil does, but I still do appreciate what Plex does to the media on my iMac.

However, after using Plex for a few weeks I realise that it’s not a very easy app to work with. The user interface is not very intuitive in getting your media organised, and a whole series of plugins and ‘apps’ are a bit confusing to say the least. However, over time I think I’ve gained some control over Plex, so to save you the trouble of learning it from scratch, here’s a guide to taming Plex.

Why Plex?

Plex is as much alike as it is different from Front Row. At its core, Plex displays your media meant to be navigated from across the room with a remote. But unlike Front Row, it is not hooked to iTunes, neither is it restricted to media from your hard drive. Plex is what Front Row secretly hopes to be. Let me paint you a picture.

plex-tv-shows

Say you have a collection of 5 TV Shows, each of which have around 3-8 seasons. You’ve named them something like “Lost – 101 – Episode Name.avi”. To watch them in Front Row you would have to convert the files into iTunes compatible files, then add the show information, artwork, etc. Sure there are tools like iFlicks and Meta which add such info to your shows, but it’s still a lot of manual work.

With Plex, as long as my shows are named ‘somewhat’ appropriately, it will parse through the filenames, connect to an online database, and download all the media information including album artwork, episode synopsis, as well as a background track for when I’m browsing that TV show! Plex also periodically updates the watched folders so you don’t have to move files manually. The same thing goes for movies, as it downloads descriptions, poster art, as well as a giant backdrop for when that movie is selected in Plex.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s set it up!

Adding Media

Plex can be controlled by the keyboard or remote control. Using the arrow keys, Return and Esc, you’re pretty much capable of navigating the entire user interface. There are some quirks and confusing moments as to which key you need to press, but you’ll figure it out.

plex-tv-shows-add

Using the keyboard, navigate to Videos, and then select “Add Source”. Browse to your folder where you’ve stored your TV shows (it could be on a local storage or a media server). After selecting the folder, choose “Set Content”. This is important so that Plex knows what kind of media you’re looking for. Select TV Shows, and set the source to theTVDB.com. You can choose one of the other TV sources as well, especially if the selected one doesn’t have your TV Show in its catalog.

tv-shows-set-content

Confirm it, and select “OK”. Plex will now gather the information, relay it to the database, and download the new info, depending on the speed of your internet connection. This process is referred to as ‘scraping’.

Once it completes, navigate to the TV Shows section of Plex, and your TV shows should be lined up all pretty. But, problems occur, and it’s mostly because of how you’ve organised your folders physically. The optimal way of organising your TV Shows folder, is to have a primary “TV Shows” folder. Inside that you have folders for each show, eg “Lost”, “Prison Break”. Inside each show a separate folder for each season, eg., “Season 1″, “Season 2″, etc. And inside that name the episodes, most importantly including 102 or 1×02 or S01E02 somewhere in the filename, eg. “102 – The second episode.avi”. Oh, and for those of you who get TV shows from all kinds of sources, this AppleScript will definitely go a long way.

Next, some shows don’t automatically load in theme music. In most cases, I’d leave this as it is, but what if you have like 10 seasons to go through? A little effort can go a long way. Trim the theme music out of an episode, and save it as an mp3 file. Next search for the TV show on TVDB.com (or whatever ‘source’ you’ve set when you added the media) and grab the series ID. For instance, in the show Veronica Mars, the series ID from “http://thetvdb.com/?tab=season&seriesid=73730&seasonid=6333″ is 73730. Once you rename the mp3 file with the series ID, simply dump it in the ~/Library/Application Support/Background Music/Themes. The next time you load Plex the theme music should play along.

Phil: If you are ripping media off of DVD, especially TV shows, you’ll want to check with theTVDB.com. For some reason when studios create the season DVDs, the episodes are sometimes in a different order than the original air order. If this happens, you’ll be giving an episode the wrong name, and when Plex scrapes the info for the episode, it will pull the info for the originally aired order. So if the DVD order is E01, E04, E02, E03, but the original aired order is E01, E02, E03, E04, Plex will scrape the episode you named E04 as E02, and E02 as E03, and so on. Also, sometimes the season aired is different than the Season DVDs. I’ve found a few shows that have episodes aired from Season 1 on the Season 2 DVDs.

Accessing Options

They don’t tell you this, but holding down the Menu button or pressing C will bring up a special menu, depending on where you are. You can access settings like “Scan for New Content”, edit the title, as well as remove any dead content from your library.

plex-options1

Pressing i on the keyboard will bring up the info box, which allows you to fine tune that particular show. You can change the thumbnail image, download fanart, and get more info of the cast and crew.

Another set of options, is on the main menu itself. Instead of clicking through on the TV Shows or Music, hit the right (FF) button on your remote to bring up a special menu. This will allow you to go directly to music videos, or sort your TV episodes by the most recent ones.

plex-additional-options

Adding Apps

While accessing media from your local storage is fine, Plex can also connect to several sources on the web, allowing you access to new content. Navigate to “App Store” and browse around, looking for interesting plugins. Having a fast connection wouldn’t hurt. You can download apps like YouTube, iTunes trailers, and even sources for high resolution pictures by photographers. Once installed simply go to the Videos, Music, or Photos section of Plex and your source will be listed. So far I haven’t come across any problems with apps.

plex-apps

Plex Media Server

This is one neat feature of Plex. It’s basically Plex hooking into the iTunes and iPhoto databases to grab media. The server is automatically started the moment you launch Plex. What you can do however, is hooked more than one Plex media server using your network. For instance, if I can access iTunes on the MacBook from my iMac within the Plex user interface, while keeping sync with the iTunes library. It’s sort of like a workaround for bonjour services, except in this case the sync is two ways, you have more control, and it’s run outside of the iTunes ecosystem.

plex-media-server

To do so, set a static local IP address for the MacBook (192.168.1.10). Then go to the Plex app, and add a source from Videos, Music, or Pictures depending on what you’re adding. Instead of going to browse, simply rename that to one of the following. Replace that with the IP address you’re connecting to.

  • Music: plex://192.168.1.2/music/iTunes
  • Videos: plex://192.168.1.2/video/iTunes
  • iPhoto: plex://192.168.1.2/photos/iPhoto
  • Aperture: plex://192.168.1.2/photos/Aperture

Plex will automatically connect to those libraries, and pull media as well as push back playcounts, etc. For this to work however, Plex must be running on both machines. Note that Plex still cannot access the TV Shows and Movies database, either locally or over the network.

Plex Volume vs System Volume

Apart from the slightly sluggish behaviour at times (including the frustrating ‘quit’), I have a few bones to pick with Plex. First, is it has its own volume control. I understand that it’s a finer control, allows them to do auto adjustments, etc., but I can’t hear squat if my Mac’s volume is all the way down. I’ve spent hours searching for a solution only to find one of the team members has specifically mentioned that they are strong on their current arrangement. For now I use Rowmote to switch to Finder, change the volume, and switch back again.

Changing Apple Trailers quality setting

I have a really crap internet connection, with which I cannot keep up to the 720p trailers that Plex loads up. Luckily there’s a simple way to change the default of the trailers, using a trick mentioned by Maddox in the Plex blog. While Plex is running, simply enter:

http://localhost:32400/video/amt/:/prefs/set/VideoQuality/480p

Replace 480p with large, medium, small, 720p, or 1080p. If a trailer is not available in higher quality, it will play a lower quality version. It won’t play a higher quality version if a lower quality setting is set.

Plexing with Airfoil

I recently reviewed Airfoil from Rogue Amoeba, and while it is great for audio, the video playback requires you to use the special Airfoil video player. Thankfully, Plex contains settings that allow you to quickly delay the video so everything stays in sync. During playback press the Menu button (or M on your keyboard) to bring up the HUD. Now go to the Audio button, and in that menu you will be able to move the audio ahead. I’ve found a 2 second gap is a good enough sync, your mileage may vary. This will set it up for that particular media file, but you can use the ‘set defaults for all’ if you only use Airfoil. I haven’t tested this out with Hulu or other internet video services (since Hulu isn’t available in India), but I assume it works just fine.

plex-audio-adjust

Enjoy your media

Plex is just plain awesome, and I can’t get over how awesome it is. I haven’t even changed the default theme, which I think looks just beautiful. I’m not implying that Apple should have gone the Plex way with Front Row, no, it’s a beautiful media center app which is ultra easy to use. But between you and me, we’re a little smarter than the average Mac user huh! Go ahead, give it a try.

Addendum:
1. I won’t be able to help out in support questions here, at least I can’t make promises. You may ask away however, and hopefully someone will answer.
2. The material grabbed in screenshots doesn’t necessarily mean I watch them. I’m talking about Veronica Mars in particular.


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Vox

I tried Plex a few weeks ago and deleted it after about 30 minutes. It barely worked, performed quite badly and navigation is just terrible. Can’t stand it. Still looking for a better film manager. Currently using iTunes’ library to decide and then Show in Finder and open it with Movist.

   

corey

GREAT Guide between this, my conversation with Phil last night, and my own tinkering I love this app and have been using it by its self on my new mac mini media center set up.

   

David

@Vox I had the same impression of the app at first, but then I took the time to get familiar with it. I can really recommend Don McAllister’s at ScreenCastOnline.com brilliant screencast of the application and how to set it up.
To say Plex is Ultra easy to set up is just plain wrong, if you ask me.

   

sancocho

I was using Boxee on my Apple TV but got fed up with the hardware and opted for a mac mini, which I am now running [nearly] flawlessly as a couch media center with Plex and SofaControl. I’m still trying to get Netflix to stream my content and am waiting for DVD playback support, which I understand is just around the corner. I think Plex is more mature and easier to use than Boxee, but they are both a far better alternative to Front Row.

   

Eric

Plex is a great media player.
There is still an issue I can’t get to work, I’ve got 4 seasons of Lost on DVD, 2 seasons of Heroes on DVD and 3 seasons of Prison Break also on DVD. I added them to Plex as TV Shows in the Video section, I’ve tried just about everything but none of them show up in TV Shows. What do I need to rename them to, or what do i need to do to get them to appear in the Season 1/Season 2 etc.. folders in Plex.
mkv and avi files scrape fine but no luck with TV Show DVDs, any ideas?

   

Brandon

hey,
i’m trying to get iphoto to show up with plex.
It’s not at all.

But I have most of my photos on my macbook and macbook pro anyways.
How do i set the ip address for the two macbooks?

and does plex have to be running on both or plex media server?

   

Peter

My iPhoto library is not added. I try to add it manually by entering plex://localhost/photos/iPhoto but it says that it cannot connect to it. I try various local IP numbers instead of ‘localhost’ but it won’t work. I have my iPhoto library in the default location (in the ~/Pictures folder).

I manage to add video and iTunes music so I assume that the Media Server is running just fine. Is it just that Plex is too complicated to understand for a normal power user like myself?

   

vn44ca

I have harmony 880, Plex and Mac Mini (optical sound). I tell the 880 that I want my Receiver to control the Volume, it takes it, configures the 880 and when I try it, I see Plex is controlling the volume. This is really bad. I like to play with the volume setting stuff in Plex, but the actual volume control, I want my expensive receiver to be in charge. Any one successful in making the 880 (or else) working with Plex and controlling the volume via the Receiver?

   

vn44ca

Auto-Restart Script from Plex on OSX.
====================================
All, I have noticed that from time to time, Plex freezes and consumes 100% of the CPU and that is not acceptable.

So, what I have done is:, I have put a watchdog on Plex and if the watchdog detects that Plex is using more than 98% of the CPU, the it kills Plex and restarts it.

To ensure that I detect the instant burst and filter out the false positives, the watchdog script will run the check 5 times with 3 second sleeps in between. On the sixth check, if Plex is still in a tight loop, it will be Killed and Resurrected.

Of course when Plex hangs, you can’t use the remote to restart it.

Here is the script: Feel free to take it and modify it and make it your own.
===================================================
#!/bin/sh

COUNT=0
PLEX_CPU=0

LOOP=1
while [ $LOOP -le 14 ] ; do

PLEX_CPU=`ps aux | grep Plex.app | awk ‘{print $3}’ | head -n 1`
PLEX_CPU=`osascript -e “round($PLEX_CPU)”`

if [ $PLEX_CPU -gt 98 ]; then
echo Value of count is: $COUNT
let COUNT=COUNT+1
fi

if [ $COUNT -gt 5 ]; then
echo Must kill Plex: $COUNT
PLEX_PID=`ps aux | grep Plex.app | awk ‘{print $2}’ | head -n 1`
kill -9 $PLEX_PID
# restart Plex Here by executing /Application/…./Plex.app/…/Executable
COUNT=0

fi

sleep 4

LOOP=`expr $LOOP + 1`
done
==========================================

   

Eye Forget

Yes, by all means try Plex. Then wonder why you’re spending time trying to get all your original content to show up in Plex, why Plex can show less (or even more) movie entries than you have on your hard drive, or why it does not scan for new content, or why new content appears in video’s but not in movies (or TV shows) and can’t watch it. And most importantly, wonder why you’re spending way more time dealing with Plex’ issues than watching content.

Plex is a great program, if it worked. It is crippled by a lousy library (acknowledged and in the process of being totally rewritten). However, the new library will have to cut the cord with IMDB or theTVdatabase (unknown if it will). These two databases and Plex approach to proper naming create nothing but problems with titles and the simple fact these data bases (especially TV) are incomplete and frequently down. When they are incomplete, no watchie. When they’re down, no watchie. Oh, but you can go into “File Mode”. Well, that’s Front Row and you may as well stay there as at that point there’s no reason to use Plex for media you have on drives.

Add to this the lack of a decent remote for Plex. This alone has chased a lot of experienced Plex users back to Front Row. You need a keyboard, you need a mouse if its an htpc and you need a Plex compatible remote. iPhone apps? Try them, try them all. You will either get used to the fact you have a keyboard, mouse and remote all in your living room or you will escape to the well thought out sanity/simplicity of Front Row.

I’ve used Plex for 4 months. Have over 200 titles loaded and I can tell you its a royal pain. I’m at the point where I will use Plex for its plugins (great) and go back to Front Row for any media residing on my hard drive. Front Row may not have the eye candy, but it works, effortlessly.

By the way, the above comment ” Say you have a collection of 5 TV Shows, each of which have around 3-8 seasons. You’ve named them something like “Lost – 101 – Episode Name.avi”. To watch them in Front Row you would have to convert the files into iTunes compatible files, then add the show information, artwork, etc. Sure there are tools like iFlicks and Meta which add such info to your shows, but it’s still a lot of manual work.” is just plain wrong. I have Front Row and Plex aimed at the same Movies folder. There are all sorts of file types in that folder and Front Row plays them all just fine.

Next, the fact “Plex is not hooked to iTunes” makes playing music through Plex an extremely limited experience. Try to find some one with a large music library using Plex. Go to the Plex forums. Nada, they use iTunes. Ever wonder why iTunes has no competition? As bad as it can be, its by far and away the best out there.

   

Duane

@Eric In order to get your shows to show up properly in the TV menu, Create a folder Structure like TV SHows/Prision Break/Season 1 and then name all season 1 episodes as: Prison Break – 01×01, Prison Break – 01×02, etc… Then have Plex rescan your folder for new content and it should show up…

   

John

It’s Aug 13, 2010 and I think Plex still needs a way to go. Too complicated…why can’t I to go the music category to add itunes music. Not intuitive how to add video content, not in the preferences that I can see, not in the “watch my videos” section. Need to customize an .xml file to get a harmony remote to fast forward. Looking forward to a v1.0 release.

   

TJ

garbage, downloaded Plex 9, all the instructions are for different versions, nothing lines up. no where can i find how to add a source for video. looks pretty but garbage!!

   

alexiusaditya

@TJ Plex 9 is completely different, you get two sections in 1 application; the first one is a library and the second one is a player. you must set up the library first and go to player to watch it. if you want to add source for your movies, you must added manually in the library section. maybe it can help you, and i hope smokingapples.com update this guide.

   

Michael Minor

You missed one HUGE caveat of Plex. It doesn’t actually manage your STORED media… It simply looks it up.

I.E. If you use it on a computer connected to your TV as a way of viewing downloaded TV shows you can’t delete the shows after watching it… So, again, it only curates your media, it does not manage it.

Hard drives fill up quickly when downloading HD content, and without an option to delete something after viewing, manage is not the right word.

   

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