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.


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