Building a Plex Client
We mentioned earlier that there are a number of Plex client applications for a variety of platforms, including iOS, Android, Windows 8, and Roku. But all of these options usually rely on transcoding. If you store your media with a form of lossless compression, and if you want to preserve that quality throughout the process, you’ll want to build your own Plex client that can run the Plex Home Theater application.
PHT offers almost all of the functionality of the other Plex clients, but with an interface that’s both remote- and keyboard-friendly. The software can losslessly “direct play” any supported file in a Plex Server database (provided that the network is fast enough), and users can customize the look and feel of the application via a variety of skins and UI customizations.
As of the date of this article, PHT is officially available for Windows and OS X, with the option to use unofficial, community-developed Linux builds, giving users a wide range of potential platforms on which to build their dedicated playback client. The hardware and configuration possibilities are virtually endless, but we’ll hit on a few core builds that can provide a good starting point for new Plex users.
This is PC Perspective, so it’s a safe bet that most of you reading this article will elect to build your own client. Thankfully, the demands of video playback for a single stream on a single system are quite a bit lower than those faced by a server trying to transcode multiple streams simultaneously. You’ll therefore be able to use relatively inexpensive components in your client build and still have a good experience during playback.
When it comes to the CPU, you don’t really need much power under the hood for a Plex client. As an example, my personal Plex client in the home theater is running an Intel Core 2 Duo P8800, a 2.66GHz dual-core mobile CPU from 2009. I wouldn’t recommend that you buy this exact CPU, as it is no longer cost effective but, with a PassMark score of 1718, it is more than adequate for all but the highest bitrate 1080p content.
Looking to more modern options, the $50 Intel Celeron G1840 runs circles around the P8800 from a computational perspective, and you can step up to a Core i3-4330 ($140) if you want the more capable Intel HD 4600 graphics. On the AMD side of things, consider the A4-6300, a $50 chip arguably designed for the home theater PC market.
A brief note on motherboards: you’ll be fine using any motherboard that’s compatible with your choice of CPU, but I’d recommend picking one with an HDMI output, especially if you don’t plan to also use a discrete GPU. DVI converters and optical audio outputs are workable, but if you’re planning on hooking this box up to a TV or receiver, an audio-enabled HDMI output keeps things easy and simple.
If you’re building a dedicated playback client, RAM won’t be a huge issue. Playing back a high bitrate 1080p MKV requires less than 250MB of system memory on Windows 8.1. A minimum of 2GB to ensure acceptable performance of the OS is a safe bet. Of course, you’ll want to go to 8GB or 16GB if you plan to use your Plex client box for more than just movies.
The integrated GPU on most recent processors should be more than adequate. But if you want a little more power for tasks like gaming, consider a passively cooled card like the Sapphire Radeon Ultimate R7 250 or ASUS NVIDIA GT640 Silent. You’ll pay a little bit more and get a little less performance, but you’ll keep what is likely to be a living room PC as quiet as possible.
Of course, you’re also free to throw a Sapphire R9 280X Toxic in there if you don’t mind being regularly cited for disturbing the peace. Whichever way you go, just make sure that you get a card that supports DirectX Video Acceleration (DXVA) 2.0 if you want to get the benefits of H.264 hardware decoding.
When building a system that’s primarily for Plex playback, go for a cheap, reliable hard drive. Solid state is an option if you want to keep noise to a minimum, but the small amount of caching required will be easily handled by even a slow mechanical hard drive. At most, an SSD will save on boot times and perhaps a bit of energy usage, depending on the drive.
You also don’t need much in the way of capacity. PHT will cache some assets locally, but the majority of your storage needs concern the server and media arrays. As an example, PHT on Windows 8.1 has consumed only about 2.5GB while regularly accessing my approximately 30TB Plex server (you’ll find your PHT cache located at C:Users[User]AppDataRoamingPlex Home Theater).
Here’s where your personal preferences really come into play. There are a myriad of HTPC and small-form-factor cases from which to choose. Some I’ve had experience with include the Antec ISK 310-150, Silverstone ML07, and, if you’re looking for a case with a bit more room, the Silverstone Tek GD07B.
Regardless of case selection, consider replacing or upgrading the included fans to minimize noise. The Corsair Air Series Quiet Edition fans are inaudible from my movie watching position on the couch.
A final consideration is infrared control. You can control Plex Home Theater via the Plex mobile app, and there are Bluetooth keyboards built for living room use. But chances are that most of you will want a traditional remote control, and so you’ll need to either ensure that your case includes the necessary IR receiver, or pick up an external one. You can easily find USB-based IR receivers and remotes for less than $20 at places like Amazon and Newegg.
If you don’t want to go through the trouble of building your own Plex client, or if you want the smallest and quietest solution possible, an integrated pre-built system might be the way to go. My personal favorite is the Intel NUC. You’ll need to bring your own memory, mSATA drive, and power cord, but any of these sleek and tiny PCs will handle Plex playback just fine. Even better, the NUC includes an integrated IR receiver, so you’ll be ready to go right away.
Another option, and one that I’ve used to great success, is to repurpose an old Mac mini. Don’t bother paying retail on this out-of-date hardware, but if you can find a used mini of the 2010 vintage or newer on the cheap, it will make for a silent and capable Plex client, complete with integrated IR, HDMI, four USB ports, and an SD Card reader.
Once again, users have quite a bit of flexibility when it comes to the OS powering their Plex client. On the Windows side, you’ll need Vista or higher; those opting for Mac will need at least OS X Snow Leopard. For the unofficial Linux builds, the Plex community offers configuration guides for Fedora, CentOS, Ubuntu, Debian, Arch, and SteamOS. There’s also limited support for the Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center (OpenELEC).
Windows 7 or 8.1 are both good options if you’d prefer to keep things in the Redmond camp. Those considering repurposing a Mac should note that many users, including yours truly, have encountered bugs using the latest builds of PHT on OS X Mavericks and above. I’d therefore recommend sticking with OS X Mountain Lion if the Mac will be used primarily for Plex.
Regardless of your choice in operating system, you’ll want to configure a few settings to make the playback experience optimal. The first is auto-launch. In Windows 7 and 8.1, add the PHT executable to the Start Menu’s Startup folder. In OS X, you’ll find a similar setting in System Preferences > Users & Groups > Login Items. If you’re using Linux, many of the unofficial Linux PHT builds configure the app to launch for you at boot. Configuring PHT to launch at boot makes using the software with a remote much easier following a power outage or maintenance reboot. It may also be a key component of the “SAP” (“Spousal Acceptance Factor”) when investing in your new Plex ecosystem.
Another OS setting you may want to modify is the computer’s sleep setting. Depending on your hardware configuration and remote control setup, you may prefer to prevent your Plex client from sleeping, ensuring instant access without having to pull out the trusty keyboard. Many of the Plex clients, especially setups like the Intel NUC, draw so little power that keeping them active during idle times may be preferred if you plan to frequently use the device.
Other OS options to investigate include enabling automatic restarts after a power failure, disabling automatic system updates (which may break your Plex setup or cause bugs), and turning off any application and system notifications that may pop up during Plex playback and ruin the show.
Installing & Configuring Plex Home Theater
Once you’ve got Plex Home Theater installed, getting it set up with your server is a breeze. If you’ve got an account at Plex.tv, PHT will ask you to log in and enter a PIN during its first run. It’s a similar process to that used by Roku.
Plex will automatically configure itself for local or remote access to your server. If you’d prefer a manual approach, you can manually specify a server by IP address in the Plex settings. Many of the remaining setup steps are covered in the Plex video embedded earlier, and the step-by-step prompts in the PHT software make the process quick and painless.