Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Best Prebuilt, DIY, and NAS Solutions for a Plex Server

By Moe Long 

Plex quickly earned its reputation as the media lover’s dream. Think of it like a powerful, do-it-yourself Netflix that gives users remote access to videos and pictures. As a service, Plex continues improving with new community-requested features.
However, Plex isn’t as simple as downloading software. Unlike Netflix or Hulu, Plex requires a server. Users are responsible for setting up their own server. And that requires hardware. (For those new to Plex, check out our awesome Plex manual.)Your Guide To Plex - The Awesome Media Center Your Guide To Plex - The Awesome Media CenterLove your digital collection of movies, TV shows and music, but hate using clumsy interfaces to play them on your TV? It's time to check out Plex, the ultimate media center software.READ MORE

Plex Media Server Specs

When it comes to HTPC hardware, you may assume that the graphics processing unit (GPU) is the essential part. In fact, most recent integrated GPUs are perfectly sufficient for pushing 1080p and sometimes even 4K content. With a Plex server, you don’t even need a monitor. Rather than a powerful GPU, you’ll want a beefy central processing unit (CPU). Plex recommends generally an Intel Core i3 or better. For transcoding, you need a processor with around 2,000 PassMark for a 1080p stream and 1,500 for 720p.
Whether you’re building your own or buying a pre-built system, operating system is a major factor. Plex Media Server runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, and FreeBSD.

Pre-Built Plex Server

If you’re opting for a pre-built system, you really don’t need a fancy machine. Don’t be tempted by a gaming PC, as that’s plain overkill. Unless you plan on running your Plex server off of a machine that doubles as your primary computer, you can snag something much more affordable.

Mac Mini ($690/£500)

Apple Mac Mini
The Mac Mini consistently ranks as one of the most popular devices for a Plex server. Notably, it’s also a top pick as a Plex client. Mac World has a great write up on using the Mac Mini as a Plex server. While the Mac Mini does have a higher starting price, its small footprint and stellar specs make it a great choice. The i5 clocks in around $700 with 8 GB of memory and a 1 TB hard drive. For power users, the 1 TB of storage may be skimpy, but higher configurations are available. However, a cheaper solution for adding more storage space to a Mac Mini is simply getting a high-capacity external hard drive.
The i5 reportedly carries a PassMark just under 4,000 while the i7 configuration has a 5204 PassMark. An i5 Mac Mini should be fine for one 1080p stream and a 720p, and the i5 should handle two 1080p streams. Although the Mac Mini might not be the most powerful pre-built machine for the price, it makes a solid Plex server. Its small form factor means the Mac Mini may double as a home theater PC (HTPC). Plus, Macs tend to benefit from a long life span anecdotally speaking. Even the 2015 Mac World write up used a 2011 Mac Mini and found it perfectly suitable. So longevity, form factor, and little set up posit the Mac Mini as a top pre-built solution for a Plex server.
  • Long life span.
  • i5 or i7 available.
  • Up to 2 TB.
  • Little to no configuration required.
  • Doubles as an HTPC.
  • Cheaper options available.
  • Limited storage options for power users.
  • No optical drive.

System76 Meerkat (Starting at $480)

system76 meerkat
The System76 Meerkat is a neat little device. It’s a Linux PC that’s ready to use out-of-the-box. The Meerkat comes with an Intel Core i3 or i5 and up to 2.5 TB of storage space. What makes it an excellent Plex server is its 4″ footprint and energy efficiency. Thus, the System76 Meerkat provides a great option for a Plex server that won’t jack up your power bill if you have an always-on system.
However, the Meerkat isn’t exactly cheap. It starts at $449. I recommend the i5 if you’ll have multiple transcoded streams running. The i3 offers a 3,915 PassMark score and stepping up to the i5  raises it to 4,330. If you have a massive media collection, you’ll want to max out the storage which will further drive up the final price. But it’s easily upgradeable and a quality device that comes preloaded with Ubuntu 16.04 LTS or 16.10. System76 also makes a variety of laptops and desktops that run Linux out of the box.Three Awesome Linux Laptops You Can Buy Right Now Three Awesome Linux Laptops You Can Buy Right NowLinux is amazing, unless it won't install. Then it just hurts. Fortunately, a number of laptop makers build Linux laptops that don't suffer from any driver or software faults.READ MORE
  • Tiny footprint.
  • Doubles as an HTPC.
  • Lots of configuration options.
  • Out-of-the-box Linux solution.
  • Easily upgradeable.
  • Pricey with options.
  • No optical drive.

HP Wave (Starting at $530)

hp wave
The HP Wave is not only a rather beefy PC, it comes in a small, visually pleasing package. PCWorld dubbed the HP Wave “pretty and powerful.” It’s also an excellent Plex server with this combination. There’s even a speaker built in, though audiophiles will benefit from a separate set up. Lots of configuration options offer a tailored PC experience. CPU choices range from an i3 to i7. There’s up to 16 GB of DDR4 RAM. Storage options go up to 2 TB for standard hard drives and there are even SSD options.
Its graphics hardware won’t top benchmarks in The Witcher 3 or Titanfall, but the HP Wave boasts support for up to two 4K displays with either the Intel HD 530 or optional AMD R9 M470. Unfortunately, the graphics aren’t upgradeable. In fact, the Wave is not very expandable so this may be a downfall for power users. But for those who want an aesthetically pleasing, powerful, and flexible PC as a Plex server, the HP Wave is perfect.
  • Aesthetically pleasing.
  • Powerful.
  • Lots of configuration options.
  • Small footprint.
  • Good GPU.
  • Not easily upgradeable.

DIY Plex Server

You can easily make your own server. There are nearly limitless options, but the main factors you’ll want to prioritize are CPU performance (PassMark rating), size, and energy efficiency. Though AMD typically offers a better price to performance ratio, its lower PassMark scores mean Intel is likely the better choice. If you’re going the DIY route, you may want to consider a Linux distro as your operating system since it’s free and helps to cut down on the overall cost.

Raspberry Pi ($60)

Raspberry Pi 3
Oh, the Raspberry Pi. Arguably the most utilitarian and functional product ever made, a Raspberry Pi is capable of performing the functions of both Plex server and client. Most use the Pi as a client. However, RasPlex or Kodi plugins can turn the Pi into a cheap Plex server solution.3 Ways to Set Up Your Raspberry Pi as a Media Server 3 Ways to Set Up Your Raspberry Pi as a Media ServerWhich media center application should you install on your Raspberry Pi? Several options are on offer, and we're going to walk you through them now, looking at the features, advantages, and disadvantages of each.READ MORE
Check out Element 14 for a spectacular write-up on running a Plex server off of a Raspberry Pi. For this solution, I recommend the Raspberry Pi 3 as it’s currently the most powerful Pi board available. However, you can probably guess that transcoding will be poor. The Pi 3, equipped with its quad-core 64-bit ARM Cortex A53 simply isn’t up to heavy or even moderate 1080p transcodes. But for a cheap Plex server, the Pi can’t be beaten. It’s likely the most inexpensive option aside from re-purposing hardware you’ve got lying around.
  • Inexpensive.
  • Easy to set up.
  • Energy efficient.
  • Small footprint.
  • Under-powered for transcoding.

Intel NUC ($125/£120)

Intel NUC in Hands
The Intel NUC line is excellent as an HTPC and a Plex server. htpcBeginner published a fantastic write-up on why you should use an Intel NUC as a home theater PC. For a bit more info on what a NUC is and why you would want one, check out our awesome breakdown. The same logic follows for a Plex server. They are quiet, utilitarian, and well priced. There’s even a Reddit Plex thread on using a NUC as a server. An i7 costs around $450 and can handle two to three simultaneous 1080p transcodes. The Skylake i5 can handle about two, with the Skylake i3 capable of running one or two. On the low end, a Broadwell i3 can take a single 1080p transcode.What's a NUC and Why Would You Want One? What's a NUC and Why Would You Want One?NUCs can best be described as barebones, small form-factor PCs -- and they're pretty awesome under the right circumstances.READ MORE
Energy savings and small footprint make the Intel NUC a winner. Unfortunately, while RAM and hard drives are upgradeable, the CPU and GPU are not. GPU performance isn’t as essential, but since the CPU is the biggest factor in transcoding and streaming, this could be a downfall for some users. Still, it’s an inexpensive device and offers excellent specs for a Plex server. Alternately, go with the high-end line (UK) of NUC for even more power. But be forewarned these only take m.2 SSDs so you’ll pay a premium for storage.
  • Small footprint.
  • Energy efficient.
  • Range of CPU options.
  • RAM and hard drives upgradeable.
  • CPU and GPU not upgradeable.
  • Requires m.2 SSDs.

Gigabyte BRIX ($500/£880)

gigabyte brix i7 5575
Gigabyte’s brand is synonymous with awesome mini PCs. The BRIX line provides a smattering of options. But for a Plex server, a Gigabyte BRIX equipped with an i5 or i7 is your best bet. The GB-BXi7-5775 features an i7 CPU and Iris Pro 6200 integrated graphics that are capable of pumping 4K video. The BRIX supports an mSATA SSD and traditional 2.5″ laptop hard drive. Plus, it’s compact and may even be mounted to a monitor.
The BRIX is a stellar PC for either an out of the way Plex server or HTPC. Even so, it suffers from minor drawbacks. The CPU and GPU are non-upgradeable. However, small size mixed with the powerful i7 help this ultra compact PC overcome any potential downfalls. Notably, the i5 variations are still awesome choices and save a bit of cash at the expense of a slightly lower PassMark score.
  • Small footprint.
  • Powerful Iris Pro 6200 graphics.
  • Up to an i7 processor.
  • Nonupgradeable CPU and GPU.
  • i7 is pricey.

ThinkServer TS140 ($220)

thinkserver ts140
The ThinkServer TS140 is marketed as a server, but it’s essentially a desktop. IBM’s hefty ThinkServer is a powerful and capable potential Plex server. Outfitted with either an i3 or a Xeon CPU, it’s a fantastic solution that consistently gets plugged in Plex communities like this Reddit thread. And this one too. The i3 boasts a PassMark score of 4,764 whereas the Xeon ThinkServer TS140 clocks in at 7,042. The base model Core i3 can, therefore, handle two 1080p streams while the Xenon can tackle almost four.
Yet the ThinkServer TS140 does not include an operating system or hard drive. You’ll need to supply those yourself. Additionally, the TS140 has VGA out, lacking DVI, HDMI, or Displayport. You may add a graphics card which alleviates this potential nuisance. But especially if you plan to run a headless server, this should not present a problem.
  • Excellent PassMark score.
  • Just add an operating system and hard drive.
  • Can handle almost four 1080p streams (Xeon).
  • Good overall value.
  • No hard drive.
  • No operating system.
  • Large footprint.

NAS Plex Server

While lots of users employ a desktop or laptop as a Plex server, Network Attached Storage (NAS) are perfectly suitable. Opting for a NAS-based Plex server affords loads of storage at a lower price. However, the tradeoff comes at computing power. Usually, NAS devices have low-power. While this is excellent for power-saving if you’ve got an always-on Plex server, a NAS Plex server may struggle with transcoding. There’s a useful compatibility doc that gives a detailed spec breakdown.
Not convinced you need a NAS? Here are seven reasons to use a NAS for data storage and backups.7 Reasons to Use a NAS for Data Storage & Backups 7 Reasons to Use a NAS for Data Storage & BackupsExternal hard drives are great for data storage, but there are many more benefits to using a network-attached drive instead. Here's everything you need to know.READ MORE

Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro ($250/£196 for 2 TB)

wd my passport pro
Western Digital remains at the forefront of storage with consistently high-performing hardware. The My Passport Wireless Pro is a breakthrough. The ready-made Plex server is the first NAS that’s Plex ready from the get go. It’s even battery-powered making it a portable solution. PC World dubbed the My Passport Wireless Pro the equivalent of a “self-contained Netflix.”
Yet this newfound freedom doesn’t come cheap. The 2 TB iteration retails for $230, while the 3 TB version is $250 at regular price. Sure, that’s quite a lot of storage, but the My Passport Pro is unable to transcode on-the-fly. Thus, you may need to convert media to properly ensure that your Plex client is able to stream your content. However, this is a common downfall of NAS-based Plex servers, and if you’re going the NAS route the WD My Passport Wireless Pro is absolutely your best bet.
  • Wireless built-in.
  • Battery-powered.
  • Ready-to-go Plex server.
  • No on-the-fly transcoding.
  • Pricey.

Synology DS-216+ ($300/£220)

synology plex
The Synology DS-216+ lends itself well for use as a Plex server. 9to5Mac even reviewed the Synology as a Plex server with glowing feedback. Synology makes Plex available as an app for the DS-216+ and it’s just like downloading an app on your iPhone or Android. Since set up is pretty simple this could be a great option. As long as you don’t have to transcode much. If you do, you may find the Synology a bit under-powered.
  • Energy efficient.
  • Lots of storage options.
  • Easy Plex install.
  • Under-powered for transcoding.
  • Expensive.

QNAP TS-x53A  ($580/£395) and TVS-x71 ($950/£1179)

qnap plex
QNAP offers a solid NAS that’s Plex server ready. A neat feature, QNAP includes the QvPC feature that allows a NAS so serve as an HTPC. Flaunting HDMI out and decent processors, QNAP produces some of the best NAS Plex solutions available. The TVS-x71 series is available with up to an i7, 16 GB of RAM, and four to eight hard drive bays. It’s got an HDMI out and can handle 720p and 1080p transcodes. The TVS-x71 features a maximum capacity of 64 TB.
The mid-range TS-x53A features Intel Braswell Celeron quad-core processors. Its 8 GB of RAM, up to eight hard drive bays, and two HDMI outputs shape this QNAP NAS as a viable Plex server. However, the Celeron processor may not handle larger 1080p transcodes very well. But it’s available for less money and should address the average user’s needs.
  • NAS can act as a PC/HTPC.
  • HDMI out.
  • Lots of storage and configuration options.
  • Slower transcodes with TS-x53A.
  • CPU not upgradable.

Final Thoughts: What’s the Best Plex Server?

Setting up an awesome Plex server for your multimedia needs is a lot easier than you think. Chances are you may have an old desktop or laptop lying around that’s suitable as a Plex server. However, buying or building a PC or NAS offers the convenience of a separate device than your daily driver. Regardless of your decision, you’re probably better opting for an Intel CPU (sorry AMD) because of transcoding and power efficiency. But for AMD fans, there are options for pretty cost-efficient and energy-saving builds like this one. A small footprint is an added bonus, particularly if you’ll be using your Plex server as an HTPC or if it’s just an always-on box hooked up by your router.Build a Leaner, Greener, Meaner HTPC with AMD's New AM1 Platform Build a Leaner, Greener, Meaner HTPC with AMD's New AM1 PlatformThis article covers the various components, with suggestions, for building an AM1-based media center or office productivity desktop.READ MORE
Your turn: What is your Plex server setup? Share the specs of your Plex server and tell us what you recommend!
Source: www.makeuseof.com

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