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How to use Plex with Chromecast, iOS, Android, Apple TV, NAS

James Temperton
11 Sep 2014
Use Plex on Chromecast and Apple TV
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We explain how to use Plex on Chromecast, Apple TV, NAS devices, computers, Android and iOS

One of the big problems about streaming videos over your home network is making sure that the receiving device has support for the format. If it doesn't, you'll need to convert the video into a different format, which can be time consuming, or use the Plex media server. Unlike traditional DLNA media servers, Plex has built-in transcoding, which means that it converts videos on the fly to play on any device running the Plex Media Client. Using this software you can play any video on your Chromecast or Apple TV, for example. Of course, it supports music and photos, too.

In this article we'll show you how to set up Plex on your home network and start streaming over your home network using your PC, Mac, tablet, smartphone, Chromecast, Apple TV and even Smart TV.

Plex Transcoding and how it differs from a DLNA media server

Plex is actually a combination of two things: a server where all of your media sits and a client, which you use to access your data. The server is completely free and is also DLNA compliant, which means that any DLNA device (TV, smartphone, games console, etc) can connect to it and start streaming content. Plex works and acts like any DLNA server you may already have, such as the one built into your NAS.

However, it's the client that makes it act differently. When the client connects to the server it can describe which video formats it can play. If the video that you're requesting isn't a supported format the Plex server can take the file and re-encode it live into a format that the client understands. The combination of the Plex server and client means that any file can play on any device without first having to re-encode them manually.

This isn't that useful when considering just mobiles and tablets. Both types of devices are fast enough to play Full HD videos and it's easy enough to get apps that will play practically any video format. However, transcoding is extremely important when using Chromecast or Apple TV as both devices have extremely limited video format support.

To use these devices with a media server you need a compatible app to access the content, which you then Cast to Chromecast or AirPlay to Apple TV. In both cases, the Chromecast or Apple TV takes over the stream, connects to the original content and starts playing it. But if the video is not a supported format you won't see anything on your TV, regardless of whether your phone or tablet can play the content. One solution is to convert all of your videos into a compatible format, but this can be time consuming, particularly if you've got a large media collection. 

With Plex it's different and easier. Your phone or tablet talks to the Plex server and requests the video in a format that's viewable by the Chromecast or Apple TV, so when you Cast or AirPlay it everything works seamlessly. It's this convenience that makes Plex a lot different to the bog-standard DLNA media server your may already have.

Installing the Plex Server

Installing the Plex Server differs depending on whether you're using a NAS or a desktop computer/laptop, but we'll take you through all of the methods and the relative benefits of using each type of server. Once the server is installed configuring it is the same regardless of the type of server that you install, so we'll show you configuration in the next section.

Install Plex Server on your NAS

Plex Media Server can be installed on some NAS devices, including models from Netgear, Qnap and Synology but support is limited (a full list of NAS devices that support Plex check out the Plex NAS Compatibility Google Doc). Installation varies from device-to-device, but Synology has one of the easiest installation routines, with Plex available from the Package Manager - if you're having any trouble installing the Plex Server on your NAS you should consult the Plex forums for assistance with your particular model.

NAS devices traditionally don't have very powerful processors, so they're not all capable of transcoding video. Synology has the best overall support, with the DS214play and DS415play, which can transcode video up to 1080p; some other NAS models can transcode video up to 720p; the cheaper models can't transcode at all. You can see Synology NAS transcoding support for more information. Once the server's installed on a NAS, the configuration process is the same as for any other server and is done through your web browser.

Synology DSM 5 Package Manager install Plex

Install Plex Server on your PC or Mac

You can either run the Plex server on your main desktop computer or laptop or use an old or unused one. If opting for the latter you'll need to make sure it is fast enough. The minimum system requirement for Plex varies depending on whether you need transcoding or not. Transcoding is the process of taking a file and making it playable on another device – either in another format or at a different resolution. Taking a full HD file and playing it on a smartphone, for example, will require transcoding in most cases.

Transcoding requires a bit of oomph. Plex recommends an Intel Core 2 Duo processor 2.4GHz or better, at last 2GB of memory and Windows XP or Max OSX Snow Leopard 10.6.3 (64-bit) or later. If you don't need transcoding you can cut down the processor speed to 1.6GHz and halve the RAM, but you might get some stuttering and other issues when attempting to play videos. 

After your free Plex Media Server download, you can install the software on Mac OS X, Windows, Linux. Installation on all three operating systems is straight-forward, just follow the simple instructions. If you're prompted to create a Plex account, do so, as it's essential that you have this if you want to use Chromecast.

Configure the Plex Server

Plex is a little more complicated than other media servers, as it's that little bit more intelligent. Getting all of your videos set up, the server ready for transcoding and a few other little tweaks will make the experience a lot nicer. We'll take you through everything you need to know.

Organise your files

Before you do anything with the server it's important to organise all of your files properly, as Plex is clever in the way that it organises videos. In the Server you tell Plex which folders contains Movies, TV Shows or Home Videos. If you use either of the first two options Plex will analyse each video file to work out which film or TV show it is, downloading a thumbnail and description to match. If you get your categorisation wrong or bundle all of your content together, Plex gets confused and you may end up with your home movies getting strange titles and descriptions.

It's important that you put all Movies, TV Shows and Home Videos into separate folders, with sub-folders for each bit of content. So, if you've got every episode of terrorist-thwarting America fest 24 then they should all be in the TV Shows folder, in one folder called 24, then separated into sub folders by season and then finally given a clear name. So that would be TV/24/Season 06/24 s01e01.mp4.

Connect to the Plex Server and sign in

Once you've organised your files, you can connect to the Plex Server to configure it. Configuration is all done through the web interface, which you access through a browser. On any computer connected to the same local network as your Plex Server open a web browser and put the address in as http://<ipaddressofyourserver>:32400/web. If you were connecting to your NAS, for example, this may be, http://192.168.0.100:32400/web. If you're trying to access the server from the same computer it's installed on you can use http://127.0.0.1:32400/web, as this is a special IP address that means 'this computer'.

When you connect for the first time you may see a spinning icon and a message telling you that Plex is configuring itself. It will scan the local hard disk for compatible files and attempt to set up an initial media library. It's worth leaving it to do its job to see what it finds. Once done your first job is to sign in to your Plex account. Click the icon of the person and click Sign In. Enter your Plex username or registered email address and password; if you didn't register you can sign-up for a free Plex account.

Sign in with your Plex account from the server

Add libraries and channels to the Plex Server

Now you're ready to add your own media to the server. Plex may already have discovered content on your server; for example, on a Mac, it detects the iTunes and iPhotos libraries automatically. It probably won't have found your other media files, but they're easy to add. Click the Home icon (looks like a house). Your own content is organised into Libraries. Click the '+' icon next to other Libraries, then choose the type of content (Movies, TV Shows, Home Videos, Photos and Music), then browse to the folder that contains these files. Note, Plex will scan sub-directories, so you only need to add the master containing folder. Plex will then scan the content, downloading thumbnails and descriptive text, as required.

Plex server

You can also install Channels, which are external sources of video Plex can then stream this content from the internet to your chosen device. There's a lot of Channels, but in the UK, BBC iPlayer is probably the most interesting one. To browse through the list of options and select the ones you want, click the Home button, the click Channels and click Install Channels (on a Synology NAS click the '+' icon next to channels). You'll get a list of categories, which you can use to browse the content you want to add.

Install channels on Plex Server

Configure transcoding

By default, the Plex Media Server is configured to only transcode content when it has to. This is likely to be the best option in most cases. However, if you're not getting the results you want, or your computer's making a noise like it's about to take off, you can adjust things. Click on Settings, Server, Transcoder. Here you can choose to prefer 'Higher speed encoding' (worse quality, but faster), 'Higher quality encoding' (high quality, but more strain on the CPU), or to max everything out and 'Make my CPU hurt'.

Plex Server Transcoding settings

Streaming from Plex

With the server set up, you're ready to start streaming media. Your Plex Server is DLNA compliant so any media streamer will be able to see it and play media from it. However, the interface isn't as nice and transcoding isn't supported. For the full experience you need to use a Plex app. For desktop these are free with Plex Home Theatre for Windows and OS X and the Windows 8.1 Plex App. For mobile devices you have to pay for the client, but there's support for most platforms, with Plex for iPhone and iPad (£2.99), Plex for Android (£2.92) and Plex for Windows Phone 8 (£3.49). There are also apps for connected devices, such as Plex for Roku and Plex for Samsung TV.

With all of these devices, as long as you're on the same network as your server, you just open up the Plex client and it will detect the server automatically letting you play all of your content. If you want to use Plex with Chromecast or Apple TV the instructions vary be device, but we'll take you through each one.

Streaming from Plex to Chromecast

In order to use Plex with Chromecast you can use mobile apps, which you have to pay for, or a computer, which is free. For mobile, you can use the iOS or Android apps (the Windows Phone app currently doesn't support it). Just open up the app, browse to the content you want to play, then tap the Cast button (like a TV with a wireless signal). You can then choose the Chromecast that you want to send the content to. 

Plex app for Android

The grab above shows Plex playing a video on Android. From here you can tap the button in the top-right corner to send the video to your Chromecast. Once the content's playing on Chromecast you can control playback and use your phone or tablet for other tasks.

If you want to use a computer you can only do it through the web browser, as the desktop apps do not support Chromecast. You'll need to use Chrome and the Google Cast Chrome extension. You'll also need to link your Plex Media Server to a Plex account. This will allow you to remotely access Plex via Chromecast. On either the computer running the Plex Server or any other computer on your home network go to https://plex.tv/web and login to your Plex account.

Plex will now be able to see your Chromecast, allowing you to watch anything on Plex. Select what you want to watch or listen to and click on the Chromecast icon in the top right corner. Select your Chromecast and the content will start playing on your TV. If you have any problems check out Plex's own Chromecast support pages. When playing through Chromecast your device becomes a remote control.

Plex and Apple TV

Watching Plex on Apple TV requires the Plex iOS app, as the Android, Windows Phone 8 and desktop apps do not support transmitting via AirPlay. Once installed on your iOS device open the app, connect to your Plex Media Server and find what you want to watch. Hit the Cast/AirPlay button (the TV with the wireless signal) and select your Apple TV. Plex will then fetch the file from the Media Server and send it through to the Apple TV, letting you use your iOS device as a remote control. You can also use your tablet or phone normally without interrupting the stream.

Plex on iOS

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