The Journey In To Plex, Part 1

The time has come to move in to the modern age, and boy is it strange. Direct Play? Universal Transcode? Whatever happened to just pressing play?

My favourite movie of all time is Primer. It’s a brilliantly confusing story about a struggle for power. It’s also available for purchase from the director’s website, as a 720p download, DRM free. Over time, I’ve built up a small collection of purchased films that I keep on my home server. Other examples include:

There are more, but I don’t recall what they are at this time.

Playing back media files is a breeze on the computer, but it gets a little more complex in the living room. In a previous post, I detailed the reasons I’m “struggling” with automation as a whole. Well, now that we’ve sold the house, and we’ve bought a new place (another post yet to come), there are some… considerations.

In the new house, I will finally have the basement of my dreams. It’s got plenty of space, and is divided into two areas. There’s a very clear “media zone”, and a back area. The back area will become the office of my dreams (with some time and work), meanwhile the media zone… oh boy. I’m gonna slap an IKEA Kivik with Chaise in there, a very slick TV Bench. I’ve had our current TV, an otherwise unremarkable (but dependable!) 42” Samsung B540, for about seven or eight years. It will stay in the living room upstairs, but this basement demands more.

For this, the pièce de résistance, I will get a Vizio P65-C1. In another post, I’ll detail my plans for the layout of the basement more.

So why the TV?

Well, the Vizio is capable of delivering a great 4K UHD picture, with a 10-bit VA panel that has Wide Color Gamut support, essential for HDR. The CNET review I linked does an OK job of explaining, but in short, this panel is supposed to be gorgeous. Having a 4K set means I need a method to playback 4K content. I recently upgraded to an Xbox One S, so I have a 4K UHD Blu-Ray player there at my disposal, and the Vizio tablet/SmartCast functionality means that the Netflix app built in to the TV is automatically running at 4K with HDR. What about the content on my Media Server?

Enter Plex

I keep content on my media server organized, and specifically encoded to a set of standards. These standards have thus far ensured that the files are universally playable on either my Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad, and our Apple TV. I can load up Infuse, point it at the network share where the files are located, and we’re off to the races. I can re-watch Primer at a moment’s notice this way. When it comes to the new TV - an Apple TV simply won’t deliver 4K content. Fortunately, there are lots of options on the Vizio tablet remote that are capable of handling 4K, and for local files, one of them is Plex.

Plex for Smart TV” has native 4K support, and thus would be able to play a 4K version of Timescapes, or some NASA 4K Downloads. Plex’s native 4K support with Vizio is limited to HEVC, and that’s a format that can be tackled with time. I’m happy to prepare the file in advance, and eventually most files would probably be delivered that way. For other files, the support is pretty good. Plex has a well documented list of what media formats are supported by their various clients.

As a result, I moved over some of my existing content to Plex and have begun testing it for a few things. First up: Direct Play testing.

Direct Play? What’s that?

I have long hesitated to use Plex because of one reason: real-time transcoding, which is CPU intensive.

While I could do something like run a Plex Media Server from my iMac, using my Home Server as just a dumb data store, I want to avoid keeping an unneeded computer on all the time. My Home Server consumes around 10 watts when idle, and the iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, Late 2015) consumes 63 watts when idle. Even under load, my Home Server pushes around 35 W, nowhere near close to the iMac’s CPU MAX of 240 W. I want to keep things low power, and the Home Server can do that, at the expense of not having the CPU power to transcode.

So when I recently started looking at Plex again, imagine my delight when I found they now have the ability to set “Direct Play”.

Image of Chris Farley as Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker, dancing excitedly.

So it took a little bit to arrange it, but in testing the Plex app on the Apple TV, I’ve since been able to set Direct Play for my content, and so far, it’s working pretty well!

As mentioned, I’m happy to prepare any 4K files to meet Plex’s format requirements ahead of time, when it comes to it. Presently, most 1080P media is already delivered in a compatible format by video providers as it is, and this is a good thing. This allows me to keep my network share with organized media files, and still continue to play it with either Infuse or Plex. Keeping Infuse going on the Apple TV is good for us, because it doesn’t disrupt any existing behaviours surrounding media playback. Setting up Plex allows me to take advantage of media playback on my (soon to be purchased) “new” TV, without requiring any additional hardware to be purchased.

So far it looks like a win-win situation. Coming up next in Part 2 of this saga, what using Plex means for Home Automation.

Stay tuned.