What is Plex and how does it work?

Plex TV
(Image credit: Plex)

So, what is Plex anyway? It started as software for home theater PCs and has grown into a complete media management and streaming solution with a wide range of applications. 

At its heart, Plex is a way to organize and stream your own media. Think of it as running your own personal Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube servers from your home computer.

 How does Plex work?

One of the great things about Plex is how many devices it works on. First, you download Plex Media Server, which is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, and a range of network-attached storage devices. 

After installing the software and pointing it to the folders containing your movies, TV, music and photos, the server is ready for client apps to connect to it.

Next, download Plex apps for your devices, of which there are tons. Android, iOS, and browser apps are obvious first choices, but you can also use Plex on hundreds of other devices, including Alexa, Chromecast, PlayStation, and Smart TVs

Finally, browse through the Plex app’s interface to find the media that you want to stream from your computer, hit play, and your media will begin streaming. It's really very easy.

How much does Plex cost?

Great news...you can use Plex for free and even at this level it's a pretty useful tool. 

But if you're planning to use Plex frequently then you should consider its premium plan called Plex Pass. It costs $4.99 per month, and there’s a great-value lifetime plan that costs around $119.99. Other optional Plex features have a separate charge, such as high-quality streaming music from Tidal that starts at $9.99 a month.

The Plex Pass adds a few features, most notably the ability to sync media to your devices so you can watch them offline. This works more smartly than simply copying the media, as syncing will automatically convert any of your media into a format that your device can play.

You can also set options like the bitrate if you’d prefer your synced media to take up less room on your smartphone, for example. And we like that paying for the Plex Pass also unlocks live TV & DVR to watch and record over-the-air broadcasts.

Plex on a MacBook

(Image credit: Shutterstock/Plex)

How does Plex streaming work?

Plex’s streaming functionality is incredibly user friendly. Typically, all users need to do is press play, and the media will begin streaming from their computer to their app, browser or TV.

There are various settings for changing the quality of the stream, but Plex defaults to an auto setting that will stream the best quality available based on the connection speed.

For this to work, Plex often performs transcoding. This entails converting one type of media into another. For example, you might have a huge 35GB 4K copy of a movie on your computer and want to stream it to an Apple iPad Mini, which would struggle to play it because of its size. Plex will automatically convert the movie to a compatible format.

Can I use Plex for media management?

Drop your media files into the folders that Plex is monitoring, and it will automatically pull metadata from sites like IMDB, TMDB, and Fanart.tv. In the vast majority of cases, all your media will be categorized, sorted and tagged automatically, with posters and subtitles even added.

With the Plex Pass, you get extras such as movie trailers, behind-the-scenes clips, and interviews with cast members.

You can organize your media into virtual folders, create playlists, and use the powerful tagging and filtering options to find the media of most interest to you. Plex will keep track of what’s been watched by whom, so you can pick up where you left off on your favorite TV show when you get home from work. Or, you can stream it to your phone on your commute.

What is Plex...? In brief

Plex is probably the most comprehensive personal media management and streaming system available today. You can use it to create your own version of Netflix that streams from your home computer.

While competitor Emby snaps at Plex’s heels for market share, Plex offers support for the widest range of devices, and the transcoding engine works flawlessly. 

If you have an extensive collection of media files on your computer, Plex is a fantastic way to organize and stream your content to other devices in your home and across the internet. You can give Plex logins to your friends and family, so they can browse and watch your media too.

Overall, Plex is an outstanding choice for anyone who wants to manage and stream the movies, TV, music, and photos that are on their computer.

  • Plex review: "...a great tool for building an easy-to-stream media library..."
Richard Sutherland

Richard brings over 20 years of website development, SEO, and marketing to the table. A graduate in Computer Science, Richard has lectured in Java programming and has built software for companies including Samsung and ASDA. Now, he writes for TechRadar, Tom's Guide, PC Gamer, and Creative Bloq.