How I Rebuilt Our Entertainment System Using Plex and Roku

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Update: For specific implementation details including recommended hardware and costs, see the follow up post here.

Neither my wife nor myself had cable when we met, and even as a couple we never bothered to subscribe. It’s not really a question of content, exactly: there are several shows she watches regularly, and I’d love to have Red Sox games in the house. It’s more the cost: we don’t really see the point of paying almost a hundred dollars a month for hundreds of channels we’ll never watch. We’re not alone, obviously: more and more people are cutting the cord every year. The downstream impact of this attrition will be interesting – and in the case of efforts to kill net neutrality, horrifying – to watch, because the carriers for us are what they refuse to be: a dumb pipe.

Up until this week, however, our multimedia experience was terrible, especially for a household with one member whose employment description includes “technology analyst.” Aside from watching Amazon or Netflix videos on our laptops, we had an old Mac Mini connected to my old Sharp Acquos 37″ TV. If we wanted to watch something together, then, we manually queued it up on the Mini via a browser, manually expanded the Flash or Silverlight player to full screen and then prayed we wouldn’t need to pause it for any reason. Because that meant getting up and using the mouse or keyboard to pause the video. Seriously. In 2012, we had no effective remote control.

Ridiculous, I know. But I fixed all of that this week. Here’s how.

Roku

The first decision to make was Apple TV or Roku (Boxee got no votes from my audience). Either would at a minimum return us to a world containing remote controls, but I had to determine which to get. In spite of the two Mac laptops, the Mac Mini and my wife’s iPhone, we don’t really consider ourselves an Apple household. But more importantly, the Apple TV wouldn’t connect to either Amazon Instant videos or HuluPlus, both of which we subscribe to. Which made the decision easy.

We bought a Roku XD – which will do 1080P HD, but not play games – at Amazon for about two dollars off the devices suggested $79 retail price. Setup was simple enough that I’m pretty sure that my parents could complete it without assistance. A little bigger than a hockey puck, the Roku was unobtrusive and offered us – finally – the ability to watch content from Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and so on without messing around with a keyboard and mouse. For the baseball fans in the audience, it supports MLB.tv, so you can watch any game except those that involve the home team (unless you get creative: think VPN). We’ve added other channels, like CNN and PBS, but for the most part we were watching our usual mix of Amazon, Hulu and Netflix.

By itself, the Roku was a massive improvement over our previous setup. But the inability to integrate music, movies and TV that we had on hand was unfortunate. Then I discovered that Plex had an official Roku channel.

Plex

For those unfamiliar with it, Plex is free to download software that serves as both media server and front end. At one point, I tried to go Plex only, approximating the Roku’s functionality, but using it with the Mac Mini’s little two button remote was tedious. Instead, we now leverage as a back end, just another content provider for our Roku front end.

First, I downloaded the Plex Media Server package, set it up on the Mini, pointing it at the local Dropbox maintained music repository and the Google Drive synced video directories. Then I added the Plex channel to the Roku, and had it discover the Plex Media Server running on the Mac Mini. In addition to serving it up, Plex reaches out and pulls down images, descriptions and category information for everything from film to TV. Five minutes later, I was watching a movie off the Mac Mini via the Roku. The net, then, is that the Roku can pull in all of the major content provider channels – as well as anything I happen to have on hand locally.

As an added bonus, Plex has an Android app ($4.99) that will let my Galaxy Nexus stream anything from my Plex Media Server. Like movies, for example:

In theory, I could access the content remotely as well, though our current network configuration isn’t really set up for that now. Crazy, no?

Issues

  • One technical limitation I’ve discovered thus far is that the Roku only speaks a couple of video formats natively, so there were some buffering-like pauses as Plex transcoded the video on the fly, but Handbrake should be able to convert the videos I have on hand (it’s actually what Roku recommends) to something Roku’s more comfortable with. If you have a lot of video, however, this may be less ideal.
  • The biggest problem with cutting the cord today is live sports. Think carefully about how much sports you watch, because that might decide you against going without cable. A few leagues like MLB are streaming their games today, but most are not. And even in cases where they are, like MLB, the blackout restrictions – intended to prevent people from doing what we do – are likely to be a problem. I’m fine with it because I have no problem listening to baseball on the radio, but your mileage may vary.
  • The Mac Mini’s wireless card is b/g, so wireless bandwidth does not appear right now to be a limiting factor. But depending on how much video we’re pushing around to different devices, we may have to upgrade our local network of WR54TG dd-wrt formatted access points and repeaters to 802.11n infrastructure, and get a new wireless card for the mini.
  • If we’re really going to do the local media thing correctly, we’ll probably need to get a few new terabyte or two terabyte hard drives (suggestions welcome) at some point for storage and backup. The media right now resides on a single Maxtor 250GB external drive, which I don’t trust.

The Net

In less than a week, our media setup went from circa 1975 to 2015-ish, I think. The Roku’s a more than capable media front end, and the Mac Mini – which otherwise is a terrible, slow machine – gets a new lease on life with its new role as a home media file server. We can now browse virtually every popular internet content source (with the exception of YouTube, which can be played via Plex) and virtually any local media quickly and efficiently via a remote, with playback very straightforward. Or as straightforward as streaming services get.

All of that, for $78 (Amazon shipped it for free), or what one month of cable with a premium channel might cost you. Sure, HuluPlus+, Netflix and so on aren’t free, but even combined they’re a hell of a lot cheaper than your average cable bill. The Roku/Plex experience is, frankly, what I expected Google TV to be, but with Logitech losing a $100 million on that business, its future is uncertain. In the meantime, however, the combination of Roku and Plex is both compelling and cheap. If you’re an Apple fan and don’t use Amazon or Hulu, the Apple TV is a good option, but for everyone else the Roku’s worth a shot.

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Comments

  1. onnokluyt says:

    And you can get good apps for iPhone and Android to act as the remote for the Roku box. I have both a Roku and an AppleTV and am building the courage to cut the cable. You say you have CNN via Roku? Besides live sports, live news is for me the other hurdle. The WatchESPN iPad app is pretty good as well.

  2. You have the piece that I am missing in the Apple TV. Currently I’m running Plex on an iMac that has 2TB of external storage connected. It’s less than ideal since it doesn’t work well over our current WiFi network.

    I’m going to be adding a synology NAS enclosure to replace the USB powered one. I think if the media drive is connected directly to the network as opposed to being at the end of a WiFi connected USB 2.0 connection the performance will probably be better.

    • Don,
      I too have Synology NAS, connected via Gigabit ethernet, works great. Plex Media Server runs on iMac with i5, and all my Roku’s are wired…

    • @AJ: it does indeed, but only on Synology hardware running on x86 chips. ARM gear like my 212 is unsupported.

      • bupkus says:

        my DS110j uses a Marvell Kirkwood mv6281 ARM processor using DSM 4.1-2647 and with a Plex server made available through the Package Center.

  3. MyPlex is zero configure remote access for your Android phone and your wife’s iPhone.

  4. James says:

    NetGear has Powerline Ethernet adapters that will give you 100MB over your AC outlet. They even have one specifically for home theater with a 4 port switch by the TV, game console, BluRay, Roku, etc. WiFi caused my 1080p stream to be choppy, the Powerline fixed it. Although they have a 1GB Powerline device, the 100MB is sufficient for 1080p streaming.

    My Samsung D6000 Internet TV (saved a bundle post Xmas sale at Sears) has a Plex App that will appear in the Samsung App store soon. I am running an early release with no problems. 2012 Samsung TV’s are not yet compatible. Music & Photo streaming doesn’t work yet. But the pending App store release will support 3D and *.srt subtitles soon.

    Plex works great on iPad/iPhone but remote feature doesn’t work with Samsung TV but the Samsung remote App works fine.

    Over the air Digital TV surprised me. Added an RCA antenna and immediately received 24 channels of local HD TV. This has been good for local sports and has bonus channels like RetroTV and Antenna TV that run old sitcoms that are fun to watch since they were film and therefore scale up to near HD quality. Hooked an HD TiVo up to record some stuff. You can grab the video from the TiVo, unlock the DRM (legally with your TiVo MAK key) and convert it from Mpeg2 to MP4 and drop the file into Plex. This was tedious until I found scripts to automate it. (Macs are Unix after all).

    Advantage to going MP4 is greater compatibility with iPad / Roku / etc. Plex supports MKV which is just a wrapper around H.264 MP4. So converting MKV to MP4 is quick.

  5. How does Plex handle fast-forwarding content from your Mac mini? I currently use PlayOn as a media server which works well. The only issue is that it cannot handle fast forwarding through content. It just endlessly buffers and eventually makes me start from the beginning.

  6. tep1997 says:

    Could you describe how you got Hulu working? I understand that Roku offers HuluPlus, but I can’t for the life of me get regular Hulu up and running. It loads all of my favorites and queue from MyHulu, but it won’t play anything. It gives error: “Could not read data from file.”
    Thanks.

  7. Don’t throw under the bus the GoogleTV box. I use a combination of GTV, Plex and Roku. For local channels OTA antenna or USTV Now, Aereo or FilmOn offer free streaming of local channels to both GTV and Roku. You can watch Hulu basic via Plex but it is a bit buggy. Plex on GTV works fine for your local media but not too good with the added Channels plugin scripts (Channels work great on Roku). Finally, to record I use a good old VCR because trying to copy directly to my DVD recorder couldn’t handle digital copy protection schemes. The one thing I miss from my former TV service is recording TV series and the having same day air-time availability. Through GTV I can watch most content available via Internet browser (Limitation/feature that Roku does not have) the rest via Roku and Plex. Certainly $16 per month for TV (Netflix and Hulu+) is way better than the $90 per month I was paying DirecTV. Through GTV and torrents you don’t really need Netflix and Hulu (if you want to go 100% free) as you can use those through GTV but I like the simplicity of click and play that Netflix and Hulu offer.

  8. I have a similar set up. I use a Roku and MacMini with plex and one added feature, xbmc. I like XBMC for viewing and cataloging my video music and picture. The only thing I would like to add is live tv. I can’t find a tv video card for my old MacMini. If I can find that, then I can just add an aentenna and view /record live tv.

  9. I run the site mkvXstream, and Roku seems to be a very popular option that many cable cutters are gravitating towards. With the addition of a Mac Mini and a HD HomeRun QAM tuner to record the free local networks in HD, this makes for a cable cutters dream setup. No more quarterly price hikes and complete control over your content equals pure media bliss.

  10. Zikka says:

    I have exactly this setup. With multiple Roku players in the Living room and bed rooms. We ‘cut the cord’ going on 3 years now and there’s no looking back for me. Plex is brilliant and the Roku makes it super friendly for non-techie users.

  11. Wayne says:

    I have had Roku for about a year now and love it. I also have a PS3 system, but Roku has it beat hands down for content. I installed the Plex plugin at the same time (while it was in beta) and used it as a link with my media PC running Plex Server. Though I am still discovering the power and versatility of Plex, I love the channel plugins that come with it. I was almost ready to drop HuluPlus due to my favorite shows being Web only using the Roku channel. Now by adding the channel to Plex, I can watch the Web only shows on my TV as it should be. It has been almost a year since I dropped cable; I won’t be going back anytime soon.

  12. I found the Roku tedious and the plex media center to be super easy. It’s so much harder navigate a large library on the Roku. I use the apple remote and if I need to type I have a small blue tooth hand keyboard.

  13. I don’t know how to add my MKV movies to my queue on myplex. It’s sitting over in my c drive h how do I get plex to play it on my tv (I have Roku)

Trackbacks

  1. [...] in April, I wrote about our decision to update our antiquated home media setup with a Roku box and Plex software, [...]

  2. [...] If you’re interested in Plex, here are two posts on how I built what we call sogflix – our local Netflix equivalent: “How to Build Your Own Personal Netflix” and “How I Rebuilt Our Entertainment System Using Plex and Roku.” [...]

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