Back in April, I wrote about our decision to update our antiquated home media setup with a Roku box and Plex software, among other pieces. The motivation was simple. As non-cable subscribers, we were looking to bring our multimedia setup into the 21st century. And with Plex specifically, we wanted to hedge against the varying variability of NetFlix titles as well as our own problematic bandwidth (the downside of living on an island). Thus, sogflix – our local NetFlix equivalent – was born.
After seeing it in action, a few people have asked how it’s done. So here’s what you need to know to duplicate it in your own home. All Amazon links are affiliate links, FYI.
Here’s what I’d use to make it all work. Note that this list was updated in January 2018 to account for discontinued hardware and cheaper, larger capacity drives.
- Handbrake (free)
- Plex Media Server software (free)
- Plex Media Server hardware (can be any Linux, Mac or PC hardware with the exception of the Apple TV)
- Roku (Premiere, recommended b/c of its ethernet port – $65.69)
- Storage Unit (RAID configured)
- Ethernet cable
- HDMI cable ($2.50 @ Monoprice)
Convert Your Media
The first step in building a digital library is, of course, digitizing the library. This is the most tedious and time consuming part of the process, depending on the hardware you have available. My workstation will convert a movie in about twenty minutes; my Thinkpad takes closer to two hours. It’s fairly easy to run as a background process, however, converting media while you work on more interesting subjects.
With the caveat that you should only convert movies that you are legally entitled to – consult your local laws – the simplest way to do this is via Handbrake. After a great deal of experimentation and help from a few Plex employees, I’ve come up with settings that Plex is able to serve and Roku is able to display. For the long version, see the site here. The short version for me is starting from the Handbrake defaults and doing the following:
- Open picture settings and
- Turn Anamorphic from “Strict” to “Off”
- Set the Decomb filter to “Default.”
- Make sure the framerate and video quality are set to constant, and set the latter to 17.
- Use the following naming conventions:
- Movies: Title (Year).*
- TV: Show Title – s##e##.*
The output from this will be movies of somewhere between 1 to 3 GB per, depending on length. Just as an MP3 is a lossy copy of the original, the quality is almost certainly a compromise. I’m not able to tell the digital copy from the original DVD, however, so that seems sufficient.
- Audio / Visual:
Initially, I was content to use the analog audio/visual patch cable from the Roku to the TV. This is a workable solution if your TV is not HDMI capable. Upgrading to an HDMI cable, however, at a cost of $2.50 from Monoprice yielded immediate improvements in both formatting (menus fit the screen perfectly) and video quality (Plex movies were substantially improved).
If you have a pure 802.11n networking setup, you may be able to avoid hardwiring. In my case, my Mac Mini was old enough that its networking was 802.11g which proved to be insufficient, causing local movies to buffer as if they were being streamed. The solution in my case was connecting both the Mac Mini and the Roku physically to the access point (which in my case is actually the fourth in a chain of dd-wrt formatted WRT-310N Linksys routers). Once connected by ethernet cable, video loaded in a few seconds and required no buffering.
For non-technical users, set up of the Synology unit may be moderately challenging, but it’s manageable. Those reasonably familiar with storage should have no difficulty, with that the caveat that install media is packaged for Mac and Windows only. Install the hard drives into the chassis as intructed – you’ll need a screwdriver – and then follow the instructions on the software to install the base image on to the Synology, and format the drives. Once set up is complete, create separate directories for Movies and TV. I do not recommend music if you have a large collection (> 10K tracks). Plex struggled to add metadata for my music and performance suffered.
With movies converted and the storage media prepared, copy the remaining movies to the media using the fastest mechanism possible. The DS212 supports USB 3.0, notably. Movies can all be located in the same directory. For TV, you’ll need to use a [Show Title] [Season #] directory structure, where  designates a directory.
Install the Plex Media Server, available for download here for Linux, Mac and Windows. Once installed, run Plex and select the Media Manger. Within the Media Manager UI, create Movie and TV sections within Plex, pointing the sections at the directories you just created and populated with media. Before you click update to add metadata, you need to make one adjustment. To avoid Plex retrieving foreign movie posters for you media, click the “Metadata Agent Settings” at the top of the Plex Media Manager, then click “Freebase” under Movies. Drag MoviePosterDB to the top, then TheMovieDB behind it. Finally, click “Edit Section” at the bottom of the Media Manager and select “Freebase” as your primary metadata agent.
Then click update and Plex will retrieve a wealth of metadata – movie posters, actors, directors, genre, descriptions and more – for your video. Assuming it’s in one of the databases, of course.
Within Roku, add the Plex Channel. If your Plex Media server is running and on the same network as the Roku, it should autodiscover your server and you’re done: Plex Media will now be playable through your Roku. Enjoy! You now have your own personal Netflix.