Plex Media Server is glossy but shallow

plex-picBefore I talk about Plex, I’ll tell you what led me to look at it.

I listened some time ago to one of the excellent Alive 90.5 podcasts by Peter Fowler in which he touched on Google’s Chromecast. It sounded rather interesting. Then in another podcast on November 13, Peter talked about a product called Plex and how it works with Chromecast. Sounded even more interesting.

So a few days ago we acquired a Chromecast device to use on our un-smart bedroom TV. Using Chromecast-enabled apps, Chromecast will stream video, music and photos to the TV. For example, with ABC’s iView, we can now catch up with missed programs in the late-night comfort of our bedroom, instead of huddling around the PC.

All that leads into my experience so far with Plex. As their web site says:

Plex is a centralized home media playback system with a powerful central server–the Plex Media Server–that streams its media to many Plex player Apps. The Server is available on many platforms like Windows, OS X, and many flavors of Linux, as well as many NAS devices like ReadyNAS or Synology.

What this means in non-technical terms is that if you have all your music, home videos, movies and photos on a computer or server somewhere in your home, then you can watch them on other computers in your home, provided they are all on the home Wi-Fi.

For example, if your Plex server software is running on the desktop computer in the study, you can watch movies on a laptop on the back patio or a smart phone in the bedroom.

As I’ve already mentioned, Plex also supports Chromecast, so not only can we catch up on missed ABC programs in bed, we can also watch all our home videos and photos as we doze off at night.

Most of the Plex software is free. The server is free, the software you run on your notebooks and other computers to access the server is free. Only the software for your tablet, or phone costs, and that’s only AU$2.31. There are some other gold-plated options if you want to spend more, but most people will not need to.

Initial impressions were positive. It looks great, finds all sorts of good artwork and information about your videos and music, and streams to our bedroom TV easily over Wi-Fi using Chromecast.

I also have an old netbook connected to the amplifier in the sitting room, so I can play all our music there.

However I’m increasingly finding there is not much depth under the gloss when it comes to serious music and photo support.

Here’s an example…

It’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas, to mangle that well known song. So I thought I’d set up a Christmas music playlist. The obvious place to start is by looking at music with the genre of Christmas. In my collection I have 502 tracks with the genre of Christmas.

Before I go any further I have to get a bit technical. All music you purchase online, and any music you rip carefully from your own CD collection, will have information attached to it about the music. For example, it will have the artist name, the title of the track, the genre, album name and so on. This information is actually inside the file, so it doesn’t matter what file name you use, this important information is locked up inside the file. It’s called metadata. In the case of MP3 files it’s held in what are often called MP3 tags. The vast majority of my music is in MP3 format.

So I expected Plex to find all 502 Christmas tracks.

It didn’t. In fact it found just 14 tracks, only one of which was actually a Christmas track.

So I then looked at my folk music. I have an extensive collection of Australian, British, Canadian and others, all carefully catalogued with MP3 genre tags such as Folk – Australian, Folk – Canada, Folk – Irish and so on. But none of this shows in Plex. It has somehow found genres that do not relate in any way to my MP3 genre tags.

Plex does have the generic genre Folk though. When I create a Plex playlist containing tracks with the genre of Folk I find it has 2,749 tracks. This does approximate the number of tracks I have with the string ‘folk’ in the genre (3,088). But if I want to play just Australian folk I can’t.

OK, I can work around this, I thought. I’ll just import a playlist from my primary music manager, MediaMonkey.  But all I can find is an Import From ITunes, and I don’t use ITunes. So I resort to Google. I searched for how to import a playlist file into Plex, and found lots of people like me, confused and disappointed. Seems like even the ITunes playlist import doesn’t work properly.

Then I turned to photos. Again I was disappointed. Photo files have metadata stored in them as well. You’ll find stuff like date and time taken (time-stamp), camera information (make, model, lens setting, aperture, f-stop), any description you add, GPS coordinates and lots more. To me the most important is description and time-stamp. I add description to most of the photos I keep.

Does Plex show any of this? Yes, some. If you look at the Info link for a photo, you’ll find some camera info but nothing else! The important time-stamp and description are missing.

You can navigate through your photos by the folder they are contained in, and go to the next or previous photo, but you can’t search the metadata.

You can start a slideshow, but curiously you can’t change the slide duration.

It seems when Plex claims to be a media manager it is really a video and movie manager. When it comes to music and photos it is quite rudimentary.

Hopefully over time Plex will evolve into a more comprehensively featured product. I’ll stick with it for movies and videos, and look for something else that will Chromecast my music and photos.

Suggestions are welcome. Please comment below.

For more on Plex visit https://plex.tv/

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