With a little time, a few bucks and some command line fun you can build your own home media server. This tutorial will walk you through how to install Plex on a Raspberry Pi and get your music and movies streaming.
We’ll start with a quick overview for people who are new to Plex and Raspberry Pi. Use the Table of Contents to jump forward if that’s old news to you. The preparation section will explain what hardware and software you need to have ready. Then we’ll jump into the process of setting up the Raspberry Pi and then Plex. Once you install Plex on a Raspberry Pi, you can stream media to devices throughout your home.
Sound like a plan? Let’s get started!
What You Need to Know
You only need some basic background to understand the benefits you’ll get when you install Plex on a Raspberry Pi.
Plex calls itself the “mission control for your personal media collections”. The free software scans and organizes all of your music, video, and photos so you can stream from anywhere on your home network.
With a premium subscription, Plex gives you a range of extra features from custom music mixes to photo albums to parental controls. You can even take free, over-the-air broadcasts from your local station and stream it to your tablet, laptop, or connected TV.
Raspberry Pi is a computer the size of a credit card. Originally, Raspberry Pi was designed to teach kids how to program, but its small size and flexibility makes it perfect for Plex.
Raspberry Pi’s Linux-based computer runs off of an SD card and it has the same kind of ARM-based processor used in smartphones. All you have to do is connect a keyboard, mouse, and monitor and you have a computer that can be a full-featured desktop or anything else your coding skills can turn it in to.
What makes the Raspberry Pi revolutionary is its combination of price and performance. The most powerful version, the Raspberry Pi 3, retails for $35 – but you can get a Raspberry Pi Zero for just $5. Hobbyists around the world soon figured out that the low-cost computer could add fantastic new features to projects like robotics, art installations, and digital fashion.
Why install Plex on a Raspberry Pi?
The combination of Plex and Raspberry Pi offers excellent flexibility compared to name brand solutions. With Plex on Pi, you can control your home media without extra fees. As your household grows and your media libraries change, you can customize Plex and the Raspberry Pi to change right along with it.
Another nice thing is that since the Raspberry Pi was designed for kids, it’s pretty easy to install Plex on a Raspberry Pi. Read on to see how straightforward the installation is.
It shouldn’t take much time for you to install Plex on a Raspberry Pi – as long as you’ve prepared ahead of time. Make sure you get these steps out of the way first so you’re ready to go.
In some ways a Raspberry Pi is just like any other computer. If you’ve bought a computer in the past, you probably have most of the hardware you’ll need.
Raspberry Pi 2 or 3
Raspberry Pi 1 isn’t fast enough for Plex. Only the Raspberry Pi 2 and Raspberry Pi 3 have processors that are powerful enough.
We recommend Raspberry Pi 3. It has a more powerful processor and built-in Wi-Fi which makes it a better option in the long run. And since it is the same price as a Raspberry 2, the decision is pretty easy.
Much of the remaining hardware you need to run Plex is straightforward.
- Keyboard. You will need a USB keyboard and mouse for data entry and a HDMI monitor so you can see what you’re doing.
- Storage device. You also need some type of storage device– either a microSD card or a USB hard drive.
- Note: USB hard drives hold more data compared to microSD cards. But if you do use a microSD card for data storage, the card needs to be at least 8GB. You may want to use a bigger microSD Card to hold more media files.
- Power supply. The last piece of kit you’ll need is a 2.5A power supply for your Raspberry Pi 3.
If you don’t have all of supplies mentioned above in your box of old electronics, then here are some links to inexpensive options:
- Monoprice K11 Keyboard
- Monoprice Streak 3-Button Optical Mouse
- Monoprice 27-Inch Select Monitor
- SanDisk Ultra 32GB microSDHC UHC-I Card
This section doesn’t need a lot of explanation, but there are a few quirks in the process that you should be aware of.
Raspbian is the operating system that drives the Raspberry Pi. Basically, Raspbian is a version of the Linux distribution Debian adapted to run on the Raspberry Pi’s ARM processor.
The easiest way to get the right version of Raspbian is to download the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s installation manager, New Out Of Box Software (NOOBS). More advanced users can go to the Raspbian site for other ways to install it.
Before you install Raspbian with NOOBS, be sure to reformat your microSD card using the FAT filesystem. Be aware that cards larger than 32GB use a different kind of file system that Raspbian can’t read so you must reformat them into the FAT file system. Linux and Mac OS computers can do that with the built in disk utilities, but if you use Windows, you may want to use the SD Card Association’s free formatter tool.
Once you’ve finished formatting, transfer the files inside the NOOBS zip file to the microSD card’s root directory and you’re ready to run the NOOBS installer.
Register with Plex
The only thing you need to do at this point is to create a Plex account. Most of Plex’s features are free, but the company requires an account before it will let you use the software. Go ahead and register on the Plex website– but don’t download anything.
Why not download Plex?
The software that Plex distributes from its own site runs on Windows, Mac OS, or Linux PC operating systems. It isn’t written to run on the ARM processors Raspberry Pi uses.
Fortunately, one member of the Plex community, Jan Friedrich, decided that the Plex Media Server needed to run on Raspberry Pi. He ported the software himself and offered it to the world as a free download.
- Note: Scroll down for a step-by-step guide to installing and configuring Friedrich’s version of Raspbian.
Is a premium subscription worth it?
The free software will handle all of the basics when it comes to organizing and streaming your personal media files. The premium Plex Pass subscription unlocks a richer set of features that give you more sophisticated playlists, sync libraries with mobile devices, set parental controls, the ability (with extra hardware) to record live TV, and more.
You can review the full set of features on the Plex Pass page and decide whether they are worth the $4.99 monthly subscription.
Set Up a Raspberry Pi
Now we get into the heart of the action and start setting things up to install Plex on a Raspberry Pi. First, we have to get Raspbian working and ready to connect.
Install and update Raspbian
Insert the microSD card into the Raspberry Pi and connect the other hardware, finishing with the power supply. The Raspberry Pi will boot up to its desktop environment. When it finishes, click on the task bar’s black and blue box to open the command line. (If you’ve used Linux before, you can set Raspbian to boot to the terminal rather than the desktop)
You want to make sure you have the absolute latest versions of the operating system and software to avoid any glitches during the setup process. Type in the following commands:
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade
Once Raspbian finishes updating, move on the next step.
Install HTTPS transport
Now we need to make sure Raspbian is set to use the HTTPS transport package:
sudo apt-get install apt-transport-https
If it isn’t already there, this command will start the installation process. Otherwise, you’ll get a message saying it’s already there.
Install Plex on a Raspberry Pi
Getting Plex set up is straightforward. We just tell Raspbian where to look for the ARM version of Plex Media Server, take care of some housekeeping, and start it up.
First, we need to point Raspbian to the dev2day repository where the Plex Media Server is kept. We start that by getting a secure key for the site:
wget -O - https://dev2day.de/pms/dev2day-pms.gpg.key | sudo apt-key add -
Then we give Raspbian the directions to loading the Plex package:
echo "deb https://dev2day.de/pms/ jessie main" | sudo tee /etc/apt/sources.list.d/pms.list
Next, issue the command to update the Raspbian’s list of software:
sudo apt-get update
And finally, tell Raspbian to update:
sudo apt-get install -t jessie plexmediaserver
We need to take care of a few things before opening up Raspberry Pi. First, we need to change the user to avoid being prompted for passwords all the time.
Open the Plex Media Server configuration file by entering the following command:
sudo nano /etc/default/plexmediaserver
You’ll see a long list of text flow by. Find the line that says PLEX_MEDIA_SERVER_USER and change it to read:
Now we need to give Plex a permanent address on your home network. That way each device running a Plex app on your network can automatically connect to the Plex Media Server. Type the following command to get the Raspberry Pi’s IP address:
Write down the IP address (you’ll need it handy when you connect your other devices). Now open the command line text file by entering this command:
sudo nano /boot/cmdline.txt
Type the following at the bottom of the file but with your IP address
Exit and save the command line file by typing CTRL-X, Y, and then Enter.
Plex first launch
Reboot your Raspberry Pi to make sure all of your changes go into effect.
Open the browser on your laptop or desktop and enter the IP address followed by :32400/web/. It ought to look something like this:
You’ll have to go through the typical new account sign in process before you get into the Plex web app. Things will look a little sparse until you add your libraries. Select the media, find the hard drive, and select the folders to add.
Stream Media Throughout the House
At this point, the Plex Media Server will start scanning the hard drive and indexing the content it finds. If you have terabytes of audio and video files, it could take hours to completely finish. So now would be a good time to start getting the Plex app onto all of your digital devices.
Plex supports tablets and smartphones running iOS, Windows Phone, and Android (including Amazon Fire). Subscribers to Plex Pass can set the app to sync files to your mobile devices for those times when you’re not connected to the server.
If you’re an Android user, you’ll be able to control playback through Chromecast and use Google Now to search for Plex content.
Not all home entertainment devices play well with media servers. (I’m looking at you, Apple TV.) The Plex app will ensure that your media library, playlists, and other features get the full big screen treatment.
Adding a Plex skill to the Amazon Echo, for example, lets you ask Alexa to play specific videos or suggest something to listen to. If you really feel like it, you can ask Alexa to “throw down some phat beats”.
Game consoles and smart TVs
Install the Plex app from the app store on your game console or smart TV and take advantage of your hardware’s unique combination of features. Xbox One owners, for example, can use Xbox Kinect and Smart Glass to navigate the Plex interface and control media playback
Personal computers and home theater PCs
Linux and Mac OS users will find the Plex web app delivers a rich experience with an easily navigated dashboard and smart search functions. Since Plex decided to support Windows Phone, its Universal Windows app delivers a similarly rich desktop experience that supports touch.
Plex has an add-on for Kodi users that integrates Plex’s sophisticated home theater interface with Kodi’s powerful customization. Just keep in mind that several features, especially Plex Pass features, are not supported in the Kodi add-on.
This tutorial gets you set up with the basics, but there’s a lot more you can do to customize your Raspberry Pi Plex Server. For one thing, you may not want a bare circuit board sitting in your living room. A quick search on Amazon will turn up hundreds of Raspberry Pi cases you can buy. Better yet, stick with the DIY approach and check out Instructables.
You can also dig into Plex for more advanced configuration options. Channel Plug-ins let you bring other sources of online content like YouTube and Vimeo into the Plex interface. Or you can set up remote access to stream your content when you’re away from home.
This flexibility is what makes installing Plex on a Raspberry Pi such a great option. It makes your home media server truly yours.
Chris Casper is a former tech industry product manager who escaped from California for New Mexico. Now he writes about science and tech while searching for the perfect green chile sauce.