How to Build a Budget Plex Media Server

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Plex is a great tool for those who want to stream the content they own on a variety of devices from different locations: be it a smartphone, a tablet, or a smart TV, Plex allows users to access their content in the same way they stream movies from Netflix or listen to music on Spotify.

However, unlocking the true potential of Plex requires a dedicated server, and building a server can be complicated, to say the least.

For many of us DIY’ers, the temptation is to go all out and build a server capable streaming thousands of movies to everyone in your neighborhood—but unless you have unlimited data and an unlimited budget, building a massive Plex server like this is unrealistic.

To use Plex, you don’t need an exorbitant amount of horsepower, and in many cases, people can get away with using a simple Raspberry Pi for their Plex server and end up perfectly happy with it.

This article will cover everything you need to know for building a budget Plex server so that you can watch all your movies without ever having to get up from the couch. Furthermore, this guide will also teach you how to stream your media from a remote location, which is perfect for those who travel and don’t want to use local storage for movies and music.

What is Plex?

Plex is an application that allows you to set up your own media streaming server. In the simplest terms, Plex lets you create your own “Netflix”, with the only caveat being, that, if you want to watch something, you’ll have to put it on the server.

This does mean that you’ll have to buy your content, be it digital or on a disc format; however, most of us already have a nice collection of DVDs and Blu-rays to start a server with, and by using Plex, those movies, TV shows, and personal recordings can be streamed to your smart TV or to any mobile device capable of running the Plex client.

Why Use Plex?

Netflix changed the game when it came to movie watching: no longer did we need to go to Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, Redbox, or dig through a giant tote of totally legitimate DVDs at the swap meet to find the movies we wanted to see.

Granted, Netflix didn’t have everything, but it had a lot and its library was always growing. However, flash forward today and streaming services are popping up all over the place.

In 2019, we now have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube Movies, and more—lots more. If that wasn’t enough, Disney is launching its streaming service on November 12th, 2019.

While having options is great, having this many options is kind of a nightmare. Why?

Well, consider the divide that now exists between Netflix and Disney’s new streaming service. For the longest time, Netflix users were able to watch movies from the MCU, but these movies are Disney productions and will only be available on Disney’s platform once it launches. So, if you already have a Netflix account, you’ll have to sign up for Disney’s service if you want to watch any of the Avengers movies, which is another $7 atop of what you’re already paying for Netflix.

While $7 doesn’t seem like a lot, we live in the age of subscription services, and many Americans are losing track of what they’ve signed up for. In fact, reports show that some individuals waste as much as $347.81 on streaming services that they’re not using, and the situation is only going to get worse as time goes on. [i]

With Plex, users never have to worry about certain movies or TV shows disappearing from their libraries because the content on the server is their content. Although the initial cost to set up a Plex server may be more expensive than signing up for a subscription, the long term cost savings of using Plex far outweigh the monthly subscription fees required by modern streaming services.

With Plex, you’re only paying for what you want on the server, and once you have paid for it, it’s yours forever.

Setting Up a Plex Server

Installing the Plex server is incredibly simple—so if you already have a machine ready to go, please check out Plex’s Official Quick Start Guide.

Cheap Plex Server Build

Building a budget Plex server is easy so long as we keep our expectations in check. Indeed, if you have an intensive use-case in mind, like sharing the server with all of your friends and family, then the budget-focused components recommended in this article probably aren’t going to cut it.

However, the tips in this article are more than adequate for building a server that can handle direct play streams and perhaps 1-3 simultaneous transcodes.  We also don’t want to build ourselves into a box that we can’t easily upgrade; therefore, this guide is meant for those wanting to build a budget Plex server from scratch, but who may want to upgrade their storage capacity, memory, or processor somewhere down the line.

For our specific product and component recommendations, please refer to the following list:

Please also note that there are other budget-friendly options for Plex that don’t require building a brand new PC that are detailed further down below.  

So, let’s get started with our how to make a Plex server guide!

Picking Your CPU & Motherboard

The CPU is the most important component of your new budget Plex server, so we must pick the right one.

Even though this is a budget-focused build, we can’t stress the following point enough: if you can afford it, try to splurge on the CPU, as a more powerful CPU will provide more longevity compared to a less powerful CPU.

For example, the AMD Ryzen 3 2200G processor can be bought for about $79.99, which is more than enough power for handling 3 simultaneous transcodes.

Speaking of transcodes, we might as well discuss that for a moment. A transcode is when the Plex server alters the resolution of the media so that it can be more easily streamed. For example, if the original quality of your movie is 1080p, Plex can transcodes the media down to 720p or even 480p. Although transcoding helps remote users stream on slower internet connections, it also puts a significant amount of stress on the CPU.

As a general rule of thumb, you’ll need about 2,000 points in Passmark’s CPU score per transcode. Therefore, if 4 individuals want to stream content from your server, the server’s CPU will need a Passmark score of at least 8,000 points.

The AMD Ryzen 3 scores 7,316, so 3 simultaneous transcodes won’t be a problem, but anything more will likely overload the server, resulting in laggy playback.

As an added bonus, this CPU also has integrated Vega 8 graphics, so there’s no need to worry about buying a graphics card just for the privilege of hooking up a monitor to your server.

For the motherboard, we recommend the MSI B450M Gaming Plus. This micro-atx motherboard has plenty of expandability for future upgrades, including up to 32 GB of memory, 1 PCI-E X16 slot for graphics, 2 PCI-E X1 for SATA expansion, and even an M.2 slot for SSDs.

Memory

Plex servers don’t require an inordinate amount of memory to run, and Plex recommends at least 2 GB to get started.

Therefore, we recommend Kington’s HyperX Fury 2400 MHz 4GB, which can be had for as little as $20.99.

Hard Drives

Hard drives are critical components for all Plex servers, as they will house not only your operating system but all of your Plex media files as well.

For our budget build, we recommend the Western Digital 4TB Elements USB 3.0 desktop hard drive. At this point, you might be thinking: wait, why an external hard drive?

As it turns out, this external storage solution contains a regular old 3.5 internal HDD; it just happens to be wrapped in a plastic enclosure, and instead of SATA, it uses USB to transfer files to and from the HDD.

And while you can certainly use this drive as an external storage solution, we feel that it makes more sense to remove the HDD from this enclosure and install it as a SATA HDD inside your Plex server. This process, known as “shucking”, will save you tons of money, as an equivalent WD Red 4TB drive is far more expensive.

Why the price discrepancy? For starters, the regular Red 4TB drive has a 3-year warranty compared to the external drives 2-year warranty, but besides that, there’s no functional difference. And while $10 might not seem like much of a price savings, take a look at the price difference between an 8 TB Elements and a standard 8 TB Red Drive. That’s right, there’s an $80 difference between these two nearly identical drives!

If you’re serious about putting together a Plex server, you’re going to want to know how to shuck drives from enclosures like the Elements, and what’s more, how to mod them to be compatible with your server.

Unfortunately, shucked drives aren’t always compatible with most power supplies and will require a simple mod—but don’t worry, it’s super easy!

First, let’s learn how to shuck.

How to Shuck

Shucking drives from an enclosure like the Elements is simple, and to get started, all you’ll need are a few tools.

First, the plastic enclosure around the HDD is held in place by a few plastic clips, and to access them, you’ll need a plastic wedge of some sort, typically one that is used for accessing computer parts like this simple Tool Pry Bar Kit on Amazon.

Additionally, a simple flat-head screwdriver will work as well, but be warned: to cash in on the manufacturer’s warranty in case a shucked drive fails, you’ll need to be able to put the enclosure back together—so we definitely recommend that beginners use a plastic tool that won’t scratch or break the enclosure.

Then, use the plastic wedge to gently separate the enclosure from the center—you’ll find the clips at each end (4 in total). Once the clips are separate from the HDD’s plastic housing, you’ll need something to keep the clips separated, like an old credit card for example. And once all 4 clips have been detached, you should be able to slide the center of the enclosure out from its plastic housing.

Once this is accomplished, all you need to do is remove a single screw holding the internal HDD in place and bada-bing bada-boom, you have yourself a brand new 3.5 inch HDD!

Modding Your New HDD

Due to power supply compatibility, you’ll need to cover the 3.3v pin on your new HDD. For a quick visual guide, please check out the following link: https://imgur.com/a/BFdmB

While this guide uses duct tape to cover the 3.3v pin, we recommending using Kapton Tape, as it’s ideal for heat-intensive applications and it won’t leave a sticky residue if you ever choose to remove it.

In addition, the tape linked above is pre-cut to the perfect width, so all you need to do is cut the length you want and apply!

Once this mod has been completed, this HDD can be installed like any other HDD (you’ll need a SATA cable if you don’t have one lying around).

Power Supply

For a power supply, we recommend buying a PSU that has at least an 80 Plus Gold Rating. While an 80 Plus Gold rated PSU will cost more, we feel that the added security of quality components is worth the price. Additionally, it’s possible to get refurbished or renewed units on Amazon for a great price.

For example, check out the Corsair RM550x. For $39.99, you get a fully modular Gold Rated power supply capable of providing more than enough power for a Plex server. For a little more, there’s also the Apevia ATX PR 600W.

Blu-Ray Reader

If you’re planning on converting your physical media into digital, you’ll need a Blu-Ray drive like the LG Super Multi Blue Internal SATA Rewriter.

However, if you don’t plan on converting your physical media to digital, this step can be skipped.

PC Case

Keeping expandability in mind, we like the Thermaltake Versa H22 ATX mid-tower computer chassis. This computer case is compatible with both micro and standard ATX motherboards and can support up to 6 3.5’’ HDDs.

Please note that to install 6 HDDs into this case, you’ll need an adapter that converts the 5.25’’ drive bays to 3.5’’.

Additionally, this computer case has enough room for 3 2.5’’ drives that are perfect for SSDs.

After buying a computer case, you’re pretty much done!

Total price: $350-$400

Not bad if you ask us, especially since these components offer plenty of room for upgradability, in addition to enough horsepower to provide 3 simultaneous streams.

Other Methods for Running Plex

Besides building a Plex server from scratch, there are other cost-effective methods for obtaining an in-home Plex server.

Using an Old Laptop or Desktop Computer

The cheapest way to build a Plex server is to not build one at all, and instead, use an old laptop or desktop computer. If you only have one main computer, you can still use it for Plex; however, you may experience some performance loss while Plex is running as it will require some CPU overhead.

The overhead required to run a Plex server isn’t much, especially if all you require is direct streaming. However, if you plan on using your Plex server to stream media from a remote location, or if you plan on letting your friends and family have access to the server, you’ll need a more powerful computer—especially if the computer will be in use while Plex is running.

If you have a laptop or desktop computer that meets these requirements, congratulations—you just saved yourself some money!

However, there are some drawbacks to using an old computer, especially an old laptop.

First, most laptops can’t be upgraded, so if your Plex server needs a revamp, you won’t be able to simply upgrade the CPU, and in many cases, the memory (RAM).

Additionally, movies and TV shows can take up a lot of hard drive space, especially if you don’t plan on encoding to a smaller size and want to instead maintain your media’s original quality. In fact, some 4k Blu-ray discs can consume as much as 80 GB of storage!

And while most laptops come equipped with 256-512 GB hard drives, some of this space is likely to be used by existing files, applications, and the operating system itself.

This isn’t to say that you can’t expand storage; on the contrary, plenty of Plex servers are composed of several USB drives or external HDDs (like the Elements) plugged into a USB hub—it’s just not as convenient as adding a 3.5 inch internal HDD drive into a PC enclosure.

Using a Streaming Device

Some streaming devices, like the Nvidia Shield, make for a pretty capable Plex server.  This device features two USB 3.0 ports and can recognize external HDDs like the Elements mentioned earlier.

In addition to supporting external HDDs over USB, the Nvidia Shield is also able to recognize USB hubs, making room for tons of storage expandability.

Although it’s not the cheapest Plex client, the Nvidia Shield is powerful enough to handle 3-4 transcodes, making it one of the most versatile devices on the market!

Buy a Used/Refurbished Computer

The next easiest solution for obtaining a cheap Plex media server is buying a refurbished desktop computer, like the Dell OptiPlex 7010 SFF Desktop PC.

This computer comes with a 3.2 GHz Intel Core i5, 8GB of memory, and a 250 GB HDD spinning at 7200 RPM. And at $162.89, it’s an incredible value for what you’re getting.

While it’s tempting to simply go this route, there are some caveats to be aware of: first, this computer doesn’t offer a lot in the way of upgradeability (only 1 internal 3.5’’ HDD slot), and second, even though this product is backed by Amazon’s 90-day guarantee, there’s a chance that something might go wrong after this warranty period has ended.

That being said, many Plex enthusiasts do choose to use this option, and are pretty happy about the cost-savings!

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[i] https://www.gobankingrates.com/saving-money/budgeting/americans-waste-subscription-services-survey/

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