Recently I’ve seen a large pickup in people looking for advice on what kind of hardware is best to use for a suitable plex server. Having been a Plex user for 7-8 years+ and a lifetime subscriber, I thought I’d share some setups that I’m currently using and have used over that time. I’ve used plex on a variety of devices ranging from a pi to a rack-mounted enterprise server and everything in between. The truth is it really will run on pretty much anything, so it’s just a matter of picking the right hardware for your needs.
Looking just to put your own collection of movies on to the network for direct play to the devices inside your home, you can get away with going with a less powerful device for sure. That being said, many have started off this route, but then find themselves giving access to brothers, sisters and parents, and before you know it, your little machine is getting overloaded. You’d be surprised how quickly “free Netflix” gets banded around the family! Therefore, it’s always a good idea to give yourself some headroom for a few more streams than you first originally thought.
If you’ve got a wide social circle and intend on sharing your collection with all of them, then you’re definitely going to need to start looking towards something more powerful. You’re probably going to want a dedicated graphics card or GPU to help with the streams. That’s not to say that onboard GPUs won’t do the job, but again it depends on the resolution you’re streaming and the quality of the stream. Thankfully Plex is nowhere near as resource heavy as gaming, so don’t think for a minute I’m going to be suggesting high end gaming graphics cards. You can get away with using much, much, cheaper graphics cards, but the question becomes can your chosen hardware take a GPU at all? That small form factor pc you bought certainly won’t. Nor will your QNAP or Synology.
Below I am going to run through a few options for a variety of setups and budgets. Am not affiliated with anyone, although some of the links below will be affiliate links. It helps to support the blog and in the event you purchase, it won’t cost you a thing. Do your won research, but hopefully by the end of this article you’ll have a better idea on some of the options available for you.
- Raspberry Pi
Believe it or not the latest Raspberry Pi 4 is more than powerful enough to run a plex media server with an additional drive attached. If you’re only looking for direct play (i.e. no transcoding just access straight over the network) then it should handle 1080p and 4K without issue. You could get a handful of streams out of it depending on the network connection (gigabit etc) and the size of the files. It’s not going to be able to transcode particularly well though, and so you’ll probably run into buffering issues relatively quickly if you try. That said, the new pi4 is a very low powered, economical but capable machine. Not to mention how portable it is. These make great travelling companions whilst on vacation (just remember your HDMI cable!).
- Nvidia Shield TV Pro
I absolutely love this device. I am still rocking the 2015 version, and even in 2020, it continues to perform like a champion. This will run Plex Media Server (PMS). All you need to do is plug in a formatted external drive and point the app to it as a storage location. As far as simplicity goes, this is about as good as it gets. You can interact with the drive remotely over the network so should you wish to add or remove media, you can just browse the share via your laptop or pc on the network (once configured). Not only do you now have a Plex server, but also one of the best HTPCs I’ve ever used, with all the apps you could ever need and the ability to sideload those that aren’t available initially. I also love the way the Nvidia Shield is controllable via Node-red and Home-Assistant for extra points (see here)!
- Small Form Factor PC
These have come a long way recently. You can get small form factor PCs in both intel, AMD and Arm variants now, with passive and active cooling options depending on the useage case. We have several NUCs in the family, as well a couple of Qotom boxes. The NUCs are ok (we have 5th and 6th gen variants) but they have a tendency to get hot and I feel you’re paying an “Intel premium” for them. If you’re specifically looking for a NUC be mindful there are normally two variants for most models. A normal slim line NUC and a NUC that is taller and usually denominated with H at the end of the model (high). The taller models allow you to fit an additional hard drive in them. I opted instead for a Qotom box on Aliexpress for use as a firewall and it’s just brilliant. Perfectly Silent, i5, 32gb SSD, 4GB Ram and 6 gigabit ports for less than the cost of a barebones NUC! You can read more about that here. Aliexpress is probably the best place to look for third party small form mini pcs. Again, don’t under spec the CPU. Whilst a Celeron or an i3 will no doubt handle High Definition content or even 4k locally played, if you need transcoding, or several streams to be sent out at the same time you might begin to struggle (depending on bitrate, especially with only integrated graphics). The ASRock 4×4 box might be a good contender, these have been recently released and will be rocking AMD’s 4000 series processors.
Here are some options to consider:
A couple of things to be mindful of when discussing these tiny HTPCs. Quite often they’ll have room for an msata drive and an SSD or traditional HDD. The maximum size HDD you can use is most likely going to be a 2.5” variant. Even traditional HDDs in this size are still relatively expensive. Don’t think you’re going to be able to drop in an 8 or 16TB variant into this, because drives of that size are currently 3.5” and won’t fit. This is a mark against these small form factor pcs. At present, the largest retail 2.5” drives I can find are 2TB (Western Digital) and 5TB (Seagate). That being said, prices are dropping all the time and by the time you read this, maybe the price of SSDs will have dropped enough that you might consider skipping traditional drives altogether for your mass storage.
- Ebay specials
Nowadays you can pick up some cracking deals on eBay. I myself picked up a Dell Optiplex USFF (Ultra Small Form Factor) with 16gb RAM, i5 8500T, 256GB SSD and a 1TB HDD for approximately £300. I use this as a remote server in the UK and it pairs nicely with my HD homerun (Amazon). The result is that no matter where I am in the world, I have live UK TV, with recording capabilities and a small server for recording to. It’s running Unraid, so it’s also performing other duties alongside my r720 (see the full list at the end of this article). I was aware that I wasn’t going to be able to fit large drives in here, and that there’s no additional GPU, so I was going to struggle with more than a handful of streams at once. This is my remote server, so it’s fine for my use.
If you’re looking at something with a little more expandability, then I like the normal sized Optiplex (small form factor). There’s room in there for an additional graphics card, or TV tuner. you can fit 3.5” drives and it’s relatively upgradeable should you wish to increase the memory, or swap out a processor. As these were mass made, parts are readily available and prices continue to drop.
If you’re a power user or looking for something that is totally overkill but still relatively light on the budget (initially), then you could look at picking up an ex enterprise server. These are undoubtedly the best bang for the buck in terms of initial outlay, but they come with some caveats. Unmodified, they can be loud, hot and not exactly energy efficient. That said, they are literally built to serve up content and they do it easily. For my main server, I picked up a Dell R720 on eBay a few years ago for just under £600. It has twin hex core Xeon processors, a Raid card, 48GB of Ram and I stuck in a low powered GPU and 8 3.5” drives in there. This thing can handle streams all day long. My whole circle of friends and family could sit there watching movies at the same time and this thing wouldn’t skip a beat. If you’re less concerned about the size of the machine or the power consumption, you’re unlikely to find better value. If this intrigues you do a quick search on eBay, look for Dell R710, R510, R420 etc. You’ll be surprised what you might come up with. My R720 is also running Unraid and lives in a rack closet in the garage. I am not saying this is the best way to go now, as computer performance has increased dramatically in the last 4-5 years but it can still be a decent option for the power user. Especially if power costs are relatively light where you live.
- Pre-built NAS
On the forums and in the facebook groups, I see a lot of love given for ready made NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices. The most popular recommebdations are QNAP and Synology. Others mentioned are WD, Buffalo and Drobo. These are my least favourite options which am sure will cause some flaming from existing users. We already have two Synology servers in the family, and in the past have owned WD and a Buffalo Terastation. For me the biggest hindrance here is the pricing levels. The entry level variants from QNAP and Synology are under powered for the price. The lower end Synology models didn’t even support Docker (my favourite method of running Plex). Meaning that you needed to run their version of the software which wasn’t always updated, or you needed to run a virtual machine which adds unnecessary overhead and consumes resources. The WD variant was very poor with extremely awkward software and continual access issues. My friend has a QNAP and I’m familiar with the interface. He actually paid up considerably and got one of their mid to high-range models, so the performance is more than adequate for a plex server, but for the price he paid, he could have essentially bought and built a custom mITX build complete with drives. Don’t get me wrong, QNAP and Synology make good products, it’s just on a cost comparison I find it very difficult to recommend. On the low end, you’re better going on eBay and finding something more capable. On the higher end, I’d be looking custom built so you have an upgrade path for the future. There’s a middle of the range sweet spot where it could possibly make sense, but then I’m just not a fan of the OS and still find it quite less user friendly. If all you want is storage on the network, then have at it. I guess I’m an enthusiast that likes to tinker. Both Synology and QNAP have an extensive range of servers so I’m not going to cover the whole range. I’ve shown below 2-bay variants from both, but you can equally get 4 bay and larger variants, budget permitting. For people that are looking for effectively a turn key product and don’t know how or want to set up a NAS, then these are probably the companies to go with.
- Custom Built
As I’ve alluded to in the previous section, once you start looking at mid-range and above QNAP and Synology stations, you might as well look at mITX builds too. For similar monies you can build yourself comparable machines which have infinitely more upgrade paths and the ability to be repurposed in the future. These PCs no longer have to be large and unsightly blocks stuck on the carpet next to you gathering dust. I’ve been running a gaming pc for the past 2 years based on a Ryzen 2700x, rtx 2080 in a Dan A4 v3 case (just 7 litres!). Would this be suitable for a NAS? No as the case doesn’t have the ability to house that much storage, I’d prefer to look at the Node 304 from Fractal Design. Then it’s a case of just picking your motherboard, memory and CPU. AMD prices are continuing to drop whilst their processors continue to increase in strength. You could even forego a GPU initially to see how you get on and add that at a later date should your transcoding needs begin to pick up. Not only is hardware choice and upgradeability better, but, just as with the Ebay and SFF variants, so is your choice of Operating system. Here is a good site to look at custom builds. https://uk.pcpartpicker.com/builds/#E=11,9,10&period=1y&sort=rating&page=1. I set the categories to look at mITX builds, as invariably these are smaller and less power hungry, but you can get a good idea of what other builds people are putting together along with pricing etc.
In terms of software, I’m a huge fan of Unraid and already have several servers running it. There are many other flavours of operating system you can use which are free and powerful. Some examples are listed below:
You also have Xpenology (Based on the Synology OS), not to mention other variants like Windows (7,10, server etc), OSX, or pretty much any Linux distro that is out there. The main reason I like Unraid is because of how easy it is to administer and add drives of any brand or size. You can literally take all the old hard drives you have laying around and stick them into a pc and create your own server. Docker makes everything so easy to try and then subsequently remove if you want to start over. So if you make a mess of an installation or you would prefer to run with a different application you can remove it with a few clicks of the mouse and not have to worry about it’s removal affecting any other applications. If you’re interested in what Unraid could potentially do for you, have a look on Youtube at Spaceinvader One.
This is what I’m currently running on my main server under Docker:
Mosquitto (MQTT server)
Various game servers from time to time.
From my other posts on this blog, it should come as no surprise that home-automation features quite heavily in this list! I usually have all three Media dockers running (Plex, Emby, Jellyfin). Occasionally if Plex is acting up, then we’re free to use the other services. At the end of the day, all are being pointed at the music, films and tv shares, and their overheads are low, so we just leave it as is.
If you have any different recommendations in terms of hardware setups or operating systems, pop a comment below, i’d like to check them out. You can also check out some of my other posts here and if you are interested in making your home a smart one or considering a renovation, I suggest you to take a look at my Smarthome book which is available in most book stores.